Reading failure

2007-12-03 00:00

From time to time an international body conducts a comparative study of school pupils’ progress in key learning areas and South African youngsters have recently been found to be lagging behind in such fields as science and mathematics. The latest study, by the University of Pretoria for the Progress in International Literacy organisation, is similarly alarming. South Africa ranked last of the 40 countries tested, with almost 80% of Grade 4 and Grade 5 children (as against just six percent elsewhere) failing to reach the lowest international benchmark. Conversely, only two percent of South African pupils attained the highest benchmark, compared with seven percent internationally. Nor can this be ascribed entirely to the problems that children have when they are not taught in their mother tongue. The tests were conducted in all 11 official languages and the performance in the African languages was even worse than in English and Afrikaans.

Historical factors are clearly influential here; the legacy of disadvantage cannot be eliminated overnight. Yet these children are not the direct products of the old system. A completely reformed curriculum was in place well before they started school. Is this perhaps a wake-up signal that the controversial OBE approach is not yielding the results that were anticipated? Are there still problems with teaching methods and hence with the pre-service training and in-service guidance of today’s teachers? Is it perhaps also an indication that the transformation of this society is actually seriously skewed — that a new and materially rich elite is emerging, but that the benefits of change are not filtering down to the mass of ordinary people?

Certainly, the study shows that early exposure to books in the home is advantageous and the dearth of literate homes is indicative of both past and present deficiencies. One remedy is access to books at school, but the fact that 60% of South African primary schools do not have libraries suggests that education authorities undervalue this resource. Whatever the causes, it is a disturbing and dangerous situation. Economic, social and political stability all depend on the ability of people to acquire knowledge and to develop fruitful, satisfying occupations, and that in turn depends on their ability to read.

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