Study paints bleak picture of basic literacy levels

2014-11-16 06:00

By the time many South African pupils reach Grade 4, they are functionally illiterate – mainly because they do not read at all during Grades 1, 2 and 3.

What is perhaps more shocking is that most of their teachers also aren’t reading.

A new Unisa study focused on one school, but says what it found there is backed up by previous studies.

Unisa Professor Elizabeth Pretorius reveals in the study: “There was virtually no whole-class storybook reading on a daily basis, let alone weekly. There were no book corners, no books for pupils to practise their fledging reading skills, no reading homework given and very few written exercises to reinforce newly acquired reading knowledge.”

Numerous studies have revealed that by the time pupils reach Grade 4, they have acquired massive learning deficiencies and can’t read or solve basic problems in arithmetic. But it hasn’t always been clear how this happens.

“One of the strongest contributory factors to the low literacy levels was the fact that much of the teaching and learning that occurred in the foundation phase was oral based,” Pretorius wrote in the study, which was published in the journal Perspectives in Education in May.

She and her team conducted her study at an unnamed “rather well managed and functioning” township school. Pretorius believes their findings can be extrapolated to other schools.

“Although oral interactions are held to be important for language and literacy development in the early years, this was not counterbalanced by early literate practices,” says the report.

“There was much talk in the classroom, and much oral chorusing of things learnt, but far less reading and writing.”

Pretorius said books hardly featured as learning tools and resources in the foundation phases.

“The children had very little exposure to reading and writing.”

Pretorius and her team administered two sets of tests to the sample schools’ Grade 4 pupils. Between the tests, they ran a “back to basics” programme to improve literacy.

“It had a strong focus on phonics, principles and the daily practising of reading words, sentences and short extended texts to develop more automaticity and fluency,” the study said.

“Attention was also paid to meaning, vocabulary building, comprehension, writing activities and storybook reading. These basic literacy skills that were supposed to have developed during the foundation phase were instead crammed into Grade 4.”

The team picked up that pupils simply weren’t being taught phonics, or the skills needed to decode and make meaning. This meant they were reciting words and sentences without understanding them.

“The consequences of this teaching approach are disastrous from a literacy perspective as pupils are neither properly taught how to read, nor given opportunities to practise their reading skills so that they can read fast and accurately, and engage their reading skills in meaningful ways.”

Pretorius said literacy levels shot up after the programme was run – the average pupil’s test results shot up from 19% to 60%.

One of the problems Pretorius picked up was that teachers themselves aren’t reading.

“Research we conducted in Atteridgeville, north of Pretoria, over seven years found that 70% of teachers there don’t read. Many of them had fewer than 10 books in their homes,” Pretorius said in the study.

Dr Karin Murris, associate professor at the University of Cape Town’s School of Education, echoed Pretorius’ findings.

“Reading comprehension and phonics are not being taught. Children are not taught to engage critically with text. Basically, there is no time for good storytelling and reading. Schools also don’t have good children’s literature.”

But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Pretorius is encouraged that the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement stresses the systematic framework for teaching languages and literacy.

“Phonics is reintroduced and comprehension strategies are also emphasised,” she said.

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