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.”