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From bad to worse: New study shows 81% of Grade 4 pupils in SA can’t read in any language

From bad to worse: New study shows 81% of Grade 4 pupils in SA can’t read in any language
(Photo: Leila Dougan)

The new Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (Pirls) 2021 reading results show that South African kids perform the worst of all participating countries, with the largest Covid-related declines in reading achievement. We have lost a decade of progress and the average Grade 4 child in SA is three years behind their Brazilian counterpart.

In South Africa, it’s always unwise to say, “Surely it can’t get worse” because it generally can and does. Whether it’s moving to Stage 9 blackouts or helping to arm Russia, it turns out it can always get worse. And so it is with reading.

The latest news on the literary front is that the percentage of Grade 4 children who can’t read in any language has increased to 81% in 2021. The local and international reports cover a lot of ground so I thought I would highlight five key findings of the Pirls study:

  1. South Africa has lost a decade of progress, taking us back to 2011 levels of performance. Before the pandemic, South Africa was improving on the reading front, with the percentage of kids who cannot read in any language slowly declining from 87% (2006) to 82% (2011) to 78% (2016). The latest results show that this has increased again to 81% (2021), wiping out a decade of progress.

  1. Of more than 30 countries that participated in Pirls in 2016 and 2021, South Africa experienced the largest decline in reading achievement.

The Pirls 2021 assessment is the first nationally representative indication of learning losses to date. Although more than 50 countries participated in Pirls, only 33 countries have data for both 2016 and 2021 – and we have the largest decline of all 33.

Of course, the pandemic wasn’t the Department of Basic Education’s fault, but why did South Africa lose so much more learning than all the other countries?

The first reason is that we closed our schools in 2020 for longer than most countries, with some of the largest declines in teaching time due to rotational timetables in 2021. That, combined with the lack of any strategy to catch up on learning losses, helps explain why the 2021 results are so bad.

To quote a recent research report reviewing the department’s interventions relating to Covid: “There has been no attempt to recoup time in order to remediate learning losses, apart from very recent attempts in one province. The insistence on a largely business-as-usual approach to curriculum implementation fails to recognise and address the severe educational impact of the pandemic, especially on learners in the poorest communities.”

  1. Our Grade 4s are more than three years behind Brazil’s Grade 4s:

Because the Pirls assessment tests Grade 4s from more than 50 countries who write the same test at the same time – but in their own languages (in SA all 11 languages are tested) – we can compare outcomes across comparable countries.

This year Brazil – a country we often compare ourselves with because we have the same GDP per capita (~$7,000/capita), participated with high levels of inequality. Yet the average score in Brazil was 419 points in 2021 compared with South Africa’s 288 points.

To put that gap in context, that’s the equivalent of 3.3 years of learning. While 39% of Brazilian Grade 4s can’t read, for SA that figure is 81%.

  1. The pandemic increased inequality, with English and Afrikaans schools barely changing while African language schools declined significantly.

In addition to being a representative of the country as a whole, Pirls is also representative of each specific language. If a child is in an isiZulu school in Grades 1-3, then he or she will write the isiZulu test for Pirls, and so on for all 11 languages.

What the 2021 results reveal was that English and Afrikaans schools showed no difference between 2016 and 2021 (the tiny increase is statistically negligible). We know that all fee-charging schools in South Africa are either English or Afrikaans, and all African home-language schools are no-fee schools. It is no surprise that households and schools with limited resources and limited connectivity struggled to keep learning going while schools were closed.

The 2019 General Household Survey shows that only 9% of SA households have an internet connection. The largest decline can be seen in North West, where the average Setswana-speaking child in 2021 was two years behind the average Setswana child in 2016.

  1. We have no plan and no budget to get ahead of this generational catastrophe.

More than four million children in primary school have experienced more than half their schooling career in a disrupted state (either school closures or rotational timetables).

Research on school closures from natural disasters such as earthquakes in Pakistan and the Ebola crisis in West Africa all show that there are long-term consequences to short-term crises. These include lower educational attainment, lower earnings, higher unemployment and being more likely to be in lower-skilled occupations in adulthood.

This effect might even carry over to the children of the children affected by school closures, as happened with school closures in Argentina.

Yet notwithstanding this, we have no plan to catch up on these learning losses.

By contrast, many countries have multibillion-rand catch-up programmes, for example, Colombia’s PROMISE programme (R3.5-billion), the Indian state of Gujarat’s GOAL initiative (R9.5-billion),  the Recovering Learning Losses programme in northern Brazil (R4.8-billion) and the R7.3-billion 2023 Plan de Ractivación Educativa in Chile announced last month, acknowledging it will take at least four years to catch up the learning losses from Covid.

Only one province (Western Cape) has so far announced a budgeted plan for catching up on learning losses (Western Cape Education Department’s R1.2bn “Back on Track” programme).

What should be done?

The tragic thing is that we have the largest evidence base on the continent of what works to improve reading outcomes in no-fee schools.

We need to recruit, train and equip teacher assistants (as in Limpopo), roll out anthologies of phonically sequenced graded readers (as in the Eastern Cape), and use teacher coaches to support teachers on how to teach reading (as in North West).

In fact, we have three recently published books (2022) dedicated specifically to interventions that have been shown to improve early-grade reading and mathematics outcomes in SA.

What we need is for the Department of Basic Education to rise to the challenge – to recognise that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

We need a budgeted reading plan that takes account of the crisis we had even before Covid, and a catch-up programme to address these profound learning losses.

The gaps from missing one year of contact time in 2020 and 2021 will remain firmly in place unless we move above and beyond our current approach.

Business-as-usual is condemning a generation to be one step behind and consistently trying to catch up – but never making it.

For more findings on Pirls 2021 and links to research, see here. DM/MC

Nic Spaull is an Associate Professor of Economics at Stellenbosch University.


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