Whenever I travel overseas I am asked the question “What is the biggest problem in South Africa?” And I typically respond, “The biggest problem or the biggest solvable problem?” In the 2000’s the biggest problem was HIV/AIDS. After hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths – the equivalent of a small genocide – the government ceded to the courts and offered life-saving ARVs to those infected with HIV and saved their lives. HIV was, and is, a solvable problem. Unfortunately the three biggest problems in South Africa today – too few jobs, too little growth, and too much inequality – are not easily solvable. And because we don’t exactly know how to ‘create’ jobs or growth, we don’t really know how to decease inequality much further.
Of course everyone has theories about how we can increase jobs, but the evidence is pretty thin. Depending on your political fancy and chosen economic guru there are various concoctions ranging from youth wage subsidies, eliminating red-tape, decreasing taxes, increasing taxes, digging holes, filling holes…you get the picture. Ask the top labour-economists in the country how to create jobs and you won’t get a straight answer (This is partly a provocation to said labour economists to tell us if there is in fact any coalesced consensus). You won’t even get consensus on the next three steps towards finding the answer; which is, incidentally, not a uniquely South African problem. So what to do? I think the best response is to keep cracking away at the problem; experimenting, evaluating, moving forward. But in the mean time we should also be allocating time, energy and resources to solvable problems; those we haven’t currently cracked but have a pretty good idea of how to do so. Epidemic HIV; distribute free ARVs. Crippling poverty; introduce the child support grant. Widespread malnutrition; provide free school meals to most children. The government should be heavily praised for all of these important initiatives.
But the problem I want to focus on here is the fact that most kids do not learn to read in lower-primary school. South Africa is unique among upper middle-income countries in that less than half of its primary school children learn to read for meaning in any language in lower primary school.
Irrespective of how tenuous or strong you believe the relationship is between education and economic growth, teaching all children to read well is a unanimously agreed upon goal in the 21st century. It is necessary for dignified living in a modern world, it is necessary for non-menial jobs, it is necessary for a functioning democracy. It also usually helps with ignorance, bigotry and a lack of empathy. In a modern context illiteracy is a disease that is eradicable, unlike unemployment or inequality. Like polio, illiteracy practically does not exist in most wealthy or even middle-income countries (defined here as basic reading). Illiteracy rates among those who have completed grade 4 are in the low single digits in wealthy countries like England (5%), the United States (2%) and Finland (1%) and less than 50% in most middle income countries such as Colombia (28%), Indonesia (34%), and Iran (24%). It’s difficult to get directly comparable estimates for the whole country but the best estimate from the recent pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) surveys is about 58%. That is to say 58% of Grade 4/5 students cannot read for meaning in any language. And why is Grade 4 a critical period? The South African curriculum (like most curricula) prescribes that in the first three years of schooling children must ‘learn to read’, then from grade 4 onwards they must ‘read to learn’. The fact that almost 60% cannot learn through reading means that these children cannot really engage with the curriculum beyond grade 4. It really isn’t much more complicated than that
Reading for meaning and pleasure is, in my view, both the foundation and the pinnacle of the academic project in primary school. Receiving, interpreting, understanding, remembering, analyzing, evaluating and creating information, symbols, art, knowledge and stories encompasses pretty much all of schooling. Yet most kids in South Africa never get a firm hold on this first rung of the academic ladder. They are perpetually stumbling forward into new grades even as they fall further and further behind the curriculum.
Based on my reading of the academic literature – which may differ from others – there are three main reasons why the majority of kids don’t learn to read in lower primary school.
- Foundation Phase teachers (grades 1-3) do not know how to teach reading in a systematic way and pre- and in-service courses teaching this topic are unsystematic, inadequate or nonexistent.
- Text-poor environments; the School Monitoring Survey showed that half of schools in quintiles 1-3 (i.e. poorest 60%) had no school or classroom library or even a book corner. (Importantly, research has shown that even when there are libraries they are frequently mismanaged, have inappropriate materials and they are not integrated into reading lessons),
- Wasted learning time; A number of South African studies have aimed to measure opportunity-to-learn and have frequently found that less than half of the official curriculum is being covered in the year and fewer than half of the officially scheduled lessons are actually taught. In one study in the North West Grade 6 teachers only taught 40% of scheduled lessons for the year (compared to 60% among schools across the border in Botswana). It is not clear what was happening on the days where there was evidence of teaching or learning.
For me the solution is simple: we need to address these three problems: (1) decide how to teach existing and prospective teachers how to teach reading (as is done all over the world in contexts as linguistically and socioeconomically complex as our own), (2) ensure that all primary schools have a bare minimum number of books and that these are managed effectively, (3) monitor how often teachers are actually teaching and introduce meaningful training first and real consequences second for those teachers who are currently not teaching.
We may not have consensus on how to create jobs or increase growth, but there is consensus on how to teach children to read: with knowledgable teachers who have books and provide their students with enough opportunity to learn. If you want to improve matric, you need to start with reading. It’s not rocket science.
*This article first appeared in The Star on Tuesday the 29th of March
**Image from here