Experts say smaller classes, targeted teaching needed to address SA literacy crisis

An overcrowded SA classroom

A Grade 6 classroom. File Picture - Tracey Adams/ Independent Media

Published Mar 10, 2024

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Education experts say that smaller classes and targeted teaching are key to addressing South Africa’s increasing issue with primary school pupils who cannot read for meaning.

This comes after a 2030 Reading Panel conference chaired by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka released key findings in a report this week. The 18-member panel, which aims to ensure that by 2030 all South African children can read for meaning by age 10, meets annually to review progress and make recommendations to achieve this goal.

“If we thought we were in trouble before with the reading crisis in the country, as we head into times of increased fiscal austerity, we are about to see the worst of it, with the poorest 70% of learners already 5-10 times less likely to be able to read, bearing the brunt of it,” said Sipumelele Lucwaba, secretariat of the Reading Panel.

The report said the release of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) 2021 results last year revealed that 81% of South African Grade 4 pupils cannot read for meaning in any language. It said a comprehensive catch-up plan for 2021’s Grade 4 pupils and a national-level strategic initiative to drastically increase the number of pupils who can read for meaning are “alarmingly absent”, adding that there is “a critical need for effective measures to address and reverse this trend”.

However, according to the report there have been moves by some provincial Education MECs and their leadership teams to implement evidence-based, province-wide reading interventions.

One of the key points in the report was that the number of pupils who cannot read for meaning increased from 78% in 2016 to 81% in 2021. Another key finding was that the new wage bill translated to a R7bn shortfall in the 2023 Basic Education budget, and to R30bn over the medium term.

“Spending per learner enrolled was more than R24 000 in 2020 but will fall to R21 635 by 2025.”

The report recommended implementing a universal standardised assessment of reading at the primary school level; allocating meaningful budgets to reading resources and interventions; providing a standard minimum set of reading resources to all foundation phase classrooms (Grade R-3) as a matter of urgency and university audits of teacher education programmes.

Professor Labby Ramrathan from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Education, said the foundation phase of schooling should be focused on personal development of the child which would include a strong focus on communication. He advised that smaller classes are needed urgently.

“More foundation phase teachers with expertise in language acquisition and an abundance of interesting and relevant reading and learning support materials are needed.”

UJ Professor Elizabeth Henning, in the Education faculty, said targeted action was key and that a crucial target is the teacher.

“Teachers benefit from an understanding of how humans learn to read. Systematic teaching, based on the current ‘science of reading’ is crucial.”

The Mercury