Crisis of illiteracy hurts SA children’s chances

MORE than a third of South African school pupils cannot read or write by the age of nine.

Nearly half of all pupils never make it to matric, with just below 15% of primary and high school pupils dropping out each year. A report by international organisation Save The Children ranked South Africa 103 out of 172 countries in terms of factors including child mortality, child pregnancy and malnutrition.

The report, “Stolen Childhoods”, said some 80% of pupils in South Africa learn in poorly-resourced, overcrowded classrooms with teachers who lack the required knowledge and skills.

Lecturer at the UKZN School of Education Phephani Gumbi said that KwaZulu-Natal was lagging behind other provinces in terms of literacy levels.

He said more urban provinces like Gauteng and Western Cape generally showed better literacy rates.

He said the statistics outlined in the report were disturbing.

“The problem is due to a lack of indigenous African languages taught in schools. The education system neglects the use of African languages in our formal schooling system and that renders literacy as a stumbling block.”

It was reported this month that the Department of Basic Education would be introducing the teaching of an African language to all Grade 1 classes at government schools next year.

Gumbi said: “Language is the only vehicle to deliver knowledge and to force pupils to leave their [home] language outside the classroom brings about challenges.

“The very same children’s parents do not have efficient knowledge of English, and when tasks are English-based, how can they help or motivate children?” Director of the New Africa Education Foundation, which does literacy projects, Ahmed Motala, said pupils who cannot read English become “passengers” in the classroom.

“If a child cannot read to understand by Grade 3 or [Grade] 4, their chances of passing matric are slim. There is a need to fix this at the grassroots level.” Motala said a possible intervention could be introducing books at schools. “For most schools, library books are a luxury. We need to supply books to school libraries and that will give the teacher the ability to teach reading. “Reading helps as you grow up and many children don’t know what it’s like to have that feeling where you can’t put a book down.”

- KERUSHUN PILLAY

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