Durban - The literacy level of South African Grade 5 pupils is a “national catastrophe”.
The consequence of pupils being taught to “parrot” rather than read independently was that, after five years of school, 13 percent of Grade 5s (11-year-olds) were illiterate and most were able to score no more than four out of 20 on a comprehension exercise, new data from the national education evaluation and development unit, has revealed.
Speaking in Durban on Monday, Nick Taylor, the head of the unit which reports directly to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, said that, from the classroom research conducted in urban and rural areas, it had become “quite clear that most of our teachers can’t teach reading”.
This was despite several years and billions of rand worth of teacher training later.
Earlier this year, Taylor’s unit released the first national evaluation of how pupils in grades 1, 2 and 3 (the foundation phase) in urban schools were taught, marking a shift off the emphasis on Grade 12.
The upshot of the report was that pupils were not taught to solve numeracy problems or read independently because most teachers did not know how to teach these skills.
This year the unit has extended its work to later grades, focusing on reading in rural schools. Its final report will be handed to Motshekga early next year.
“As far as I’m concerned this is a national catastrophe,” Taylor told a meeting of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), at which he was the guest speaker, and which was attended by principals, school governing body members and politicians.
Taylor said it was “deeply disturbing” that in the classrooms visited by the unit this year, just 5 percent of Grade 5 pupils could read at the required rate of 80 to 90 words a minute.
In the urban Grade 2 classrooms the unit studied last year, it found that while the average eight-year-old was meant to be reading 58 words a minute by the end of the second term, and 71 words a minute by the end of the fourth term, this was not the case.
Instead, when the reading fluency of the top three pupils in each class was observed, researchers found that most were reading between 20 and 29 words a minute.
Teachers could no longer afford to shut their heads of departments (HODs) out of their classrooms, because if the situation was to be remedied, reading had to be declared a “national priority” and professional development needed to take place at school.
Taylor said that teachers were putting far too little emphasis on the ultimate goal, which was independent reading – children were simply “singing in unison”.
Despite teachers’ poor subject knowledge, the large majority of them were considered qualified.
In 1990, 53 percent of teachers held a teaching qualification. By last year, that figure stood at 96 percent. But there was a gap between qualifications and competence.
“While it was true that resourcing, policy and school leadership are all very important, once children are in classrooms, learning depends heavily on the teacher.”
Taylor said that the growth in the number of teachers who held teaching qualifications had been fuelled by the Advanced Certificate in Education courses, which were offered part-time by universities. But the courses had failed to address poor subject knowledge.
Turning to his recommendations, Taylor said that teachers’ unions would be key to turning the situation around.
They needed to help dispel the belief that for teachers to be monitored by their school management team was “about judging”.
The notion that school managers should not visit classrooms was both “rife” and “disastrous”.
“When teachers go into their classrooms, they close the door and that is their kingdom.”
Taylor said that as far as teacher training was concerned, afternoon workshops were “a waste of time”, and that district-based subject advisers were overwhelmed, being responsible for up to 300 schools.
“I want to promote the idea of in-school professional development. The HOD is the person on site who knows her teachers, who can help her teachers on a daily basis,” Taylor said.
Basil Manuel, the president of Naptosa, told the meeting it was “unacceptable” that HODs were not visiting classrooms and not evaluating teachers for fear of upsetting certain teachers.
It was the core responsibility of an HOD to manage the curriculum and monitor its delivery, Manuel said.