IN NUMBERS | SA produces one of worst global reading results among over 50 countries

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Angie Motshekga, is the minister of basic education. Photo: Deaan Vivier
Angie Motshekga, is the minister of basic education. Photo: Deaan Vivier
  • South Africa has produced one of the worst reading with meaning results in the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study results.
  • The assessment done with Grade 4 pupils reveals 81% cannot read with meaning.
  • While South Africa has steadily improved its PIRLS results since participating in 2006, this is the first time results have dipped.

South Africa has performed dismally in one of the world's premier assessments of reading ability involving more than 50 countries.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) released its 2021 assessment outcomes with South Africa lagging far behind the world average and accounting for one of the lowest results.

While South Africa marginally improved year-on-year since the assessment began in 2006, the 2021 results were the first that lacked improvement from the previous year.

In 2016, the PIRLS assessment indicated 78% of Grade 4s could not read with meaning, but the 2021 results, which were released in Pretoria on Tuesday, showed a jump to 81%.

In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced all 10-year-old children should be able to read for meaning by 2030.

Here are some key numbers coming out of the results:

  • Only 19% of South African Grade 4 children could read for meaning in any language in 2021 - this after all 11 languages were assessed.
  • Of the 1 127 877 Grade 4 pupils in 2021, 914 000 could not read for meaning in any language.
  • South Africa's PIRLS score dropped from 320 points in 2016 to 288 in 2021. This is far lower than the PIRLS average of 500 points.
  • South Africa has essentially lost a decade of progress in reading with meaning.

According to Professor Nic Spaull, an education economist from Stellenbosch University, between 2006 and 2016 the percentage of children that could not read declined from 87% (2006) to 82% (2011) to 78% (2016) but had now increased back to 81% (2021).

He said that "wiped out a decade of slow progress, taking us back to 2011 levels of achievement".

English and Afrikaans schools did not experience a decline between 2016 and 2021.

Spaull added in comparison, most African language schools declined, saying the pandemic increased inequality between no-fee and fee-charging schools.

The average Brazilian Grade 4 child is three years ahead of the average South African Grade 4 child.

READ | Reading literacy woes: SA's 'fragile' education system neglects reading for comprehension - Motshekga

Spaull also compared South Africa's results to Brazil, which have roughly the same GDP of around US$7 000 per capita.

He said the average score in Brazil was 419 points in 2021 compared to South Africa's 288.

The average Grade 4 child in South Africa is 3.3 years behind the average Brazilian Grade 4 child.

"In Brazil 61% of Grade 4s could read at a basic level in 2021 compared to 19% in South Africa," Spaull added.

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