Grade 4s can't read: Researchers 'underestimated how deep SA's crisis was'


The majority of South African grade 4 pupils cannot read meaningfully and have scored the lowest mark in an international reading literacy study compared to their counterparts across the world.

This was revealed by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 report released by national research coordinator, Professor Sarah Howie, at the University of Pretoria (UP) this morning.

Researchers at the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA) at the university published the South African findings after local pupils participated in the international assessment, which saw 319 000 pupils taking part worldwide.

The study, which takes place in a five year period, is commissioned by the Department of Basic Education.

PIRLS is implemented by CEA, which is headed by Howie.

Last year, a sample of 12 810 grade 4 pupils from 293 schools in the country were tested.

Pupils were tested in whatever language was used in their school in grades 1 to 3, and on the language with which they were most familiar.

This was the third South African PIRLS national report and builds on ten years of rigorous research in reading literacy.

The study found that 78% of SA Grade 4 students cannot read for meaning – they could not reach the Low International PIRLS Benchmark in reading.

They could also not locate and retrieve explicitly stated information or make straightforward inferences about events and reasons for actions, the study said.

Dr Nico Spaull of the department of economics at the University of Stellenbosch said: “We underestimated how deep this crisis was. I think the thing that was most striking for me was that we had previously underestimated the number of South African children that couldn’t read for meaning... Basically, we were using the wrong benchmark in the past. This is the first time that the easier PIRLS test (which used to be called prePIRLS and is now called PIRLS Literacy) was put on the PIRLS scale”

In 2011, 77% of grade 4s were found to have been unable to read, he said, however there was no improvement in reading outcomes between 2011 and 2016 compared to the previous study.

According to Howie, there was no error or underestimation of the crisis on the part of the University of Pretoria researchers. In 2011 Grade 4s wrote an easier test called prePIRLS. In 2016 the Grade 4s also wrote the easier test called PIRLS Literacy.

“On the 2011 prePIRLS scale - 29% could not reach the low benchmark. We could not compare these PIRLS in 2011 as they were on two different scales." 

Howie said: “When you convert the 29% on the easy scale to the more difficult scale then the figure changes to 76% who cannot reach the low benchmark for 2011 compared to 78% in 2016 on the same scale (see the graphic).

“Now in 2017, we are able to place the 2011 results and PIRLS literacy 2016 results on the same scale and compare it to the more difficult study PIRLS,” she said.

According to the study, while the Russian Federation and Singapore were the top achievers, South Africa was placed last out of the 50 countries participating in the study at fourth grade level.

However, researchers indicated that although national performance is generally very low, there is a glimmer of hope.

Between PIRLS 2011 and PIRLS 2016 there has been an improvement in performance for five African languages (out of the 11 languages tested) at grade 4 level, despite the fact that these were the lowest performing languages in the 2011 study, researchers said.

As a result, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has requested the researchers to dig deeper and conduct extensive comparisons to find out the root causes of the challenges around reading.

The education department’s spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, said this would enable the department to put in place effective solutions.

He said the study showed, for example, that South African schools do not spend any less time on the teaching and learning of reading in classrooms.

“Yet our results do not show the impact of this. The Minister has requested a “deep dive” into the results so that we can look at where the practice of the teaching and reading is not as effective as in other countries, some with similar developmental and language challenges as ourselves. The results alone are not useful to us and we need to get the results of the underlying data in order to get to where we need to be. It is for this reason that the work of the research team is far from over,” Mhlanga said.

However, he said the department welcomed the report.

“This report provides us with the opportunity to look deeper and try to pinpoint what some of the pertinent issues are, that as South Africa we struggle with. What we may be doing differently compared to other countries around the world that will help us to establish meaningful interventions across the system. Now more than ever we need to think holistically about the development of children, and ensure that the limited resources we have are effectively allocated and spent in the interest of future generations of South Africans,” Mhlanga said.

Mhlanga said there were also positives detailed in the report.

These included:

  • Grade 4s in 2016 achieved a similar score to what the Grade 5s achieved in 2006;
  • At the Grade 5 level, the 10 year trends showed that there was an improvement in isiZulu between 2006 and 2016;
  • There has been a statistically significant improvement among Grade 4 in five African languages: IsiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Tshivenda and Xitsonga and in 2016 a significantly larger number of pupils who wrote the test in Sesotho scored above the minimum benchmark than observed in 2011.
  • The scores of girl pupils have been better than boys with each test cycle and the gap is widening.

“Our initiatives on uplifting the girl pupil have certainly worked,” Mhlanga said.

* This article was updated on December 12 to reflect Howie's comments 

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