UP research examines the importance of reading

Posted on September 16, 2015

Dr Surette van Staden, a lecturer in the Department of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria (UP), is an active researcher in education who, in her most recent research, examined literacy achievement among primary school learners in South Africa. Some of her findings were published in a paper titled ‘Factors that affect South African reading literacy achievement: evidence from prePIRLS 2011’, which she had written in collaboration with Prof Roel Bosker from the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. 

Dr Van Staden set out to identify the factors that predicted reading literacy achievement among Grade 4 learners in South African schools by utilising aspects of Carroll’s model of school learning. The study drew on data contained in the Pre-progress in International Reading Literacy Study (prePIRLS) 2011, which placed South African Grade 4 learners’ results at 461, which is substantially below the international centre point of 500. Selected items from the prePIRLS 2011 questionnaires for learners, parents and teachers were used in a two-level model to determine the effect of learner aptitude, opportunity to learn and quality of instructional events on reading literacy achievement.

The results of the study pointed to the statistical significance of engaged reading and cultivating motivation for reading among learners from an early age, specifically through parental involvement in introducing early literacy activities as the foundation for reading literacy by school-going age. Other results provided evidence that the value of reading is not confined only to reading lessons, but extends across the curriculum. The teaching of reading comprehension skills and strategies, which should form an integral part of reading lessons in the classroom, was identified as a significant predictor of reading literacy achievement.

Unfortunately South African learner performance remains persistently poor and below internationally set standards. Higher reading literacy achievement can, however, be expected where children come from families where reading is valued and children read for their own enjoyment, and where parents regularly read to their children.

Another interesting fact that emerged from Dr Van Staden’s study is that the motivation of learners to read is often the factor that ensures that learning is not superficial and temporary, but rather sustained, permanent and internalised. Evidence suggests that opportunities for reading at classroom level are best utilised when emphasis is placed on reading across the curriculum, and not only during formally scheduled reading time for the duration of language lessons.

The significant finding regarding the effect of teachers’ teaching of reading comprehension skills and strategies provides further evidence that such skills are not mastered through incidental learning, but have to be taught as a very specific learning outcome. There are dramatic reductions in instances of reading failure among primary school children when instruction around issues of word recognition, phonemic awareness, the construction of meaning, vocabulary, spelling and text processing are explicitly taught by classroom teachers.

This means that teachers are ideally situated to create a classroom environment that promotes reading engagement and ultimately produces learners who enjoy reading as modelled by teachers who themselves enjoy reading. Teachers who are enthusiastic readers are more likely to engage their learners in discussion sessions and literature circles, thereby creating stimulating reading engagement opportunities.

In June this year, Dr Van Staden was appointed as one of the inaugural fellows of the Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP). The ASLP is an initiative undertaken by UP in collaboration with the Global Young Academy, with the support of the Robert Bosch Foundation. It aims to develop mid-career African academics in the areas of thought leadership, team management and research development, with the intention of enabling them to contribute to the development of a new paradigm for science in Africa, focused on the contribution this can make towards solving the complex issues facing both Africa and the global community.

Twenty of Africa’s brightest minds were chosen from a possible eighty applicants and Dr Van Staden was one of the select few chosen to participate in a week of intense exchanges and discussions to develop game-changing research projects for Africa’s sustainable and equitable development. One of the specific aims of the ASLP is to address some of our country’s problems in the field of education that can be ascribed to a combination of factors, including bad governance, the poor infrastructure of the basic education system and rampant inequality. Public schools are also under-resourced and in short supply, which forces many students to travel long distances just to receive substandard education.

In addition to her appointment as a fellow of the ASLP, Dr Van Staden was also recently appointed as convener of the World Education Research Association (WERA) International Research Network (IRN) on Reading Literacy and Associated Reading Interventions for High-risk Children from Disadvantaged Communities.  In this new role she will be responsible for launching, leading and managing the IRN to achieve their outcomes and will be submitting regular progress reports.


- Author Myan Subrayan

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