Maverick Citizen


International literacy survey results mostly a true reflection of SA government’s bad report card


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.

Our children did not perform poorly because they are less intelligent or ‘stupid’, but because the South African government has failed to create an environment that promotes learning.

Much has been written and said in reaction to the results of the latest five-year survey of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls). This survey found that 81% of South African Grade 4 learners tested in 2021 cannot read with comprehension. This result is something which should concern educators and especially the minister of basic education.

Much of the reaction to the result was inaccurate because it does not take into account our country’s complete education landscape. My perspective on it stems from a career of 43 years — initially as a teacher and principal, later as a circuit manager and for the past 15 years as a lecturer/researcher.

It was the fourth time that South Africa has taken part in Pirls, which attempts to measure reading comprehension and literacy trends. The data help us to compare across educational boundaries and give an indication of the progress of a country’s early childhood development and literacy levels.

Most countries collect Pirls data at the end of a school year to give a child the best possible chance to perform well in the test. In the Northern Hemisphere, the tests were written from March to June and in the Southern Hemisphere from October to December 2020.

At that stage, the South African school year had been severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Most children were not at school due to the rotation policy. The most vulnerable schools were affected worst and had lost significant tuition time due to the rotation system — a direct result of overcrowded classrooms owing to the government’s inability to supply enough classrooms.

In addition, the government made a terrible mistake in 2020 when the pandemic was at its worst by focusing excessively on Grade 12 learners. By neglecting the lower grades, we created additional problems for ourselves. Grade 12s can master learning content with little support, but children in the Foundation Phase are heavily dependent on teachers to learn to read. When primary school children returned to the classroom on 28 July 2021, the damage had already been done. The results of that were clear in the outcome of Pirls.

The blame can, however, not only be laid at the door of Covid-19. As a circuit manager in Stellenbosch in 2001, I came to the conclusion that learners had reading problems — and not just in primary school but also in high school. In my research, I found that there were many complex reasons why we perform poorly in literacy tests. Poverty, inadequate resources and mother-tongue instruction are but three factors which play a role, and the Pirls results confirm this.

Overcrowded classrooms

South Africa’s Grade 4 and Grade 6 learners achieved far less than the average of 500 points in the tests. Singapore was ranked at the top of the list with 587 points, with South Africa at 287.

Learners with the lowest points in South Africa were all in quintile 1, 2 and 3 schools — a classification that the Department of Education uses to refer to our poorest schools. The schools do not levy school fees because parents cannot afford it. As a result, the schools struggle with a lack of resources and overcrowded classrooms where individual attention is nearly impossible.

I was the principal of such a school and know too well that managing more than 1,000 learners in such conditions is a nightmare. There is no money for governing body posts.

As a language teacher, I noticed that learners came from homes where there were no books, newspapers or magazines. Many parents could not read and therefore could not read to their children or expose them to books. It takes Foundation Phase teachers as long as a year in such a school before formal reading tuition can start. Teachers must first teach children the basic sounds before they can focus on reading comprehension.

As far as infrastructure is concerned, learners in the Western Cape and Gauteng fared better than in other provinces — an indication of better facilities, infrastructure and resources. Such conditions draw better teachers and lead to better tuition.

In contrast, rural provinces like Limpopo and the Eastern Cape sorely lack resources and infrastructure. Overcrowded classrooms make the essential capturing of knowledge in the Foundation Phase impossible.

As part of my research, I found, for example, a classroom in the Eastern Cape with 136 learners. In such conditions a teacher must adapt his or her learning strategy. They would, for instance, test content instead of comprehension. Additionally, they embark on a strategy that I call “training learners for tests” instead of guiding them to study with comprehension.

Mother tongue instruction

What complicates the matter further is that South Africa is the only country in the Pirls family where the Pirls survey is composed of learners with different mother tongues. The Grade 4 learners who participated represented all 11 official languages in all nine provinces in our country. In comparison, the Grade 6 learners were only tested in Afrikaans and English.

Learners who were tested in English and Afrikaans tested considerably better than learners who wrote the test in other languages. Pedi and Tswana learners fared the worst. Mother tongue instruction clearly plays a role here, because it brings the best in the child to the fore.

The excellent achievements of Afrikaans and English learners are also linked to resources because in most cases these learners came from prosperous former Model C schools. Where learners in the Foundation Phase were instructed in indigenous languages and received mother tongue instruction, the performance was still poor.


The answer is simple. When an isiXhosa-speaking Grade 4 learner took the test, this child had only recently started with tuition in English. Although the test had been translated into the child’s mother tongue, it is too much to ask to take it in a language in which the child had for a year received no tuition.

In Grade 6, the shoe is on the other foot, but the problem is the same. After just two years of English tuition, they have not mastered the language to the extent of performing well in Pirls. The gap increases further because the home language is not — unlike with English and some Afrikaans learners — their language of tuition.

Worldwide it is accepted that a child cannot perform in an environment which is not conducive to learning. The negative reaction to our Pirls testing does not take into account that South African society is the most unequal in the world. Our children did not perform poorly because they are less intelligent or “stupid”, but because the South African government has failed to create an environment that promotes learning.

Let our children read

The poor results of our learners is such a matter of concern that the Pirls report makes special mention of the Grade 4 results — with a recommendation that South Africa should in future rather take part in a study on literacy and numeracy aimed at countries in low-income groups.

However, there are a few things we can do to get our children reading:

  • Start with the 1.3 million children between the ages of three and five who receive no preschool tuition. The recent announcement that the function of early childhood development will be moved from the Department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education is a step in the right direction.
  • The crisis is not just the fault of the teachers; the Department of Basic Education must take responsibility for the test results. A national reading strategy was instituted in 2008, but must be better coordinated.
  • Revise the current curriculum. Research shows that the time allowed for reading (and especially creative writing) is totally insufficient. The curriculum provides for six hours’ reading per week in a child’s home language, but is divided between other skills which must be mastered in the Foundation Phase. The result is that only five hours are allocated to reading instruction every two weeks.
  • Revise reading instruction. The education department should offer courses based on the Pirls data, so that teachers can improve their pedagogic content knowledge (PCK). Begin with the basics: phonetic awareness, vocabulary expansion and decoding of words in syllables. Expand it with tuition strategies for reading comprehension. This interactive method should enable learners to make inferences from a text.
  • Beware of excessive emphasis on reading comprehension and firstly establish a love of reading. Too much emphasis on assessment can limit reading pleasure and lead to a decrease in independent reading, which is critical for cognitive development.
  • Prioritise the provision of reading material in schools, such as the book locker project of the ATKV, and expand projects to involve parents and carers in reading tuition.
  • A specific focus is required to encourage children to read books in African languages, for example the projects of the Stigting vir die Bemagtiging van Afrikaans (SBA).
  • Invest in partnerships with role players to promote a love of reading. Help children to undergo regular eye tests — something the SBA has done for a while now. Problems with sight are often wrongly interpreted as a reading problem.
  • Revisit the role that higher education institutions play in the training of teachers to teach African languages. How can we promote literacy in African languages if universities focus only on Afrikaans and English?
  • Remind teachers that reading tuition is the work of all teachers and not only that of the Grade 1 teacher.

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, said a child can learn something new every day if that child deals with a book. That is why teachers must seize every opportunity to get learners reading. DM


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  • Eulalie Spamer says:

    This is disastrous. Generations of unemployed and unemployable youth are being added to the current cohort of NEETS. I seem to remember our Minister of Basic Education dismissing the results if PIRLS with the ludicrous comment that “Our children can read. They know that m, a, n, spells “man”. If the bar is being set this low and the Executive of this country is so dismissive of PIRLS, don’t expect any improvement in the next round. But don’t be surprised if the Minister responsible for fixing the problem makes it go away by refusing SA learners opportunity to participate. Just cancel the PIRLS testing. No test, no bad news, no problem.

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    I’m disappointed that le Cordeur did not bring malnutrition into this essay. No matter how good the instruction, the teachers and reading material a stunted brain is unable to assimilate much. With 50% of children in rural schools being stunted mentally and/or physically, reading with comprehension is almost impossible.

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