That eight out of 10 grade 4 children in SA are unable to read with understanding and comprehension — a key finding of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) published on Tuesday — is alarming and depressing. While it is acknowledged that SA has deep structural economic and social problems, the basic fact that 80% of children will not succeed at school because to learn they first must be able to read, underlines how deep SA’s developmental difficulties are and that these will continue to haunt us far into the future. Poor education outcomes are the surest indicator that instead of making progress over the next 20 years as a society, as we might hope, we risk making none at all or even regressing. SA is already way behind the rest of the world. While 78% of grade 4s in SA can’t read, the comparable figures in the US and the UK are 4% and 3%. SA was last in reading among the 50 countries surveyed, which included mainly higher-income countries but also middle-inco...

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