The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 shows South Africa placed last out of 50 countries participating in the study, which assesses reading comprehension of fourth graders.
Other countries which participated include France, Austria, Egypt, and Italy.
The report shows that the Western Cape, Free State and Gauteng performed best of the SA provinces, and that reading achievement in Pedi, Xhosa, Tswana and Venda were the weakest.
The international assessment was conducted by University of Pretoria (UP) researchers at the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA). The CEA works closely with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and the PIRLS International Study Centre.
The university said although national performance was generally very low, there was a glimmer of hope.
“Between PIRLS 2011 and PIRLS 2016 there has been an improvement in performance for five African languages (out of the 11 languages tested) at Grade 4 level, despite the fact that these were the lowest performing languages in the 2011 study.”
Acting director at the CEA Celeste Combrinck said: “Being able to read is the key to academic and future success. If you can't read, your opportunities in school or after school will be limited.”
The study was supported by the Department of Basic Education through partial funding and logistical support.
In response to the findings, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said yesterday the results were lower than expected.
“Research continues to show us that the major root causes of dropping out of school towards the end of secondary schooling (one of our major challenges), are weak learning foundations in the early grades.
"Therefore, the most important priority must be to improve the quality of learning and teaching inputs, outputs and outcomes in the early grades, so as to ensure that pupils are equipped with the basic skills needed to cope.”