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:

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There are also three additional EGRS reports:

My Q&A with Nali Bali

Usually the sensational titles that sub-editors choose to use drives me crazy. This time I actually love that they focus on this quote about the lack of NRF Chairs in African Languages: 100% true!! 

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The edited Q&A is available on the TimesLive site here. But my unedited answers are here:

You’ve talked before about reading being South Africa’s biggest solvable problem. But the recent pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) survey puts the number of Grade Four children who cannot read for meaning in any language at 58%. Where to begin turning this around?

I think there are a number of ‘basics’ that we need to get in place to rectify this problem. They can broadly be grouped under ‘Time’, ‘Text’ and ‘Teachers’.

Teachers: I think we need to ensure that all teachers actually know how to teach reading. Unfortunately most teachers have not been taught what the various components of reading are (phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency and motivation) or how these fit together into a cohesive whole. Currently teachers focus on communalized activities like chorusing and offer very little differentiation or individualized instruction or assessment. There is little formal teaching of vocabulary, spelling, writing or phonics and almost no understanding of how to develop the most important skill in reading: comprehension. Countless research studies have shown that our teachers simply do not know how to teach reading and writing systematically. 

Text: Given that 70% of children in South Africa are learning to read in an African language in grades 1-3 before transitioning into English in Grade 4, we need to ensure that there are enough texts available to actually teach reading. I’ve recently looked at the number of graded readers that exist in the African languages and most series have 15 very short books per year from grades 1-3. This is simply unacceptable. If one looks at wealthy English schools children are reading up to 200 graded books per year. They usually take one home per day. We really need to increase the number and quality of resources available in African languages.

Time: A number of studies have shown that teachers are only using about 50% of the instructional time that is available during the year. As a result children do not have enough opportunity to learn to read.

At grade four level, children are expected to transition between the phases of ‘learn to read’ and ‘read to learn’ – essentially being able to read for meaning. Yet it’s also the age when schools tend to switch children from mother-tongue education to English-language instruction. That sounds like a recipe for disaster?

The transition to English in grade 4 is fraught with difficulties. For learners that have not become literate in their home language in grades 1-3 it is almost impossible to become literate in a second language (English). I think this points to two things: (1) deficiencies in how we are teaching home language in grades 1-3 and (2) deficiencies in how we are teaching English First Additional Language (EFAL) in grades 1-3. There is also a dearth of research on this transiton. The best research on this comes from the work of Carol MacDonald in the Threshold Project which was done in 1989! We need more research on the transition and how to ensure that learners are not only bilingual but also biliterate.

It’s worth noting that a number of other African countries also transition to English in Grade 4 and have much better reading outcomes than we do. The transition to English in Grade 4 is certainly not unique to South Africa.

Text-poor environments are definitely a contributor to our national literacy crisis. What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve come across to encourage production of books in indigenous languages?

 I think the move to develop graded readers in the African languages from scratch is a great example of progress. Up until recently most of the graded readers that had been developed in African languages were just translations from English, and often would lost all the ‘grading’ in the translations. This is because some words and themes that are ‘easy’ in English are actually very difficult in some African languages. The Vula Bula books by Molteno are a good example of de novo graded readers that were developed with the concept of grading in the specific language. I think the work of Nali Bali is also really important – developing stories written by home-language speakers and easily accessible to children.

It’s not just hard to find published literature in indigenous languages, there’s a dearth of linguistic research too – there are no oral reading fluency benchmarks for African languages, for example. Where would you particularly like to see significant change?

100%. This drives me absolutely crazy. Why on earth are there no National Research Foundation (NRF) Chairs in teaching reading in African languages?! Why is early grade reading research not a national research priority with priority funding? This is such a huge scandal in South Africa. The absolute failure of PanSALB to do what it was mandated to do by Parliament is a disgrace. While it’s great to see individual publishers and authors pushing forward and publishing books and stories in African languages, ultimately we need the funding and commitment from government that this is a national priority.

You’ve talked about making the achieving of mother tongue reading competency by grade three a prioritized national goal. What – and how long – might it take to achieve this?

To be 100% honest this will take time. It takes time to train teachers. Get high quality resources I nevery classroom and every home. We could create a great campaign and say that it needs to be done by 2020 and try and galvanize everyone, but that’s just not how long these things take. I think a ten-year time-horizon is probably more realistic. Even that is really ambitious. The Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen uses the Japanese experience in the mid-19th century as a classic example of the relentless focus on basic education. Soon after the Meiji restoration of 1868 The Fundamental Code of Education was issued (1872) which stated that there must be “no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person.” By 1913 the country was almost entirely literate, publishing more books than Britain and more than twice as many as the United States, even though it was much poorer than both of these countries. But none of this happens without a country-wide commitment to eradicating illiteracy and ensuring that every South African can read for meaning and pleasure.

 

My ‘Lead the Change’ Q&A with AERA SIG

See below for a Q&A session I did for the Augest edition of “Lead the Change” run by the AERA SIG on Educational Change. PDF here.

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DBE is hiring… (closing 14 Aug)

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The Department of Basic Education (DBE) is advertising vacancies for a number of high-level posts. If you know of great candidates please forward this on to them. Our education system is only as good as the bureaucrats who help run it 🙂

PDF with full job descriptions and salaries HERE.

Some of them that might be interesting to some of you…

POST: Chief Director: (Ref no: 22435/02)

BRANCH: Curriculum Policy, Support and Monitoring
CHIEF DIRECTORATE: Curriculum and Quality Enhancement Programmes
SALARY: All-Inclusive remuneration package of R 1 068 564 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

POST: Chief Director: (Ref no: 22435/03)

BRANCH: Teacher and Professional Development
CHIEF DIRECTORATE: National Institute for Curriculum and Professional Development (NICPD)
SALARY: All-Inclusive remuneration package of R 1 068 564 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

POST: Director: (Ref no: 22435/05)

BRANCH: Planning, Information and Assessment
DIRECTORATE: National Assessments
SALARY: All-Inclusive remuneration package of R 898 743 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

POST: Director: (Ref no: 22435/06)

Branch: Planning, Information and Assessment
Directorate: Education Management Information Systems (EMIS)
SALARY: All-Inclusive remuneration package of R 898 743 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

POST: Assistant Director: Integrated Quality Management Systems (IQMS) (Ref no: DBE/40/2017)
Branch: Teacher and Professional Development
Directorate: Educator Performance Management and Development and Whole School Evaluation

SALARY: R 417 552 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

POST: Assistant Director (Reporting, Publication and Information Dissemination): (Ref no: DBE/42/2017)
Branch: Planning, Information and Assessment
Directorate: Education Management Information Systems (EMIS)

SALARY: R 417 552 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

 

 

Barbara Band’s links on diversity and inclusion

barbaraLast week I spoke at the South African Librarian’s Conference at Highbury in KZN (presentation one and presentation two) and heard Barbara Band speak about how the library can be a vital tool to make schools more inclusive and help all students thrive. It struck a cord for me because in high school I basically lived in the library during breaks for three years. My librarians weren’t especially empathetic or insightful but it was still a safe place in an unsafe school. As always we can’t forget that South Africa is a deeply unequal country and that only 37% of learners are in a school with a library (Page 20 from this DBE report).

In Barbara’s address she mentioned a bunch of different sites and resources and I asked her to email them to me so I could share the mall with you, so here they are:

Booklists and bookshops:

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List of organisations that support diversity and inclusion:

  • Ditch The Label – anti-bullying charity supporting 12 – 25 year olds
    www.ditchthelabel.org
  • EACH – Educational Action Challenging Homophobia: provides training, support and resources.
    http://www.each.education/
  • Educate and Celebrate – Ofsted and DFE recognised programme to implement LGBTQ/inclusive curriculum
    www.educateandcelebrate.org
  • Gendered Intelligence – a not-for-profit company whose aim is to increase understandings of gender diversity.
    http://genderedintelligence.co.uk/
  • GIRES – Gender Identity Research and Education Society: aim is to improve lives of trans and gender non-conforming people. Lots of links to articles, research, legal advice, etc.
    http://www.gires.org.uk/
  • 6IGLYO – International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth and Student Organisation: works with over 95 LGBTQ groups, run by and for young people.
    http://www.iglyo.com/
  • Inclusive Minds – a group of consultants and campaigners working to improve diversity in children’s literature.
    http://www.inclusiveminds.com/
  • Kidscape – deals with anti-bullying and child protection
    www.kidscape.org.uk
  • Mermaids – Family and individual support for children and teens with Gender Identity Issues.
    http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk/
  • 4Metro – Equality and diversity charity, focusing mainly around London and South East.
    www.metrocentreonline.org
  • Rewind – works in education to challenge racism and extremism
    http://rewind.org.uk
  • Schools Out UK – aim is to make schools safe and inclusive for everyone: lots of links to resources and other relevant websites.
    www.schools-out.org.uk
  • Stonewall – help and advice, carries out research, partners with schools and organisations, lots of resources.
    http://www.stonewall.org.uk/
  • Welcoming Schools – aimed at US elementary schools but has useful information, advice, etc.
    http://www.welcomingschools.org/

ALSO USEFUL:

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Funda Wande: Teaching Reading for Meaning

[A little info on what I’ve been working on for the last while – more details to come in the coming months!]

Guest blog post I wrote for the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation from here

Overview: South Africa is virtually unique among upper-middle-income countries in that most of our children (58%) do not learn to read for meaning in the first three years of school[1]. Without this core skill, they fall further and further behind as they are promoted into higher grades. While there are many reasons for this reading crisis one of the most prominent is that Foundation Phase teachers do not know (and have never been taught) how to teach reading. The Funda Wande: Teaching Reading for Meaning” project aims to help address this course by developing a high-quality, free, open-access and SAQA-approved course: the ‘Certificate in Teaching Early Grade Reading.” All course materials will be available in isiXhosa (the pilot language) and subtitled in English. There will also be an English First Additional language sub-course. It is largely video-based with on-site coaches visiting teachers in their classrooms once every two weeks.

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In the 21st Century we live in a world that is inundated with written language, or ‘print’. We see it in our newspapers, on our contracts, on the screens of our cell phones and the pages of our school books. From the policies of government to the signs on our roads, it is the essential ingredient in modern life. Print is everywhere. And this is why reading is so important. Learning to crack the code of how we represent spoken language using symbols is a big part of why we go to school. We learn the differences between b and d, or between p and q. Moving from letters and syllables to words and sentences we can read about pirates, pigs and pixies or earth-quakes and igloos. Once we have cracked the code the possibilities are endless. This is the joy of being initiated into the literate world.

Aside from the practical importance of reading to make our way through the world, reading (and writing) is essential for participation in formal education since the ability to decode text, read with comprehension and learn from reading is the bedrock of most activities in institutions of learning. If reading is not mastered early on, progress in schooling is restricted. Unfortunately nationally representative surveys (prePIRLS) show that more than half (56%)[2] of South African children do not learn to read fluently and with comprehension in any language by the end of Grade 4. But, as with most averages in South Africa, it hides huge inequalities. If we compare the wealthiest 10% of these learners with the poorest 50% the differences are astounding. Among the richest learners 86% learn to read for meaning compared to less than 30% among the poorest half of learners. Why is this?

One of the main reasons behind this reading crisis is that our teachers have never been given meaningful learning opportunities to acquire this specialized knowledge, neither in their initial teacher training nor in subsequent in-service training. They often do not know what the various components of reading are (phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency and motivation) or how these fit together into a cohesive whole. Many teachers are also confused about how to implement different reading methodologies like group-guided reading or shared reading. Currently teachers focus on communalized activities like chorusing and offer very little differentiation or individualized instruction or assessment. There is also little formal teaching of vocabulary, spelling, writing or phonics and almost no understanding of how to develop the most important skill in reading: comprehension. Importantly, while the majority of our learners are learning to read in an African language (70%+), almost all universities only offer pre-service instruction on teaching reading in English.

 

To help fill this gap, we are designing a new course to help make sure that all Foundation Phase teachers in the country know how to teach reading in their home-language and in English as a First Additional Language. The “Funda Wande: Teaching Reading for Meaning” project was initiated at the start of 2017 at the request of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment Trustees and is now funded by the Endowment together with two funding partners: The Volkswagen Community Trust and the Millennium Trust. The course is currently being developed for two languages: isiXhosa  and English First Additional Language. Using professionally filmed in-classroom videos, animations, info-graphics and other multi-media the course will teach the major components of reading and writing.

The 11 modules are: (1) How children learn to read, (2) Decoding in reading and writing, (3) Comprehension, (4) Vocabulary, (5) Children’s literature, (6) CAPS reading activities, (7) English as a First Additional Language, (8) Writing, (9) Reading assessment and remediation, (10) Inclusive education, and (11) Planning and progression. The course will be a credit-bearing Certificate accredited by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). The course and all materials developed in the course will be openly licensed (Creative Commons) and freely available for anyone to use. It will be offered as a Certificate in Teaching Early Grade Reading by at least one public university in South Africa. The course will be evaluated in 2019-2021. If the evaluation of the course shows that it significantly raises teachers’ content knowledge and improves their teaching practice, and importantly raises the reading outcomes of the learners they teach – the mandate is to adapt the course and offer it in all of South Africa’s official languages. Ensuring that all teachers know how to teach reading and writing is the first step in ensuring that all South African children learn to read for meaning and pleasure.

If you are an expert in teaching early grade reading in isiXhosa and would like to be involved in the project or to find out more information please email me nicspaull[at]gmail.com

[1] This statistic is taken from one of the nationally-representative datasets of reading achievement in South Africa (prePIRLS, 2011). See Spaull (2016) for a fuller discussion of the results from the PIRLS and prePIRLS studies.

[2] Spaull, N (2016). Learning to read and reading to learn. Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) Policy Brief. Stellenbosch.

Book reflection: “When Breath Becomes Air” – Paul Kalanithi

41f2EooDXHL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Recently things have been moving quite quickly in my life. Old projects are in full swing, new projects are gaining momentum and I’ve moved into a new apartment in Cape Town. (I even unpacked my books!) Somewhere in-between I travelled to Croatia and ended a long-term relationship. Today I didn’t go in to work.

Last night I finished a novel I’ve been reading for a few months on and off and cried into the sofa as I pored over the last few pages. “A Little Life” by Hanya Hanagihara was recommended to me (thanks James!) after we discovered a mutual love of “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. A Little Life is a long book but one that is easy to slip into and feel a part of. It is a tragic story full of sadness and inhuman pain, but the relationships and the meaning sunk deep into my heart as I read on. I didn’t realise how attached I was getting to these fictional characters living non-existent lives in New York.

Before I had finished Hanagihara’s novel I came across Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air” in an airport and bought it for the flight. I was absolutely hooked and read it in one day. The author, a Stanford neurosurgeon/neuroscientist, discovers that he has an aggressive cancer just at the point when he is meant to start reaping the rewards of 10-years of gruelling preparation. What do you do when you have 2 years left to live? For Kalanithi he turned to his other vocation – reading and writing.

“Lost in a featureless wasteland of my own mortality, and finding no traction in the reams of scientific studies, intracellular molecular pathways, and endless curves of survival statistics, I began reading literature again: Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, B. S Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Woolf, Kafka, Montaigne, Frost, Greville, memoirs of cancer patients – anything by anyone who had ever written about mortality. I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again” (p148).

I loved this book more than most others over the last few years. I found myself regularly reflecting on my own life as I read about his life and imminent death. Career choices, relationships, ambition, children, meaning, religion, mortality – he touches on everything and draws you in to the whirlwind that was his life growing up and now as it accelerates approaching death.

In a sense you can’t script a life like his. Before going into medicine he spent his youth obsessed with English literature and the meaning of life, giving him the lessons and existential resources our culture has found or created over the centuries. Science doesn’t comfort much in the face of death.

“A few years later, I hadn’t thought much more about a career but had nearly completed degrees in English literature and human biology. I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land resonated profoundly, relating meaninglessness and isolation, and the desperate quest for human connection. I found Eliot’s metaphors leaking into my own language. Other authors resonated as well. Nabokov, for his awareness of how our suffering can make us callous to the obvious suffering of another. Conrad, for his hypertuned sense of how miscommunication between people can so profoundly impact their lives. Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection. My brief forays into the formal ethics of analytic philosophy felt dry as a bone, missing the messiness and weight of real human life.

Throughout college, my monastic, scholarly study of human meaning would conflict with my urge to forge and strengthen the human relationships that formed that meaning. If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?”

This last sentence hit me when I read it and hasn’t left me since. Am I really living my life?! I had recently come back from a Croatian island filled with compelling humans living such deliberate, authentic and vulnerable lives. Politicians, artists, nomads, hippies, techies, shamans – the works. Not all that glitters is gold – for sure – but there really were some golden folk there. We had endless conversations about desires, fears, comfort-zones, purpose and passion. And here I was living a fully defensible life.

Him: When last did you really fail at something?”

Me: Not recently”

Him: Are you really trying then?”

Me: I don’t know”

I realised how paralysed I was by fear and judgement. Of others, of my own. I’ve realised how incredibly critical I can be and that this has severe personal and social costs.

Kalanithi helped.

“Heading into my sophomore summer, I applied for two jobs: as an intern at the highly scientific Yerkes Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, and as a prep chef at Sierra Camp, a family vacation spot for Stanford alumni on the pristine shores of Fallen Leaf Lake, abutting the stark beauty of Desolation Wilderness in Eldorado National Forest. The camp’s literature promised, simply, the best summer of your life. I was surprised and flattered to be accepted. Yet I had just learned that macaques had a rudimentary form of culture, and I was eager to go to Yerkes and see what could be the natural origin of meaning itself. In other words, I could either study meaning or I could experience it. After delaying for as long as possible, I finally chose the camp.

Eventually the term ended and I was on the windy mountain road to the camp, still slightly worried that I’d made a wrong turn in life. My doubt, however, was short-lived. The camp delivered on its promise, concentrating all the idylls of youth: beauty manifest in lakes, mountains, people; richness in experience, conversation, friendships.

This was summer at Sierra Camp, perhaps no different from any other camp, but every day felt full of life, and of the relationships that give life meaning. Other nights found a group of us on the dining room deck, sipping whiskey with the assistant director of the camp, Mo, a Stanford alum taking a break from his English PhD, and discussing literature and the weighty matters of postadolescent life.

Back on campus, I didn’t miss the monkeys. Life felt rich and full, and over the next two years I kept at it, seeking a deeper understanding of a life of the mind. I studied literature and philosophy to understand what makes life meaningful, studied neuroscience and worked in a fMRI lab to understand how the brain could give rise to an organism capable of finding meaning in the world, and eniched my relationships with a circle of dear friends through various escapapades. We raided the school cafeteria dressed as Mongols; created a full fake fraternity, complete with fake rush-week events, in our co-op house; posed in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace in a gorilla suit; broke into Memorial Church at midnight to lie on our backs and listen to our voices echo in the apse; and so on. (Then I heard that Virgina Woolf once boarded a battleship dressed as Abyssinian royalty, and duly chastened, stopped boasting about our trivial pranks. 

I would recommend this book to anyone. I’m still processing what all this means for me and how I want to live my life. What and who I want to prioritise. Where I want to spend my energies. What I want to experience. Where I want to contribute. Who I want to be. Read this book.

“That which is only living. Can only die.” – T. S. Eliot.