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Teachers’ union finds fundamental flaws in reading study

Published Jul 19, 2023


Reading is essential for learning and empowerment, but many children have struggled to read for meaning for a number of years in South Africa. A reading report released by The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in May showed that 19% of South Africa's Grade 4 pupils could read for meaning.

However, the National Teachers’ Union (Natu) felt that the alarm bells had rung in recent years over the decrease in reading comprehension levels for school-based children.

It said the report not only highlighted the concerning state of reading comprehension among schoolchildren but also underscored the limitations of using a standardised international assessment that might not adequately account for unique contexts.

“The National Teachers’ Union rejects the PIRLS 2021 results and advises the Department of Basic Education to take note of them but not rely on them for its future planning,” it said in a statement.

Natu pointed out three major issues with the PIRLS report through its objectives and tools of research, particularly in the South African context.

The first is the oblique influence of contextualisation and translation of the original data collection booklets.

The second issue was that many texts used to assess reading comprehension were contextually irrelevant, hurting learners' engagement and motivation during the test.

Third, concept, face, and content validity difficulties were noted, implying that some questions may have been unfamiliar or irrelevant to South African learners, resulting in potential biases and lower performance.

The PIRLS, which tested the reading ability of 400 000 students globally in 2021, ranked South Africa last out of 57 countries.

It was conducted in 2021 to assess reading comprehension and to monitor trends and indicators of growth in reading literacy at five-year intervals, with three African countries included.

It is the first international large-scale assessment to report achievement trends after collecting data during the Covid-19 pandemic and assessing 400 000 students.

Natu also said the language policies applied during testing may have disadvantaged South African candidates compared to their counterparts from other countries.

“We don't believe that the results were valid because there are very serious methodological issues that we have found, which suggests that the Department of Education rushed too much,” said Natu representative Professor Sitwala Imenda.

Imenda pointed out that the contents of the PIRLS test were created in American English, then translated into the needed dialects and languages based on the countries participating.

In the case of South Africa, translating the questions further into 11 languages tested on Grade 4 and 6 learners added an error factor to the research that the professor felt would provide inauthentic results.

“Now, every translation has a contextual problem and the content problem because there are various issues that arise that can really not be translated,” Imenda said.

“How valid and justifiable was this? How is it conceptually reasonable to grade learners in Tshivenda, or any of the other African languages, as falling under any of these categories when there were no Tshivenda learners in the international sample, or even nationally, beyond a very specific location in the country?” Natu said.

The PIRLS study found that eight out of 10 schoolchildren struggled to read for comprehension by the age of 10. While Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga credited much of the decrease to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic at the release of the PIRLS results in May, the 2021 findings showed a decrease for South Africa from its 2016 rate to 22% of Grade 4 learners who could read for meaning.

The national Department of Basic Education (DBE) has in the past made announcements and re-evaluated systems with the GDE (Gauteng Department of Education) curriculum to steadily improve pass and reading rates to acceptable levels.

“I believe that the department is not aware of what is on the ground or of what is in the classrooms. They are pushing to include smart education tools in schools that don’t have updated libraries or textbooks,” said a primary schoolteacher who wished to remain anonymous.

“We don’t mind the smart technology, but there must be attention to the basic learning skills. We need more reading resources in languages other than just English, isiXhosa or isiZulu. I believe that children who are confident in reading and testing in their own languages will become confident in reading in another language,” the teacher said.

The Sunday Independent sent questions to the DBE regarding the subject but had not received a reply at the time of printing.

As reading remains a critical aspect of learning and empowerment, it is imperative for education policymakers to address the reading challenges faced by children in South Africa through a comprehensive and contextually appropriate approach.