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Media statement: Children who cannot read, cannot participate in democracy

Millions of children next week enter the most important period of their school careers – the foundation phase (grades R to 3). It is in these grades that basic learning skills must be acquired. All later learning is built on this aptly named stage of schooling: “children who do not master basic concepts in the first few years of primary schooling are at a perpetual disadvantage”.[1]

A precarious foundation results in weak learning outcomes in the later schooling years. Given that these children – the large majority of which attend historically black and underfunded schools – are unable to read for meaning, they also cannot use the skill of reading to acquiring new knowledge in various subject disciplines.[2] Put simply, children who have not learned to read, cannot read to learn. Startlingly, analysis of 2012 and 2013 Annual National Assessment data finds that for most learners, passing matric well and potentially obtaining a university degree is already largely unattainable by the time these learners reach the end of Grade 3.[3] Education strongly affects earnings.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) thus asserts that the “most effective way to bring about meaningful socio-economic transformation in South Africa, is to improve the teaching and learning of reading in schools serving historically disadvantaged communities”.[4]

To exercise their rights and freedoms, children must be able to read.

There is no quick fix to the primary school reading crisis, but there are crucial levers that must urgently be employed.

The Extent of the Primary School Reading Crisis – Evidence from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)

 The 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) has revealed  that after four years of schooling, a devastating 78% of South African learners cannot read for meaning.[5] This compares poorly with the international average of 4% and with other middle income countries such as Iran (35%) and Bulgaria (only 5%).

Learners from rural areas achieved significantly lower scores than learners attending school in suburban and urban areas, with the latter being more than two years of schooling ahead. Disparities were also evident between language groups[6], with learners who wrote in English and Afrikaans achieving far higher scores than those who wrote in other African languages. Although off a low base, five African languages showed significant improvements between 2011[7] and 2016: isiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Tshivenda and Xitsonga.

Home environment made a substantial  difference in reading achievement: learners from affluent homes were close to three years of learning ahead of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Home resources such as books, internet access and better-educated parents with higher-level occupations are strongly associated with learner reading literacy achievement.

These findings (and others available in the full report) reveal that the reading crisis is a complex one shaped by various factors such as home background, language of instruction and rurality.

Teacher Coaching as Intervention – Evidence from the Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS)

From the Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS), led by the DBE, an intervention model to improve home language reading outcomes has finally emerged. There has previously been “little or no evidence” of which initiatives are effective in supporting early grade reading, and why.[8]

The large-scale evaluation targeted three intervention models, all implemented in the Grade 1 class of 2015, and with the same cohort of learners in Grade 2 in 2016, in a sample of quintile one to three schools. These were:

  • Daily lesson plans, reading material, and centralised training for teachers;
  • Daily lesson plans, reading material, and on-site coaching for teachers; and
  • Weekly meetings with parents, and material to use at home.

By the end of Grade 2, learners attending schools where teachers were assisted by on-site coaching, were 40% of a year’s worth of learning ahead of learners in the schools without intervention! The impact of the other two interventions was less than half of that.

Teachers in the coaching schools were more likely to report feeling a high level of professional support, than in schools where it was business as usual. Lesson observations revealed that in the coaching schools (and the centralised training schools) more learners were reading the graded readers (books of different levels of difficulty), which means teachers were making effective use of resources. The coaching and centralised training made a difference in how learners practiced reading – teachers were more likely to do group-guided reading (small groups of learners with the same ability). For further findings, refer to the EGRS summary report here.

The EGRS report concludes that the coaching intervention is the most cost effective programme for which there is evidence that learning outcomes can be shifted.

We urge the DBE to urgently scale up the coaching intervention! The cost of doing so in 100 schools is currently estimated at R6 million. This is a paltry expense in comparison with the amounts that government hemorrhages due to mismanagement and corruption. South Africa cannot afford to delay implementing this intervention in at least 500 schools in each province, as the EGRS report recommends.

Reducing Classroom Size

While there is much debate on the impact of class size on learning outcomes, research suggests that  class size reductions can be effective when initial class sizes are very large.[9] Class size tends to have a bigger impact in earlier grades, and for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.[10]

Education policy in South Africa sets the ideal maximum class size for grades R to 4, at 35. However, analysis by  Stellenbosch University’s Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP) of average class sizes for grades 1 to 3[11], reveals that the majority of foundation phase classrooms violate this ideal. Close to a third of learners in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal are in large classes that exceed 50, and between 10% and 15% are in extremely large classes that exceed 60. Just under 60% of Grade 1 to Grade 3 learners in Gauteng, and 50% of learners in the Free State, are in classes with more than 40 learners.

EE supports the call for foundation phase classes, and those that are excessively large, to be prioritised when attempts are made to reduce class sizes. This can only be done if accurate district-level data on class sizes is available. It is also imperative that authorities understand the reasons for large classes as these may vary between schools – unresponsive post-provisioning systems, a lack of physical classrooms, teacher absenteeism, or inefficient timetabling.[12] A blanket approach will not suffice.

In order to reap the benefits of smaller classrooms, teaching must be adjusted to make the most of smaller learner numbers. Reducing class size is necessary but must be accompanied by proper teacher training.

Properly Equipping New Teachers (Initial Teacher Education)

While we have looked to on-site coaching to assist foundation phase teachers who are already in classrooms, we now turn to the training of new teachers. The PIRLS report recommends greater effort to increase the number of younger teachers in South Africa, and significant investment into teacher education to improve the quality of new teachers.

We urge universities offering undergraduate Bachelor of Education degrees to urgently convene to plot precisely how to respond to this challenge. Just as it is government’s responsibility to ensure access to quality education, it is the responsibility of higher education institutions to prepare teachers for the South African classroom.

There is little systematic knowledge about the quality of new teachers entering the South African schooling system.[13] The Initial Teacher Education Research Project (ITERP)[14] has examined whether university initial teacher education (ITE) programmes adequately prepare teachers to teach in South African schools. The findings include that none of the case study universities were adequately teaching new intermediate phase (grades 4 to 6) teachers how to teach reading and writing, in English or in any language.[15] “Nor was any university substantively addressing issues like how teachers should help learners navigate the Grade 4 shift in LoLT[16] from home language to English, or deal with the challenge, especially prevalent in urban areas, of multiple home languages in a single classroom.”[17]

It is also the case that at certain universities less than 10% of the credits required to graduate as a foundation phase teacher are about literacy or reading, despite this being the most important skill children learn in that phase.[18]

Living Standards and Educational Outcomes

There is significant evidence of the strong relationship between learner achievement and socio-economic status. That socio-economic gaps in cognitive outcomes are established, widen and become more intractable even before children enter school, is well-known.[19] Further, the PIRLS report asserts that the availability of educational resources in the home, as described earlier, is an important factor relating to learner reading literacy.[20]

Alongside interventions aimed at urgent improvement in the quality of foundation phase education in historically disadvantaged communities, there is a need to improve access to resources in the home that support learning.

The contribution of the DBE to the social wage is significant. Government broadly must do more to improve the living standards of South Africans through taking radical redistributive measures to fight unemployment, poverty, and inequality. Such measures must ensure: a living wage for all workers; concrete support for unemployed youth; increased investment in productive sectors of the economy by the private sector and by State entities such as the Public Investment Corporation (PIC); and an industrial policy that lays a foundation for South Africa to make a decisive break with an economic structure inherited from apartheid and colonialism.


[1] Spaull, N, “Schooling in South Africa: How low-quality education becomes a poverty trap,” in South African Child Gauge 2015, edited by De Lannoy A, Swartz S, Lake L & Smith C, 34-41. Cape Town: Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town, 2015.

[2] Van der Berg, S., Spaull, N., Wills, G., Gustafsson, M. and Kotzé, J. Identifying Binding Constraints in Education. University of Stellenbosch, 2016.

[3] Van der Berg, S, “What the Annual National Assessments can tell us about learning deficits over the education system and the school career year”, Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers: 18/15, Department of Economics University of Stellenbosch, 2015.

[4] Department of Basic Education, The Early Grade Reading Study Summary Report, Pretoria: DBE, 2017.

[5] Reading for meaning means being able to understand and interpret the text one is reading.

[6] Learners could choose in which of the 11 official languages they feel most comfortable writing a test.

[7] The year in which the previous PIRLS study was conducted. PIRLS tests take place once every five years.

[8] Department of Basic Education, 2017.

[9] Ganimian, A. and Murnane, R., Improving Education in Developing Countries: Lessons from Rigorous Impact Evaluations, Review of Educational Research. Vol. XX, No. X, 2016, pp. 1–37.

[10] Wilson, V., Does Small Really Make a Difference?, Glasgow: The Scottish Council for Research in Education, 2002.

[11] Spaull, N., Excessive class sizes in the Foundation Phase, Resep Policy Brief, Stellenbosch: ReSEP (Research on Socio-Economic Policy), Department of Economics, Stellenbosch University, 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Deacon, R. The Initial Teacher Education Research Project: Final Report, Johannesburg: JET Education Services, 2016.

[14] ITERP is a collaboration between the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Department of Basic Education, the Education Deans’ Forum, and JET Education Services.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Language of learning and teaching.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Spaull, N,. and Hoadley, U. Getting reading right: Building firm foundations. In: Jamieson, L., Berry. L., and Lake, L. (eds) South African Child Gauge 2017. Cape Town, Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town, 2017.

[19] Van der Berg, S. 2015.

[20] Roux, K. Identifying the relationship between the home environment, parental attributes and learner achievement in reading literacy (Master’s Thesis). University of Pretoria: Pretoria, 2014. McLeod Palane, N. The effect of language of instruction and contextual factors on higher-order reading comprehension performance. Unpublished PhD thesis, Pretoria: University of Pretoria, In Press. Quoted in Howie, S.J., Combrinck, C., Roux, K., Tshele, M., Mokoena, G.M., and McLeod Palane, N. PIRLS Literacy 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2016: South African Children’s Reading Literacy Achievement. Pretoria: Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, 2017.



MilaMedia statement: Children who cannot read, cannot participate in democracy