Getting back to basics is key

Dr Corrin Varady, chief executive officer of EdTech platform Idea, speaks on the illiteracy crisis in South Africa and how technology can tackle it. Picture: Supplied

Dr Corrin Varady, chief executive officer of EdTech platform Idea, speaks on the illiteracy crisis in South Africa and how technology can tackle it. Picture: Supplied

Published Sep 15, 2023


Durban - Earlier this year, it was revealed that 81% of South African children can’t read for meaning in any language by the time they reach Grade 4.

Speaking in light of International Literacy Day (ILD) marked this month, the chief executive officer of EdTech platform Idea, Dr Corrin Varady, said

improving these outcomes required urgent interventions. He said emphasis must be placed on whether necessary baseline standards were being met rather than the relatively meaningless statistic of the matric pass rate.

“The literacy rates, whether from international standardised literacy results or measured by the true underlying literacy of an individual’s ability to be socio-economically mobile, is low in South Africa. Broad statistics of illiteracy often suggest it is not as critical as it seems,” he said.

“But the focus must be on the functional literacy of our population, and especially incoming student generations if we are to open up opportunities for education and employment.

“The reason for the poor literacy rates is complex. History, socio-economics, gender and the uneven distribution of quality education play the most significant roles in why there are pockets of excellence in some parts of the country and unacceptable rates of illiteracy in others ‒ not just in youth populations.

“The solution is to increase standards as well as access for all to high quality education and remedial programmes. But this solution is simplistic. The only way to see improvement is to ensure government school pupils have access to programmes that can give them feedback when the teacher shortages and classroom sizes mean teachers are unable to,” he said.

“The other step needed is to create more jobs around literacy programmes, promoting facilitators of learning who can work with their own communities in literacy and numeracy. We should not see literacy as simply a social or remedial programme, but at the core of our industries, economy and society, meaning we need to invest in infrastructure and training programmes both digital and physical.”

Varady said public and private sectors should collaborate and provide social initiatives and job creation opportunities, adding that the private sector needed to invest long term to tackle the challenge. He said the private sector workforce was driven by public sector-educated populations so it was critical that the largest portion of our country in public schools get better and eventually equitable literacy support.

“The theme of this year’s ILD was to promote sustainable and peaceful societies. Sustainability and self-determination of our young people is directly linked to basic education functional literacy. If we can make headway on improving opportunities for our students to read for meaning – to synthesise and analyse what they are reading ‒ we have a greater chance of creating a more advanced and skilled workforce,” he said.

Dr Varady emphasised that using technology in education would assist with assessing pupils and giving feedback. He said most primary school teachers could not fully explain concepts to pupils and parents has work commitments, so technology would help bridge the gap between the two.

“Technology is the key if we are to take action in this year’s ILD theme of ‘Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies’,” said Varady.

The Independent on Saturday