Ten-year study shows South African school reading literacy is slow to improve

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 report paints a concerning picture of primary school-level reading literacy in South Africa, with no significant progress made since the last report in 2011...

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 report paints a concerning picture of primary school-level reading literacy in South Africa, with no significant progress made since the last report in 2011, and South Africa placed last out of the 50 countries participating in the study. Researchers from the University of Pretoria (UP) completed the South African portion of this global study on reading and literacy levels among Grade 4 and 5 students. This third South African PIRLS report builds on ten years of rigorous research in reading literacy at UP.

“Being able to read is the key to academic and future success,” says Celeste Combrinck, Acting Director at UP’s Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA). “If you can't read, your opportunities in school or after that will be limited, so reading ability should be developed from a very young age.”


Specialised training developed at UP has provided 11 000 healthcare workers with the skills required to deliver complicated births, saving mothers and newborns in the process.

The CEA works closely with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), as well as several international research organisations that coordinate and collaborate on the PIRLS study across the globe. At the end of 2015, the CEA tested the reading ability and literacy skills of 12 810 Grade 4 learners across South Africa in all 11 languages. In addition, more than 5 000 Grade 5 learners were tested in Afrikaans, English and isiZulu. This data was processed and analysed by the international research group and then returned to the CEA for further analysis.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) supported the study with funding and logistical support, while a national steering committee provided guidance.

SA learners not progressing

The results of the study, which are carefully validated internationally and reviewednationally to ensure accuracy, suggest that almost 80% of South African Grade 4 learners fall below the lowest internationally recognised level of reading literacy in their language of learning. According to Prof Sarah Howie, National Research Coordinator (NRC) for PIRLS 2016 South Africa, this suggests that the majority of learners cannot read well enough to learn successfully, across the curriculum.

What is troubling to note is that this is true across all languages in South Africa, as less than a quarter of learners could reach the lowest international benchmark. While approximately half of learners writing tests in English and Afrikaans reach the lowest international benchmark, 80% of those learning in one of the other nine official languages effectively cannot read.

Learners from the Western Cape, Free State and Gauteng performed best in the assessments. According to the report, learners’ reading ability in Sepedi, isiXhosa, Setswana and Tshivenda was the weakest. Boys performed worse than girls, with 84% of boys not reaching the lowest benchmark, in comparison to 72% of girls. This is an international trend that is reflected in South Africa.

A difficult transition

Combrinck suggests that part of the problem may stem from two difficult transitions in the fourth year of school. Learners have to transition from learning to read to reading to learn, meaning that they are expected to understand the language of learning well enough to study textbooks and other written material. At the same time, in South Africa, learners at African language schools transition from being taught in an African language to being taught in English. This double whammy is almost certainly having a negative impact on Grade 4 reading literacy.

The PIRLS findings seem to support this suggestion: in one aspect of the study, comparisons with PIRLS 2006 data indicate that Grade 5 learners have made progress in reading literacy in isiZulu. This suggests that given an extra year to settle into a new language, reading literacy does improve, although learners still fall well short of the international average.


Help needed in class and at home

Alongside the reading literacy tests, CEA researchers also investigated over 1 000 other factors in the school, classroom and home environmentto find potential reasons for the reading problems they observed, and to better understand the South African learning environment.

“The groups most at risk are those in deep rural areas and townships, those learning in African languages, and boys,” says Combrinck. She hopes that this study will set in motion a process to address these challenges.

One way that the CEA is hoping to assist in addressing the problem is by compiling a diagnostic report for the DBE. This document will be developed in partnership with experienced teachers, and will provide material and resources that will help teachers across South Africa improve how they teach reading and reading comprehension at primary school level.


Fixing the problem

The CEA is also planning to share these results with education faculties at South African universities to improve teaching and reading assessment skills in the country. In particular, says Combrinck, teachers should be taught how to assess reading more effectively.

“Assessment in teacher education is neglected in many South African universities,” she explains. “Most teachers say they figure it out on their own, when they start teaching. They don't know how to prepare the children for literacy testing or how to assess them afterwards.”

Prof Howie hopes that they have done enough to illustrate the scale of the problem, and that others will now take up the torch.

“We can provide evidence and suggestions, but other experts need to come on board and do the work now,” she says. “If we can bring together like-minded people with honourable intentions who can use funds and resources for education effectively, there is no reason we can't fix this, although it will take time and hard work.”

Who's Involved?


Prof Sarah Howie
National Research Coordinator for PIRLS South Africa
Research interests: Educational assessment, comparative education, international education.


Ms Celeste Combrinck
Programme Manager for the PIRLS, Acting Director at the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA)
Research interests: Educational assessment, instrument design and development, inferential statistical techniques.


Mr Gabriel Mokoena
PIRLS Fieldwork Coordinator, CEA
Research interests: Marketing and communications


Ms Nelladee McLeod
CEA Researcher and Language Coordinator
Research interests: Teaching and assessment of English language in under-resourced schools.


Mr Mishack Tshele
Data Manager
Research interests: Rasch measurement and data management.


Ms Karen Roux
Research Assistant and Project Coordinator
Research interests: Instrument design and development, and assessment for and of learning.