Picture: Mark Andrews
Picture: Mark Andrews

It’s rare to find a topic that all SA "experts" agree on, except perhaps that crime is bad and growth is good. However, there is one area where there is now almost universal consensus in our country: more than half of children in SA are not learning to read in the first three years of school and we can probably do something about this. 

In the hope that we might be able to channel this consensus into a useful plan of action, this past Saturday we hosted the first annual “literacy lekgotla” in Stellenbosch. The day started with a keynote address from arguably the world’s foremost expert on reading, Prof Catherine Snow from Harvard University in the US. She spoke about the importance of getting it right in a child’s home language: “Children can only learn to read in a language they can speak and understand. Period. End of story. They can acquire additional languages like English very effectively once they’re literate in their home language.” 

Even a decade ago this would’ve been hotly contested in SA yet now every single one of the 84 delegates in the room was in full agreement. Representatives from the Universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Limpopo, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Fort Hare, Wits, Rhodes, CPUT, UWC and Unisa were all in agreement (and not just those from education faculties but also economists, linguists and sociologists). Key nongovernmental organisations and the main philanthropists in the space were all in agreement.

Everyone agreed that we need more texts in African languages for Grade 1-6 learners, especially nonfiction texts; class sizes in Grade 1-3 need to come down (to 35 but definitely not higher than 45); and Grade 1-3 teachers need sustained and meaningful training on how to actually teach reading and writing and the resources to do it.

It certainly isn’t as sexy as coding in primary schools or one-tablet-per-child; interestingly this was the one universal thing where everyone said tablets are definitely the wrong way to go’ Thankfully some provincial education departments have been listening. The Eastern Cape’s deputy director-general, Penny Vinjevold — who presented at the lekgotla — explained how they had been focusing specifically on these three “consensus” areas.

In the past two years alone they have “top-sliced” 1,800 teaching posts and allocated them to the foundation phase, reducing class sizes in 1,400 schools in the province. They have printed 824,000 isiXhosa anthologies, which have been distributed to every Grade 1-3 child in the province in 2019 (the first province to do so), and enrolled all foundation phase subject advisers in a two-year part-time qualification at Rhodes university focusing specifically on how to teach reading in Grades R-3. A number of provinces are starting to take note.

Partly at the Eastern Cape department of education’s request, researchers at the University of Stellenbosch (myself and Nwabisa Makaluza), as well as those from the University of Cape Town (Prof Cally Ardington and Tiaan Meiring) have undertaken a study to monitor the improvement of reading outcomes in three districts as a result of a targeted reading intervention (Funda Wande), which we developed. To do so we conducted a baseline assessment at the start of 2019 and will conduct an endline assessment at the end of 2020.

This may help us understand how to alleviate one of the country’s binding constraints — how to improve reading outcomes at scale. 

We have few areas of important consensus and reading is one of them. We have an opportunity to build bipartisan support which could lead to real change. Reading is not just an ANC issue; all political parties agree that this is something we have to fix. 

• Spaull is a senior researcher at Stellenbosch University and founder of Funda Wande: Reading for Meaning.