Literacy is more than just reading

2010-03-18 00:00

IN my recent article on medium-of-instruction issues I argued that, given the shocking literacy levels across the education system, a priority is the training of teachers in a robust reading methodology to enable them to teach pupils to read and write texts across all learning areas. Nick Taylor, former CEO of the Joint Education Trust, stated that the poor teaching of effective literacy skills, the primary tool for academic success, “is nothing short of educational suicide on a national scale”.

It is important to realise that literacy cannot be seen simplistically as just the ability to read, but crucially as the ability to learn from reading a variety of text types (genres) such as description, explanation and argument, across all learning areas of the curriculum. To achieve this level, the explicit teaching of reading cannot be confined solely to the Foundation Phase (FP), or to language teachers in the intermediate and secondary phases. In the latter phases, pupils are exposed to increasingly complex factual texts across the curriculum. Thus, teaching reading of these texts needs to be carried out by all teachers, across all learning areas, and all phases of schooling.

That these things are not happening is evident in the research on the literacy outcomes of our schooling system. Regular systemic evaluations have revealed that the majority of pupils are four to six years below required levels. The Higher Education South Africa national benchmark tests of 12 202 first-year university students across South Africa, revealed the poor literacy levels achieved by the best products of the schooling system. It was found that 48% performed at the intermediate level, meaning that they required extensive support in academic literacy development if they were to have any chance of success, and a further seven percent were at the lower basic level. When one considers that 41% of the intermediate-level students were in the bottom half of the range, then the seriousness of the problem is clear.

There are a number of reasons for these outcomes. The inequalities created under the apartheid education system still persist in many areas in terms of resources, teacher-pupil ratios and poorly trained teachers. Furthermore, the introduction of Outcomes-based Education (OBE) has widened the gap in pupils’ literacy levels and academic performance rather than the opposite. One of its major shortcomings has been a lack of focus on explicit literacy teaching.

Like most school systems, our system only makes provision for the explicit teaching of reading in the first three years of the Foundation Phase, by the end of which pupils are supposed to be independent readers. After that there is no provision for the teaching of reading, and primary and secondary curricula are based on the assumption that pupils are independent readers. By the end of primary school, pupils should be learning to read from texts across the curriculum and, by the end of secondary school, should be independently learning from reading. Thus, if pupils are not independent readers at the end of the Foundation Phase, and there is no teaching of reading, they will increasingly be left behind as the demands on their ability to learn from reading escalate rapidly through the school system. Unfortunately, the teaching of reading at FP is characterised by a focus on decoding and pronouncing letter symbols of words. Pupils are therefore not focused on the comprehension of texts, how they are connected, and how they unfold. Instead they learn to ”bark at print”, making the right noises but unable to comprehend what they read. After three years, they are unable to read effectively in their mother tongue and then swop to English as the medium of instruction, where nobody teaches them to read in English.

Reading is an extremely complex process that involves recognising and using patterns of language at three levels.

• At the level of text, readers must recognise what a text is about and how it is organised, for example, as chunks of information in factual texts.

• At the level of sentences, readers must recognise how words are arranged in phrases, signalling who or what the sentence is about, what it is doing, and where and when.

• At the level of words, readers must recognise what each word means and how letters are arranged into patterns that spell the word.

To read with fluency and comprehension, all these patterns must be recognised and interpreted simultaneously. Likewise, to write successfully, writers must have all these language patterns at their disposal. Thus, a focus on decoding is a hopelessly inefficient means of accessing these three levels.

To intervene effectively in this situation, an effective reading programme must be based on:

• an understanding that reading is the primary skill;

• a sound understanding of the three-level reading process and on the structure and language patterns of different genres; and

• a theoretically and practically grounded methodology that supports pupils through the reading and writing process, and develops an understanding of the structure and language patterns of different genres across the curriculum.

Such a methodology must be able to be used to intervene across the curriculum and at all levels of the education system. This will enable pupils who have inadequate reading levels to develop their reading to appropriate levels, and to write all genres effectively in all learning areas.

A programme that meets these criteria is the Reading to Learn programme that is being used in similar contexts (Afghanistan, Uganda, Kenya and South America). Independent evaluations show pupils catching up up to four years of reading age in one year. But there can be no quick fixes. Such an intervention must be supported by comprehensive training of teachers in the methodology. Furthermore, there is little pre and in-service teacher training in the teaching of reading and writing across the curriculum. Unless this is rectified, the serious inequalities in literacy and academic achievement will continue to haunt our country.


• Mike Hart is a retired former senior lecturer in Education (UKZN) now working on Reading to Learn projects in schools.




THE Reading to Learn (RtL) programme is in the early stages of development. Teachers have been trained in the methodology in Pietermaritz­burg and Richmond schools, and this training is ongoing. A Public Benefit Organisation, Reading to Learn SA, is in the process of being formed, and further developments include the training of trainers and whole school projects.

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