Read between the lines, kids

Three out of every five children in public schools don’t understand what they read in class.
And the “undue influence” exerted by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) has been blamed for interfering with the education system’s ability to act in the best interests of children.  

These are just some of the damning findings contained in a report titled Binding Constraints in Education, released this week by five researchers from Stellenbosch University’s research on socioeconomic policy unit.

Servaas van der Berg, Nic Spaull, Gabrielle Wills, Martin Gustafsson and Janeli Kotze have strongly urged that every child should be able “to read for meaning” by the end of grade three. “It is worth reiterating that, at the grade five level, the entire curriculum is being taught in English for 90% of the student population. If these students cannot read for meaning in English, then they cannot engage with the curriculum and are ‘silently excluded’ for the remainder of their educational career,” said Spaull.

He said that this inability to comprehend confirmed the need to provide support to primary schools. The researchers have asked the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, to fast-track her department’s plans to establish a primary literacy directorate. The report also suggests that the minister “request an audit of the capacity of the education system to effectively teach reading to children in early grades”.

Other suggestions included:
•?Requesting education experts to train current and newly appointed foundation phase reading specialists on how to teach reading;
•?The deployment of specialist foundation phase reading experts across districts;
•?Ministerial performance agreements housed outside the department should be linked to reading goals; and
•?Public recognition should be given to districts and schools that effectively implement foundation phase reading strategies.

The researchers were adamant that “learning to read for meaning and pleasure” in grades one to three is “the most important goal for primary schooling. Less than half of all pupils learn to read for meaning in this critical period.

 “Many South African children complete grades one to three without being able to read properly in their home language, with little understanding of the language they will be taught in from grade four, which is generally English.”

Spaull found that 58% of a grade four sample could not read for meaning and 29% were illiterate. Together with colleague Kim Draper, he conducted a first analysis of data for 1?772 grade five pupils from rural areas for oral reading fluency in English and found it to be very low, with 41% considered illiterate.

“Sadly, 11% of the sample could not read a single English word from the passage,” said Spaull. In a bid to set oral reading fluency norms for South Africa — measured by the total number of words read correctly per minute — researchers compared local second-language pupils to second language pupils from Florida in the US, a state where norms with second-language  students exist.

Worryingly, they found that grade five second-language pupils from rural areas of South Africa were on the same level as grade one second-language learners from Florida. On the issue of the undue influence of teacher unions, the researchers found that Sadtu was a critical player in determining which policies were accepted or rejected.

The report stated that teacher unions had blocked reforms in recent years, including:
•?Standardised pupil testing, specifically the annual national assessments;
•?Teacher testing, even for matric markers; and
•?Performance contracts for principals.

“Nepotistic appointments linked to union membership appear to be a serious and systemic problem. The interim findings of the Volmink commission highlight corruption concerns in the appointment of school principals.”

Researchers said that residents of an area interacting with schools where corrupt appointments have been made were likely to lose trust in the education system.

Besides identifying the union’s influence on the education system as one of the causes of adverse educational outcomes, the researchers identified three other “binding constraints”:
•?Weak institutional functionality;
•?Weak teacher content knowledge and pedagogical skill; and
•?Wasted learning time and insufficient opportunity to learn.

The report cautioned that, unless teachers were better equipped with content knowledge, pupils’ “learning gains” would be marginal.

Van der Berg told the Mail & Guardian that “the inability of children to read well in the early phase is really what holds them back in the higher grades. You won’t get large numbers passing matric well if you can’t get that right.”

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