Open Letter to the next president of South Africa: We need a Marshall Plan for Reading

 This article was first published online on the Daily Maverick on the 6th of December 2017. It is available here
Open Letter to the next South African president: We need a Marshall Plan for Reading . – Nic Spaull & David Carel
Cyril, Nkosazana – are you sitting down?

By now we trust that your advisers have informed you about the latest reading results released yesterday: 78% of our Grade 4 students can’t read. That’s eight out of every ten children in the country. Not in English, not in their home language, not in any language. Among Setswana and Sepedi home language learners the figure is over 90%.

We came last. Of the 50 countries that participated in the test, we came dead last.

But what does that mean? After four years of full-time schooling the vast majority of our kids cannot understand what they read, if they can decode the words at all. Simple questions, workbook exercises, even the most basic story book. These are meaningless to them. And if we don’t teach our kids how to read we’ve failed them before they’ve even started.

So what does this mean to you? In all likelihood one of you is going to be our next president. Sadly, we have a fatal history of presidents denying epidemics. This is not to say that your comrades haven’t made strong statements about education – they have. They have gazetted a host of well-intentioned policies, appointed task teams, procured service providers, promulgated Norms & Standards. There has been a lot of activity.

And yet, how then do we explain that there has been no improvement in reading outcomes since 2011?

We’re not saying that your predecessors weren’t trying. Naledi Pandor implemented the National Reading Strategy in 2006 and later the Foundations for Learning campaign in 2008. Minister Angie Motshekga helped stabilise the education system with a new curriculum and is currently backing the single bright, shining star among reading interventions – the Early Grade Reading Study.

But we’re fighting forest fires with buckets. Moving the needle in education will require a radical rethinking of both what’s needed and what’s possible.

Dr Dlamini Zuma and Mr Ramaphosa, respectfully, what we do not need is another steering committee, another convening of experts, another 12-point plan. We do not need another lengthy speech or moving statement telling us how committed you are to solving the reading crisis, and to “our children’s futures”.

What South Africa needs is to decide what Japan decided in 1872, that “there must be no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person”. This became Japan’s ‘Fundamental Code of Education’, the core of their development strategy, and they actually did it. Within decades they had successfully eradicated illiteracy.

What South Africa needs is to decide what Cuba decided in 1961 when it implemented the Cuban Literacy Campaign. They galvanised a million Cubans to systemically eliminate illiteracy across the country. It worked.

What South Africa needs is a Marshall Plan for Reading. We need you to use yourpresidency to mobilise our country behind one goal:

That all children can read for meaning by the end of Grade 3.

When eight out of 10 of our children can’t read for meaning, overcoming this challenge might seem impossible. But insurmountable problems are not new to our country. In 2000, at the peak of the AIDS crisis, who would have thought that four million South Africans would now be on antiretrovirals? Or that the ANC government would ultimately mobilise the country to build the largest AIDS treatment programme in the world?

Will you do the same for reading?

The unfolding reading crisis: The new PIRLS 2016 results…

pirls 2

Today the PIRLS 2016 results were released by the Minister of Basic Education Ms Angie Motshekga. To say that they are anything but devastating would be a lie.  8 in 10 children cannot read for meaning. This new report provides the latest evidence helping us to understand the unfolding reading crisis. I received an embargoed copy of the final report from the IEA last week late in the evening and battled to fall asleep after reading it. 78% of South African Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning in any language. I think this was the most striking thing for me -that we had previously underestimated the number of South African children that couldn’t read for meaning. Previously we thought the number was 58% (using prePIRLS 2011 Intermediate Benchmark) but it turns out that it is 78% (PIRLS Literacy Low International Benchmark). Basically we were using the wrong benchmark in the past. This is the first time that the easier PIRLS test (which used to be called prePIRLS and is now called PIRLS Literacy) was put on the PIRLS scale.

Apart from the horrifically low levels of reading achievement, South Africa also has the highest incidence of bullying among all 50 countries that participated in the study. 42% of Gr4 students indicated that they were bullied weekly (p226 in the report). Compared to 15% in the US and England.

I’ve summarized what I think are the main findings from the PIRLS 2016 report below. You can download the full report HERE and it is also available on the PIRLS website. The SA Summary reports are now also available (SA PIRLS Literacy, ePIRLS, SA PIRLS) The DBE’s official response is here.

Main findings:
  1. 8 of 10 SA children cannot read: 78% of SA Grade 4 students cannot read for meaning. That is to say that they could not reach the Low International PIRLS Benchmark in reading. They could not locate and retrieve explicitly stated information or make straightforward inferences about events and reasons for actions (PIRLS report page 55)
  2. SA scores last in reading of 50 countries: South African Grade 4 children have scored the lowest mark in the latest 2016 round of the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study released today. The study included mostly High Income Countries but there were a number of middle-income countries such as Iran, Chile, Morocco, and Oman.
  3. SA lags far behind other countries: While 78% of SA Grade 4 kids cannot read, in America this is only 4% and in England just 3% cannot read. However the study also included middle-income countries. In Iran only 35% of Grade 4 students could not read for meaning and in Chile it was only 13% (PIRLS report page 55).
  4. Reading crisis deeper than previously thought: When South Africa participated in prePIRLS 2011 (an easier version of PIRLS) we thought that 58% of SA Gr4 children could not read for meaning. However this was on a separate test and not on the PIRLS scale score (i.e. not the same metric). 2016 was the first time that prePIRLS (now called PIRLS Literacy) was put on the same scale score as PIRLS. The true figure for children that cannot read for meaning is 78% – revealed today. Note this does NOT mean that reading outcomes have gotten worse between 2011 and 2015. In 2011 77% could not read for meaning and in 2016 78% cannot read for meaning (this difference is not statistically significant, i.e. the difference is negligible).
  5. Some evidence of improvement in reading 2006 to 2011 but stagnant since 2011: The only good news coming out of PIRLS 2016 is that there may have been significant improvements in reading between 2006 and 2011. Because the scale scores are now comparable we can compare the performance of Gr4’s in 2006 and Gr4’s in 2011 and 2016. This comparison seems to suggest quite a significant increase in reading scores between 2006 and 2011. Notably the Gr4 students in 2011 achieved higher scores than Gr5 students in 2006. Further analysis is needed but there does seem to be legitimate evidence of improvement between 2006 and 2011. Unfortunately no evidence of improvement between 2011 and 2016.
  6. SA reading scores stagnant since 2011: There has been no improvement in reading scores over the last five years (i.e. 2011 to 2016). Note that although the average scored declined from 323 to 320 this can NOT be interpreted as a decline. The standard errors overlap here so there is no certainty that there was any decline whatsoever (this is like taking your sitting heart rate 10 times and getting very tiny differences each time – they are not statistically significantly different) (PIRLS report page 29)
  7. SA gender gap in reading 2nd highest in the world: Girls score much higher than boys in reading across the board. In Grade 4 girls are a full year of learning ahead of boys. This gender gap is the second largest among all 50 countries that participated. Only Saudi Arabia’s is higher. (PIRLS report page 36). The gap between boys and girls is also growing over time. The gap between boys and girls was larger in 2016 than in 2011 (PIRLS report page 43).
  8. SA boys scores seem to have declined between 2011 and 2016: The average Grade 4 girl in SA scored 341 in 2011 and 347 in 2016 (unlikely to be statistically significant). The average Grade 4 boy in SA scored 307 points in 2011 and 295 points in 2016 (this is likely to be statistically significant but we cannot tell until the SA report is released  (PIRLS report page 43).
  9. Declining number of SA students reaching high levels of reading achievement: In 2011 3% of SA Gr4 students reached the High International Benchmark. In 2016 only 2% reached this same benchmark  (PIRLS report page 58).

Results within South Africa:

  1. Massive provincial differences in percentage of Gr4s who can read. 91% of Grade 4 children in Limpopo cannot read for meaning with equally high percentages in the Eastern Cape (85%), Mpumalanga (83%), Gauteng (69%), Western Cape (55%). Pg 5 of this report.
  2. Very large differences by test language. 93% of Grade 4 students tested in Sepedi could not read for meaning with similarly large percentages amount Setswana (90%), Tshivenda (89%), isiXhosa (88%), Xitsonga (88%), isiZulu (87%) and isiNdebele (87%) Grade 4 learners. Pg 5 of this report.
Background: PIRLS is implemented by the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA) at Pretoria University headed by Prof Sarah Howie. CEA press release here. In 2016 it tested 12,810 Gr4 students from 293 schools across the country (PIRLS report page 309). The sample is nationally representative and can be generalized to the entire country. Students were tested in whatever language was used in that school in Grades 1-3, i.e. all 11 official languages were tested and children were generally tested in the language with which they were most familiar. The results were released by Minister Motshekga today (5 Dec) in Pretoria.
The full report is available here and also on the PIRLS website from 11am today: –
I have provided some boilerplate comment for journalists HERE. If you would like additional comment you can email me. (Comment ONLY via email. Please do not phone).

It rained tonight and I thought about crying


It rained tonight and I thought about crying.

Last week I read about a drought in Yemen and a dying camel.
The severity of the drought was unclear
Until they saw the dying camels under a tree.
Apparently the dormant grass was about to open, as it always had
But the rains never came and the seeds never opened.

We don’t get camels here.
But I can feel them dying anyway.


Do girls do better than boys at school & university? (my Sunday Times article)

The article below was published in the Sunday Times. The article is based on a Working Paper that my co-author (Hendrik van Broekhuizen) and I published this week. The full PDF of that article is available here.  I’ve extended that article slightly by including a few more graphs from the paper. 


Do girls do better than boys at school and at university? That’s a question that occupies the minds of many parents and teachers. The short answer is yes, they do. Many people think girls are disadvantaged in education in South Africa, and while that might be somewhat true among the very poorest girls, on average girls actually do better than boys. They learn to read much quicker than boys do (which is true of pretty much all middle- and high-income countries). In South Africa girls also perform better in mathematics. Looking at large nationally-representative surveys from 2011 and 2015 we can see that by Grade 4 girls are a full year of learning ahead of their male peers in reading, despite being in the same grade. By Grade 5 girls are about 40% of a year of a learning ahead of boys in mathematics. 

But do these advantages continue into high school and university? That’s a question that my co-author (Dr Hendrik van Broekhuizen) and I tried to address in a paper we released this week. To do this we followed the entire matric class of 2008 into and through all public universities in the country. Using data from the Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) we followed all the students from the matric 2008 class that went on to university and followed them for a six-year period (2009-2013). There were 112,402 students in our dataset! Because the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) collects detailed information on the results of all students we were able to see whether or not there was also a female advantage in matric and at university. 

The results are truly remarkable. We find strong evidence of a large female advantage that continues to grow at each hurdle of the higher education process. To be specific, relative to their male counterparts we find that there were 27% more females who qualified for university, 34% more who enroll in university, 56% more who complete any undergraduate qualification and 66% more who attain a bachelor’s degree. This despite there being roughly equal numbers of boys and girls at the start of school. 

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 11.30.55 AM

Another striking finding is the very large drop-off from Matric to degree attainment. The diagram below shows that for every 100 females in matric there are only 85 males in matric. And for every 100 females in matric only 8 females will complete an undergraduate degree within six years, with even lower numbers for males (only 5 males).

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 11.31.41 AM

Because of the richness of the data we can also see whether this advantage remains after controlling for various background factors like race, age, socioeconomic status etc. We can also control for school-level achievement. We find that this large female advantage remains after controlling for school-level performance, and exists for all subgroups of race, age, socioeconomic status, and province of origin.

But perhaps it is because females choose ‘easier’ fields of study than males – and that explains the ‘advantage’? The short answer is no. We examine 19 fields of study and find that females are significantly more likely to get a degree in 12 of the 19 fields (often by substantial margins), and are significantly less likely to get a degree in five of the 19 fields. However, this is almost entirely because they do not access these traditionally ‘male’ programs rather than due to lower completion rates once they are in. Only in Engineering and Computer Science do girls do worse than boys once they are accepted to the program. But while there are these  two fields where girls do worse, there are nine where boys do worse (including Health Sciences, Business Studies, Natural Sciences, Psychology etc.). One of the most interesting findings of the paper was that females are always and everywhere 20% less likely to dropout than their male counterparts (including in traditionally ‘male’ fields like Engineering and Computer Science), even after controlling for field of study, race, age, socioeconomic status, and location.

It is important to recognize that South Africa is not an outlier in this regard. The emergence of a female advantage in education (both at school and at university) is a global trend among middle and high-income countries. In the 33 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – mainly a club of rich countries – 58% of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women (in SA it is 61%). The question we usually get asked is why is this the case? We don’t really know yet, but the best international evidence points to the fact that girls have more and better “non-cognitive skills.” These are things such as self-control, self-motivation, dependability, sociability, perceptions of self-worth, locus of control, time-preference and delayed gratification. Other scholars argue that schooling is set up in such a way that it favors girls over boys, and favours the traits that society expects from girls or, alternatively those that girls just naturally have more of.

Another conundrum is how it’s possible for girls to do better at school and better at university but then worse in the labour-market? Women in South Africa get paid about 15-17% less than men do for the exact same work (again this is true around the world). The answers here are also complex and link to some easily observable features of society – like who is expected to care for children – and some less observable features like patriarchal norms and gender discrimination.

What our research shows is that girls in South Africa have a clear advantage at school and at university. Any conversation about ‘gender equality’ needs to take into account the disadvantage faced by boys at school and university, but also why this reverses when one moves into the labor-market.


DBE Research Protocols

DBE protocls

If you’ve ever wanted to conduct research on education in South Africa you may have been a little confused about the processes to follow when requesting data, getting approval to visit schools etc. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has recently released research protocols for requesting data, getting research projects approved etc. There are two documents that you need to complete and email to them:

I think this is a great step towards standardising and formalising the processes for interacting with the DBE around research. I personally think that all of this could be done on a Google Form or a Surveymonkey questionnaire, eliminating all the paperwork, but baby steps 🙂

Creating your own excitement


For a while now my blog has only been about ‘professional’ things in my life: links and presentations related to education, current research and that kind of stuff. But in the beginning I had always intended to combine my ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ in the same place. I like to read about other people’s lives, not just their ‘work’. What do they think about children? spirituality? where do they go when they are scared? That stuff interests me much more than the stuff they publish. And so I think that documenting my own thoughts, beliefs, doubts, realisations and anxieties – that stuff is probably as central to my work as any academic argument that resonates with me. And all these things affect what I spend my time on. And I suppose that’s what life is; what we spend our time on.


So this is an attempt to try and bring back some of the personal into my largely ‘professionalised’ blog. I think one of the reasons why it morphed into a more work-life-only space was that I was thinking too much about who was reading my blog and whether deeply personal reflections were appropriate. So I’ve resolved that question by deciding that basically the only sustainable approach for me is to be able to bring all of who I am to whatever I’m doing. That means I can’t ring-fence my work and not talk about politics or social justice at the dinner table. It is a pet-peeve (read: serious fucking irritation) when people at dinner say things like “Can we move onto talking about something less intense?” FFS. This is when I take two deep breaths and usually make eye-contact with a close friend with a deadpan expression that broadly means “Why are we here?” or (more frequently) “Why did we invite this person to dinner?” Now, don’t get me wrong. I love banter and humor or lols as much as the next person, but when small-talk dominates the discussion I genuinely feel like I am wasting my whole life. I kid you not, some people can spend 45 minutes talking about whether one should put the fire-lighters on top of the charcoal or underneath the charcoal. I die.


Anyways, that’s all just a sidebar to say that I can’t dichotomise work and play easily. And I am actively moving in the other direction. I’ve been mulling over some life things for a while and thought I’d create a listicle (who doesn’t love a good listicle!). Some realisations or thoughts or rants or text on the page:

(1) I want to live my life more deliberately. I agree that sounds super corny and cheap but it’s in relation to a quote from Paul Kalanithi’s book:

“If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?”

I’ve explained the whole realisation in a lot more detail here. But the essence is that we typically regret the things we didn’t do rather than those we did (duh!) and that doubt and fear kill many more dreams than failure or rejection do.


(2) I want to work with people I enjoy spending time with. 

I’ve decided that I will make a conscious effort to find myself in situations where I get to work with people whose company I enjoy. I think I landed with my bum in the butter work-wise in that I get to do that pretty much every day. The people I work with at RESEP are such lovely mensches. And more recently I have started my own team of people at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment with our Funda Wande project (website imminent!). Essentially a multi-media course to teach Foundation Phase teachers how to teach reading. I get so much energy and inspiration from the people I work with and I want to find ways of making sure that we find time to laugh and joke even when things are tight and deadlines are looming. More on this in the future…

(3) There are lots of people talking-about-the-work and very few people doing-the-work.  On the surface these two types of people look quite similar and play in similar spaces but in reality there is a huge chasm between the two. Cutting ribbons, giving talks, writing op-eds, making policies – essentially speaking about what needs to be done – are people I increasingly have less and less time for. This is not to say that just because people are ‘in the trenches’ that what they are doing is more important or more honorable or whatever. It’s more about whether or not people are actually tackling a particularly vexing issue or not. There is a big difference (which I am realising daily!) between saying “We need to develop benchmarks in African languages” and realising “This involves a lot of work, will cost a lot of money but it’s not something we can get around. For whatever reason no one is actually doing this. OK let’s get to work.” On this particular issue of benchmarks in African languages HERE is our first stab at this (paper to follow soon!).


ass kicked

(4) You have to create your own excitement. I think this is probably my biggest realisation and one that I keep coming back to. I have a tendency to fall into an external locus of control (“The belief that events in one’s life, whether good or bad, are caused by uncontrollable factors such as the environment, other people, or a higher power“). My knee-jerk reaction when things aren’t great in life is that this is because someone else has not done something they should have. lol. One of my favourite lines is “Just do your job.” Needless to say I loved the memes that were generated when Kim Davis (a county clerk in Kentucky) didn’t to do her job and defied the US Supreme Court in refusing to register gay marriages. It spawned a whole series of protests and memes with the hashtag #doyourjob and the like. Two of my favourites:



Anyways that’s a roundabout way of saying that I often find reasons outside of me, essentially, as to why things aren’t going well. And therefore the solution is that those things outside of me need to change before I can be happy again. This is obviously a really shitty life strategy. One of the perennial issues is excitement. Energy. Enthusiasm. Drive. Doing lots of work is easy when the fires are burning and the drive is there in full flow. The problem is when it goes, as it does. What do I do when I don’t actually want to jump out of bed and prepare for a presentation or write or read or talk or do anything that involves me getting out of bed? Sometimes I go to the beach for 2 days and do nothing but lie in the sun and listen to music. This is an extremely effective tonic. I usually get very bored of that and super excited about something I was working on and jump back into work. But what happens when that doesn’t work (or it’s winter!)? I’m still figuring this one out but I think the answer lies somewhere in the neighborhood of things like agency and being able to talk yourself out of moods or ruts, taking actions that you know will help (organise a dinner, see your therapist, encourage friends, do something you haven’t done before etc.), reflect. Be an adult. lol.

mediocreany idea

(5) The urgent and the important – make sure you find time for important stuff not just urgent stuff. This is a very new realisation. I think it dawned on me that I was mortgaging people for short-term deadlines. I know I am late to this party but I’m realising that deadlines never disappear they are only ever replaced by other deadlines. Maybe losing the joy of work is the canary in the cageThe first big warning sign that you need to take a step back and re-evaluate what’s happening in your life. And maybe that’s what this is; realising that I like the people in my life. I like the work I do. I like the country I live in. Life is good and I shouldn’t forget it. And no flurry of deadlines or seemingly urgent things should mess with that. That’s me for now.


Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 12.38.09 PM






EGRS: Probably the most important education research/intervention post-apartheid

EGRS logo final Setswana

Breaking News: New ‘gold-standard’ study finds improvement of 40% of a year of learning in reading for disadvantaged children in South Africa. (At least that would be the title I’d pick if I was a sub-editor reporting on EGRS!)

In South Africa and around the world today there are many reasons to be despondent – whether about inequality, the environment or some of our political overlords. But every now and then we learn of truly amazing things that are happening despite all the shit in the world, and the Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS) is the best example of this in South Africa. The researchers leading the study were Stephen Taylor (DBE), Brahm Fleisch (Wits) and Mpumi Mohohlwane (DBE).

For those of you who don’t already know about it, have you been living under a rock? The EGRS study was a large randomised control trial that aimed to determine which (if any) interventions improve early grade reading outcomes in home language (Setswana) in 230 Quintile 1-3 schools in the North West province in South Africa. It was implemented in 2015 (Grade 1) and 2016 (Grade 2) and today the final results of the intervention were released and they are very encouraging! I would suggest everyone reads the EGRS Policy Summary Report and I include the great infographics below:

Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 2.05.49 PM

Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 2.06.09 PM

Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 2.06.18 PM

Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 2.06.33 PM

There are also three additional EGRS reports: