Read the writing on the wall: we face a generational catastrophe

When 81% of grade 4s cannot read for meaning in any language we need to accept business-as-usual schooling will not do




Arena Holdings PTY


● We found out this week that 81% of South African grade 4 pupils could not read for meaning in any language, the highest percentage of all 57 participating countries and regions in the study. We also experienced the largest decline in test scores between 2016 and 2021. To put this in perspective, of the 1.1million children in grade 4, about 900,000 can’t read. To call these findings anything other than devastating would be a euphemism and an injustice. As members of the 2030 Reading Panel, we were closely following the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) 2021 developments because they would indicate whether we are on track to reach the president’s goal of ensuring that “all children can read for meaning by age 10 by 2030”. Even before the pandemic there was little indication that we would be able to reach that lofty goal, but with even more setbacks from Covid it is clear that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Business as usual simply will not do. Before the pandemic it is true that South Africa was on an improving trajectory, with the percentage of grade 4s who could read rising from 13% (2006) to 18% (2011) and finally to 22% (2016). That upward trend was abruptly halted by Covid and we are now back to 19% in 2021. Even if we assume that we can jump back onto that previous trajectory, we will only get to 28% by 2030, and it will take us until the year 2101 before at least 90% of pupils in South Africa can read. Given the scope of the crisis, the nature of the interventions requires decisive change. We need a National Reading Plan that is evidence-based, with a limited number of prioritised goals that are costed, measurable and time-bound. We need a plan and we need a budget. The education department’s own plans point to the start of a promising programme, but they must be advanced and gazetted. In 2008, then minister of education Naledi Pandor gazetted the Foundations For Learning (FFL) programme and listed the “minimum expectations for literacy and numeracy in grades 1-3”, including specified time for reading per school day; the minimum set of resources that every teacher needs for literacy and numeracy; and said: “All primary school learners will undergo annual national assessments (ANA) in literacy and numeracy, using standardised tests, to measure progress towards achievement of set targets.” The department of basic education (DBE), working collaboratively with all stakeholders, can drive this agenda forward with speed and urgency. This was an excellent start and laid out the plan for a national literacy and numeracy programme, but it stalled. It was under minister Angie Motshekga’s leadership that one component of this plan was rolled out to every school: the DBE Workbooks — one of the most successful interventions to date. Unfortunately the other “minimum resources” were not provided. It was also under her watch that the universal tests, the ANAs, were implemented, albeit for only a few years, helping reorientate expectations for grades 3, 6 and 9. It is time to revise and resuscitate this plan — a new FFL which encompasses the National Reading Plan and incorporates numeracy. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study shows that grade 5 mathematics outcomes are also low and highly unequal. It could set minimum norms and standards for reading resources for every classroom, with budgeted plans for large-scale procurement and distribution of materials including anthologies of graded readers, teacher guides, story books and maths manipulatives. We also need a review of teacher training programmes at universities and whether these are equipping teachers to teach reading. We were shocked to learn that the average Brazilian grade 4 child in 2021 was three grade levels ahead of their South African equivalent in 2021. Where 19% of our pupils could read, 61% of Brazilian children could do so. Like South Africa, Brazil is a middle-income country with high inequality. When Lula da Silva became president this year he reversed Jair Bolsonaro’s budget cuts in education, created a new secretariat dedicated to books and literacy, and appointed Camilo Santana as education minister. Santana was the governor of one of Brazil’s poorest states, Ceará, and led a successful programme to improve reading rapidly over two decades. Where nearly half of grade 3s in the state couldn’t read a single word in 2005, now 84% can read for meaning. We have the largest body of research on improving reading outcomes on the continent, much coming from the department’s own research unit. This research points to at least three evidence-based programmes that could be implemented at scale, provided they were planned and funded: From Limpopo we know that using unemployed ● youth as teacher assistants with additional workbooks and teacher guides, as well as TA-mentors, led to an additional year of learning for children. Crucially, these assistants need to be selected using literacy and numeracy assessments, rigorously trained on the materials they will have in their classrooms and continuously supported on how to fulfil their functions; ● In 2019 and 2020 the Eastern Cape department of education distributed a cost-effective anthology of graded readers at R15 per book to every grade 1-3 child in the province. An evaluation showed that this improved reading outcomes compared to children in the same schools a few years earlier who did not get the books; and ● Evidence from North West shows that expert reading coaches supporting teachers with additional materials leads to improvements in reading outcomes. Now more than ever we need collaborative efforts that can be scaled up. We need funding that is dedicated to this intervention from the government and private sector. To avoid a lost generation we need to act with speed. We have a generational catastrophe on our hands, and we have strong evidence of what can be done to teach children to read. What we need is a serious social compact on foundation-phase schooling based on real compromises and a programme of systemic reform, led from the centre of government. Yes, it will require a plan, and yes it will require political will, but as the 2030 Reading Panel members, we cannot think of a better use of our country’s resources than ensuring that every child learns to read for meaning by age 10 by 2030. The time to act is now. ✼ Authored by the 2030 Reading Panel: Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (chair), commissioner André Gaum, Bobby Godsell, Colin Coleman, professor Jonathan Jansen, Noncedo Madubedube, Nangamso Mtsatse, professor Vuyokazi Nomlomo, professor Sizwe Mabizela, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, professor Michael Sachs, Judy Sikuza, Elinor Sisulu and professor Nic Spaull