South Africa’s reading crisis: Focus on the root cause, not the peripherals

Nearly a quarter of a century into democracy, four presidents and several curricular revisions later, South Africa has made little headway in its reading crisis.

Calling it a crisis is no overstatement. South Africa ranked last out of 50 countries in the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) study which tested reading comprehension of learners in their fourth year of primary schooling. The study found that 78% of South African pupils at this level could not read for meaning.

South Africa’s reading crisis is a topic of ongoing debate and several strategies for improvement have been proposed: promoting a culture of reading; encouraging parents to read to their children; making books accessible in schools and improving initial teacher education.

Addressing the problem by increasing access to books and developing a reading culture is helpful but only to a limited extent. Ultimately the buck stops with the Department of Education. Inadequate instruction is the root cause – the rest are peripherals.

No reading culture

Without a doubt, South Africa needs a stronger culture of reading. A survey of adults’ reading behaviour found that most spent an average of four hours per week reading compared to 7.5 hours per week watching TV or DVDs.


In response to these figures and children’s consistently poor reading performance, the Department of Basic Education has introduced the Read to Lead Campaign. This aims to “make reading fashionable” by encouraging teachers and parents to “drop all and read”.

Promoting a culture of reading is a highly worthwhile enterprise. But it does presuppose that older children and adults are able to read. Reading campaigns and better access to libraries will benefit those who are already able to read for meaning by providing more opportunities to practise the skills they already have.

Individuals who have difficulty reading – either because they cannot identify words or comprehend what they read or both – will be less motivated to read more or visit the library. And with good reason. If you’re a swimmer who uses incorrect techniques, easier access to a swimming pool will not improve your swimming. Instead it will allow you more opportunities to practice your incorrect strokes.

Strong research evidence suggests that parents’ involvement in children’s literacy is highly beneficial. This has given rise to family literacy programmes worldwide which aim to support and encourage parents in supporting their children’s literacy development. One such South African example is the Family Literacy Project in KwaZulu-Natal, which has implemented a range of projects to ignite a love of reading in poor communities.

Helping families to support their children’s literacy development is important and worth doing, provided that the burden of responsibility does not become theirs. There is a strong tendency to blame the literacy crisis on parents not reading to their children. Many teachers lament: “If only parents would read to their children.” And it must be conceded that this is frequently the case: my own body of research has found that many parents with low but not poverty level incomes and lower levels of education did not always read to their children or visit the library regularly.

This was not due to parents’ lack of concern about their children’s literacy development. Instead it stemmed from a lack of awareness about the importance of these activities and because reading and library visits had usually not been part of their own childhood experiences.

Family literacy intervention is an appropriate strategy. But it must be acknowledged that because an estimated 55.5% of South Africans live below the poverty line, survival concerns rather than literacy may be uppermost in many parents’ minds.

Also, many parents may either not be literate or have low levels of literacy despite having completed grade 7, which is considered to be an indicator of literacy achievement. Although parents with low literacy levels are still able to provide literacy support for their children, they are limited in how much they can do.

Family literacy initiatives, then, should be viewed as a complement to early childhood and foundation phase education, not as a substitute. Placing the responsibility or blame on parents takes the responsibility away from public education.

Access to books

Increasing access to books is another popular response to the literacy crisis. A survey found that six out of ten South Africans older than 16 years lived in households without a single book present. One initiative to increase access to books is the Read to Lead Campaign which aims to create 1000 school libraries by 2019.

While the strategy aimed at making books accessible is commendable, there are two provisos: quality and mediation.

Children need access to high quality books. But they also need access to skilled readers who can mediate their encounters with books by, for example, pointing out print concepts such as reading from left to right and encouraging their awareness of speech sounds. Skilled readers can also help children to use books as resources for enriching vocabulary, and asking questions that facilitate comprehension of the story. Children need skilled adults to scaffold their encounters with books.

This leads to the issue of initial teacher training, arguably the most critical strategy for addressing the literacy crisis.

Schools’ responsibility

While the above strategies have their place, the ultimate responsibility for educating South Africa’s children lies with the school system. The PIRLS results and recent investigations have provided incontrovertible evidence that initial teacher education programmes are not producing graduates sufficiently equipped to teach reading.

Processes are under way to support more effective initial primary teacher education in literacy by developing curriculum frameworks and resources for university courses and building university academics’ capacity to deliver higher quality teacher education. But this will take time and will not help the learners currently in the foundation phase of schooling. So it is crucial that in-service teachers have access to ongoing professional development to support reading instruction.

It is critical that accelerated efforts be made to equip teachers for their task of teaching children to read. South Africa’s children deserve no less.

Ingrid Willenberg, Senior Lecturer in Education, Australian Catholic University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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