The International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 released by University of Pretoria (UP) on Tuesday paints a disturbing picture of primary school literacy in South Africa.

Researchers at the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA) at UP published the South African findings of this global study on reading literacy.

According to the international comparative reading assessment, South Africa placed last out of the 50 countries participating in the study at the fourth-grade level.

More than 319 000 learners around the world participated in the 2016 PIRLS.

Acting Director at the CEA, Celeste Combrinck, says being able to read is the key to academic and future success.

“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,” says Combrinck.

Towards the end of 2015, CEA tested the reading comprehension skills of 12 810 Grade 4 learners in all 11 official languages across the country.

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The data was processed and analysed by the international research group and 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.

National Research Coordinator (NCR) for PIRLS 2016, Prof Sarah Howie, says the results suggest 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 one-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.

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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.

Some of the PIRLS 2016 findings include:

Some 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.

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.

Source: University of Pretoria