UP study shows 81% of Grade 4 learners in SA have reading difficulties

Posted on May 16, 2023

The South African portion of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2021 (PIRLS 2021) conducted by the University of Pretoria (UP) has found that 81% of South African Grade 4 learners are struggling to read for comprehension at age 10. 

The study was commissioned by the Department of Basic Education and was conducted by UP’s Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA). Its findings, which also highlighted a drop in South Africa’s score point average since the previous report in 2016, were recently presented to Minister Angie Motshekga. It shows that South Africa ranks the lowest out of 57 countries that participated in PIRLS 2021. The researchers have made recommendations to the department to improve literacy levels in the country.

During the National Seminar on Reading Literacy, which featured the theme ‘Understanding literacy levels in the South African context – taking a deeper dive’, Minister Motshekga said it was worth noting that South Africa was one of only three African countries that had participated in the study, along with Egypt and Morocco, which also scored below the study’s international centre point.

“PIRLS 2021 represents the first international large-scale assessment report after successfully collecting data during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Minister Motshekga said. “It assessed more than 400 000 pupils across 57 countries. As a developing country, South Africa participates in the study with the understanding that it establishes a global standard for reading comprehension and that as a developing country, we are still on a journey to reach these international benchmarks.”

She said the improvements in learning measured among primary school grades had a knock-on effect on other results, especially matric results. She argued that a comprehensive education spanning 12 years would foster resilience, while evidence from the national systemic evaluation study indicates incremental improvement in learner performance from the foundation phase to the senior phase. 

“Our education is indeed fragile in this regard, as learners have not yet benefitted from the many years of schooling; this fragility was exacerbated by the global interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Minister Motshekga, who stressed that South Africa’s education system had been facing historical challenges such as poverty, inequality and inadequate infrastructure before the pandemic.

In their presentation, UP researchers revealed that with 288 score points, Grade 4 learners performed significantly below the PIRLS centre point of 500, and had dropped from the 320 score points that had been recorded in the previous study conducted in 2016. The 32-score point between the two cycles, PIRLS 2016 and PIRLS 2021, was evidence of a decline from one cycle to another. The researchers established this five-year national trend by assessing a different cohort of Grade 4 learners based on a selection of the same reading passages used for PIRLS 2016.

Verified scoring

“The CEA collected data from hundreds of schools, and quality monitors visited schools unannounced across various provinces to ensure that standard procedures were being followed,” explained Dr Karen Roux, senior lecturer in assessment and quality assurance.

“The centre was heavily involved in the scoring of test booklets. It was quite a difficult process as we needed to find teachers with the relevant background – that is, those who can speak home languages such as Sepedi (North-Sotho) and who are also fluent in English – who could become scorers. PIRLS processes required that a second scorer also score a percentage of booklets to ensure scorer-reliability – meaning, scorer A and scorer B could mark the same test booklet completed by a learner in order to check that the marking was done correctly. The South African data was 100% verified and only a few countries can say that they achieved that,” Dr Roux said.

The CEA mined data from stacks of booklets that filled a hall at UP’s Groenkloof Campus. The booklets comprised assessments of 12 426 Grade 4 learners from 321 schools and 9 317 Grade 6 learners from 253 schools.

The CEA revealed that while the testing reading passages were translated into all official languages for Grade 4 learners, those who were tested in English (382) and Afrikaans (387) scored above the national average (288). On the contrary, Xitsonga (223), Sepedi (216) and Setswana (211) learners scored way below the national average. This finding highlighted historical factors – such as the socio-economic environment of the learner, limitations on resources at home and/ or at school, and guardians’ interest in reading books – that could explain the better performance in Afrikaans and English. 

The sample was also stratified by provinces. Grade 4 learners from more urban provinces such as the Western Cape (363) and Gauteng (320) scored significantly higher than the national score point average (288), while their more rural counterparts scored significantly lower: Mpumalanga (264), Limpopo (244) and North West (232).

It was also found that for Grade 6 learners who were tested in English (377) and Afrikaans (456), 56% struggle to read for comprehension, said Professor Surette van Staden of the CEA. Geographically, the Western Cape (460) and Gauteng (426) scored well above the national average (384), while their more rural counterparts scored significantly lower: Limpopo (353) and Eastern Cape (351).  

From a global perspective, the research indicated that South Africa is still far behind leading countries such as Singapore (587), Hong Kong (573) and the Russian Federation (567), which scored above the international average (500). Prof Van Staden acknowledged the impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning globally, but advised caution against making causal inferences about it. 

“Now that we have the results, our focus should be on supporting teachers and learners, and looking at innovative ways of improving reading literacy and developing a reading culture among our children,” said CEA Director Prof Funke Omidire.

- Author James Mahlokwane

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