Category Archives: reading

Presenting to the President

Group photo - Ramaphosa Roundtable 2018

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)


(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)


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)


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:


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


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