Every child must read

The early school years are the most important. (Photo: Unicef/Rebecca Hearfield)

The early school years are the most important. (Photo: Unicef/Rebecca Hearfield)

If you’re reading this sentence it means that somewhere, somehow, you learnt to read. Bravo! You acquired the magical skill of translating scribbles into language and making meaning from the print symbols on the pages and screens that permeate our lives. 

It really is quite remarkable that a few scrawls on a page can make us weep with joy or seethe with rage as we engage with the heroes, villains and ideas of bygone or future eras. Imagine what your life would be like if you could not read. Imagine what school would have been like if you couldn’t read. 

And yet, unfortunately, this is not an imaginary experience for thousands of South African children. It is their daily, lived experience. Constantly struggling to understand the words on a page, let alone deciphering the deeper meaning behind these funny dots and dashes. And this is not their fault. 

The human brain is hard-wired to acquire language and almost all children can learn to read in just a few years if provided with the right teaching, resources and encouragement. However, many South African children do not attend schools where these necessary conditions are present. A number of South African studies have revealed that children who cannot read and write properly by grade four end up playing catch-up for the rest of their school days. These children never quite grasp what is expected from them, even as they are told they are failing and must try harder. 

Let me explain some of the recent research findings on this very important topic.  

In 2011 South Africa participated in an international study called PrePirls (pre-progress in international reading literacy study), which is aimed at assessing the reading ability of grade four children. The study examined a nationally representative sample of 341 primary schools drawn from across the country. 

The reason for choosing to assess grade four is not arbitrary, but rooted in an understanding of when and how children learn to read.  The first three years of schooling are regarded as the “learning to read” phase, when children acquire the ability to decode text and convert print symbols into language.  In grade four they enter the “reading to learn” phase as they start acquiring new information through the skill of reading. 

Children who cannot read properly by grade four are severely disadvantaged, because they cannot read fluently or read for meaning, and therefore don’t benefit much from higher grades. This places them in perpetual catch-up mode until they begin to approach matric and drop out of school in grades 10 and 11, as 50% of South African students do. Unfortunately the results of PrePirls are truly sobering. 

If one looks at the reading achievement of these schools and splits the 341 schools into the better performing half (169 schools) and the worse performing half (172 schools) of the sample, the results speak for themselves. In the top half of schools, 10% of students were completely illiterate. That is to say that they could not locate and retrieve an explicitly stated detail in a short and simple text. These children cannot read at all.

In the bottom half of schools, an unbelievable 51% of students were completely illiterate! After four years of formal, full-time schooling, every second child in these 172 schools was completely illiterate. These 172 schools are statistically representative of half of South African primary schools. (These tests were done in the language that they had been learning in during grades one to three — an African language for most children, before switching to English in grade four). 

These children who don’t learn how to read properly are then promoted to the next grade, but never manage to get their heads above water for the rest of their school days.

What to do?

Firstly we have to get the basics right in the Foundation Phase (grade one to three). We need a national reading campaign where all stakeholders (parents, teachers, principals, government officials, the minister, the president) all rally behind this goal: “Every child must read and write by the end of grade three.” 

This is the very same goal that Brazil used as the core goal for primary schooling — with much success. One prominent South African researcher, Elizabeth Pretorius, has identified four necessary criteria to ensure all children learn to read: 

Teachers need to understand when and how children acquire reading and comprehension skills, as well as understand how to teach reading;

- Children need easy access to interesting books in their own language and in English;

- Children need to be constantly motivated to read, with reading seen as a pleasurable activity by students and teachers, and  

- Children need to be given plenty of opportunities to read in and outside of the classroom. 

Sadly there is currently no systematic evidence about which of the many interventions currently being implemented in South Africa actually work, and if they do work, which is best. It is of fundamental importance that a national reading strategy be based on scientific evidence regarding what most improves the acquisition of reading in South African schools. 

If we do not get reading right in grades one to three, any intervention later in the system will only have a small impact on learning, and consequently the life chances of the poor.  The later in life we attempt to repair early learning deficits, the costlier the remediation becomes. We simply must ensure that every child timeously acquires that magical skill of translating scribbles into language. Our education system depends on it.

Nic Spaull is an education researcher in the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (ReSEP) group at Stellenbosch University. His research can be found at nicspaull.com/research/