How to fix SA's alarmingly low reading rates

(Duncan Alfreds)
(Duncan Alfreds)

Learning to read is a complex task and teaching reading is akin to rocket science.

This is according to Prof Carisma Nel, who is the leader of the Reading Initiative for Empowerment (RIFE) research group at the Faculty of Education Sciences at the Potchefstroom Campus.

Read: How to instill a love of reading in a child

South Africa introduced the National Reading Strategy (NRS) in primary schools in 2008 in response to the shocking literacy rates and to improve reading instruction in schools after several studies singled out the country's poor reading ability among learners.

The level of literacy in SA

In 2006 South Africa came last in the Progress in Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS), which tested Grade 4 and 5 children in 45 countries in reading literacy. Only 13% of Grade 4 and 22% of Grade 5 learners reached the Low International Benchmark of 400.

A study by the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality II (SAMCEQ) in 2007 focused on Grade 6 learners in 25 countries in reading and mathematics. Looking at the Grade 6 aged population in South Africa, 25% of the learners were deemed to be functionally illiterate, while 39% were classified as functionally innumerate.  

According to the SACMEQ study, learners classified as functionally illiterate means they "cannot read a short and simple text and extract meaning", while learners falling into the functionally innumerate category means they "cannot translate graphical information into fractions or interpret everyday units of measurement".

The role of teachers

The scientific research focus of the RIFE group is quality teacher preparation within the domain of reading literacy.

"Teachers are a crucial factor in teaching learners to read," said Nel. "Better prepared teachers who are competent to teach reading are essential to achieve the national goals for reading literacy."

She pointed out that the demands of competent reading instruction, and the training experiences necessary to learn it, have been seriously underestimated by universities. "The consequences for teachers and learners alike have been disastrous."

RIFE aims to contribute to research on the challenges teachers face in becoming quality teachers of reading literacy. These challenges include maintaining a balance between theory and practice, taking learner diversity into account and monitoring learners’ progress.

Theory and practice

To prepare effective teachers to teach reading literacy in 21st century classrooms, teacher education must shift away from academic reading preparation and course work loosely linked to school-based experiences.

"Rather, it must move to programmes that are fully grounded in practical learning and interwoven with academic reading content and professional courses," said Nel.

"This demanding, practical learning approach will create varied and extensive opportunities for teachers to connect what they learn about reading with the challenge of using it."

She said teachers will blend practitioner knowledge with academic knowledge as they learn by doing.

"They will refine their practice in the light of new knowledge acquired and data gathered about whether their learners are learning."

In order to make this change, teacher education programmes must work in close partnership with school districts to redesign teacher preparation to better serve prospective teachers and the learners they teach, Nel recommended.

Learner diversity

The second challenge that teachers face is that learners have diverse strengths, interests, experiences and different language and cultural backgrounds.

"These variations influence the instructional decisions that teachers make."

Nel said suggested that teachers should plan quality reading instruction by drawing on the knowledge base of how learners read, grade-level expectations, and the fundamentals of effective reading instruction.

"Reading profiles will enable teachers to indicate where, what and why differentiated interventions are needed," she said.


Assessing learners’ progress is not only the third challenge for teachers, said Nel, but is also the cornerstone of effective teaching practice.

She said the degree to which teachers support readers depends on whether they are comprehensive and timely in assessing reading competencies.

"Indeed, good reading teaching starts with comprehensive assessment," Nel concluded.

Also read:

Schooling: when one size doesn't fit all

Home-schooled kids leaner than peers

Ritalin abuse runs riot in South African schools

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