A generational catastrophe: 81% of Gr4 learners in South Africa can’t read for meaning

81% of Gr4 learners in South Africa could not read for meaning in any language in 2021 – and South Africa experienced the largest decline in reading outcomes (-31 points) of all 33 countries/regions with data in 2016 and 2021. Professor Nic Spaull of the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University shares these and other findings in the latest “Progress in International Reading Literacy Study”. He discusses the causes and the long-term implications with BizNews.


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SA’s reading crisis will create more unemployables

By Chris Steyn

Eighty-one percent (81%) of Grade Four (Gr4) children in South Africa couldn’t read in any language in 2021 – and they were nearly an entire year behind their counterparts from 2016.

That left the average South African Grade Four learner about three years behind the average Grade Four learner in Brazil, which has a similar GDP per capita as well as high levels of inequality.

That is according to the latest “Progress in International Reading Literacy Study” which also found that South Africa experienced the largest decline in reading outcomes (-31 points) of all 33 countries/regions with data in 2016 and 2021.

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Professor Nic Spaull from the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University calls some of these findings “extremely concerning.”

He attributes the increase from 78% in 2016 to 81% in 2021 of children who could not read largely to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school closures and rotational timetables.

“Even before COVID, we had a reading crisis, but this has just made it much worse…Those rotational timetables were really bad for children in no-fee schools. Because when those kids weren’t in school, they weren’t learning anything.”

Professor Spaull says the study results show that, for children in no-fee schools, the quality of education is “extremely poor”. “They’re not learning how to read and they’re not getting to Matric with the kinds of knowledge and skills that they need to go to vocational colleges or universities or get meaningful work.”

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Meanwhile, he says, the Department of Basic Education has done “very little” to remediate those learning losses. “…at the moment, there’s no plan at the national level… So it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better anytime soon.”

Amongst the solutions he proposes is ensuring that: every single classroom in South Africa has access to the basic resources that teachers need to teach reading; that teachers actually know how to teach reading; and that teaching assistants are used to support teachers.

“The problem is those interventions are not being taken up by the Department of Basic Education. They’re not being taken to scale. We don’t currently have a national reading plan. We don’t have a budget for these sorts of things.

“I’ve been saying that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. At the moment, we’re not implementing any of those extraordinary measures. We’re employing very much a ‘business as usual, back to normal, let’s pretend that nothing happened, let’s pretend we don’t have a reading crisis’… Kids go to school, teachers go to school, learning happens. I think what these results do is they stop us in our tracks and they say, ‘listen, what the hell is going on if 80% of kids can’t read’?”

Read more: Lockdowns sparked “the worst educational crisis for a century”

Discussing the correlation between the low quality of education and unemployment in South Africa, the Professor says: “I think what we see is a mirroring of the labour market and the education system. So you have these high levels of inequality in the labour market, you have high levels of inequality in the education system, and these two systems are basically feeding each other. If you attend the functional fee part of the system in education, you end up in the top part of the labour market with a formal job, a proper employment contract, etc. Whereas if you attend a no-fee school, the chances of you being unemployed or temporarily employed or precariously employed are much, much higher.

“So if we’re looking at the long term and trying to understand what we can do to tackle unemployment, inequality, those sorts of things, you really have to look at the root of this and realise that the skills base of the economy is being generated in the education system.”

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