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We are facing a major literacy crisis and need a fundamental mind shift in our reading culture at schools


Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

Only one in five South African Grade 4s can read with comprehension. To make things worse, under Covid-19 restrictions, the foundation phase was particularly hard hit because these pupils could not attend school every day. As a result, today we have a group of pupils in Grade 2 who can hardly read or write.

Wednesday, 8 September was International Literacy Day. At the invitation of the embassy of Finland, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga and I had the opportunity to virtually address a world audience. Allow me to share an excerpt from my speech:

“Literacy is a basic human right: the basic principle of Education For All and a requirement in reaching the overarching goal of poverty alleviation. Therefore it is concerning that our learners perform as poorly as they do when one compares their levels of literacy to other developing countries. The results of the TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) assessments confirm this. Our children especially struggle to formulate answers to comprehension questions.

“Willard Waller wrote in 1930 already that the school culture forms the groundwork of learners’ achievements. It involves the school’s values, norms, traditions and reading culture. A reading culture speaks of a positive attitude towards reading, by learners, parents and teachers. The task of principals is to promote this culture which is currently absent from most schools by ensuring that the reading period comes into its own, and by ensuring that the reading period is once again central to the school day. With a little creativity by teachers, this period can actually be fun. Parents must still read stories with their children (and sometimes switch off the TV).

“Poverty is another big problem and is closely linked to a reading culture. Very little of the yield of South Africa’s mineral riches have reached poor schools. Out of 23,000 public schools, 18,000 don’t have a library. This explains the absence of a reading culture in our schools. We have always known that there are great inequalities in our education system. The pandemic has only confirmed this. Teachers had to switch to online tuition, Zoom lectures and Google classrooms almost overnight.

“Unfortunately, only a small group of schools could continue with online classes. For the greater majority of schools, it was impossible to maintain social distancing in crowded classrooms. The result is that learners have to rotate. Especially the foundation phase was hard hit because these learners could not attend schools every day – something which is essential to learn to read and write effectively. As a result, today we have a group of learners in Grade 2 who can hardly read or write!

“We must simply find a solution to the problem. The country no longer has mineral wealth and State Capture has plundered the state coffers. There is no money to build schools. It leaves us with only one option: digital tuition. We have heard of a successful digital literacy project in the Breede River Valley in the Western Cape. More such projects are needed.

“There is one more obvious solution. Most efforts to improve literacy are aimed at learners and teachers in the foundation phase. Yet the PIRLS tests indicate that learners in the intermediate phase are faring just as poorly – if not worse. Only one in five learners in Grade 4 can read with comprehension. Reading tuition can thus not stop after the foundation phase. Reading development in the intermediary phase is just as important.

“I have first-hand experience of a rural school, which improved their literacy rate from 0% to 100% in just four years. To achieve this, a mind shift is required in the reading culture at schools. All teachers – irrespective of their field of study – must become teachers of reading.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Another consequence of corruption and incompetence, another generation lost. The minister of education and many others in the education should be fired and banned from government employment for good.

  • Michiel Erik Moll says:

    The role of public libraries in supporting schools always seems to be left out of these conversations. There should be a dynamic partnership and community library facilities, lacking even more than school libraries, should be front and Centre. We cannot have an isolated school only based reading culture. We need a community based culture, with schools, who should reflect positive community values, being a supporting and enabling part of this.

  • Wyndham Robartes says:

    The ANC has had an active policy to specifically NOT allow the masses to become literate, presumably because literate people would not support them, with their corruption and incompetence – they need people to vote for them because they get a T-shirt and a food parcel the day before the election.
    This contention is backed up by the fact that, in 1998, the Minister of Education, Sibusiso Bhengu, introduced “outcomes based education “, in spite of ALL advice that the system was unsuitable for South Africa, and he offered teachers an unbelievable early retirement package, which most accepted, and so, with a stroke of the pen, he wrote off thousands of YEARS of teaching experience. He was followed by Professor Kadar Asmal, who thought that the solution to the teaching crisis was to CLOSE THE TEACHING COLLEGES!!!!!
    So, if you get rid of the teachers, and the people who teach the teachers, you will easily achieve an illiterate and innumerate population – this did NOT happen by accident – it MUST have been INTENTIONAL!!!! Even the ANC CANNOT have made such basic mistakes accidentally!!!!! We are where we are by DESIGN, and NOTHING is going to change until the majority STOP putting their crosses in the wrong box……..

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    As much as it is correct to criticise what has happened to education here, it helps little.

    I agree with this article content. South Africa is in desperate need of a shift in emphasis on reading. Include writing and maths in that too. We have to encourage an appetite for reading and assimilation of information, knowledge and application thereof.

  • marynabolton says:

    According to most teachers even pupils up to Grade 7 can not read fluently and or with comprehension. Many local libraries has also been burned down during riots as it was mostly located close to municipality offices.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    Too depressing. The schools seem to be stuck in a rut carved out decades ago. People were making the same comments in the 1970s. We need adults who care about children

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