Category Archives: reading

“In Praise of Unsexy Policies” (my BD article on the ECDOE rollout of graded reader anthologies)

The article below first appeared in the Business Day on the 29th of April under the title “Eastern Cape pioneers book printing and distribution scheme to pupils“)

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In South Africa it is rare to find even-minded critics that praise our government. I suspect there is a latent fear that compliments will lead to complacency and laurels to laziness. Perhaps it’s simply that we are disappointed in almost everything; high aspirations repeatedly confronting harsh realities. Earlier in 2019 the President proclaimed that we will “position South Africa as a global competitive player within the digital revolution space.” Yet 48% of primary schools don’t have internet, 26% have no running water and 12% have no electricity (SMS 2017). Fourth Industrial Revolution here we come!

Yet sometimes government does get it right and we should give credit where credit is due. In 2019 an unlikely province pioneered the production and distribution of books to every Grade 1-3 child in the province; the Eastern Cape. The books were anthologies of levelled readers – crucial reading resources normally only available to middle-class children. By quietly inventing a new way to produce, print and distribute high-quality Open Access books, three bureaucrats changed the reality of schooling for 463,276 children in 2019. I’d like to briefly tell this story; the collaboration of civil society (Molteno), private funding (Zenex Foundation and the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment) and government (Eastern Cape Department of Education) to innovate for the improvement of education.

Our story starts in Gauteng in 2012 when the MEC Barbara Creecy announced that she was going to focus on primary school literacy and numeracy using coaches, lesson plans and graded readers (a formula that has emerged as the education ‘triple cocktail’) (GPLMS). At the time there were no levelled readers in African languages (i.e. stories that increase in difficulty incrementally, story by story), despite the fact that 70%+ of South African children learn to read in an African language in Grades 1-3. To fill the gap the Zenex Foundation commissioned a well-known South African NGO (Molteno) to develop graded readers in all African languages in a series called ‘Vula Bula’. These were short stories (‘skinny books’) levelled from Story 1 to Story 66 in each language. (Middle-class parents may be familiar with “Biff, Chip and Kipper” – the characters in the Oxford Reading Tree series). The Vula Bula skinny books were printed and distributed to half of all primary schools in Gauteng.

After the release of the PIRLS 2016 results in 2017 showing that three quarters of South African Grade 4 children (78%) could not read for meaning, the Eastern Cape Department of Education took a strategic resolution to focus on Literacy in Grades 1-3. Three of the top bureaucrats in the department – Themba Kojana, Ray Tywakadi and Penny Vinjevold – drew up a reading strategy to provide access to levelled readers to all Grade 1-3 children in the province.

To cut a long story short, they decided to print the 66 skinny books in three anthologies (one per grade with 22 stories per anthology). The genius here is that the main cost of printing readers is the cover of the ‘skinny books’ and the licensing fees paid to publishers.  By eliminating licensing fees (using Open Access readers), combining stories into one book with one cover, and printing in large print runs of more than 100,000 per anthology they reduced the cost per anthology to R8-per-anthology. To give a price comparison, 20 Oxford Reading Tree readers cost more than R400. Lastly they delivered the Vula Bula anthologies using a proven distribution mechanism – in the plastic wrapping together with the DBE workbooks.

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In 2018 the ECDOE printed and distributed 824,365 anthologies to 463,276 Grade 1-3 learners in 4,365 primary schools. To give you a sense of the scale, if you stacked all those anthologies on top of each other it would be the same height as 26 Table Mountains! The total cost of printing them was a prudent R7-million, paid for by the Eastern Cape Department of Education. By my calculations Minister Motshekga could implement this nationally for all Grade 1-3 children for R24-million per year. I personally cannot think of a better use of taxpayer money than providing every child with the basic resources they need to get on the first rung of the reading ladder.

Obviously teaching reading is about more than just providing the right books, but it’s a good start. You certainly can’t teach reading without them! The ECDOE is also eliminating extreme class sizes in the Foundation Phase and has offered bursaries to all of its Foundation Phase subject advisers to enrol in a new qualification at Rhodes on how to teach reading for meaning. On behalf of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment I’ve been involved with the Rhodes course and advising the ECDOE at strategic points in this journey, but the credit here goes to government and these three bureaucrats who have been quietly innovating in the background. They are ultimately the ones who are responsible for implementing these programmes on the ground.

Policies like these are the bread and butter of educational improvement. Providing books and teaching teachers how to teach reading isn’t sexy, but neither is plumbing. Both are necessary for improvement – even in the ‘digital revolution space.’

New edited book finally printed “Improving Early Literacy Outcomes” (IBE/Bril)

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I’m currently at the CIES conference in San Francisco where we launched a book that I co-edited with John Comings. The title of the book is “Improving Early Literacy Outcomes: Curriculum, Teaching and Assessment” and it focuses on early literacy in developing countries. My intro chapter (“Learning to Read and Write for Meaning and Pleasure“) provides an overview of the book and includes a few excerpts from chapter 4 (Pretorius, 2019) and chapter 11 (Menon et al, 2019). The book is available for purchase online here. The full list of chapters is included below:

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Presenting to the President

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Last month I got to meet President Ramaphosa as part of a roundtable he convened on the topic: “Strategies for long term prosperity: What would it take to place South Africa on a higher-growth trajectory?” There were 18 economists from academia and industry who were asked to give input on the topic. It doesn’t take a genius to guess that my presentation was entirely about education and getting the foundation right in Grades R-3. I’ve included my 3-page write up here and also below.

22 November 2018 – Ramaphosa Roundtable

Strategies for Long-term Prosperity

“What would it take to place SA on a higher-growth trajectory?”

Overview: The president has asked about two things (1) How to increase economic growth, and (2) how to share the gains of that growth. This note argues that neither of these two things are possible with the current broken primary education system. Currently less than half of South African children acquire basic skills in literacy or numeracy in primary school, they do not pass matric and they do not get jobs. The dysfunctional basic education system is the binding constraint to long-term inclusive economic growth. Ensuring all children learn to read-for-meaning and calculate-with-confidence by age 10 must become the apex priority of government. There is no route to a more equitable and prosperous South Africa that does not first chart the path of a radically improved primary education system. This is a difficult sell in the short-term but it is really the only way to a truly transformed South Africa.

The Problem

  • Mass unemployment: Half of all young people aged 15-34 years are unemployed by the broad definition (StatsSA, 2018) and the problem is getting worse. The unemployment rate for those under 24 years of age has risen since 2010 and the percentage of youth who have given up looking for work has also increased (De Lannoy et al., 2018: p7). This has also lead to a sense of exclusion among young people and heightened ‘levels of frustration and impatience’ (National Planning Commission 2012).
  • Severe inequality and a legacy of exclusion: South Africa today is the most unequal country in the world. The richest 10% of South Africans lay claim to 65% of national income and 90% of national wealth; the largest 90-10 gap in the world (Alvaredo et al, 2018, p. 150; Orthofer, 2016). Wealth and access to dignified work are still split along racial and geographic lines with poverty and unemployment concentrated among African and female youth, especially those living in rural areas and townships. White South Africans still make up two-thirds of the elite (the wealthiest 4% of society).

Figure 1: Racial composition of South Africa’s ‘classes’ (Source: Schotte et al, 2017: p.25). (Rand values are mean household expenditure per capita).

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The Root of the Problem

The dysfunctional primary schooling system: Of 100 children that start school, approximately 60 will reach and write matric, 37 will pass and 12 will access university. Only 4 will complete an undergraduate degree within 6 years. Low through-put rates and weak performance in high school is rooted in weak foundations from primary school (Spaull & Kotze, 2015, Van der Berg et al., 2016).

Figure 2: The qualifications pyramid in South Africa (Van Broekhuizen et al., 2016)

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Lack of foundational reading skills: Learning to read for meaning is the most critical skill children learn in primary school. It is the skill upon which all other skills depend. The South African curriculum stipulates that children should be able to read for meaning by the end of Grade 3 in their home-language and in English. The recent Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS 2016) study showed that 78% of South African Grade 4 children could not read for meaning in any language, that is they could not “locate and retrieve an explicitly stated detail.” Comparable figures in other countries are 64% (Morocco), 35% (Iran), 13% (Chile), and 3% (United Kingdom) (Mullis et al., 2017a).

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Lack of foundational mathematical skills: Learning to use the four operations effectively and with confidence is one of the most essential mathematical skills children learn in primary school. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 2015), 61% of South African Grade 5 learners could not do basic mathematics, that is they could not add and subtract whole numbers, have no understanding of multiplication by one-digit numbers and cannot solve simple word problems. (Mullis et al., 2017b)

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The Solution

Radical prioritization and focusing on Foundation Phase:. The first step towards fixing the education system is ruthless prioritization. South Africa does not have the financial resources, political capital or human expertise to solve many problems at the same time. Policy-makers and politicians needs to accept that underperformance in matric and high drop-out rates are rooted in weak foundations in primary school and specifically in Grades R-3. If 78% of Grade 4’s cannot read for meaning in any language they are precluded from success at school.  In mathematics, only a third of South African children are equipped to succeed which can reliably be traced back to primary school. We typically look at the approximately 360,000 matrics who pass (30%+) either Maths or Maths Literacy in 2017 which is about 36% of the original cohort. Yet if we look at Grade 9 we see that only 34% of Grade 9’s could do basic maths (TIMSS 2015), and if we look even earlier at Grade 5 we see that only 39% of Grade 5’s acquired basic numeracy (TIMSS-N 2015).

Business-as-usual is not working: Although there were considerable gains in learning outcomes in the 2003-2011 period, the 2011 to 2015 period has shown almost no improvement in learning outcomes (Spaull, 2019). Grade 4 reading outcomes did not improve between PIRLS 2011 and PIRLS 2016.

A ‘Marshall Plan’ for early grade reading and numeracy focusing on teachers:. Reforming the basic education system is not possible without changing (1) who is recruited into teaching, (2) the way that teachers are trained at universities and in schools, (3) the ways that teachers are deployed across schools, and (4) who has access to the functional part of the schooling system. None of these reforms are possible without significant buy-in from the majority teacher union, SADTU, which is itself not possible without the ruling party expending significant political capital. Being more selective about who is accepted to teacher training programs, providing existing teachers with meaningful learning opportunities, and incentivizing the best teachers to teach in the most challenging contexts will not be possible without additional resources and political will. We need a “Marshall Plan” for Reading and Numeracy and to drastically expand promising programs like the Early grade Reading Study (EGRS), which have been piloted, rigorously evaluated and shown to be successful in the North West and Mpumalanga. With a small army of reading coaches, resources, and lesson plans you could reach half of all primary schools within 8 years. It would cost R1,3billion per year.

A wise president: It’s true that there is no silver bullet to improving basic education, and yes, change in education takes a long time – certainly more than one term. However, there is no route to a more equitable and prosperous South Africa that does not first chart the path of a radically improved primary education system. A wise president, and one who will almost certainly win the election in May 2019, would realize that while improving basic education is a difficult sell in the short-term, it is really the only way to a truly transformed South Africa.

Great NYT article about the teaching of reading.

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I haven’t really been blogging for a while. Our Reading for Meaning project has absorbed all of my time and I’m in the process of recruiting to help fill some of the gaps we have (more on that in a later post). The article below on the teaching of reading was first published by the New York Times on 26 October 2018 (thanks Jonathan for forwarding it on to me!).  It’s a great read and the accompanying podcast is also worth listening to. The article is summarising the new evidence-based consensus around how to teach children to read in alphabetic languages (which includes all the African languages). I don’t think it’s overstepping the mark to say that the ‘reading wars’ of old, which pitted Whole Language against Phonics are over. There is no empirical support for a Whole Language approach, and much of the earlier WL theories have now been debunked by neuroscience (See Seidenberg’s 2016 book). The best (and most recent) peer-reviewed article summarising the evidence is “Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert” by Castles et al. (2018) – well worth the read. If you want the more accessible explanation see the article below. In short, we need to do better when training Foundation Phase teachers (both current and prospective) and focus on scientifically-validated methods of instruction rather than theories or beliefs that have no empirical base. As Schleicher says “Without data you are just another person with an opinion.

Why are we still teaching reading the wrong way? – Emily Hanford

Our children aren’t being taught to read in ways that line up with what scientists have discovered about how people actually learn.

It’s a problem that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than six in 10 fourth graders aren’t proficient readers. It has been this way since testing began. A third of kids can’t read at a basic level.

How do we know that a big part of the problem is how children are being taught? Because reading researchers have done studies in classrooms and clinics, and they’ve shown over and over that virtually all kids can learn to read — if they’re taught with approaches that use what scientists have discovered about how the brain does the work of reading. But many teachers don’t know this science.

What have scientists figured out? First of all, while learning to talk is a natural process that occurs when children are surrounded by spoken language, learning to read is not. To become readers, kids need to learn how the words they know how to say connect to print on the page. They need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. There are hundreds of studies that back this up.

 

But talk to teachers and many will tell you they learned something different about how children learn to read in their teacher preparation programs. Jennifer Rigney-Carroll, who completed a master’s degree in special education in 2016, told me she was taught that children “read naturally if they have access to books.” Jessica Root, an intervention specialist in Ohio, said she learned “you want to get” children “excited about what they’re reading, find books that they’re interested in, and just read, read, read.” Kathy Bast, an elementary school principal in Pennsylvania, learned the same thing. “It was just: Put literature in front of the kids, teach the story, and the children will learn how to read through exposure,” she said.

These ideas are rooted in beliefs about reading that were once commonly called “whole language” and that gained a lot of traction in the 1980s. Whole-language proponents dismissed the need for phonics. Reading is “the most natural activity in the world,” Frank Smith, one of the intellectual leaders of the whole-language movement, wrote. It “is only through reading that children learn to read. Trying to teach children to read by teaching them the sounds of letters is literally a meaningless activity.”

These ideas had been debunked by the early 2000s. It may seem as if kids are learning to read when they’re exposed to books, and some kids do pick up sound-letter correspondences quickly and easily. But the science shows clearly that to become a good reader, you must learn to decode words. Many whole-language proponents added some phonics to their approach and rebranded it “balanced literacy.”

But they did not give up their core belief that learning to read is a natural process that occurs when parents and teachers expose children to good books. So, while you’re likely to find some phonics lessons in a balanced-literacy classroom, you’re also likely to find a lot of other practices rooted in the idea that children learn to read by reading rather than by direct instruction in the relationship between sounds and letters. For example, teachers will give young children books that contain words with letter patterns the children haven’t yet been taught. You’ll see alphabetical “word walls” that rest on the idea that learning to read is a visual memory process rather than a process of understanding how letters represent sounds. You’ll hear teachers telling kids to guess at words they don’t know based on context and pictures rather than systematically teaching children how to decode.

Many teachers learn these approaches in their teacher preparation programs. Publishers perpetuate these ideas, and school districts buy in. But colleges of education — which should be at the forefront of pushing the best research — have largely ignored the scientific evidence on reading.

 

The National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed the syllabuses of teacher preparation programs nationwide and found that fewer than four in 10 taught the components of effective reading instruction identified by research. A study of early-literacy instruction in teacher preparation programs across the University of North Carolina system found that instructional strategies based on research were mentioned “in a cursory way, if at all, on most syllabuses.” (Some instructors required students to write their “personal philosophies” about how to teach reading.) Kelly Butler of the Barksdale Reading Institute in Mississippi interviewed more than 100 deans and faculty members of schools of education as part of a study of teacher preparation programs in the state and found that most of them could not explain basic scientific principles about how children learn to read.

It’s not just ignorance. There’s active resistance to the science, too. I interviewed a professor of literacy in Mississippi who told me she was “philosophically opposed” to phonics instruction. One of her colleagues told me she didn’t agree with the findings of reading scientists because “it’s their science.”

There is no excuse for this. Colleges of education have to start requiring that their faculties teach the science of reading. Children’s futures depend on it.

Emily Hanford (@ehanford) is a senior education correspondent for APM Reports and the producer of the audio documentary “Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?” This article is based on her reporting for that project.

The Emperor’s New Clothes – (reading and the 4th Industrial Revolution in SA)

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(This article of mine was first published by the Daily Maverick on the 10th of September 2018).

In 1837 Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story about a vain emperor who appoints two weavers (who turn out to be con-men) to make him a fabulous new garment. As the story goes, the weavers promise to make it from “wonderful cloth” that “would be invisible to everyone who was unfit for the job he held, or who was very simple in character.” Slightly afraid that he would not be able to see the cloth himself, the Emperor sends his wisest men to first observe the weavers at work and report back to him what they find. One after the next, the wise men and courtiers go to the see the con-men diligently working at empty looms and sewing imaginary cloth with their needles, but the wise men proclaim their admiration out of fear that they will be exposed as stupid or incompetent, each praising the work more loudly than the next; “What a splendid design! What glorious colours! Magnificent! Charming! Excellent!” Eventually the Emperor himself goes to see the finished works and, although seeing no clothes at all, he hears the praise of everyone else and fears being called out. The story ends with the Emperor parading through the town in his new clothes, where in reality he is prancing in his underwear. While everyone pretends to see the beautiful clothes, and look on with approval and announce their admiration, a child shouts “But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” at which point the public realise the whole thing was a farce. The story ends thus: “The Emperor was upset, for he knew that the people were right. However, he thought the procession must go on now! The lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold, and the Emperor walked on in his underwear.

So, what does this fairy-tale have to do with literacy in South Africa? It turns out quite a lot. Over the last two years, more and more otherwise sensible commentators have been starting to talk about terms like “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, “Artificial Intelligence” and “21st Century Skills.” There are long presentations about the need for children to learn coding in primary schools and for more explicit teaching of the 4 C’s (collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, communication). We are repeatedly exposed to Alvin Toffler’s quote that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those that cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” And that we are “preparing children for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet” (Richard Riley). All of this is obviously true. The world of work in the future will be radically different to what it is today. The premium on non-cognitive skills is rising as more and more advanced computers do what we used to do, only faster, cheaper and more reliably. But it is also true that 78% of South African Grade 4’s cannot read for meaning in any language in 2016 (according to PIRLS 2016). These statistics are from a reliable internationally-set assessment that 50 countries participate in. Interestingly, in the UK (where they are introducing coding in primary schools) the percentage of children that cannot read is a mere 3%. In the U.S. it is 4%, in Chile 13%, in Iran it is 35% (note Iran has the same GDP per capita as South Africa). If we were having this conversation in the U.K I would have a different opinion.

In South Africa about 80% of children can’t read properly after four years of full time schooling and we are told that we must be devoting more time and resources to teaching them to collaborate? Or think critically? Or to code? “In the future, they will need to know how to work with artificial intelligence.” They. Can’t. Read. This sentence that you’re reading now – they can’t. This is our Emperor and these are our fantastical clothes. Children that do not learn to read for meaning after three years of schooling are never going to learn these other skills or be employed in the 21st century. Yes, children of the future will need more and different skills, but you cannot leap-frog literacy. Learning to work collaboratively is not more important than learning to read. Learning to code is not more important than learning to read. That’s because you can’t do any of these other things properly if you don’t learn to read first. Some might say we can do both, together, reinforcing each other, but this neglects the fact that there are real trade-offs. I have yet to see any practical plans for how time and resources given to these other areas aren’t time and resources taken away from teaching reading – a skill that clearly the majority of children are not getting.

In addition to the above, we should not be introducing a third African language in schools where most children have not learned to read properly in their home language. Notwithstanding the above, this is now the policy, the “Incremental Introduction of African Languages”. If this were restricted to the 20% of schools where most children do learn to read, that would be fine, but it isn’t. For various political reasons, even struggling no-fee schools are now told that they must teach three languages, when they currently cannot even teach one. “What a splendid idea! How inclusive! How multicultural!”

I was at a high-level government workshop recently where the topic of implementing Swahili in pilot schools was discussed in a serious way – presumably because of a pan-African workshop that was held where the idea came up and was thought to be a good one by the President or a Minister. Where are the children saying: “But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” and helping to break us out of the spell of magical thinking. These “good ideas” are harmful distractions. We need to call a spade a spade and get back to basics. We need to be hard-nosed and shut down the 42 other priorities and programmes and “good ideas” that litter our primary schools and distract us from the one goal we can’t afford not to achieve: ensuring that all children learn to read for meaning by age 10. If I had to bet the farm on one skill that children will definitely still need in the 21st century, it would be high levels of literacy. Other things, yes, but literacy first.

Reading in African Languages (panel discussion – CT – 13 June)

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Funda Wande, together with the Education Fishtank will be co-hosting a panel discussion on the topic “What do we know about teaching early grade reading in African languages?” There is great line-up of panelists and I’m sure it is going to be a really interesting discussion. To RSVP click HERE.

Reading in African Languages: An Annotated Bibliography 2004-2017 (Pretorius, 2018)

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I think there is now broad-based agreement that most South African children do not acquire the skills and dispositions they need to read for meaning and enjoyment. The PIRLS Literacy 2016 results show that 78% of Grade 4 students couldn’t read in any language. The way forward is therefore to ‘get reading right.’ Given that more than 70% of South African children learn to read in an African language in Grades R-3, we need to understand more about how children learn to read in these languages, and that inevitably involves research. Do children from different language groups learn to read in different ways? The language structures (orthographies) of South African languages are quite different to each other. As we’ve pointed out in some of our earlier work, the same sentence in different languages looks very different:

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Should we be teaching Nguni languages (isiZulu, isiXhosa, SiSwati etc.) and Sotho languages (SeSotho, Setswana, Sepedi) in different ways? Or are these just peripheral differences that don’t change the overall approach. At the moment there is not a large body of research on this. However, Prof Lilli Pretorius has recently published an annotated bibliography of 40 studies (2004-2017) titled Reading in African Languages an Annotated Bibliography 2004-2017 under the PRIMTED banner. I include their blurb below:

“This annotated bibliography was compiled by Professor Lilli Pretorius of UNISA as part of the Primary Teacher Education Project (PrimTEd). It gives a summary account of research that has been done on reading in African languages from 2004 to 2017, more specifically on languages belonging mainly to the family of Southern African Bantu languages. It comprises over 40 annotated entries, mainly research articles from accredited journals, chapters from books and postgraduate dissertations or theses, and also lists several other sources closely related to reading in the African languages. Although it was originally compiled in 2017, it is designed in such a way that new entries can be added to it as new research emerges, and it will be regularly updated.”

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This is a great resource both for those just starting out in the field, but also for established researchers looking for an overview of what’s out there.

Many thanks to the Lilli and the PRIMTED team for doing and initiating this important work. I believe the English-as-First-Additional-Language (EFAL) annotated bibliography is soon to be released.

For those interested here is my Q&A with Lilli from 2014.

EGRS: Probably the most important education research/intervention post-apartheid

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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:

The Biggest Solvable Problem in SA: Reading

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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),
  3. 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

Vancouver Public Library. The Force is strong with this one.

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I recently had the privilege of visiting the incredible Vancouver Public Library for a few hours on Sunday morning and was totally blown away (thanks Kelsey for recommending it!). I was at the CIES education conference in town during the week and in hindsight I wish I had just spent it talking to the librarians instead, documenting what, how and why they do what they do. As it turns out, while I was wandering the floors of the library I was actually in the process of missing my flight home! In the end I had to book a series of one-way flights home which turned into a long (52-hours!) and expensive journey back to Cape Town. Nevertheless, I probably wouldn’t have had time to visit VPL had I not missed my flight. C’est la vie.

If I’m honest I found parts of my VPL experience a little emotionally overwhelming. I don’t think this was because of the library itself but rather because of the Canadian values and philosophy that it embodied. Walking around Vancouver and seeing various public announcements all in multiple languages was mirrored at VPL where half of an entire floor was dedicated to books published in other languages.

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There were also some children’s books in other languages but not nearly as many (or as diverse) as in the adult books section.

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The part that I found quite emotional was the “VPL Skilled Immigration Information Centre” which helps newly resident skilled immigrants find work. They have created 8-10 page booklets on each career with information on things like starting salaries, industry websites, and who the large employers are in that field. In the handbook on ECD practitioners there was even a section on “hidden jobs” and how to access these (jobs that aren’t advertised anywhere!).

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Like many people I have been following the US presidential nominations and the contrast between the Canadian and American responses to the Syrian refugee crisis are just worlds apart. America has agreed to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees while Canada is taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees (Note: American population: 319 million,  Canadian population: 35 million). But for me it actually wasn’t about the numbers it was about the tone and the attitude towards refugees (and diversity in general). This was one of the posters in the library:

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The day before I was taking the bus to the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park and saw a photo of a Syrian girl on the side of the bus with an explanation that the government of Canada would match dollar-for-dollar any donation Canadians made to charities supporting the Syrian refugees (Red Cross, UNICEF, Save the Children etc.), and that this was up to $100 million. Once at Capilano I was also encouraged by the way that the official guides spoke of the traditions and knowledge of the First Nations people. As we walked around the park the guides told us why the First Nation’s people named certain trees the way they did and about their cultural traditions and practices. At no point did I feel that they were being exoticised or belittled. Their insights and names were woven into the park’s signs and boards and included in the children’s treasure/science hunt maps.

Back to the library, thisScreen Shot 2016-03-19 at 3.28.49 PM disposition towards diversity was strongly emphasised. The library not only has an Author-in-Residence, but also an Aboriginal-Storyteller-in-Residence aiming to foreground and highlight the oral tradition of the aboriginal people.

Throughout the library there were references to Syria and the refugee crisis with materials, both for Canadians and Syrians. In the children’s section there was even a list of picture books about refugees from other countries to help children understand what was going on.

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I was so impressed by the work that the children’s librarians had done. There were curated reading lists for different age groups and different topics with brief explanations of each book next to a picture of the front page. The front covers of each booklet are included below:

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Forging the path of what a library looks like in the 21st century

Another thing I was struck by was how modern and professional everything looked. Apart from things like couches, computers, wifi and art, I got the distinct sense that the library was trying to claim for itself a space in the digital age. At the VPL Inspiration Lab there were multiple recording rooms  with specialist microphones and video-cameras, green-screens, conversion devices (digitising VHS, for example). And all of this was free. There were also pamphlets and courses on things like how to save a document, how to browse the internet, and how to use social media (presumably for the elderly).

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In fact while I was walking around the Inspiration Lab I saw someone giving a talk to about 12 people on ISBN numbers and how to publish your own book, and someone recording their narration of a book…

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And this is something that is explicitly encouraged and facilitated by the library:

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Since coming home and reading their Annual Report I quickly realised that the VPL is not the norm, either in Canada or in the OECD countries, and certainly not in South Africa. The Vancouver Public Library was ranked the best library in the world in one study. Now obviously these rankings (like all rankings) are a little dodgy, but the point is that this is one of the top libraries in the world.

My thoughts about VPL have been sloshing around in my brain for a week now and I’ve started realising a number of things about myself and public versus private goods. Growing up I think we did visit the public library a few times but it wasn’t anything spectacular or interesting. I never developed a love of public libraries or fully appreciated the role they could play in providing a social commons where books, information and knowledge were the principal means of engagement and interaction. Rather they were low-budget cranky places with old books and old people. Instead I developed a love of book-shops and book ownership. I think this was because walking around a good book shop felt welcoming and interesting; it has new books, has displays, has events (book launches, readings, discussions), it doesn’t feel grimy. But this is only because I can afford to buy the books that I like. And so here I start to see in my own life one small example of the way that the South African cogs work to perpetuate an unequal system. I don’t use a public library because they are of low quality, I buy books instead. So I never see the value of funding and using a great public library (at least until now). So here we are with thousands of wealthy people with small private libraries essentially each creating their own space that could otherwise be collectively provided by a great public library (and with public funds), which could then also be used by everyone.

I’m sure you can see that it’s not difficult to find the parallels between this and the private provision of healthcare, schooling, legal services, recreational facilities etc as compared to the public provision of these services. So it feels like we’re in a low-level equilibrium where the rich in SA can afford to fund for themselves whatever they need without any recourse to their tax money, and the poor are forced to accept whatever the government provides. This explains why many tax-payers (at least the South African tax-payers I know) see their tax as a kind of fee where you pay it with little expectation of return or service.

It costs a lot of money to fund and operate the 22 libraries that make up the Vancouver Public Library system, R527 million to be exact. Yet 94% of Vancouver residents support the use of tax dollars to fund the VPL.

If I had to say, I do not think that we can simply say “the first step is that the libraries that we do have need to better serve the communities within which they are situated.” while of course that is true, the apartheid legacy means that there are very few well-resourced libraries in the poorest areas (notably townships). I think it is an open question, and one that’s worth discussing, whether a functioning public library system that has the expertise and resources to support local residents (and especially local schools) is worth the considerable resources it would take to create such a system. The case needs to be made that (and in my view, is yet to be made) that it is possible to create such a library given our capacity and resource constraints. And secondly that it is a better use of resources than additional money on housing, child-support grants, teacher development etc.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts Equal Education, Nal’ibali, Bookery, Fundza, Bookdash and everyone in this space. Should we be funnelling millions of rands into creating functional public libraries in low-income high-density locations like Khayalitsha? Why aren’t we? Do we know how to do it? Who should lead the way?

Assessing oral reading fluency – some resources for teachers and researchers

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Over the past year I have been doing some research on oral reading fluency (ORF) with Kim Draper (CDE) and Elizabeth Pretorius (UNISA). The journal article version of my paper with Kim should be available later this month in the SAJCE but you can read a Working Paper version here and the abstract at the end of this post. Lilli and I are in the process of submitting our article to journals so there is no version currently available, but there should be one early next year.

reading fluencyFor those who are unfamiliar with oral reading fluency, it is the speed at which written text is reproduced as spoken language, or put more simply, it is how quickly and accurately you can read aloud. It is one of the components of the “Big 5” which originated in the National Reading Panel in the US. Although this is a fundamental component of reading, it is rarely assessed in South African schools.

The way one usually goes about testing oral reading fluency is to sit down with a student 1-on-1 and ask the student to read a specific passage aloud. While the student is reading the passage the assessor times the reading and also follows the text on her own copy of the passage, marking any errors. At the end of the reading, or after one minute (depending on how one is administering the test), the assessor records the time, totals the number of errors and then can calculate a score called “Total Words Read Correctly Per Minute” or WCPM. This is calculated as the total of all the words in the passage up to where the student was at one minute, and then subtracting the total number of errors to give Words Correct Per Minute. Given that the same passage is used for all students this method creates a measure that is comparable across students or schools.

In 2013 the National Education and Evaluation Development Unit (NEEDU) conducted a study where they tested the oral reading fluency of 1772 Grade 5 students (all English Second Language students) from 213 schools in rural areas. The results of that study can be found here. Kim Draper and Nick Taylor were the lead researchers on this project.

A few days ago a principal from a primary school in South Africa emailed me to ask if there were any books that I would recommend that he reads over the holidays (for those interested I recommended this book and this one). But it reminded me that it would be helpful to post a link to the oral reading fluency assessments that NEEDU used to test the grade 5 students in their 2013 sample. That way other researchers can use the same tools and compare their results to those of NEEDU, and also so that primary school teachers can see how to assess oral reading fluency, with the aim of doing their own oral reading fluency assessments. So here they are 🙂 – all the materials used by NEEDU are available in THIS appendix. That includes the two reading comprehension passages, the questions associated with them and the instructions to the ORF assessors.

For those who want to assess first language English speakers or to assess other grades, I would also recommend looking at the “Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading: Ongoing Progress Monitoring, Oral Reading Fluency Grades 1-5” which has a number of passages for each grade.

If you’re a teacher or a researcher and have conducted your own oral reading fluency assessments, I’d love to hear about how you did it, what lessons you learned, if the materials are available online etc. Please post any comments or links below.

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Abstract:

The ability to read for meaning and pleasure is arguably the most important skill children learn in primary school. One integral component of learning to read is Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), defined as the ability to read text quickly, accurately, and with meaningful expression. Although widely acknowledged in the literature as important, to date there have been no large-scale studies on ORF in English in South Africa, despite this being the language of learning and teaching for 90% of students from Grade 4 onwards. As part of the National Education and Evaluation Development Unit (NEEDU) of South Africa, we collected and here analyze data on 4667 grade 5 English Second Language (ESL) students from 214 schools across rural areas in South Africa. This included ORF and comprehension measures for a subset of 1772 students. We find that 41% of the sample were non-readers in English (<40WCPM) and only 6% achieved comprehension scores above 60%. By calibrating comprehension levels and WCPM rates we develop tentative benchmarks and argue that a range of 90-100 WCPM in English is acceptable for grade 5 ESL students in South Africa. In addition we outline policy priorities for remedying the reading crisis in the country.

Reading to some purpose…

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As part of one my research projects we are now focussing on reading in the Foundation Phase (Grades 1-3) and developing a course to train Foundation Phase teachers how to teach reading, because, as it turns out, most Foundation Phase teachers don’t actually know how to teach reading (in an African language or in English). We’re getting the best literacy experts in the country on it and developing a world class video-based, year-long, part-time course showing practically what the various building blocks of reading are, why they’re important, how to teach them, and when. It’s still in the concept note phase – and you’ll hear more about it in the next 3 months – but for now here are some great articles and books about reading: