Girls score much higher than boys in reading across the board. Picture: Cindy Waxa/ANA
This week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga released the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results. To say that the 2016 results are anything but devastating would be a lie. They indicate that eight in 10 Grade 4 children (78%) cannot read for meaning, and suggest an unfolding reading crisis in South Africa.

I received an embargoed copy of the final report from the IEA late one evening last week and battled to fall asleep after reading it.

Previously, we believed 58% of children were unable to read for meaning (using the pre PIRLS 2011 intermediate benchmark), but it turns out that we were using the wrong benchmark.

This is the first time that the easier PIRLS test (PIRLS Literacy) was put on the PIRLS scale.

Apart from the low levels of reading achievement, South Africa also has the highest incidence of bullying among all 50 countries participating in the study. Some 42% of Grade 4 pupils indicated that they were bullied weekly (see page 226 of the report). By comparison, the number of children who said they were bullied weekly in the US was 15%. A summary of the main findings from the PIRLS 2016 report is as follows:

* Eight out of 10 South African Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning: These children are unable to locate and retrieve explicitly stated information or make straightforward inferences about events and reasons for actions (See PIRLS report page 55).

* South Africa has the lowest reading scores: South African Grade 4 children have scored lowest in the most recent round of the 2016 Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study. The study included mostly high income countries but there were a number of middle-income countries such as Iran, Chile, Morocco, and Oman.

South Africa lags far behind other countries:

While 78% of South African Grade 4 kids cannot read, in America the figure is 4% and in England 3%. The study also included middle-income countries: In Iran only 35% of Grade 4 students could not read for meaning and in Chile, 13%.

* Reading crisis is deeper than previously thought:

In 2011, 77% could not read for meaning and in 2016, 78% could not read for meaning. This difference is not statistically significant.

* Some evidence of improvement in reading 2006 to 2011 but stagnant since 2011:

The only good news coming out of PIRLS 2016 is that there may have been significant improvements in reading between 2006 and 2011. A comparison of the performance of Grade 4s in 2006 with Grade 4s in 2011 and 2016 suggests quite a significant increase in reading scores between 2006 and 2011.Grade 4 pupils in 2011 achieved higher scores than Grade 5 pupils in 2006.

Further analysis is needed but there does seem to be legitimate evidence of improvement between 2006 and 2011. Unfortunately there is no evidence of improvement between 2011 and 2016.

* South Africa gender gap in reading second highest in the world:

Girls score much higher than boys in reading across the board.

In Grade 4, girls are a full year of learning ahead of boys. This gender gap is the second largest among all 50 countries that participated.

Only Saudi Arabia’s score is higher. (PIRLS report page 36). The gap between boys and girls is also growing over time. The gap between boys and girls was larger in 2016 than in 2011 (PIRLS report page 43).

Read: SA bottom of the bunch in literacy survey

* South African boys’ scores seem to have declined between 2011 and 2016:

The average Grade 4 girl in South Africa scored 341 in 2011 and 347 in 2016 (this is unlikely to be statistically significant). The average Grade 4 boy in SA scored 307 points in 2011 and 295 points in 2016 (this is likely to be statistically significant but we cannot tell until the South African report is released (PIRLS report page 43).

* Declining number of South African pupils reaching high levels of reading achievement:

In 2011, 3% of South African Grade 4 pupils reached the high international benchmark. In 2016 only 2% reached this same benchmark (PIRLS report page 58).

* There are massive provincial differences in the percentage of Grade 4s who can read:

Some 91% of Grade 4 children in Limpopo cannot read for meaning with equally high percentages in the Eastern Cape (85%), Mpumalanga (83%), Gauteng (69%), Western Cape (55%).

These results also indicate very large differences by test language.

Some 93% of Grade 4 pupils tested in Sepedi could not read for meaning, with similarly large percentages amount Setswana (90%), Tshivenda (89%), isiXhosa (88%), Xitsonga (88%), isiZulu (87%) and isiNdebele (87%). What do the PIRLS results really mean or show? It is of concern that boys seem to be doing worse over time. Although we can’t be 100% sure of the decline, there does seem to be some evidence that girls are doing roughly the same as they always have been doing and boys are actually doing worse.

Also read: 'Pupils thrust into system with no support'

There is also evidence that the gap between boys and girls is growing over time. The gap in 2016 is bigger than it was in 2011, with girls scoring much higher than boys. In fact, South Africa has the second largest gender gap of all countries that were assessed. Only Saudi Arabia has a larger gender gap (these are all pro-girl gender gaps).

In South Africa the average Grade 4 girl is a full year of learning ahead of the average boy in Grade 4. It is confusing is that we seem to be getting mixed messages from the system.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released last year showed improvements in maths and science at the Grade 9 level. I think most of us were expecting an improvement in the PIRLS scores between 2011 and 2016 so it’s very disappointing to see none between 2011 and 2016.

Silver lining

I think the only piece of good news coming out of the PIRLS results is that it looks like there was an improvement in reading outcomes between 2006 and 2011. We are able to compare trends over time because all the test scores are on the same scale (i.e. in the same metric) .

It seems that there was quite a big improvement between 2006 and 2011 but no improvement at all between 2011 and 2016.

For example, the South African Grade 4 pupils in 2011 scored higher than the Grade 5 pupils in 2006.

The number of high achieving students in South Africa is declining. This is cause for concern. There is only a very small number of pupils achieving the high international benchmark and the number seems to be diminishing.

In 2011, 3% of South African Grade 4 pupils reached the high benchmark while in 2016 only 2% reached this benchmark.

By contrast, in England 57% of pupils reached the high international benchmark and in Chile, 25% of pupils achieved the benchmark

* Dr Nic Spaull is a Senior Researcher in the Research on Socio-economic Policy Group in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Weekend Argus