Creating your own excitement


For a while now my blog has only been about ‘professional’ things in my life: links and presentations related to education, current research and that kind of stuff. But in the beginning I had always intended to combine my ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ in the same place. I like to read about other people’s lives, not just their ‘work’. What do they think about children? spirituality? where do they go when they are scared? That stuff interests me much more than the stuff they publish. And so I think that documenting my own thoughts, beliefs, doubts, realisations and anxieties – that stuff is probably as central to my work as any academic argument that resonates with me. And all these things affect what I spend my time on. And I suppose that’s what life is; what we spend our time on.


So this is an attempt to try and bring back some of the personal into my largely ‘professionalised’ blog. I think one of the reasons why it morphed into a more work-life-only space was that I was thinking too much about who was reading my blog and whether deeply personal reflections were appropriate. So I’ve resolved that question by deciding that basically the only sustainable approach for me is to be able to bring all of who I am to whatever I’m doing. That means I can’t ring-fence my work and not talk about politics or social justice at the dinner table. It is a pet-peeve (read: serious fucking irritation) when people at dinner say things like “Can we move onto talking about something less intense?” FFS. This is when I take two deep breaths and usually make eye-contact with a close friend with a deadpan expression that broadly means “Why are we here?” or (more frequently) “Why did we invite this person to dinner?” Now, don’t get me wrong. I love banter and humor or lols as much as the next person, but when small-talk dominates the discussion I genuinely feel like I am wasting my whole life. I kid you not, some people can spend 45 minutes talking about whether one should put the fire-lighters on top of the charcoal or underneath the charcoal. I die.


Anyways, that’s all just a sidebar to say that I can’t dichotomise work and play easily. And I am actively moving in the other direction. I’ve been mulling over some life things for a while and thought I’d create a listicle (who doesn’t love a good listicle!). Some realisations or thoughts or rants or text on the page:

(1) I want to live my life more deliberately. I agree that sounds super corny and cheap but it’s in relation to a quote from Paul Kalanithi’s book:

“If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?”

I’ve explained the whole realisation in a lot more detail here. But the essence is that we typically regret the things we didn’t do rather than those we did (duh!) and that doubt and fear kill many more dreams than failure or rejection do.


(2) I want to work with people I enjoy spending time with. 

I’ve decided that I will make a conscious effort to find myself in situations where I get to work with people whose company I enjoy. I think I landed with my bum in the butter work-wise in that I get to do that pretty much every day. The people I work with at RESEP are such lovely mensches. And more recently I have started my own team of people at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment with our Funda Wande project (website imminent!). Essentially a multi-media course to teach Foundation Phase teachers how to teach reading. I get so much energy and inspiration from the people I work with and I want to find ways of making sure that we find time to laugh and joke even when things are tight and deadlines are looming. More on this in the future…

(3) There are lots of people talking-about-the-work and very few people doing-the-work.  On the surface these two types of people look quite similar and play in similar spaces but in reality there is a huge chasm between the two. Cutting ribbons, giving talks, writing op-eds, making policies – essentially speaking about what needs to be done – are people I increasingly have less and less time for. This is not to say that just because people are ‘in the trenches’ that what they are doing is more important or more honorable or whatever. It’s more about whether or not people are actually tackling a particularly vexing issue or not. There is a big difference (which I am realising daily!) between saying “We need to develop benchmarks in African languages” and realising “This involves a lot of work, will cost a lot of money but it’s not something we can get around. For whatever reason no one is actually doing this. OK let’s get to work.” On this particular issue of benchmarks in African languages HERE is our first stab at this (paper to follow soon!).


ass kicked

(4) You have to create your own excitement. I think this is probably my biggest realisation and one that I keep coming back to. I have a tendency to fall into an external locus of control (“The belief that events in one’s life, whether good or bad, are caused by uncontrollable factors such as the environment, other people, or a higher power“). My knee-jerk reaction when things aren’t great in life is that this is because someone else has not done something they should have. lol. One of my favourite lines is “Just do your job.” Needless to say I loved the memes that were generated when Kim Davis (a county clerk in Kentucky) didn’t to do her job and defied the US Supreme Court in refusing to register gay marriages. It spawned a whole series of protests and memes with the hashtag #doyourjob and the like. Two of my favourites:



Anyways that’s a roundabout way of saying that I often find reasons outside of me, essentially, as to why things aren’t going well. And therefore the solution is that those things outside of me need to change before I can be happy again. This is obviously a really shitty life strategy. One of the perennial issues is excitement. Energy. Enthusiasm. Drive. Doing lots of work is easy when the fires are burning and the drive is there in full flow. The problem is when it goes, as it does. What do I do when I don’t actually want to jump out of bed and prepare for a presentation or write or read or talk or do anything that involves me getting out of bed? Sometimes I go to the beach for 2 days and do nothing but lie in the sun and listen to music. This is an extremely effective tonic. I usually get very bored of that and super excited about something I was working on and jump back into work. But what happens when that doesn’t work (or it’s winter!)? I’m still figuring this one out but I think the answer lies somewhere in the neighborhood of things like agency and being able to talk yourself out of moods or ruts, taking actions that you know will help (organise a dinner, see your therapist, encourage friends, do something you haven’t done before etc.), reflect. Be an adult. lol.

mediocreany idea

(5) The urgent and the important – make sure you find time for important stuff not just urgent stuff. This is a very new realisation. I think it dawned on me that I was mortgaging people for short-term deadlines. I know I am late to this party but I’m realising that deadlines never disappear they are only ever replaced by other deadlines. Maybe losing the joy of work is the canary in the cageThe first big warning sign that you need to take a step back and re-evaluate what’s happening in your life. And maybe that’s what this is; realising that I like the people in my life. I like the work I do. I like the country I live in. Life is good and I shouldn’t forget it. And no flurry of deadlines or seemingly urgent things should mess with that. That’s me for now.


Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 12.38.09 PM






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

EGRS logo final Setswana

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:

Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 2.05.49 PM

Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 2.06.09 PM

Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 2.06.18 PM

Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 2.06.33 PM

There are also three additional EGRS reports:

My Q&A with Nali Bali

Usually the sensational titles that sub-editors choose to use drives me crazy. This time I actually love that they focus on this quote about the lack of NRF Chairs in African Languages: 100% true!! 

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 3.18.15 PM

The edited Q&A is available on the TimesLive site here. But my unedited answers are here:

You’ve talked before about reading being South Africa’s biggest solvable problem. But the recent pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) survey puts the number of Grade Four children who cannot read for meaning in any language at 58%. Where to begin turning this around?

I think there are a number of ‘basics’ that we need to get in place to rectify this problem. They can broadly be grouped under ‘Time’, ‘Text’ and ‘Teachers’.

Teachers: I think we need to ensure that all teachers actually know how to teach reading. Unfortunately most teachers have not been taught what the various components of reading are (phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency and motivation) or how these fit together into a cohesive whole. Currently teachers focus on communalized activities like chorusing and offer very little differentiation or individualized instruction or assessment. There is little formal teaching of vocabulary, spelling, writing or phonics and almost no understanding of how to develop the most important skill in reading: comprehension. Countless research studies have shown that our teachers simply do not know how to teach reading and writing systematically. 

Text: Given that 70% of children in South Africa are learning to read in an African language in grades 1-3 before transitioning into English in Grade 4, we need to ensure that there are enough texts available to actually teach reading. I’ve recently looked at the number of graded readers that exist in the African languages and most series have 15 very short books per year from grades 1-3. This is simply unacceptable. If one looks at wealthy English schools children are reading up to 200 graded books per year. They usually take one home per day. We really need to increase the number and quality of resources available in African languages.

Time: A number of studies have shown that teachers are only using about 50% of the instructional time that is available during the year. As a result children do not have enough opportunity to learn to read.

At grade four level, children are expected to transition between the phases of ‘learn to read’ and ‘read to learn’ – essentially being able to read for meaning. Yet it’s also the age when schools tend to switch children from mother-tongue education to English-language instruction. That sounds like a recipe for disaster?

The transition to English in grade 4 is fraught with difficulties. For learners that have not become literate in their home language in grades 1-3 it is almost impossible to become literate in a second language (English). I think this points to two things: (1) deficiencies in how we are teaching home language in grades 1-3 and (2) deficiencies in how we are teaching English First Additional Language (EFAL) in grades 1-3. There is also a dearth of research on this transiton. The best research on this comes from the work of Carol MacDonald in the Threshold Project which was done in 1989! We need more research on the transition and how to ensure that learners are not only bilingual but also biliterate.

It’s worth noting that a number of other African countries also transition to English in Grade 4 and have much better reading outcomes than we do. The transition to English in Grade 4 is certainly not unique to South Africa.

Text-poor environments are definitely a contributor to our national literacy crisis. What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve come across to encourage production of books in indigenous languages?

 I think the move to develop graded readers in the African languages from scratch is a great example of progress. Up until recently most of the graded readers that had been developed in African languages were just translations from English, and often would lost all the ‘grading’ in the translations. This is because some words and themes that are ‘easy’ in English are actually very difficult in some African languages. The Vula Bula books by Molteno are a good example of de novo graded readers that were developed with the concept of grading in the specific language. I think the work of Nali Bali is also really important – developing stories written by home-language speakers and easily accessible to children.

It’s not just hard to find published literature in indigenous languages, there’s a dearth of linguistic research too – there are no oral reading fluency benchmarks for African languages, for example. Where would you particularly like to see significant change?

100%. This drives me absolutely crazy. Why on earth are there no National Research Foundation (NRF) Chairs in teaching reading in African languages?! Why is early grade reading research not a national research priority with priority funding? This is such a huge scandal in South Africa. The absolute failure of PanSALB to do what it was mandated to do by Parliament is a disgrace. While it’s great to see individual publishers and authors pushing forward and publishing books and stories in African languages, ultimately we need the funding and commitment from government that this is a national priority.

You’ve talked about making the achieving of mother tongue reading competency by grade three a prioritized national goal. What – and how long – might it take to achieve this?

To be 100% honest this will take time. It takes time to train teachers. Get high quality resources I nevery classroom and every home. We could create a great campaign and say that it needs to be done by 2020 and try and galvanize everyone, but that’s just not how long these things take. I think a ten-year time-horizon is probably more realistic. Even that is really ambitious. The Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen uses the Japanese experience in the mid-19th century as a classic example of the relentless focus on basic education. Soon after the Meiji restoration of 1868 The Fundamental Code of Education was issued (1872) which stated that there must be “no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person.” By 1913 the country was almost entirely literate, publishing more books than Britain and more than twice as many as the United States, even though it was much poorer than both of these countries. But none of this happens without a country-wide commitment to eradicating illiteracy and ensuring that every South African can read for meaning and pleasure.


My ‘Lead the Change’ Q&A with AERA SIG

See below for a Q&A session I did for the Augest edition of “Lead the Change” run by the AERA SIG on Educational Change. PDF here.

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 8.55.00 AM

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 8.55.12 AM

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 8.55.22 AM

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 8.55.31 AM

DBE is hiring… (closing 14 Aug)


The Department of Basic Education (DBE) is advertising vacancies for a number of high-level posts. If you know of great candidates please forward this on to them. Our education system is only as good as the bureaucrats who help run it 🙂

PDF with full job descriptions and salaries HERE.

Some of them that might be interesting to some of you…

POST: Chief Director: (Ref no: 22435/02)

BRANCH: Curriculum Policy, Support and Monitoring
CHIEF DIRECTORATE: Curriculum and Quality Enhancement Programmes
SALARY: All-Inclusive remuneration package of R 1 068 564 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

POST: Chief Director: (Ref no: 22435/03)

BRANCH: Teacher and Professional Development
CHIEF DIRECTORATE: National Institute for Curriculum and Professional Development (NICPD)
SALARY: All-Inclusive remuneration package of R 1 068 564 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

POST: Director: (Ref no: 22435/05)

BRANCH: Planning, Information and Assessment
DIRECTORATE: National Assessments
SALARY: All-Inclusive remuneration package of R 898 743 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

POST: Director: (Ref no: 22435/06)

Branch: Planning, Information and Assessment
Directorate: Education Management Information Systems (EMIS)
SALARY: All-Inclusive remuneration package of R 898 743 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

POST: Assistant Director: Integrated Quality Management Systems (IQMS) (Ref no: DBE/40/2017)
Branch: Teacher and Professional Development
Directorate: Educator Performance Management and Development and Whole School Evaluation

SALARY: R 417 552 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria

POST: Assistant Director (Reporting, Publication and Information Dissemination): (Ref no: DBE/42/2017)
Branch: Planning, Information and Assessment
Directorate: Education Management Information Systems (EMIS)

SALARY: R 417 552 per annum
CENTRE: Pretoria



Barbara Band’s links on diversity and inclusion

barbaraLast week I spoke at the South African Librarian’s Conference at Highbury in KZN (presentation one and presentation two) and heard Barbara Band speak about how the library can be a vital tool to make schools more inclusive and help all students thrive. It struck a cord for me because in high school I basically lived in the library during breaks for three years. My librarians weren’t especially empathetic or insightful but it was still a safe place in an unsafe school. As always we can’t forget that South Africa is a deeply unequal country and that only 37% of learners are in a school with a library (Page 20 from this DBE report).

In Barbara’s address she mentioned a bunch of different sites and resources and I asked her to email them to me so I could share the mall with you, so here they are:

Booklists and bookshops:


List of organisations that support diversity and inclusion:

  • Ditch The Label – anti-bullying charity supporting 12 – 25 year olds
  • EACH – Educational Action Challenging Homophobia: provides training, support and resources.
  • Educate and Celebrate – Ofsted and DFE recognised programme to implement LGBTQ/inclusive curriculum
  • Gendered Intelligence – a not-for-profit company whose aim is to increase understandings of gender diversity.
  • GIRES – Gender Identity Research and Education Society: aim is to improve lives of trans and gender non-conforming people. Lots of links to articles, research, legal advice, etc.
  • 6IGLYO – International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth and Student Organisation: works with over 95 LGBTQ groups, run by and for young people.
  • Inclusive Minds – a group of consultants and campaigners working to improve diversity in children’s literature.
  • Kidscape – deals with anti-bullying and child protection
  • Mermaids – Family and individual support for children and teens with Gender Identity Issues.
  • 4Metro – Equality and diversity charity, focusing mainly around London and South East.
  • Rewind – works in education to challenge racism and extremism
  • Schools Out UK – aim is to make schools safe and inclusive for everyone: lots of links to resources and other relevant websites.
  • Stonewall – help and advice, carries out research, partners with schools and organisations, lots of resources.
  • Welcoming Schools – aimed at US elementary schools but has useful information, advice, etc.




Funda Wande: Teaching Reading for Meaning

[A little info on what I’ve been working on for the last while – more details to come in the coming months!]

Guest blog post I wrote for the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation from here

Overview: South Africa is virtually unique among upper-middle-income countries in that most of our children (58%) do not learn to read for meaning in the first three years of school[1]. Without this core skill, they fall further and further behind as they are promoted into higher grades. While there are many reasons for this reading crisis one of the most prominent is that Foundation Phase teachers do not know (and have never been taught) how to teach reading. The Funda Wande: Teaching Reading for Meaning” project aims to help address this course by developing a high-quality, free, open-access and SAQA-approved course: the ‘Certificate in Teaching Early Grade Reading.” All course materials will be available in isiXhosa (the pilot language) and subtitled in English. There will also be an English First Additional language sub-course. It is largely video-based with on-site coaches visiting teachers in their classrooms once every two weeks.


In the 21st Century we live in a world that is inundated with written language, or ‘print’. We see it in our newspapers, on our contracts, on the screens of our cell phones and the pages of our school books. From the policies of government to the signs on our roads, it is the essential ingredient in modern life. Print is everywhere. And this is why reading is so important. Learning to crack the code of how we represent spoken language using symbols is a big part of why we go to school. We learn the differences between b and d, or between p and q. Moving from letters and syllables to words and sentences we can read about pirates, pigs and pixies or earth-quakes and igloos. Once we have cracked the code the possibilities are endless. This is the joy of being initiated into the literate world.

Aside from the practical importance of reading to make our way through the world, reading (and writing) is essential for participation in formal education since the ability to decode text, read with comprehension and learn from reading is the bedrock of most activities in institutions of learning. If reading is not mastered early on, progress in schooling is restricted. Unfortunately nationally representative surveys (prePIRLS) show that more than half (56%)[2] of South African children do not learn to read fluently and with comprehension in any language by the end of Grade 4. But, as with most averages in South Africa, it hides huge inequalities. If we compare the wealthiest 10% of these learners with the poorest 50% the differences are astounding. Among the richest learners 86% learn to read for meaning compared to less than 30% among the poorest half of learners. Why is this?

One of the main reasons behind this reading crisis is that our teachers have never been given meaningful learning opportunities to acquire this specialized knowledge, neither in their initial teacher training nor in subsequent in-service training. They often do not know what the various components of reading are (phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency and motivation) or how these fit together into a cohesive whole. Many teachers are also confused about how to implement different reading methodologies like group-guided reading or shared reading. Currently teachers focus on communalized activities like chorusing and offer very little differentiation or individualized instruction or assessment. There is also little formal teaching of vocabulary, spelling, writing or phonics and almost no understanding of how to develop the most important skill in reading: comprehension. Importantly, while the majority of our learners are learning to read in an African language (70%+), almost all universities only offer pre-service instruction on teaching reading in English.


To help fill this gap, we are designing a new course to help make sure that all Foundation Phase teachers in the country know how to teach reading in their home-language and in English as a First Additional Language. The “Funda Wande: Teaching Reading for Meaning” project was initiated at the start of 2017 at the request of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment Trustees and is now funded by the Endowment together with two funding partners: The Volkswagen Community Trust and the Millennium Trust. The course is currently being developed for two languages: isiXhosa  and English First Additional Language. Using professionally filmed in-classroom videos, animations, info-graphics and other multi-media the course will teach the major components of reading and writing.

The 11 modules are: (1) How children learn to read, (2) Decoding in reading and writing, (3) Comprehension, (4) Vocabulary, (5) Children’s literature, (6) CAPS reading activities, (7) English as a First Additional Language, (8) Writing, (9) Reading assessment and remediation, (10) Inclusive education, and (11) Planning and progression. The course will be a credit-bearing Certificate accredited by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). The course and all materials developed in the course will be openly licensed (Creative Commons) and freely available for anyone to use. It will be offered as a Certificate in Teaching Early Grade Reading by at least one public university in South Africa. The course will be evaluated in 2019-2021. If the evaluation of the course shows that it significantly raises teachers’ content knowledge and improves their teaching practice, and importantly raises the reading outcomes of the learners they teach – the mandate is to adapt the course and offer it in all of South Africa’s official languages. Ensuring that all teachers know how to teach reading and writing is the first step in ensuring that all South African children learn to read for meaning and pleasure.

If you are an expert in teaching early grade reading in isiXhosa and would like to be involved in the project or to find out more information please email me nicspaull[at]

[1] This statistic is taken from one of the nationally-representative datasets of reading achievement in South Africa (prePIRLS, 2011). See Spaull (2016) for a fuller discussion of the results from the PIRLS and prePIRLS studies.

[2] Spaull, N (2016). Learning to read and reading to learn. Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) Policy Brief. Stellenbosch.