The international report released towards the end of last year, indicating low reading levels among South African children, is a cause for great concern. But public comments should go beyond blame-game and rhetoric, especially by academics.
What we need are systemic interventions and informed guidance on how to improve reading.
The challenge we face can be simplified into two aspects:
- Helping children to crack the reading code; and
- Enabling them to make meaning from the text.
The first part is primarily a technical exercise that has to happen in classrooms.
Reading, especially of African languages, is a complex, under-researched area undertaken by teachers and subject advisers who are ill-prepared in the area of reading skills. The variances between pupils’ performance scores in English and Afrikaans on the one hand and African language scores on the other — as well as among the African languages themselves — attest to the complexities involved in teaching reading in African languages.
The National Education Collaboration Trust (Nect) and the department of basic education decided at the end of 2016 to introduce a dedicated reading programme, starting with the foundation phase (the first three years of school).
Through this programme, the Nect discovered that initial teacher training had not prepared teachers and their subject advisers adequately to teach reading. Only 48% of the subject advisers — the equivalent of a specialist doctor in the health sector — were competent in the required methodologies. After two sessions of training and on-site practice, 78% of the subject advisers were subsequently found to be competent.
The subject advisers were charged with the responsibility of bringing teachers up to expected levels. Foundation-phase teachers from 1 690 schools were trained to teach the reading syllabus and were provided with the relevant methodologies, standardised daily lesson plans, assessment tools, learning aids and, in some cases, readers for pupils.
Sixty percent of the subject advisers have since been trained and take part in the reading programme. In addition, an Early Grade Reading Programme designed by the University of the Witwatersrand and the department of basic education is underway and is unearthing useful policy and programming lessons.
The second part of the challenge, making meaning of the texts, is primarily about inculcating a culture of reading. This goes beyond teachers and the education system.
Addressing this second challenge requires additional reading materials in African languages, of which there is an undersupply because of the skewed market dynamics in publishing. The publishing of African-language books is not encouraged and is dominated by non-speakers of the languages concerned.
In addition, our own communities need to do more to promote reading. There are limited texts in homes, in churches and in community centres.
Meanwhile, the private and nongovernmental organisation sectors are playing a supporting role. The private-sector funded Nal’ibali programme promotes reading through a drama series that is aired every weekday on some radio stations. The programme also provides complementary reading materials and promotes community reading clubs.
Avbob, the Zenex Foundation, Imperial and international nonprofit Room-to-Read have also provided reading materials in African languages to millions of pupils. The South African Institute for Distance Education has been exploring computer-based story books developed by the speakers of African languages, including pupils.
Teachers, the department of basic education and the universities cannot win this battle on their own.
First, public commentators should do background research before they express populist sentiments that dampen the morale of teachers, pupils and officials. Second, African-language speakers must be encouraged to help us understand how to better teach African languages.
Third, we need better co-ordination among private sector and public-private sector initiatives to systematically address the national problem. Fourth, we need a national campaign to improve the reading culture in schools and households. Fifth, we need more age-relevant and captivating African language books, written, produced and made available to more young South Africans.
Finally, we all must read, read to others and make reading central to all spheres of our lives.
Godwin Khosa is the chief executive of the National Education Collaboration Trust