Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Four out of five Grade 4 children in SA cannot comprehend what they read, according to an international literacy study published on Tuesday.

Their poor reading skills put them at a disadvantage for the rest of their schooling careers, as once children progressed past the foundation phase in which they “learn to read”, the curriculum required them to “read to learn”, said Nic Spaull, a senior researcher in the economics department at the University of Stellenbosch.

It also lays the foundation for children to drop out in their school careers, as the divergence between their reading ability and the demands of the curriculum widen.

SA ranked last in the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), which gauged the reading standards of 9-and 10-year-olds in 50 countries. The study, which is done every five years, shows there has been no improvement in SA: it scored 323 points in 2016, compared to 320 points in 2011, but the difference is not statistically significant.

“The reading crisis is deeper than previously thought,” Spaull said. “When SA participated in prePirls in 2011 we thought 58% of Grade 4 children could not read for meaning. However, this was on a separate … scale — 2016 was the first time prePirls was put on the same scale as Pirls. The true figure for children who cannot read for meaning is 78%. In 2011 [it was] 77%.”

To put this in context, in the UK, only 3% of Grade 4’s cannot read for meaning. Middle-income countries such as Chile and Iran also scored better  than SA, with 13% and 35% of Grade 4’s unable to read for meaning respectively.

Reading standards were highest in the Russian Federation (581 points) and Singapore (576 points).

SA had one of the highest gender disparities in the world, with girls scoring 347 points and boys scoring 295 points, effectively placing girls a full year ahead of boys. The gap has widened since 2011, when girls scored 341 and boys 307.

Pirls tested 12,810 Grade 4 children from 293 schools across SA. The fact that the 2016 Pirls test was conducted in the language in which children were most comfortable indicated the problem lay with their teachers, said University of the Witwatersrand education professor Brahm Fleisch.

“Teachers are using methods that are not working and many schools do not have the right resources,” he said. “Part of the challenge is that there has been a reluctance to focus on early-stage reading. It has not been a priority for the [education] system,” he said.

“But we can shift kids into the reading zone if we have the political will and the private sector comes on board.”

Department of Basic Education director for research, monitoring and evaluation Stephen Taylor said the 2016 Pirls results highlighted the urgent need to improve reading skills in primary school children.

The department’s Early Grade Reading Study was providing promising evidence that a structured teacher support programme with onsite coaching significantly improved the reading skills of young children.

The large randomised controlled study has been evaluating three different models for improving reading in 230 schools in North West, in  which children are taught in their mother tongue, Setswana. It is being expanded into Mpumalanga. “We need cost-effective, evidence-based policy solutions,” he said.

The DA’s shadow minister for basic education, Ian Ollis, said the results of the 2016 Pirls results and the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were a damning indictment of SA’s education system, which was hamstrung by poorly trained teachers, poor management and teacher absenteesim.

SA ranked second-last out of 48 countries for Grade 4 mathematics and Grade 8 mathematics, and last for grade science in the 2015 TIMMS study.

He called on Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to set up an expert panel to probe the root cause of primary school children’s poor reading skills.

“It is high time that we get to the bottom of why SA consistently places last on most internationally ranked education indices,” Ollis said.

The Department of Basic Education said the 2016 Pirls study highlighted that the problem with children’s poor reading skills were not solely due to the quality of their schooling.

“As South Africans, we are not a reading nation. This reports finds that in other countries parents and children read recreationally far more extensively than South Africans,” it said.

Parental support played a vital role in a learner’s ability to read with comprehension, the department said.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za

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