Literacy crisis deepening in South Africa, says new report

Children are far behind in learning to read and it is getting worse

| By

Illustration: Lisa Nelson

  • Basic literacy among children in South Africa has declined, a new report from the 2030 Reading Panel has found.
  • Most children leave grade one without knowing the alphabet, while 82% of grade 4 children cannot read for meaning.
  • Only the Western Cape and Gauteng are taking steps to address the literacy crisis.
  • None of the Panel’s 2022 recommendations were implemented.

Fewer primary school children can read for meaning now than before the Covid pandemic, and most children entering grade two do not know the alphabet. But despite a literacy crisis, there is no national reading plan, no proper budget, no accurate reporting, and no progress on implementing vital interventions.

The results of the 2023 Background Report for the 2030 Reading Panel, written by leading education economist Nic Spaull, released Tuesday, show a country going backwards in the fundamental unit of education: literacy.

The 2030 Reading Panel is a group of leaders and researchers convened by former Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to ensure that all children in South Africa aged ten or older can read for meaning by 2030. The report finds that “nothing short of a sustained countrywide overhaul of the education system would be likely to yield this result”.

Extrapolating from Western Cape data, the report estimates that the share of grade 4 children that cannot read for meaning has increased to at least 82%, from 78% recorded in 2016.

The report finds that about 60% of children have not learned most of the letters of the alphabet by the end of grade one, citing data from the Department of Basic Education (DBE) Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS), which has followed children from over 200 schools for more than seven years in the North West province.

By the end of Grade 2, over 30% still don’t know all the letters of the alphabet. The report finds that these children are “perpetually behind and in ‘catch-up’ mode, although they never actually catch up”.

What is being done to ensure that literacy is put first? Frighteningly little, says the report.

The most visible national reading programme is the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative (PYEI) Educator Assistant Program. In 2023, nearly 30,000 Educator Assistants (EAs) are to be “Reading Champions” focused on improving reading for foundation phase learners. The report notes this with some scepticism, since the only requirements to enter are very low - 30% in matric and fluency in the home language of the school - and the Reading Champions will have no face-to-face training or be submitted to a selection process.

Nationally, the DBE is not giving the reading for meaning crisis-specific attention. Despite claims to the contrary from the DBE, the report finds that there is no National Reading Plan, and that the most recent “National Reading Strategy” was published in 2008.

In the 2022 Education Budget Vote, the budget specifically allocated for reading is R11-million to the Early Grade Reading Assessment. This targets 18 schools. The DBE only managed to reach nine schools.

Some hopeful signs

There are some sparks of hope in two provinces, the Western Cape and Gauteng.

In the Western Cape, the provincial government has chosen Funda Wande, an education NGO, as a partner to roll out a province-wide Reading for Meaning program in all Afrikaans and isiXhosa schools in the province. Over the next three years, the Western Cape Education Department will fully fund the R111-million program.

In Gauteng, the provincial Department of Education is working with WordWorks, also an education NGO, to implement a grade R program in all schools. The three-year R107-million budget is 80% funded by a consortium of donors, with the remaining 20% coming from the provincial budget.

While the Eastern Cape Department of Education recently launched its Reading Strategy & Campaign 2022 – 2030, it has not provided any budget for these programs.

The report estimates that South Africa will take until 2026 to return to 2016 levels of improvement, without immediate intervention.

The report identifies two types of interventions which have shown excellent results in smaller trials. One is the use of a teacher coach who visits teachers in their classroom. The other is employing Educator Assistants who are trained and given enough resources to teach reading. The Educator Assistants in the PYEI program are not trained or specially resourced.

But interventions are scarce. Almost no progress has been made to bring effect to the Panel’s four recommendations from last year: to assess reading at every school in the country annually; to allocate new national budgets for reading programs or reading resources (only the Western Cape has done so); to give all Foundation Phase classrooms a standard minimum set of reading resources (only done in the Western Cape and Gauteng); and to audit teacher education programs before graduates enter the workplace.

“The problem is not about lacking an evidence base on how to improve reading outcomes, but rather the political economy issues of why adequate funding for reading interventions has not been forthcoming,” says the report.

TOPICS:  Education

Next:  Township boxer wants to train “the next Tyson”

Previous:  Distell workers down tools and picket

Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

I have taught grades R to 7 for almost 40 years. The main priority is smaller classes and better-qualified teachers. Big classes cause huge distractions that affect the concentration of learners. Sounds cards should be flashed a few times a day. Sight words as well - five a day. Rather know five than not know the given 10.

Let learners read daily as a class together. The shy learners start gaining confidence. Mistakes are not noticed by all. I see learners gaining confidence in reading. Explanation and parallel descriptions as they read along help with understanding. The teacher reads and learners copy twice, then start reading together. Stronger learners carry the weak learners while gaining confidence in reading the text. Reading must be made fun. Reading must be exciting with lots of praise. Learners enjoy this method of reading.

Dear Editor

According to The Reading Panel, the number of learners who are unable to read has increased from 78% to 82%. Yet there is very little discussion among teachers, parents, and education policymakers about the urgent need to change from balanced literacy to a science of reading method, especially in Grades R to 4. This will enable a majority of learners to learn to read.

Listen to the "Sold A Story" podcast as a start. It is a major topic in America where some parents have even taken education districts to court and yet it is scarcely a blip on the radar, except perhaps in the Western Cape to some degree. Still, our children can't read. It is extremely scary that there is a budget of R111-million in one province, and millions more in other provinces to spend on literacy programmes. I wonder what kind of controls and oversight there is on these programmes...

Dear Editor

Schools require equipped libraries with qualified librarians who will foster the love of reading. Libraries are a hub for schools and they play a crucial role in promoting reading through various activities such as Book Week, Book Tasting, Reading Programs, Book Clubs, and so forth. The libraries also help to curate reading websites that help kids who struggle to read, and also reading for meaning and understanding, such as Epic Books online, Scholastic, Nali Bali, to name a few.

Here are some activities that can help promote a love of reading among students:
Book Clubs, Read-Aloud Sessions, Author Visits, Book Fairs, Literary Contests, Reading Challenges, Library Visits, Themed Reading Weeks, Author Studies, Book Reviews, Reading Buddies, VIP Readers, Digital Reading Programmes, Poetry Sessions, Literary Magazines, to name a few.

By curating a mix of these activities, schools can create a reading-friendly environment that nurtures a love of reading and makes it an enjoyable part of students' lives.

Dear Editor

Although my parents were readers, they did not read to us as they were scared that we might be negatively influenced by books. They however introduced us to poetry and folk songs. My world was filled with stories told by my siblings and peers. I started reading at school as we didn't have children's books at home. I read my first book at school. Our classes were small and we would sit on a mat while the teachers told us stories. Librarians would visit the school and they would read to us. They would give us one book to read until we could master that book.

What I am trying to say is that there will always be parents who will never have the time to read to their children. There will always be parents who are not interested in books. There will always be parents who see books as a luxury they cannot afford. Children who need books the most are those who cannot afford to buy books and whose parents are not interested in taking them to a library, so the only space they have is at school. The only solution is to have smaller classrooms and allow teachers to spend 70% of their time reading to children in Grade 1. That is how we will lay a foundation for further education. The foundation laid in the early years of a child’s life determines the chance they have for a high-quality life in adulthood. A child can be easily susceptible during their formative years and storybooks can help them develop into friendly, caring, and emotionally stable human beings and they can only achieve this by being able to read with understanding.

© 2023 GroundUp. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and GroundUp, and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.

We put an invisible pixel in the article so that we can count traffic to republishers. All analytics tools are solely on our servers. We do not give our logs to any third party. Logs are deleted after two weeks. We do not use any IP address identifying information except to count regional traffic. We are solely interested in counting hits, not tracking users. If you republish, please do not delete the invisible pixel.