Researchers previously underestimated how many young pupils in South Africa had difficulty understanding what they were reading. Picture: Archive
Durban - A global report has revealed that almost 80% of Grade 4s in South Africa cannot read for meaning.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga released the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in Pretoria, on Tuesday.

And one of its most glaring findings was that 78% of children in their fourth year of school could not understand what they were reading.

Senior researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University, Nic Spaull, explained this meant almost eight out of 10 “could not locate and retrieve explicitly stated information or make straightforward inferences about events and reasons for action”.

In South Africa, PIRLS is implemented by the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA) at the University of Pretoria. Last year, it tested a nationally representative sample of 12 810 Grade 4s from 293 schools across the country.

Children were tested in the language used at their schools in Grades 1 to 3 and, generally, the language with which they were most familiar.

The study painted a bleak picture of the situation in South Africa. The country was ranked the lowest of the 50 that participated at a Grade 4 level.

And, Spaull said, while the study included mostly high-income countries, middle-income countries – such as Iran, Chile, Morocco, and Oman – also featured.

Our gender gap was also the second-highest in the world.

“Girls score much higher than boys in reading across the board,” Spaull said.

But, he said, Grade 4 girls were a full year of learning ahead of boys. Only Saudi Arabia’s gender gap was higher.

Spaull said what stood out for him was that South Africa had previously underestimated the number of children who could not read for meaning.

“Previously we thought the number was 58%… Basically we were using the wrong benchmark in the past,” he said.

The study showed that boys learning in a language other than English or Afrikaans were worst off.
And Professor Wayne Hugo, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Education and Development, said the statistics were clear: poor, black boys from rural backgrounds were “basically abandoned by the system”.

“Your access to a better life through education is cut off,” Hugo said. “It’s tragic and it’s dangerous. We’re talking about producing a future generation of young men who will be angry and isolated. And there will be a lot of them.”

But Hugo said it was important to note that South Africa had already identified reading levels as a key problem in the system.

“And we’re doing all sorts of research on why it’s a problem and trying experimental interventions, some of which are showing astonishing improvements,” he said. “One thing is that there haven’t been been good African language reading resources until recently. They’ve just been translating English readers. And it’s been resulting in overly complex sentences. So what people are doing now is writing readers that work with the language. It’s decolonising the system.”

The University of Pretoria on Tuesday described the results of the PIRLS as “disturbing”.

Acting director at the CEA, Celeste Combrinck, said part of the problem could stem from difficult transitions in the fourth year of school.

“Learners must transition from learning to read to reading to learn… They are expected to understand the language of learning well enough to study textbooks and other written material,” Combrinck said. “At the same time in South Africa, learners at African-language schools transition from being taught in an African language to being taught in English.”

The Department of Basic Education chose to highlight the “positives”, including that the Grade 4s in 2016 had achieved “a similar score to what the Grade 5s achieved in 2006”.

The department said South Africa was not a “reading nation”.

“This report finds that in other countries parents and children read recreationally far more extensively than South Africans. Emphasis is put on the important role that parental support plays with regard to reading, and the difference it makes in a learner's ability to read with comprehension,” it said.

The department said it had embarked on “impressive interventions” but they were too recent to have any impact on this 2016 PIRLS report.

“What is of concern is disparities between some existing data and some of the findings of the PIRLS 2016. We will have to further interrogate the findings of the report and establish why these findings have been made when audited data speaks to the contrary,” it said.

The Mercury