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BASIC EDUCATION CRISIS

National Reading Plan to be revised as SA grapples with poor early grade learner literacy

National Reading Plan to be revised as SA grapples with poor early grade learner literacy

Efforts by the Department of Basic Education to revise its National Reading Plan are under way, with officials pushing a ‘refined focus’ on early childhood and African home language development. However, some parliamentarians are seeking assurance that past mistakes won’t be repeated.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) is revising its “National Integrated Reading Sector Plan”, originally instituted in 2019, to refine its policies and ensure improved development of reading literacy.

Efforts to revise the plan have been spotlighted by the recent outcomes of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) 2021, which found that 81% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa were unable to read for meaning in any language. However, the department reports that the process kicked off months before the results were launched.

Read more in Daily Maverick: International study shows most Grade 4s in South Africa cannot read for meaning

“The [reading] strategy or the plan that was developed … predated Covid, and they didn’t take into account the fact that we have this new set of challenges,” said Kulula Manona, the department’s chief director for Foundations for Learning.

“This review that we’re talking about now is being done with civil society, with academia, and that is the approach when we are developing strategies of this nature … It is going to be consulted widely.”

Manona was speaking at a meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education on Tuesday, where the department delivered a briefing on the Pirls 2021 results and its plans to improve children’s literacy. 

While the DBE emphasised the role of the pandemic in recent poor reading outcomes – citing the loss of class time due to school closures, rotational timetables and regular absenteeism – not all members of the committee were satisfied with that explanation.

“Despite whatever we can say in this meeting, the fact of the matter is that those [Pirls] tests just measured what those children knew, and the outcomes of that were just devastating,” said Baxolile Nodada, DA shadow minister of basic education.

“Blaming Covid for the outcomes of the Pirls results is actually quite meek and it’s disappointing because the department should be taking accountability for these outcomes.”

A refined focus

According to Manona, the revised National Reading Plan will effectively respond to current challenges by ensuring a “refined focus” on certain key areas, including early childhood and African home language development.

The DBE took over the early childhood development (ECD) function from the Department of Social Development in April 2022, after the original reading plan was finalised. As part of the function shift, it has been working to determine how school-ready children are when they enter foundation-phase education, said Manona.

“We conducted the Thrive by Five Index, which showed us that many of our children come to schools with huge gaps. They are just developmentally not on track,” said Manona.

The Thrive by Five Index, launched in April 2022, found that 65% of children aged four to five – who were attending early learning programmes in South Africa – were not meeting the expected standards for early learning, physical growth or both.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Bigger budgets, quality services needed for South African children to ‘thrive by five’

“[The revised National Reading Plan] will be looking at improving school readiness through better ECD provision. A lot of focus of our intervention going forward is going to be in the ECD space,” said Mark Chetty, chief education specialist at the DBE.

“We know if we catch those learners early, and we develop the reading skills and the reading for meaning at an earlier age, as many of those high-performing countries do, then it certainly is going to help us in our turnaround strategy.”

The “new framework” for the reading plan will rest on four pillars:

  • Age-appropriate and culturally relevant learning and teaching support material;
  • Involved parents and communities;
  • Explicit policy framework; and
  • Skilled and versatile teachers.

A primary focus of the plan is home language literacy, particularly for African language speakers, and added support for English as a first additional language.

“Training of teachers will also be focusing on using the medium of home language literacy, and we will continue to mobilise parents and communities, as well as strengthen our partnerships…” said Manona.

Progress in achieving the plan’s outcomes will be tracked using various local studies, including the Thrive by Five Index (to be implemented at three to four-year intervals), the Early Learning National Assessment, the department’s systemic evaluations and a reading survey for grades 1 to 3.

New … but improved?

Nodada questioned the department about the budget for the revised National Reading Plan, in light of reports that the existing plan was unfunded and uncoordinated.

“What we thought was the National Reading Plan was in fact not funded. It was just a random collection of activities that were done by provinces, and therefore needs to be much more coordinated for us to measure the impact on the ground and measure the progress – not wait for another five years of Pirls to measure progress,” he said.

A recent GroundUp report found that the DBE’s National Reading Plan never “got off the ground” after its launch in 2019, despite claims in 2022 that it had been implemented in all nine provinces. 

Progress reports on the plan’s implementation for 2022/23 show a significant disparity between the activities of the nine provincial education departments.

The 2030 Reading Panel’s report for 2023 stated that only two provinces had implemented budgeted, province-wide programmes to improve reading outcomes – Gauteng and the Western Cape.

The DBE did not comment on the current or future budget for the plan. 

However, Manona said the department wanted to present the new strategy before the end of the year, complete with targets and funding proposals for implementation. 

Speaking on the successes of the existing National Reading Plan, she said the department had implemented “a number of reading literacy interventions across all provinces … informed by the nine provincial … reading plans”. These included the “Read to Lead Campaign”, which was used to mobilise resources, and capacity-building programmes for teachers, focused on the teaching of African languages.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga told the parliamentary committee that improving reading outcomes was not about getting “more money”.

“Reading for meaning is multilayered … It’s not getting more money, more money – most of the things are not even about money,” she said.

“We demonstrated that the [Pirls] report says kids who are bullied, kids who are harshly punished, kids who are not well nourished, also don’t perform well. It’s also about learner wellbeing. It’s about teachers … not only their skills, [but] their confidence in what they’re doing.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Donald Knight says:

    I wonder if consideration is being given to The Science of Reading? It’s a body of research in several disciplines conducted over the last five or so decades and only recently have people been talking about it. Check out ‘The Science of Reading Defining Guide’ published by The Reading League in the USA. There are other sources of information.

  • Marj Brown says:

    I have run literacy quiz for 15 years in 150 disadvantaged schools in SA, and it’s wonderful to see the school scores improve as a reading culture takes hold, the teachers and students get excited, and they have access to fun accessible literature. Ran a quiz for 4 Franschhoek township schools last week, based on 12 books. Next year hope to have the same titles in English, isi Xhosa and Afrikaans, to assist reading for understanding. 80 % of authors were SA. The excitement was palpable. Teachers need to have basic course on teaching reading skills across levels, and an understanding of the amazing books out there that can hook kids in.

  • megan.bedingham says:

    Tackling this requires so much input. There is no quick-fix but those of us on the ground can possibly help with bits of insight. Language development in the mother-tongue is so important in developing the ability to even learn a second language but when children need to switch to English being the medium of instruction from Grade 4, we really need to look at how we proceed quite carefully.
    Perhaps we should rather be focusing on bilingual education from the early ages? And, we have to remember that developing brains happens in the first 1000 days. We have a project in the Northern Drakensberg, KZN where we focus on babies through our BabyBoost initiative, ECD in 18 little schoosl through our Khanyisela Project and we run a quality foundation phase school, Royal Drakensberg. For the past 10 years we have worked and tweaked to try and make our impact more significant… it’s multilayered, it’s complicated but we do need to do more if we are to really turn the tide on this shocking statistic… teacher training and mentoring is a huge and exciting area of development. A quality educational centre in every 50-100km radius might help too, particularly in rural areas like ours.

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