Durban — President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to expand early childhood development centres as part of a solution to curb the serious reading problem faced by the country’s pupils.
Ramaphosa was commenting on the study by a US-based Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) at the presidential imbizo in Paarl on Friday.
The study results, published last week, showed that 81% of South African fourth graders, aged between 9 and 10, battled with reading comprehension.
“Reading for our young people has become a major problem. We now have to focus on our education system, but also to ensure that our young people are able to read for meaning when they are still at a young age,” said Ramaphosa.
Something urgent needed to be done and the government would be working hard to improve the reading capabilities of young pupils, he said.
The study assessed 400 000 pupils across 57 countries globally. South Africa came last, scoring 288 points compared with the international average of 500. The highest was Singapore, with 587 points. South Africa is one of three African countries (together with Morocco and Egypt) participating in Pirls which monitors literacy and comprehension trends globally.
Commenting on the results while presenting her department’s budget speech in Parliament on Thursday, Education Minister Angie Motshekga, said: “The test results reveal disappointingly low scores in reading literacy. Many primary schools’ reading instruction often focuses solely on oral performance, neglecting reading comprehension and making sense of written words.”
The minister blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for putting the brakes on the government’s programme to improve primary education. Schools in South Africa were closed for roughly a year to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Motshekga said the recent assessment on the quality of Grade 4s’ reading skills would be used to sharpen plans for improving performance in this area.
The provincial CEO of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA, Thirona Moodley, said they were not surprised as South Africa had ranked low even on previous surveys.
“We have not shown any improvement at all. We can only hope the department comes up with an effective intervention. Many schools lack resources. I think all the teachers must be re-trained to teach reading because right now we need a totally different approach.” Moodley cautioned against blaming Covid-19 for ranking lower in this survey because every other country was also on shutdowns during the coronavirus.
National Teachers Union president, Sibusiso Malinga, also expressed disappointment at the findings. “We have a serious problem and it all lies with us as teachers. We must be doing something wrong. The department must swiftly come up with an intervention if we want to produce high quality learners who can compete with learners from other countries.”
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