Education NGO calls for collaborative efforts to address SA’s shocking literacy levels

In this picture, a young boy can be seen reading a book from a library shelf. File photo: Supplied

South African schoolchildren have suffered severe setbacks in their educational development, hindering their ability to acquire essential reading skills. Photo: File

Published May 23, 2023


With South Africa’s education system grappling with a major crisis as the results of the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) were unveiled by the Department of Basic Education recently, NGO you@WORK has called for collaborative action to address the issue.

The findings revealed that an alarming 81% of Grade 4 pupils assessed in the international study could not read for meaning. This represents a distressing 3% decline in literacy rates since the previous assessment conducted in 2016.

According to the report, a total of 12 426 Grade 4 children were tested between August and November 2021. It revealed that northern rural provinces experienced the largest declines in reading with coastal provinces experiencing the smallest declines.

“Four provinces experienced declines of more than a full year of learning between 2016 and 2021,” the report read.

South African education and employment NGO youth@WORK said the tools to improve literacy rates were readily available, but the key lay in ensuring widespread access to these resources across as many schools as possible.

“When children struggle to read, it is often an indication of broader deficiencies within the education system, encompassing maths, science and the humanities,” explained Erica Kempken, co-founder and director of youth@WORK.

“What is particularly frustrating is that we possess the necessary tools, technology and resources to reverse this trajectory. This is an opportune (moment) for collaboration and collective action,” she added.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga attributed the dismal statistics to the disruptive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2020, certain grades lost a staggering 60% of teaching time, followed by a 50% loss in 2021.

Consequently, South African schoolchildren have suffered severe setbacks in their educational development, hindering their ability to acquire essential reading skills.

Kempken said failure to take immediate action would have dire consequences for South Africa’s economy and society.

“Our youth are ill-prepared to enter the workforce as engaged, skilled citizens capable of driving our economy forward. Substandard education perpetuates youth unemployment, which not only exacerbates human capital deficits, but also undermines sustainable growth and poverty reduction,” she warned.

According to Kempken, youth@WORK believed digital tools such as their recently launched youthPROFILER held the key to alleviating the burden on South Africa’s education system.

youthPROFILER is uniquely positioned to assist teachers, parents and learners in measuring and strengthening literacy and numeracy skills.

Leveraging complex algorithms, this tool is said to identify skills gaps and provides workbooks, videos and activities that parents and teachers can use to bridge those gaps effectively.

In addition to its technological initiatives, youth@WORK actively works to connect unemployed South African youth with internship opportunities across sectors including education.

“Funded youth could play a meaningful role in administering this service, as Minister Motshekga acknowledges the time constraints faced by teachers in providing additional support,” Kempken said.

She added that studies like these served as a stark reminder that not enough was being done to address the crisis in basic education and create opportunities for the next generation of South Africans entering the workforce.

youth@WORK has appealed to all schools, parents, businesses and corporations to explore partnership opportunities with NGOs to ensure children had access to the necessary tools and opportunities to thrive.

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