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).

23 responses to “The unfolding reading crisis: The new PIRLS 2016 results…

  1. Nic I am just finishing off some work, but my next really critical project is to write a book taking children from Grade 2 reading to Grade 4 reading.

    What has pushed me into this was a close study of the HL FP syllabus and just how much it under-prepares the children for Grade 4. Ironically the designers of FP EFAL designers had a better idea of what they were doing (apart from setting crazy vocaulary targets,)

    This book will have two functions – the first obviously shame and blame for the teachers and curriculum officials; the second more important audience is of course the learners. The material in the book will have have fiction and informational text, and of course I will be looking at good Grade 4 texts.


  2. christinedownton

    Dear Nic
    Sorry everything got hectic after I saw you for dinner – I expect for you as well as I know you were travelling. But sorry to have missed another occasion and our planned thought dinner/s
    Devastating indeed. It’s hard to know what to say or even suggest. Is there a language issue here? I guess children were tested in the language of instruction so that would have been English. Is there any evidence of a later catch up or improvement? So that higher functional literacy is achieved at a later age.
    I’m also wondering if there is any provincial breakdown. But no matter how you look at it, its inescapable that this is horrendous – unimaginable even.
    Very best

    From: Nic Spaull
    Reply-To: Nic Spaull
    Date: Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at 3:59 AM
    To: Christine Downton
    Subject: [New post] The unfolding reading crisis: The new PIRLS 2016 results…

    Nic Spaull posted: ” 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 helpin”

  3. christinedownton

    Ps I’m almost finding these results incredible. I assume this is A wide data and so an average across races. If so and one makes a reasonable assumption about different school capacity for different racial and ethnic groups then the implied results for poor black children must be even worse?

    From: Nic Spaull
    Reply-To: Nic Spaull
    Date: Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at 3:59 AM
    To: Christine Downton
    Subject: [New post] The unfolding reading crisis: The new PIRLS 2016 results…

    Nic Spaull posted: ” 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 helpin”

  4. Pingback: Open Letter to the next president of South Africa: We need a Marshall Plan for Reading | Nic Spaull

  5. Call to ACTION!
    Firstly, comparing one child to another is sub-optimal, at best.
    First-and-a-half-ly, non-mother-tongue education at an early age, is unacceptably ineffective.
    Secondly, initiatives like Read to Rise, Rally to Read and The David Louw Reading Foundation, coupled with a must-see movie like Waiting for “Superman” are important keys for ACTION en route to REAL EDUCATION, often from outside a highly ineptocratic “edu(mb)cation” system …

  6. My 22 years of teacher education has taught me that there is NO substitute for sustained exposure to quality Children’s Literature. Children are turned on to reading by interesting, compelling reading material. I have NEVER encountered a child who became an avid reader because s/he loved their textbook! We need decent libraries in schools, staffed by passionate, well informed librarians and dedicated reading time for books chosen by children.
    Stop wasting money on designing teacher-centred programs that are already available in books and on the internet in vast quantity, and GIVE CHILDREN INSPIRING LITERATURE! Children access meaning through emotional engagement with what they are reading.

  7. Hi Nic,
    I hope that you are well.
    With the electronics epidemic – how many people read to their children?
    I do, and my Grade 5 son actually does book reports for authors. This stems from my persistence, in reading to him.

    I wonder how many people, would spend a day a month reading exciting books, to small people, Should each child be given a copy of the book being read, they would probably be enticed through the excitement and imagery of the stories. They would follow the stories – which could be followed by question and answer time.

    The books would have to be well illustrated and the stories exciting,

    I certainly would read, as would my 11 year old.

    We could do this in libraries, school halls, places of worship and classrooms.

    As much as we wish it to be so, politicians do not change countries, or situations. People do. People like you, and I, and my son, Kailash!

    With enough volunteers we can turn this situation around.

    Brian V Moore
    079 643 4457

  8. I agree, the results are appalling. Our education system should be be designed to make READING LITERACY the main and key priority in all public schools, especially in struggling and underperforming schools.

    Our objective should be to get learners to read with comprehension before they enter the intermediate phase of schooling.

    Our current system focusses too much on the administrative processes of education, rather than the meaningful and productive exigencies of learning and teaching (delivery of the curriculum).

    While said system remains, our results would remain poor for many years to come.

    If we are really serious, we should insist that the best qualified individuals are appointed in middle management and senior positions, rather than relying on those with the minimum requirements.

    Instead of using post matric interns for administrative duties, they could effectively be trained, to assist struggling and underperforming schools with READING LITERACY in accordance with the design and direction of PIRLS.

    We should also take our que from the McKinsey Report on education.

  9. I am a retired principal that had serviced pupils with isizulu as 1st language. I had created a reading room with a specialist English language teacher who graded pupils according to their reading proficiency level irrespective of their actual grade. Reading and language lessons were designed for these pupils.
    We achieved some success.
    However we need more dramatic intervention.
    Therefore I suggest:
    1 Create two streams from grade 1 to be 6.
    One stream should be the current curriculum
    to include those pupils/ schools that are
    The other stream should be aimed at the
    pupils / schools experiencing poor reading
    These pupils should be exposed to the
    foundation phase, ie the 3 rs . They should
    continue even at gr4 and up to gr6. Those
    reaching the appropriate reading and
    comprehension skills may be moved to the
    join the full curriculum stream
    2. For this to work we need specialist
    language educators. These specially trained
    educators should be placed as head of each
    of the grades to guide the grade educators.
    Such an intervention requires the education department playing a key role.

  10. It appears we are all looking to put bandaid on cancer. Stop the window-dressing with all the symptoms and address the real cause. It is impossible to educate a population without the desire to learn and the educators to teach. Teacher absenteeism is a disease in this country. Pupil discipline is non-existent. It surprises me that there is so much disbelief in these factual and probably, under-reported results. The western cape shows the best results. If you are only half-brained, you would be able to tell the reasons.

  11. I share your alarm about the shocking results of PIRLS 2016. However, I think it needs much, much more than your proposed Marshall Plan. It needs the attention and care of the entire country.

    1. Please do not let the parents off the hook. They are the ones who “made” these children and now expect the government, that is the tax payer, to give them a child grant to raise the child, to pay for her education, to feed her at school, to provide school clothes etc. etc. Many of them, even those who live in abject poverty, would rather spend their money on costly smart phones and their time on staring at these phones.

    2. All formal initiatives that deliver results should be highlighted and shared. Just yesterday I heard about the Primary School Reading Intervention Programme of the Gauteng Education Department which seems to be working very well.

    3. Initiatives by the private sector should be aligned with the school programme for synergy. For instance how does the work of the Click Foundation and Nalibali tie into this?
    • Click currently has 250 000 learners enrolled in Reading Eggs and Mathseeds and are aiming for 1 million. They do wonderful work. The school where I volunteer is a beneficiary (
    • Nalibali ( has a voice all over the country in all languages and distribute their “newspapers” for free wherever schools and communities ask for it. We cut the booklets out, staple them and hand them out according to the age group for whom the story is suitable – remember those households do not have scissors, let alone staplers.

    4. Public libraries should also play a bigger role. Where are the holiday programmes, the reading hours? To what extent are libraries welcoming spaces for small children? I see a tendency to cater for those in need of free wi-fi.

    5. Publishers should come to the party. It is VERY difficult to get hold of books in other SA languages than Afrikaans and English. And all those books that are pulped from time to time should be made available to schools. In 2015 we received copies of the children’s version of Long walk to freedom from Panmacmillan via Nalibali and in 2016 copies of Bana ba Modimo, the Bible stories as told by Desmond Tutu from CUM. These are probably the first and only books these children have received in their lives.

    Monica Hammes
    volunteering at Leeuwfontein Primary Farm School

  12. It is disturbing that all races are lumped together here. I would imagine that the reading ability of certainly white and indian children would compare favourably with that of other developed countries (South Africa having a First and a Third World component). No doubt the ANC regime, having failed woefully in, well, just about everything, education particularly in this instance, would want to disguise that fact, as would liberal educators – but call a spade a spade, if only to see where the problem is, in order to address it.

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  14. As the mother of a grade 1 teacher in a government school (and coming from a family who were and are great readers, and who rate reading very highly) I find this incredibly sad. I am seeing firsthand how the system is failing learners, as teachers are overburdened with bureaucracy and work, and time for reading with and to learners is one of the first casualties.

  15. Shocking Results of PIRLS 2016. I am in teacher Education, when I go and observe student teachers – several occasions noticed no cognitive thinking takes place the milk comes from the cow, so does yogurt- but how ,why ,what happens ,what is the process???I think it is time we interview prospective teaching students – we need best students going into the teaching profession ,these are the students that need to get the Fundsa and other….Rote learning must be reexamined as a teaching technique!!!!

    I feel people from communities can be employed as assistant teachers ,especially in the ECE sector and dealing with large classes.

    Ms Hasina B Cassim

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  18. Carolina van der Westhuizen

    Hi Nic
    I came across this article today (again). In spite of these alarming results, our matric pass rate over the past few years do not communicate this tragedy. Will we ever manage to get proof of the crisis? Only once we see it on paper, will we be able to do something about it.

    • Dear Nick

      Please update me on the recent findings concerning Pirls? I learned that your colleagues have uncovered interesting findings with reference to the Pirls.

      Thanking yiu.

      Kind rigards. Ms Cassim, Hasina SCHOOL OF EDUCATION UNIVIRSITY OF VENDA

      Get Outlook for Android ________________________________

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