Children must learn to read first to enable them to read to learn

15 December 2017 | Phillip Methula ( Social Investment Specialist) |

The release of the 2016 Progress in Literacy and Reading Study (PIRLS) report on the state of the reading abilities of South Africa’s Grade 4 learners sent shock waves across the education community in the country particularly because it demonstrated that the problem is bigger than what the Annual National Assessments (ANAs) made everyone believe. It painted a very gloomy picture of the performance of the South African schooling system by indicating that as much as 78% of Grade 4 learners are unable to comprehend what they are reading. The reality of the country’s state of poor learner performance in reading cannot be dismissed on the basis that it was based on a sample of learners and not all Grade 4 learners in the country. 12 810 learners from 293 learners were tested. This sample, as Nic Spaull and David Carel argue in an article that they published in the Daily Maverick in the wake of the release of the PIRLS report, “is nationally representative and can be generalised to the entire country.” The inability of Grade 4 learners to read for meaning is also anecdotally confirmed by a general high repetition rate of learners at this level of the school system – a phenomenon notoriously known in education circles as “the Grade 4 slump.”

What this situation clearly indicates is that learners are not properly taught to read (and write) at the Foundation Phase level. The Foundation Phase is expected to teach leaners “to learn to read” to prepare them to be able to “read to learn” when they get to Grade 4 level. This is particularly crucial for Grade 4 learners to be able to read with comprehension because there is an increase to six in the number of subjects that learners do at Grade 4 level from the usual four subjects done at the Foundation Phase. It is at this stage of their educational journey that the Grade 4 learners must learn on their own and be less dependent on their teachers. But there is no hope that they can read to learn if they have not been properly taught by their teachers to read. What is even more scary in the report is that it suggests that the country’s Grade 4 learners are also doing equally bad if not worse even in their mother tongue! This is particularly bad because learners are taught, for pedagogically sound reasons, in their mother tongue at the Foundation Phase level.

The Department of Basic Education in an article published on its website in response to the PIRLS report on 5 December 2017, amongst other things, contends that “One of the glaring challenges that is found in this report as with our own research is that as South Africans we are not a reading nation. This report finds that in other countries parents and children read recreationally far more extensively than South Africans. Emphasis is put on the important role that parental support plays with regards to reading, and the difference it makes in a learner’s ability to read with comprehension.” I don’t find this argument convincing not least because it seeks to shift the core responsibility of teachers to teach learners to read (and write) to parents. While the role of parents reading with or to their children cannot be underrated in stimulating the imagination and curiosity of children to want to know more and therefore is an educationally sound practice that needs to be encouraged, I think it is a bit of a tall order to expect parents to teach their children to read as this is a technical skill that needs training. This is particularly a nigh impossible ask from poor parents and communities where most of the struggling learners are coming from. Even qualified teachers who were not trained for the Foundation Phase require extensive training to be able to teach learners to read.

In the Nic Spaull and David Carel article referred to above on the back of the PIRLS report, they argue that the reason why the reading problem in the country will never be solved is because “we’re fighting forest fires with buckets.” This is a reference to pockets of successful small-scale interventions funded mostly by the private sector and other education development agencies. This is an area in which social investment agencies like Tshikululu Social Investments operate and I would like to highlight the limitations and possibilities that they have in education development and other sectors in general.

Unlike the Department of Basic Education that only embraces an idea once it is convinced that it can be applied across the whole school system and has the resources to support it, the education development sector has the space to experiment, trial and test innovative ideas to address certain specific challenges in the education system.  For example, the authors of the article in the Daily Maverick describe the Early Grade Reading Study as “the single bright, shining star among reading interventions.” This programme is currently being implemented in two districts in the North West involving 230 primary schools and one of its funders is the Anglo-American Chairman’s Fund, which is one of Tshikululu’s clients.

The Early Grade Reading study was introduced in 2015 to Grade 1 learners in the two target districts and in 2016 an evaluation of the programme was conducted on the same cohort of learners by end of Grade 2. The evaluation was conducted by reputable researchers and it sought to establish how the different groups of learners performed in oral reading fluency (reading aloud) in the two districts. The study compared the performance of learners in the project schools with those in the control schools that had the same socio-economic conditions. The results of the study showed that leaners in the project schools were reading on average 26% more words than learners in the control schools. Given the rate at which the reading abilities of the children in the project school are growing, there is a good chance that this cohort of learners will be able to “read to learn” when they get to Grade 4. Given the support that this intervention enjoys from the Minister of Education, Angie Motshekga, it has the potential and the necessary political tail-wind to be sold to other provinces as a solution to the country’s reading crisis. It is worth noting that this programme was adapted from the Gauteng Primary Literacy and Maths Strategy (GPLMS), which also received funding from the Anglo-American Chairman’s Fund. The North West developed an interest in GPLMS due to its success in improving teacher practices that led to improved learner performance and literacy at primary school level. An independent evaluation showed that GPLMS needed to be institutionalised within the structures of the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) to sustain the gains and new classroom practices associated with those gains.

It is indeed true that organisations that are involved in education development interventions like Tshikululu are fighting forest fires with buckets. Many of the education development initiatives supported by the business community and other funders in the country are not scalable because of limited financial resources, resulting in impact being confined to a few beneficiaries. But, small as they may be, it should never be forgotten that these initiatives, if properly nurtured, could also grow into formidable programmes with a huge impact in the country’s school system. To borrow from the author’s fire imagery, these initiatives can grow into uncontrollable blazes that cannot be doused by buckets even though they would have been started as a small spark. What also brings some level of optimism and reassurance in the education development landscape is to see several funders warming up to the idea of supporting large scale, district-wide interventions to enable education programmes to reach more beneficiaries and achieve deeper impact. This has the potential to positively impact a geographical region as large as a district and thereby pave the way for systemic change in the school system.

The PIRLS report is indeed cause for alarm and should spark social investors to engage in reflective discussions on the findings, asking tough questions about when to intervene in the education continuum; whether the focus should be on short or long term interventions or both; the relationship between educational, welfare and psycho-social support; what positive impact should look like and ultimately how do we create opportunities to nurture young minds and develop a love for reading that will lead to a world of new discoveries.