Few pupils can read properly

2012-04-04 00:00

DURBAN — There are serious problems with reading in South African schools, with between 60% and 70% of pupils not reading at acceptable levels.

The reasons are to be found in what happens in classrooms, says Professor Brahm Fleisch, an educational policy expert at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Fleisch gave a presentation at a teachers’ conference on basic education in Durban on how children’s literacy and numeracy can be improved.

He referred to various international tests, such as Pirls and Sacmeq, which have been showing for several years that South African children are not performing at all as desired, and that they are not achieving as they should in the different grades.

He said this created a ripple effect that eventually had a great impact in high school and later studies. “If learners get to matric and can’t read and write properly, it undoubtedly has an impact on their matric results.”

Referring to last year’s assessment tests, he said that the 58% of Grade three pupils and the 70% of Grade six pupils had failed to achieve at appropriate levels had made the government realise that “we have very serious problems”.

Fleisch referred to other issues that impacted negatively on children’s performance, such as ill health, parents who could not support their children with the necessary school work and the connection between language and underachievement.

He said classroom practices in South Africa must receive urgent attention because they contributed to the crisis in pupils’ reading capabilities in some the former black and homeland schools.

In up to 70% of the schools “chorus reading” was used, when pupils repeated everything after the teacher. There were few examples of independent silent reading by pupils, as was customary in other schools.

Another dilemma was the lack of written work by pupils. In some of the best pupils’ workbooks there were few examples of written work. And where it did appear it consisted of only a few or very simple sentences.

Fleisch said that in disadvantaged schools there was also only limited use of phonetic skills. By contrast, in middle-class schools there were numerous reading books tailored to pupils’ ages and grades. High expectations were set for pupils to be able to read, and the use of phonetics, vocabulary lists and reading and exercise books was common.

Fleisch said greater effort should be made to provide schools with a strong resource base, to work out proper lesson plans and to use mentors on how literacy should be approached in schools from an early stage.

Dr Shelley O’Carroll, an educational psychologist and director of Wordworks, a non-governmental organisation, said South Africa should start looking urgently at starting with literacy and language skills development much earlier.

Children should start reading and writing before they went to school and should get this training not only in early child development, but also at home.

She referred to international research findings that children of professional parents would have heard four times as many words as the children of welfare parents by the time they went to school.

O’Carroll said South African children were at a disadvantage and the linguistic skills of some of them in Grade 0 were already two years behind what should be expected of them.

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