8 out of 10 learners still cannot read at appropriate level

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 report paints a disturbing picture of primary school reading literacy in South Africa, with no significant progress nationally since the last report in 2011. While the Russian Federation and Singapore were the top achievers, South Africa placed last out of the 50 countries participating in the study at fourth grade level. This is according to the international comparative reading assessment conducted by University of Pretoria (UP) researchers at the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA), who just published the South African findings of this global study on reading literacy.

Worldwide, more than 319 000 learners participated in PIRLS 2016. This third South African PIRLS national report builds on ten years of rigorous research in reading literacy. Although national performance is generally very low, there is a glimmer of hope. Between PIRLS 2011 and PIRLS 2016 there has been an improvement in performance for five African languages (out of the 11 languages tested) at Grade 4 level, despite the fact that these were the lowest performing languages in the 2011 study.

'Being able to read is the key to academic and future success,' says Celeste Combrinck, Acting Director at the CEA.  'If you can't read, your opportunities in school or after school will be limited, which is why reading should start at a very young age.'

The CEA works closely with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Centre at Boston College, USA, as well as several other international research organisations and associations in countries such as Canada and Germany, to coordinate and collaborate on the PIRLS study across the globe. At the end of 2015, the CEA tested the reading comprehension skills of 12 810 Grade 4 learners in all 11 official languages across South Africa. In addition, over 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.  The study was supported by the South African Department of Basic Education (DBE) through partial funding and limited logistical support.

The results, which are carefully validated internationally and reviewed nationally to ensure accuracy, suggest that almost 80% of South African Grade 4 learners fall below the lowest internationally recognised level of reading literacy. 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 succeed in subjects across the curriculum in Grade 4 and higher grades.

'What is troubling is that this is true across all languages in South Africa, as less than a quarter of learners overall reached the lowest international benchmark. While less than half of the learners who wrote the tests in English and Afrikaans could read, 80% of those learning in one of the other nine official languages effectively cannot read at all,' says Combrinck.

The report shows that the Western Cape, Free State and Gauteng performed best of all the provinces, and that reading achievement in Sepedi, isiXhosa, Setswana and Tshivenda was the weakest. Boys also performed worse than girls with 84% of boys not being able to reach the lowest benchmark, in comparison to 72% of girls. The gender gap is an international trend that is reflected in South Africa.

Combrinck suggests that part of the problem may stem from two difficult transitions in the fourth year of school. Learners must transition from learning to read to reading to learn, in other words, 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 situation is almost certain to have a negative impact on Grade 4 reading literacy.

The PIRLS benchmarking data for Grade 5 seem to support this suggestion: in one aspect of the study, 10-year comparisons with PIRLS 2006 suggest that Grade 5 learners have made progress in reading literacy in isiZulu, as well as a combined score for Afrikaans and English that reveals conservative improvements when these two language results are combined. This may suggest that given an extra year to settle into a new language, reading literacy may improve (although learners still fall well short of the international average).

In a small scale non-generalisable online reading literacy study conducted only in English in Gauteng (ePIRLS), learners performed as well in online reading literacy as they did on paper-based assessments. Only 14 countries internationally participated due to the difficult nature of the project.

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

Some of the PIRLS 2016 findings include:

  • 90% and more of learners writing in Setswana and Sepedi did not reach the lowest benchmark.
  • Learners writing in one of the nine African languages attained the lowest mean scores, which were significantly lower than those writing in Afrikaans or English. Children writing in isiXhosa and Sepedi are the most at risk.
  • Grade 4 learners living in remote rural areas or townships have the lowest reading literacy scores compared to other locations.
  • Class sizes are increasing. In the Grade 4 study the average class size was 45 learners per class and 55 in Limpopo, compared to 24 learners per class internationally.
  • Fewer young teachers are entering the system. Most learners are taught by older teachers, but there is no relationship with learners’ reading literacy scores.

'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 initiate a process to address these challenges.

One way that the CEA is trying to address the problem is through a diagnostic analysis and the development of materials for the DBE. These resources will be developed in partnership with experienced teachers, and will provide materials and resources that will help teachers around South Africa improve how they teach reading and reading comprehension at primary school level.

The PIRLS results can also be used by South African universities and will enable critical reflection on their teacher education curriculums for language and reading development.

Howie hopes that her team has done enough to illustrate the scale of the problem, and that others will take up the torch. 'We can provide evidence and suggestions, but other experts now need to come on board and do the work,' 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.'

Click here to read more about the PIRLS project.

Celeste Combrinck & Prof Sarah Howie

December 5, 2017

  • Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Researchers
  • Professor Sarah Howie
    Professor Sarah Howie first realised that schools in black communities had major problems with maths and science in the early 90s. Currently the National Research Coordinator for the PIRLS study in South Africa and involved in developing questionnaires for the international PIRLS research initiative, Howie started her professional journey at the Foundation for Research Development, where she was responsible for identifying black undergraduate students eligible for postgraduate bursaries, in 1991.

    “My interest was sparked in the development of black schools, in looking for talented students, trying to stimulate and support them, and to give them options for their future,” she says. “We were struggling to find eligible students, so the next step was to look at the schools, and I became increasingly involved in schools development.”

    This prompted a move to the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), where, in 1995, she studied Maths and Science performance at secondary school level as a member of the first Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in South Africa, and as a leader of the study in South Africa in 1999. She also completed a PhD through the University of Twente (Netherlands), in which she found that secondary school learners were struggling with maths largely due to language difficulties.

    The PhD won her a National Science and Technology Foundation (NSTF) award for Most Innovative Research in 2003, and prompted the next step in her career.

    “Prof Jonathan Jansen asked me to come to the University of Pretoria (UP) to start the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment in 2002, and that was around the same time that our work on PIRLS started,” says Howie.

    She has since served as National Research Coordinator in three PIRLS studies: 2006, 2011 and 2016 (the most recent report, which was released 5 December 2017). At first Howie was involved only at the national level, but for 2011 and 2016 she was asked to be part of the international team working at the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), contributing to the method and study design.

    “I'm hugely privileged to be able to work with some of the best in the field. It’s how I can say with certainty that the studies are as valid and reliable as we can get them.”

    It is important in such a global comparative study that the methods and results are beyond criticism. In South Africa, PIRLS 2006 faced a lot of resistance, and the methods and findings are often criticised. This is especially true when the results paint an unflattering picture.

    “It can be a very lonely journey at times,” she says. “I have made myself unpopular in some places, but I'm not in it for the popularity contest. I really want to see change.”

    Despite Howie’s optimism and determination, the results of the most recent PIRLS study are not encouraging. When she speaks, it is obvious how deeply she cares about the education and development of the next generation of South Africans.

    “The first PIRLS results were bad, and we’ve seen no overall improvement. It’s 10 years later and every time I look at the results I feel sad.

    “What drives me to continue these studies is the idea of another lost generation. I know that the chances for those kids will not improve by Grade 12. Many of them will drop out at the end of primary school. How can we as a country allow this to continue?”

    Howie will now turn her determination and drive to sharing the results of the most recent report with the South African academic and education community. She hopes that others will take up the torch and see that the PIRLS 2016 findings translate into change in South African classrooms.
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  • Dr Celeste Combrinck

    Dr Celeste Combrinck undertook her undergraduate studies at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). She has been doing research at the University of Pretoria (UP) for the past 10 years and says that UP offers scholars the opportunity to advance their research fields and create new knowledge.

    On her field of research, measurement in the social sciences, she says: “Measurement drives learning and innovation, but it is difficult to measure aspects of being human, such as potential, deep learning and wellness. When we measure accurately and what is important, we change the outcomes by changing the focus. To quote William P Fisher, Jr [an American academic of measurement theory and practice]: ‘We are what we measure. It’s time we measured what we want to be.’”

    Dr Combrinck says that while the social sciences offer insight into the human experience, the discipline should be geared towards enhancing human growth and wellness.

    She adds that measurement always matters. “What we measure is what we care about, invest in and ultimately strive to achieve. If we accurately measure what matters and promotes well-being, lives will improve.”

    Dr Combrinck is leading an initiative to train colleagues, students and other stakeholders in the application of statistical models for objective measurement. In 2021, she presented a three-day workshop for the Military Psychological Institute, Pretoria, and in 2020, published two scholarly chapters on her measurement work.

    She is co-investigator on a project in UP’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT), called Pathways to Success for Engineering Students. The project entails creating African theories of student success and tailoring interventions. The team has collected qualitative and quantitative data, which it has found to be illuminating in terms of how connecting socially can boost academic and personal success.

    A recent milestone in Dr Combrinck’s research was presenting the findings of this project, which began in early 2020, at the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in the South Conference.

    Dr Combrinck has many academic role models, especially in the field of measurement. Of Dr John Michael Linacre, Research Director of Winsteps and former Director of the MESA Psychometric Laboratory at the University of Chicago, she says: “He is committed to using measurement to improve human life, learning and health; and he is always quick to provide detailed feedback.” Similarly, she has found Prof David Andrich, an esteemed member of the measurement community, always willing to share his wisdom.

    In her academic field, Dr Combrinck hopes to never stop learning. “It would be even better if what I learn enhances the lives of others, and if I can travel the road of knowledge and beauty with fellow researchers.”

    Her advice to school learners or undergraduates who are interested in her field is to find their calling. She adds that being a researcher is a passion, and if they discover their passion, they should keep learning. “To be a researcher is to be an eternal student and explorer of the world. I can think of no better way to spend my time on Earth,” she says.

    Outside academia, Dr Combrinck is interested in photography and appreciates art in its many forms; she also loves reading fantasy novels and travelling to new places.

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