/ 23 May 2023

NGO youth@work launches tool to tackle literacy crisis in South Africa schools

Literacy Crisis
South African education and employment NGO youth@WORK says tools to improve literacy rates are available and hold the key to alleviating the burden on the country’s education system. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

South African education and employment NGO youth@WORK says tools to improve literacy rates are available and hold the key to alleviating the burden on the country’s education system.

This comes after the basic education department unveiled the results of the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which showed that only 19% of grade four pupils could read for meaning in any language that year. This represents a distressing 3% decline in literacy rates since the previous assessment in 2016.

The NGO says although the tools to improve literacy rates exist, such as its newly developed youthPROFILER, the key lies in ensuring widespread access to these resources at as many schools as possible.

Children struggling to read often indicates broader deficiencies in the education system encompassing maths, science and the humanities, said Erica Kempken, the co-founder and director of youth@WORK.

“What is particularly frustrating is that we possess the necessary tools, technology, and resources to reverse this trajectory. This is an opportunity for collaboration and collective action,” she said.

The newly launched youthPROFILER will assist teachers, parents, and learners in measuring and strengthening literacy and numeracy skills, Kempken said. Using complex algorithms, the tool identifies skills gaps and provides workbooks, videos, and activities that parents and teachers can use to bridge those deficiencies effectively.

“Studies like these [PIRLS] serve as a stark reminder that we are not doing enough to address the crisis in basic education and create opportunities for the next generation of South Africans entering the workforce,” Kempken said.

Speaking at a national seminar on reading literacy last week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said the education system was fragile in this regard, saying it was evident that learners had not benefited from the many years of schooling. This fragility, she said, was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Due to the unprecedented disruptions caused by the pandemic, as much as 60% of teaching time was lost in certain grades in 2020, and up to 50% was lost in 2021,” Motshekga said.

“It is important to note that the timing of the PIRLS assessment in late 2021, after almost two years of disruption and before the return to regular school schedules, presented a significant challenge.” 

Motshekga said the department had made a few interventions to tackle this problem, one being the finalisation of a revised National Reading Plan to address the gaps in the education system. 

The primary focus will be on home language literacy, because children need to learn to read in a language they understand.

“However, the plan will also support English as a first additional language to prepare learners for the challenging transition to English as the language of learning and teaching, which typically occurs in grade four,” Motshekga said. 

In addition, a minimum learning and teaching support material package specifically designed to support reading will be provided.

“The materials will be culturally and age-appropriate, including resources like alphabet friezes, posters, flashcards, big books, and, most importantly, decodable graded reading books developed in various African languages to facilitate children’s reading acquisition,” the basic education minister said.

Motshekga added that her department was in discussions with the treasury to fund a National Integrated Reading Literacy Strategy.