There are lots of things that are wrong with South Africa at the moment. As I type this our parliament is in the process of deciding whether President Ramaphosa should be subject to an impeachment inquiry. But even when things are dark (literally), and the prospects for improvement are dim, South Africa still has a lot of things going for it. I’ll mention just one of them: a thriving community of scholars who give a shit about the country, who want to do impactful research, and who really care about improving the life chances of poor kids. Not many people know that before COVID hit, South Africa’s learning outcomes were improving quickly. That is to say they were both improving and terrible at the same time – they are not mutually exclusive. This week Oxford University Press published three volumes on (1) Early Grade Reading, (2) Early Grade Mathematics, and (3) Early Grade Reading and Mathematics Interventions. A few years ago a few of us were discussing progress in reading and mathematics outcomes and we all agreed that we know so much more today than we did in 2010. In some areas (TVET and housing, for example) we know almost nothing more in 2022 than we did in 2010. Things are bad and we don’t really know how to improve them at scale. In early grade reading and mathematics things are different. We have much more data now, we have a whole wave of new research and (excitingly) new researchers. We decided that we should write a book to try and document what we now know at the end of the first decade. We quickly realised that it wouldn’t fit into one volume, and so now we have three! Although I suppose I was the chief cat-herder across the volumes, the entire series was a collaborative effort. The folk at Oxford University Press (Megan, Marisa, Ashley and the copy-editors) were efficient, professional, flexible and passionate about the project. Our excellent editorial assistant (Jess Qvist) made sure that no ball remained dropped for too long. My co-editors Lilli, Stephen, Hamsa and Nicky were exactly what you want in academic colleagues – smart, funny, friendly, punctual, and always ready to call you on your bullshit. It’s such a nice way to close off the year to see the books in print, and also as Open Access ePDFs which are free to download. Of course nothing is ever the final word and research is an iterative process so we look forward to everyone’s comments and critiques and will most certainly have an in-person launch event in the new year!
For now you can download all three volumes here.
“Collectively the three books bring together 77 authors from disciplines including economics, linguistics, literacy studies, mathematics education, teacher education, and policy studies. Although their domains and methods of analysis may differ, all authors grappled with the same underlying question: why is it that so few young children in South Africa acquire the building blocks of reading and mathematics in the first years of school? While international large-scale assessments have drawn increasing attention to learning outcomes at the primary school level, there is now a broad-based consensus that the roots of the problem lie even earlier than upper primary school. International assessments like PIRLS and TIMSS show that 60–80% of Grade 4 and 5 learners cannot read for meaning or calculate using the four operations, but emerging research documented in these volumes highlights that more than 50% of learners at the end of Grade 1 do not know all the letters of the alphabet, and cannot add and subtract single-digit numbers.
It is this challenge that animates the research across these three volumes, with an analytic focus on lessons learnt in the last decade (2010–2022). While learning outcomes in South Africa before the Covid-19 pandemic were improving quickly by international standards, the chapters included here present evidence for both optimism and alarm. Optimism because system-wide improvements do not happen accidentally or in a vacuum. Alarm because in 2022 it is still the case that the dignity and life-chances of millions of children in South Africa are foreclosed because they do not learn to read for meaning, or do mathematics with understanding in the first three years of school.
As a group of scholars committed to understanding and documenting the roots of both blockages and breakthroughs in reading and mathematics, it is our hope that you, the reader, find this new research interesting, helpful, generative, and challenging.”