Video of panel discussion: Teaching reading in African languages (13 June 2018)

For those of you that couldn’t be at the panel discussion on “What do we know about teaching early grade reading in African languages?“, the video of the event is now on YouTube here.


Links I liked…


These are some things I’ve been reading and listening to over the last while. Sharing is caring 🙂 Post yours in the comments below…

  • “Bread and roses” – political slogan and poem – sung by The Radcliffe Pitches  (thanks Brett!). The phrase “Give us bread but give us roses too” resonated with me as the most succinct way of expressing that the fight for dignity is about more than meeting basic needs.
  • Linked to the above poem, I really enjoyed Joel Modiri’s article “The Law’s Poverty” and the clash between an a-historical human-rights approach to the law and a historically-situated “justice” approach to the law.
  • To be or not to be” – Masha Gessen on choice, Jewishness, identity, emigration and America (thanks again Brett!)
  • STARI – Excellent resources on reading in Middle School (Grade 6-8). The STARI project run by Catherine Snow –
  • WordGen – More resources on developing vocabulary through a 72-week discussion program (Catherine Snow’s baby)
  • Huapango – a Mexican folklore ballet showcasing the incredible cultural variety and richness of the Mexican peoples. Each part of the song was created with a one group in mind and the ballet showcases their traditional dances and outfits. I’ve been listening to this on repeat for about a month (Thanks Victor!)
  • Jonathan Jansen’s address to the Stanford Senate: “The case for the Academic Senate” – I include an excerpt from that address below:

“What does this say about the role of the Senate? Quite simply, the question of knowledge is at its root a question of agenda-setting in any Senate. This points to leadership, of the President and in particular of the Senate executive. A university Senate has a choice. It can be primarily a place of administrative regulations, rules and procedures but it can also be an arena in which the “big questions” of academy and society come to enjoy prominence on the Agenda.  I wish to suggest five such big questions (the first already referenced earlier) that should constitute a major part of the agenda of Academic Senates concerned with the purposes of a university in the 21st century:

(1) The representational contents of the curriculum (what we teach)

It matters enormously that Senates step back on a regular basis and ask questions about knowledge, identity and curriculum. What knowledge matters in the 21st century? Whose knowledge “makes it” into the curriculum? And is the Stanford graduate in any field of study equipped to encounter and act on a complex (integrated and divided) world?

(2) The complexion of the professoriate (who teaches)

It does matter that a Senate asks questions of who teaches. The strength of the best universities in the world depends crucially on the recruitment of the best talent across contexts, cultures and countries. It also conveys to students (and faculty) a crucial point that advanced knowledge is not locked up in one race, gender or culture.

(3) The diversity of the undergraduate (and also graduate) enrolments (whom we teach)

It matters that a Senate keeps returning to the question of who the student is we are privileged to teach. All students benefit from the knowledge that comes with learning from and alongside students from different class, race and ethnic backgrounds but also from other countries. (It always puzzles me that a university can boast, for the purposes of improved rankings, about the exclusivity of its entering first year class). It is also true that the strength of Stanford’s academic programs has always depended on the recruitment of the most talented graduate students on the planet.

(4) The methods of teaching (how we teach)

It is difficult to imagine a Senate in the heart of the Silicon Valley not returning to the agenda the question of the best technologies (in the broadest sense of the word) for teaching in this century. I know Stanford does this well. And yet efficacious teaching is about much more than technology-led instruction or teaching innovations in the classroom; it is about powerful teaching that engages student minds, develops criticality, stirs social and intellectual discomfort, and prepares those who seek learning to become comfortable with uncertainty. In short, how does the Stanford Senate account for teaching in this large and complex institution?

(5) The impacts on learning (whether teaching matters)

An academic Senate agenda should be concerned with the question whether what we teach matters in the lives of students. Powerful teaching is only evident in powerful learning. But this has to be assessed beyond the limiting confines of passing or failing in modules, courses or even degrees. Such assessment asks questions about the enduring effects of the educational experience beyond marketing anecdotes or even “feedback loops” from the corporate environment. Do graduates from this great university do much more than earn a living on a well-paid job? That surely must be among the broader purposes of a Stanford education and, therefore, a concern of the Senate.”

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.

The stories we tell ourselves


There are not many things that are perennially interesting to me, but one of them is the stories that we tell ourselves. We sometimes think that what we do, or think, or feel is  just a reaction. ‘Such-and-such happened which is why I acted or thought or felt the way I did’. Yet so much of how we experience the world is determined by the stories that we tell ourselves. The charming, gay neurologist Oliver Sachs puts it well:

“We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a “narrative”, and that this narrative is us, our identities. If we wish to know about a man, we ask “What is his story – his real, inmost story?” for each of us is a biography, a story.”

I’m currently thinking about this in relation to inequality and education in a chapter I am working on, but that’s more about a collective story that we tell ourselves as a country. Thomas Piketty tells us that “Inequality in every country needs to be justified. You need to tell a story about why this level of inequality is acceptable or unacceptable.” That one quote has been really generative for me lately but right now I’m thinking about  stories on a personal level.

While I was overseas for a conference last week I came across a children’s book called “and tango makes three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. I love buying my niece and nephew books to read because they can never have too many books. But this book hit home for me and actually made me teary in the book store. I thought I’d share it here in the hope that others will come to the same realisation I did…




This last page was especially moving for me. As someone who grew up gay in a straight world, all the stories I was read as a child (and in fact all the books that existed in our bookstore and our library) had only straight characters. Princes marrying princesses, boys building, girls cooking, and any number of iterations on traditional gender roles and ‘normal’ sexual identities. Now that we do have stories stories with gay protagonists or children that don’t fit the norm I think some parents are reluctant to buy them. Their logic (I think) is that they don’t want to influence their child’s sexuality – or, more accurately, – to influence them in a non-heterosexual way. I find this incredibly ignorant. Nine times out of ten when you probe modern educated parents (and scientists and geneticists) they will agree that sexuality and gender identity are more likely to be about genetics (or epigenetics) than anything else. Yet this persists.

What they seem to miss is the quiet violence done to their children by presenting only one version of the world, one story, and possibly one that they do not see themselves in. Children map the world by the stories they are told and the stories they learn to tell themselves. Brene Brown has this great quote where she says that if you go around looking for a reason why you don’t belong, you will always find one. And I think this is one of the costs of growing up and not seeing yourself represented in the stories you’re told. You feel you don’t belong.

I want my niece and nephew to grow up in a world where they know that whoever they  are, they belong. Different ≠ wrong. The stories we tell ourselves, and the ones we tell our children, matter. My niece and nephew have hundreds of books with stories about everything under the sun. I want to make sure that I’m in one of those stories, and that if they are too, that’s also totally OK. Whoever they are and turn out to be, they belong.


Throwing basic education under the bus (My Business Day article)

The article below first appeared in the Business Day on the 16th of April 2018. Their link here.

Basic Education Funding

It’s not every day that Treasury reports can make you want to drink in the middle of the day. Then again, it’s not every day you realise a country-wide crisis has been brewing under your nose for a decade and no one noticed it. Over the last seven years there has been a consistent decline in the purchasing power of per-learner expenditure on basic education and no one has said a thing. To put it bluntly, funding per learner has declined by 8% in seven years. In so many ways this undoes any of the advances we think we might have made in education over the last seven years.

For a while now we’ve known that something funny happened in South Africa between 2003 and 2005 when births spiked by 13% and continued to stay high for a few years before coming down slightly in 2008. The leading explanation at the moment is the roll out of antiretrovirals (ARVs) over the same period. True to form, Grade 1 enrolments spiked by 13% five years later in 2008 with subsequent enrolment data showing this cohort slowly working its way through the education system with similarly large cohorts following in their footsteps each year. This group, which we’ve dubbed the ‘silent ship’ in our research group, is now in grade 8 in 2018. This weird demographic phenomenon has been confirmed by Martin Gustafsson’s comprehensive analysis of three different datasets; the Home Affairs birth registration data as well as age-specific data in the Department of Basic Education’s Annual Survey of Schools (ASS) data and the Learner Unit Record Information Tracking System (LURITS).

The aggregate effect of these increased births (and higher retention in the schooling system more generally) has meant that there were about 670,000 more learners in 2016 than there were in 2010. That means larger classes together with fewer books and fewer teachers per learner. But this is only half the story behind this unknown crisis. The other half is that there have been above-inflation increases in teacher salaries for over a decade. A decade of government gazettes together with Treasury’s Estimates of Provincial Revenue and Expenditure (EPRE) documents shows that between 2010 and 2016 teacher salaries increased by 57% compared to a 38% increase in the CPI (regular inflation). The problem with this is that total expenditure on education has only been increasing by inflation, or about 7% a year and therefore hasn’t kept up with these two factors (increased enrolment and above-inflation salary increases). Seen together this has translated into a significant decline in the purchasing power of expenditure on basic education between 2010 and 2017. Looking at the Medium Term Expenditure Framework the decline is set to continue. In 2010 we spent R17,822 on average per child dropping to R16,435 in 2017 and projected to decrease further to R15,963 by 2019 (all in 2017 Rands).  This is a 10% decline in per learner funding in ten years (2010 to 2019).

This decline in state funding is already starting to show up in international assessments. According to the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS) the average class size of Grade 4 classes in South Africa was 40 in 2011 which has now increased to 45 learners per class in 2016. Yet this masks that the largest increases were found in the poorest schools. Among the poorest 60% of learners, class sizes increased from 41 to 48 learners per class between 2011 and 2016. For the richest 10% of learners, class sizes only increased from 33 to 35 learners per class. Over the same period there was no improvement in reading outcomes across the country. It’s highly unlikely that this systematic decline in per learning spending over the last seven years is unrelated to the stagnant learning outcomes reported in PIRLS over the same period.

Given the centrality of correct discounting to the overall findings here it is worth briefly explaining why using a traditional inflation rate is inappropriate for education. This is also likely the reason that this fact has gone largely unnoticed in South Africa. Essentially, because total expenditure on basic education has increased by 7,1% per year between 2010 and 2017 – keeping up with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation over the period – most analysts have thought that the education budget has been keeping pace with the overall rise in costs. But CPI is the wrong index to deflate education expenditures because more than 80% of expenditures are on teacher salaries rather than a typical basket of goods. The salient question when discounting expenditures on education is thus, “How much money is required in 2017 to buy the same level of inputs used in 2010?” To do this requires the construction of an education-specific discounting index that is weighted at 80% of the cost of teachers (calculated using wage-bargaining agreements in the Education Labour Relations Council) and 20% weighted at regular CPI (for non-personnel expenditures like textbooks). Using this composite index allows us to ask how much it would cost to buy the basket of education ‘goods’ that we bought in 2010 (80% teachers and 20% non-teachers). The results are alarming. Figure 1 above shows the overall trend in per learner purchasing power in each province between 2010 and 2019 (all figures in 2017 Rands and 2017 to 2019 figures are based on MTEF projections).

All of the above is even more concerning in the context of ongoing fiscal austerity and significant increases in budget allocations to higher education. As a result of the #FeesMustFall movement, former President Zuma announced a new government policy of free higher education for poor and working-class families (reiterated by President Ramaphosa in 2018). This is now reflected in the 2018/19 budget where Higher Education received an additional R57 billion over the next three years to fund the new mandate. Basic education is being thrown under the bus as higher education becomes the new shining star.

Without detracting from the importance of decreasing financial exclusion to higher education for poor and working-class students, it must also be stressed that at most 15% of a cohort go to higher education in South Africa. Among the poorest 70% of the population it is less than 5% of a cohort who actually enter university. The battle is won or lost in primary school. Given the hierarchical nature of schooling and that university access and success are predicated in the foundations built in primary school and high school, it is an extremely short-sighted policy to continue on the current trajectory of declining per-pupil public expenditure on basic education and rising per-pupil public spending on higher education.

To all who have the inclination to look it is clear that the low quality of primary schooling in South Africa is the binding constraint – both to further educational success, but also to dignified employment, meaningful civic engagement and economic growth. Our most recent assessments show 78% of Grade 4’s can’t read for meaning and 66% of Grade 5’s can’t do basic maths. There is no conceivable route for South Africa to move from the status quo to any desirable future that does not first chart the route of significant improvements in primary education. And to put it bluntly, that is simply not possible when the overall pie is shrinking, a shrinking that is felt most severely by the poorest learners in the most challenging contexts. Treasury needs to re-assess how it is funding basic education and explain why there has been a significant decline in the actual resources available on the ground to educate South African learners.

The Comprehension Iceberg: Developing reading benchmarks in African languages


For the last few years we have been working on a project exploring reading in three African languages; isiZulu, Xitsonga and Northern Sotho (Sepedi). This was part of an ESRC-funded study looking at “Leadership for Literacy” and schools in challenging contexts. This week we published the first of a series of working papers on some of our results. The paper is titled “Investigating the comprehension iceberg: Developing empirical benchmarks for early grade reading in agglutinating African languages  (2018) and is co-authored with colleagues and friends Prof Elizabeth Pretorius (UNISA) and Mpumi Mohohlwane (DBE), who is now also doing her PhD at RESEP.

In the paper we argue here that we need to move beyond a repetitive focus on low comprehension outcomes; this is simply the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface there is widespread evidence that most children have not acquired the basic ‘tools’ for reading success – the ability to accurately and fluently decode letters and words and move from an effortful activity to an automated skill. Knowing that 78% of Grade 4’s cannot read for meaning in any language is important and sobering information, but probably not as helpful as knowing which components of reading children are struggling with and why teachers are struggling to teach them.  If children and teachers are ‘falling at the first hurdle’ (Taylor, 1989) does it make sense to focus on the seventh or eighth hurdle and ask why learners and teachers are not making it over?

One of the important contributions of the paper is that we try to estimate benchmarks for these three African languages. While many benchmarks exist in English there are currently no benchmarks in African languages and unfortunately you cannot just version the English benchmarks for the African languages because the language structures (orthographies) are so different. This is easiest to explain using an example:

Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 11.08.10 AMSo in isiZulu the first sentence is only 3 words while in Northern Sotho (Sepedi) it’s 13 words. We go on to show that there are also large differences in ‘required fluency’ across these languages and that accuracy rates and speed differ between conjunctive and disjunctive languages – see below.

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“Comparison across the languages shows that accuracy seems to be more important for fluent reading in isiZulu than in Northern Sotho or Xitsonga. The isiZulu learners reading at 21 wcpm or faster are reading with 95% accuracy or higher. In contrast, 95% accuracy is only associated with reading at 51 wcpm or faster in Northern Sotho and 31 wcpm or faster in Xitsonga. One of the reasons why Decile-1 learners are reading so slowly is that they are making mistakes on every second or third word. The fastest Northern Sotho readers (wcpm=107) and Xitsonga readers (wcpm=91) in the sample made no mistakes whatsoever.” (p12)

This can also be seen visually:

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We then use this information and some rudimentary comprehension outcomes to benchmark the different languages:

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We’d encourage those interested in this type of work to read the full paper – if you have any comments or suggestions we’d love to hear from you! Please include them in the comments below.


The importance of learning to read in mother-tongue is widely acknowledged in the linguistics literature yet reading acquisition in African languages remains under-researched and under-theorized. While numerous studies have highlighted the low levels of comprehension among learners reading in African languages in South Africa, little has been done to understand what lies beneath this ‘comprehension iceberg.’ In this paper we present new empirical evidence on reading outcomes and the subcomponents of reading for 785 Grade 3 learners across three languages (Northern Sotho, Xitsonga and isiZulu), drawn from 61 primary schools in South Africa. This is the largest sample of such learners to date. Using an adapted EGRA-type assessment we assessed letter-sounds, single-word reading, non-word reading, oral reading fluency and oral comprehension. From this data we present results on fluency, accuracy and comprehension and how these might relate to each other in these morphologically rich agglutinating languages. We also show that there are large differences in reading subcomponents between languages with conjunctive and disjunctive orthographies. Our results suggest that there are minimum thresholds of accuracy and oral reading fluency in each language, below which it is virtually impossible to read for meaning. These are 52-66 wcpm in Northern Sotho, 39-48 wcpm in Xitsonga and 20-32 wcpm in isiZulu. We argue that there is a strong need for empirical language-specific norms and benchmarks for indigenous African languages and present our benchmarks for these three languages as a move in that direction.