‘Decade of progress wiped out’ as only 19% of Grade 4 pupils can read for meaning in SA – Report

Only 19% of Grade 4 pupils can read for meaning in South Africa according to the PIRLS 2021 study. File Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Only 19% of Grade 4 pupils can read for meaning in South Africa according to the PIRLS 2021 study. File Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Published May 17, 2023


Durban - The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study(PIRLS) 2021 report revealed that 81% of Grade 4 pupils cannot read for meaning in any language, up from 78% in 2016.

The PIRLS findings are based on a nationally-representative sample of over 1.1 million pupils.

“Of the 1 127 877 Grade 4 students in 2021, 914 000 could not read for meaning in any language…”

According to the report this means that only 19% of South African Grade 4 children could read for meaning in any language in 2021. All 11 languages were assessed.

The report said SA’s PIRLS score dropped from 320 (2016) to 288 (2021), approximately 0.8 years of learning.

“We have lost a decade of progress. Between 2006 and 2016 the percentage of children that could not read declined from 87% (2006) to 82% (2011) to 78% (2016), but has now increased back to 81% (2021), wiping out a decade of slow progress and taking us back to 2011 levels of achievement.”

Northern rural provinces experienced the largest declines in reading with coastal provinces experiencing the smallest declines, found the report.

It found that four provinces experienced declines of more than a full year of learning between 2016 and 2021. Given that 40 points amount to one year of learning, this was as follows:

  • North West (-2,4yrs),
  • Free State (-1,6yrs),
  • Mpumalanga (-1,2yrs)
  • Limpopo (-1yr).
  • The three coastal provinces, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, experienced the smallest declines with Western Cape showing the smallest decline (-0.4yrs).

“English and Afrikaans schools did not experience a decline between 2016 and 2021. In comparison, most African language schools did decline, highlighting that the pandemic increased inequality between no-fee and fee-charging schools.”

According to the report, the average Brazilian Grade 4 child is three years ahead of the average South African Grade 4 child.

The average score in Brazil was 419 points in 2021 compared to South Africa’s 288 points, it said.

  • The average Grade 4 child in South Africa is 3.3 years behind the average Brazilian Grade 4 child.
  • In Brazil 61% of Grade 4s could read at a basic level in 2021 compared with 19% in South Africa. Note that Brazil and South Africa have roughly the same GDP/capita ($7000 (about R134 910)/capita).”

“South Africa experienced the largest decline in reading outcomes (-31 points) of all 33 countries/regions with data in 2016 and 2021. Despite this South Africa has no real plan or budget to catch up lost learning.”

However, the report stated that South Africa had the benefit of numerous interventions that have been proven to raise learning outcomes, even in no-fee schools and in poorer provinces including:

  • Recruiting, training and equipping youth to be teacher assistants.
  • Rolling out anthologies of graded readers to all Grade 1-3 children to teach them how to read in their home languages.
  • Training teachers face-to-face and equipping them with comprehensive workbooks and teacher guides.
  • Using teacher-coaches to support teachers on how to teach reading.