/ 28 February 2020

Basic literacy: reading comes before coding

Graphic Edu Coding Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)


In his State of the Nation address earlier this month, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that this year South Africa will be introducing coding and robotics in grades R to three in 200 schools. This is the first step in the department of basic education’s plan for integrating the subject into the grade R to nine curriculum.

As someone who has pioneered improving access to tech education in South Africa, one would assume I am delighted. Not necessarily so. Realistically, this is a policy that is most likely to further entrench education inequality unless we temper the desire to bring coding and robotics skills to our youth against the realities of what our education system is achieving.

Of course, integrating coding and robotics into the national curriculum makes sense on paper: the economy will flounder without a workforce that can leverage technology, and the economic opportunity offered by our tech industry will be squandered if our education system cannot train young people adequately.

Someone who can code can leverage computational power by telling a computer what to do, they can use technology to be more effective in their day-to-day activities and they can even create new technology.  Undoubtedly, coding is a skill that holds power.

This is the reason I founded the education institution Codespace: I wanted young Africans to hold the power to create technology. Codespace supplements the existing school system with additional coding and robotics courses that a learner can take during school or after matric. We see our graduates join the IT industry and shift to a higher and steeper income trajectory.

To predict how successful a student will be in our courses, we measure indicators of what we call their “learning ability”, as well as their ability to solve problems. The sad reality is that we find these indicators correlate closely with the quality of early schooling, which makes sense if one considers that literacy and numeracy are the foundational skills that allow someone to solve problems effectively and learn throughout their life.

The average primary school child in our country does not have the basic skills required for all future learning and problem solving; 78% of grade four learners cannot read for meaning in any language and 61% of grade five children cannot do basic mathematics. This deficit has to be addressed if we want to teach coding.

Furthermore, is it prudent to introduce coding in underperforming schools at the risk of further worsening literacy and numeracy rates? Given the abject failure of the majority of South African schools to ensure children can read and write, it would be futile to imagine that these schools have the capacity to teach coding as an additional literacy. If a school cannot teach learners to read, can they teach them to code?

For the majority of schools that are not yet able to meet the required literacy and numeracy learning outcomes, adding coding will most likely divert attention from getting the basics right by placing extra strain on already overworked teachers. As we have seen in the case of outcome-based education, a policy disconnected from the realities of South African classrooms will only lead to deteriorating performance in the case of already fragile and underperforming schools.

So no coding for South Africans? No, we are already seeing high-functioning schools start teaching coding and robotics with success. With good teacher training, many schools will be able to implement the new curriculum to great effect. My concern is how the policy affects vulnerable schools where learners might end up with neither the skill of coding nor literacy, which will set them even farther behind.

In the case of low- and non-functioning schools, before introducing the new curriculum into a primary school, I would first ensure the school is meeting learning outcomes in literacy and numeracy. Surely we must first address the issues that prevent schools teaching other literacies before adding more? We must focus resources to try to achieve the best possible literacy and numeracy; I would concurrently make sure that the school’s feeder high school is equipped with computer access and the teacher capacity to introduce coding at high school. With this approach we would see learners in low-performing schools delayed in their access to coding, but more likely to have the basic literacies to be able to learn it at all.

The inclusion of coding and robotics is an important education policy to ensure that youth will be equipped for the modern workplace, but the shift in national curriculum only exacerbates the already urgent need to close the learning divide that perpetuates South Africa’s inequality.

The desire to bring coding and robotics to all South African youth should fuel our country’s efforts to ensure all primary schools are functioning well enough to teach literacy and numeracy before adding a new literacy to the mix. Coding is not a substitute for literacy and numeracy, and if coding comes at the expense of these it could further entrench the inequality in our already deeply unequal education system.

Emma Dicks is the founder of Codespace. She writes in her personal capacity