80% of Grade 5 learners, between the ages of 9 and 10 year’s old, have not mastered basic reading skills, and South African primary schools are failing to equip learners with basic literacy skills.
In a damning report released last month and written by leading education economist Nic Spaull, it shows a country spiraling backwards in the fundamental unit of education: literacy.
The results of the 2023 Background Report for the 2030 Reading Panel shows that there is a big possibility the pandemic has wiped out a decade of progress in reading outcomes.
“However, this should not be the excuse we continue to use but rather come up with an action plan to fast track what we have lost, and remedy what and where we can,” Optimi Classroom Managing Director Aunyana Moloisane said. “If we don’t, it will take is another decade to get back to where we were in 2016.”
With education being a basic human right that is available to all South Africans, it was astonishing to read what the studies have shown. Fewer primary school children can read for meaning now than before the Covid pandemic, and most children entering grade two do not know the alphabet.
“What is incredibly worrying is that there is no national reading plan, no proper budget, no accurate reporting, and no progress on implementing vital interventions to remedy our literacy problem,” says, Aunyana Moloisane.
Schools are in trouble.
More than half of primary schools in South Africa lack books, libraries, and infrastructure which is limiting progress in reading literacy for Grade 4 learners. Being able to read is the key to academic and future success, and if you can’t read, your opportunities in school or after that will be limited, so reading ability should be developed from a young age.
South Africa is rich in its storytelling – a skill that was passed down from generation to generation. A skill that got lost along the way as we made way for digital and electronic methods of consuming content.
Moloisane doesn’t agree that the digital world is to blame though.
“The country doesn’t have a big reading culture so whether it’s physical books or digital, people are simply not interested,” he said. “People need to fall in love with reading, regardless of the medium or platform; whether it is a Kindle or a paperback.”
“At Optimi Classroom we find that children love to read and hear stories that are relatable to them, their families and their realities,” said Moloisane.
The other harsh reality South Africans face is that many primary schools in South Africa are severely under resourced while many adults are still illiterate, and this means these adults cannot share a love for reading with their children.
At many primary schools, an entire classroom of learners is forced to share two or three books between themselves, while schools run out of writing utensils and other literacy resources by the middle of the first term. Very few children from poor township communities have books at home, and libraries are often too far away for these learners to access on a regular basis, if at all.
Literacy at the grassroots level is the most cost-effective investment in the fight against poverty and poor educational achievement in South Africa. There are no quick fixes, but there certainly are slow and sure ones.
“We urge universities to make reading compulsory, especially when it comes to teacher education,” Moloisane weighed in. “Universities need to teach reading as a process that involves decoding and understanding text in its context, not just as a ‘mechanical skill’”.
Learners need literacy to become lifelong learners, acquire more advance skills, become creative thinkers and problem solvers. Children need to learn to use, understand, appreciate, and enjoy language before they can learn to read and write as language ability determines reading readiness.
This month we celebrate Human Rights Day, and although the fight was different, we have to fight for our children and our children’s children so that they may have a better future.
“And one of the most certain ways to ensure a better future is through reading, so that children can become adults who can think critically and creatively, while making informed decisions and developing their own opinions based on understanding all the facts that they are presented with,” Moloisane explained.
“Further to this, schools should develop strategies like including reading in the timetable, library corners in classrooms, prizes for reading a target number of books and writing about them and creating learners’ reading clubs. Learners can draw on local oral traditions by gathering stories from elders, writing them and reading them to others,” he concluded.
Stories teach us at a linguistic level: the basic vocabulary, spelling and grammar pour in unconsciously. But stories also teach us at a human level; they help us to imagine worlds and possibilities that are different to the ones we are currently experiencing.
In South Africa, right now, that’s surely a talent that every one of us needs to learn to develop.