10 Main Findings from PIRLS 2021 South Africa

On Tuesday the 16th of May 2023 the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) released the findings from their 2021 survey. South Africa was one of 57 countries and regions that participated. is an independently administered, nationally representative assessment of reading comprehension among a sample of Grade 4 learners in South Africa. In 2021 the survey included 321 primary schools and tested 12,426 Grade 4 students between August to November 2021. South Africa has participated in PIRLS four times (2006, 2011, 2016 and 2021). The tests are set by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and implemented in South Africa by the Center for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA) at the University of Pretoria. The tests are comparable over time and across countries, with all tests translated into the official languages of each country. In South Africa all 11 languages are tested. Children are tested in Grade 4 in whatever the language of instruction is from Grades 1-3 in the school (i.e. an isiZulu learner in an isiZulu school in KZN would write the test in isiZulu).  The SA 2021 Highlights Report is available here and the International 2021 Report is available here.

Here are the 10 main findings in my opinion (also in PDF here):

(1) In 2021 81% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language, up from 78% in 2016.

This means that only 19% of South African Grade 4 children could read for meaning in any language in 2021 (all 11 languages were assessed). Because PIRLS is a nationally-representative sample, of the 1,127,877 Grade 4 students in 2021, 914,000 could not read for meaning in any language. SA’s PIRLS score dropped from 320 (2016) to 288 (2021), approximately 0,8 years of learning.

(2) We have lost a decade of progress.

Between 2006 and 2016 the percentage of children that could not read declined from 87% (2006) to 82% (2011) to 78% (2016), but has now increased back to 81% (2021), wiping out a decade of slow progress and taking us back to 2011 levels of achievement.

(3) SA came last of all 57 countries, with the largest decline between 2016 & 2021.

South Africa had the lowest average Grade 4 test score of all participating countries. Of the 57 countries/regions, 33 had trend data from 2016 to 2021. Of those with trend data, South Africa experienced the largest decline in learning outcomes between 2016 and 2021.

(4) The average Gr4 child in SA in 2021 was 80% of a year behind their counterpart in 2016

SA’s PIRLS score dropped from 320 (2016) to 288 (2021). Given that approximately 40 points is equal to one year of learning, this is approximately 0,8 years of learning that we’ve lost on average.

(5) Northern rural provinces experienced the largest declines in reading.

Four provinces experienced declines of more than a full year of learning between 2016 and 2021. Given that 40 points amounts to one year of learning, this was as follows: North West (-2,4yrs), Free State (-1,6yrs), Mpumalanga (-1,2yrs) and Limpopo (-1yr). The three coastal provinces (WC, KZN and EC) experienced the smallest declines with WC showing the smallest decline (-0,4yrs).

(6) English and Afrikaans schools did not experience a decline between 2016 and 2021.

In comparison, most African language schools did decline, highlighting that the pandemic increased inequality between no-fee and fee-charging schools. (Note that the marginal increase in average scores for English and Afrikaans LOLT schools between 2016 and 2021 is not statistically significant. We do not yet have the standard errors for provincial averages since the DBE has not released the full South Africa PIRLS 2021 report (despite having access to it).

(7) Brazilian Grade 4’s are 3 years ahead of South African Grade 4’s.

The average score in Brazil was 419 points in 2021 compared to South Africa’s 288 points. The average Grade 4 child in South Africa is 3,3 years behind the average Brazilian Grade 4 child. In Brazil 61% of Grade 4’s could read at a basic level in 2021 compared to 19% in South Africa. Note that Brazil and South Africa have roughly the same GDP/capita ($7000/capita). See my Business Day op-ed on what we can learn from Brazil here.

(8) SA had the largest gender gap (pro-girl) of all 57 participating countries/regions, with SA girls 1,5 years ahead of SA boys.

The average Grade 4 girl in South Africa scored 57 points higher than the average Grade 4 boy, placing them about 1,5 years of learning ahead of their male counterparts. While girls outperform boys in all countries, the South African gap is more than twice the international average gap between boys and girls.

(9) SA does not currently have a credible or budgeted plan to catch up learning losses, despite experiencing the largest decline between 2016 and 2021.

It should be noted that PIRLS 2021 is the first nationally representative indication of learning losses to dateTo quote a recent research report reviewing DBE’s interventions relating to COVID-19 “There has been no attempt to recoup time in order to remediate learning losses, apart from very recent attempts in one province. The insistence on a largely business-as-usual approach to curriculum implementation fails to recognise and address the severe educational impact of the pandemic, especially on learners in the poorest communities (Hoadley, 2023: p.1). By contrast, many countries have multi-billion rand catch-up programs, for example Colombia’s PROMISE program (R3,5-billion), the Indian state of Gujarat’s GOAL initiative (R9,5-billion),  the Recovering Learning Losses program in northern Brazil (R4,8-billion), or the R7,3-billion ‘2023 Plan de Ractivación Educativa’ in Chile announced last month, acknowledging it will take at least four years to catch up the learning losses from COVID-19. Only one province (WC) has so far announced a budgeted plan for catching up learning losses (WCED’s R1,2bn ‘Back on Track’ program).

(10) A ‘generational catastrophe’

The new PIRLS 2021 reveal what can arguably be referred to as a ‘generational catastrophe.’ More than 4-million children in primary school have experienced more than half their schooling career in a disrupted state (either school closures or rotational timetables). Research on school closures from natural disasters like earthquakes in Pakistan and the Ebola crisis in West Africa all show that there are long term consequences to short term crises. These include lower educational attainment, lower earnings, higher unemployment and being more likely to be in lower skilled occupations in adulthood. This effect might even carry over to the children of the children affected by school closures, as happened with school closures in Argentina.

What can be done?

Evidence-based interventions to catch up learning losses. South Africa has the benefit of numerous interventions that have been proven to raise learning outcomes, even in no fee schools and in poorer provinces. These have been summarized in a recent book published by Oxford University Press (Spaull & Taylor, 2022)

(1)   Recruiting, training and equipping youth to be Teacher Assistants. Teaching assistants help teachers deal with large classes and different learning levels of children. A successful program in Limpopo selected youth using numeracy and literacy tests, trained them for four days face-to-face per term, equipped them with workbooks to use and monitored and supported them with TA-mentors (see Makaluza & Mpeta, 2022). This resulted in substantial improvements to literacy and numeracy equivalent to more than 1 additional year of learning. The government’s Presidential Youth Employment Initiative (PYEI) Basic Education Employment Initiative (BEEI) has established the organizational, political and financial feasibility of operating a teacher assistant programme at scale. The Limpopo programme demonstrates that it is also feasible to meaningfully impact learning outcomes and provides a model for recruitment, training and mentoring to achieve that. Subsequent iterations of the PYEI / Jobs Fund program could incorporate these learnings to catch up learning losses.

(2)    Rolling out anthologies of graded readers to all grade 1-3 children. Most children do not have basic texts needed to learn how to read in their home language at school or at home. This can be remedied using low cost anthologies of graded readers that cost R15/book/child.  For a brief period of 2 years (2019 and 2020) the Eastern Cape Department of Basic Education rolled out anthologies of graded readers – essentially a set of about 20 sequenced stories aimed at teaching children to read in their home language. The program was evaluated and shown to improve reading outcomes in isiXhosa for the children who received them compared to previous cohorts in the same schools who did not (see Ardington & Spaull, 2022).

(3)   Training teachers face-to-face and equipping them with comprehensive workbooks and teacher guides: (Ardington, 2023). Research in Limpopo shows that equipping learners with workbooks and teachers with teacher guides, in addition to four days of face-to-face training per term led to a 60% of a year of learning increase compared to business-as-usual schools.

(4)   Using teacher-coaches to support teachers on how to teach reading. The DBE’s Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS) shows that reading outcomes of Grade 1-3 learners improve after at least 2 years of an expert reading coach supporting and visiting teachers in the schools.


PDF of the above is available here.

One response to “10 Main Findings from PIRLS 2021 South Africa

  1. christinedownton

    Not happy reading Nic!

    Sent from my iPhone
    UK 07598801069
    US 9174391464

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