81% of Grade 4 Learners in South Africa Struggle with Reading For Comprehension, Discloses International Study (PIRLS)
The South African education system is characterised by copious challenges and inadequacies that perpetuate the ongoing education crisis. Regardless of the significant levels of public spending on education, South Africa is confronted with a recurrent education crisis thus ranking last out of 50 countries who participated in the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS) report which was published on Tuesday the 16th of May 2023.
The results of the 2021 PIRLS report confirmed that learning losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are severe across South Africa as South Africa’s average PIRLS score dropped from 320 in 2016, to 288 in 2021. A drop of 32 points on the scale leaving the country placed last out of all 50 countries who participated.
A literacy crisis on hand
82% of South African grade 4 learners can’t read with comprehension in comparison to 72% pre-Covid19 thus implying that these learners did not achieve the lowest benchmark, representing the most basic level of reading for understanding. Learners who fall below the lowest benchmark cannot read for meaning or recollect basic information from the text to answer simple questions. Sadly, on the current trajectory it will take over 86 years to reach 95% of the learners to read for comprehension.
The Covid19 pandemic erased a decade of progress therefore only 18% of the learners might be able to read with understanding in 2033 and 50% of the learners in public schools do not learn the letters of the alphabet by the end of grade 1.
South African Grade 9 learners were ranked position 38 out of the 39 countries who took part in the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievements in mathematics and last in the 2018 science performances.
25% of the matriculants fail their final examination, approximately 50% of the learners drop out of school before completing matric and under 5% of the learners who commence primary school end up with a tertiary qualification.
The PIRLS 2021 report highlights a situation in South Africa that could be described as a “widespread disaster,” where over 4 million primary school students have undergone more than half of their education in a state of disruption in their learning journey.
What measures can be taken?
The current literacy crisis in South Africa requires the immediate implementation of an innovative and solution-based approach, thinking outside the box. This approach should be accompanied by well-defined monitoring and evaluation procedures.
To address the educational crisis in South Africa, it is important to consider policy recommendations and regulatory actions that promote collaboration across sectors. This approach will help showcase effective models for integrating cross sector collaboration and identify investment prospects for various stakeholders, including those in the public and private sectors. By doing so, it will provide a comprehensive framework outlining the expectations of stakeholders in different sectors and guide the prioritisation of leadership development in relevant areas such as literacy.
Instead of relying solely on government subsidies for Early Childhood Development centres, it is essential to foster an innovative, collaborative approach that involves co-creation and transdisciplinary efforts among the private and public sectors, civil society, and the government.
Prior to participating in international standard rankings, it is advisable that South Africa establishes a comprehensive national assessment plan that aims to enhance our understanding of global trends.
In the Western Cape, a strategy has been implemented to address the issue of reading across all grades. This strategy involves training teachers and providing them with workbooks and other instructional materials, with the goal of enhancing their teaching abilities and improving reading outcomes. It will be desirable to create a national reading plan and allocate funds to a national reading budget plan.
The PIRLS results unequivocally demonstrate that the pandemic has substantially eroded the progress made in previous years, jeopardising the future of the youngest learners. That is precisely why the Western Cape is allocating an additional R1.2 billion to the #BackOnTrack initiative over the next three years. This investment aims to enhance learning outcomes across all educational stages, ensuring a brighter future for the children of the Western Cape.
Based on the PIRLS results of the systemic tests, 333 schools in the Western Cape have been chosen to receive specialised assistance, in addition to the 1,100 schools that have been receiving extra support in the Foundation Phase since 2022. The newly selected schools will encompass 126,000 learners, 8,980 teachers, and 28,000 parents who will be the focus of targeted participation, adding to the 310,000 learners and 10,000 teachers who are already taking part in the Foundation Phase.
As parents and as a nation at large, it is crucial to cultivate a reading culture where reading is celebrated, respected and promoted. Reading should be at the core of the curriculum, as it plays a vital role in a child’s individual, social and academic accomplishments, as well as their overall well-being.
Collaboratively, let’s endeavour to get our learners #BackOnTrack and pave the way for a hopeful future!
About the author
Dorcas Dube–Londt is the National Marketing and Communications Manager for Citizen Leader Lab. Her passion for education, leadership and social justice has garnered much recognition over the years. Dorcas holds a Masters in Strategic Communication from the University of Johannesburg.