Monthly Archives: December 2017

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).