/ 7 June 2023

Unlocking the future: nurturing a literate generation

Sizile Mabaso
Sizile Mabaso, CEO of READ

The 2030 Reading Panel will address what needs to change to ensure that all children learn to read by 2030

The recent findings of an international study on the reading abilities of 10-year-old children in South Africa have unveiled a disheartening reality. It is not only a matter of deep concern that eight out of 10 do not understand what they read, but also a timely call for serious and intense interventions from both the public and private educational sectors. 

The ability to read and comprehend is essential for leading a meaningful life in this technological age, contributing to one’s immediate circle, and increasing the progress of the country as a whole. As Africa positions itself as the future economic powerhouse of the world, the urgency to address these challenges becomes even more paramount.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), Africa is projected to witness remarkable population growth, with over a quarter of the world’s under-fives and more than a third of all children being African by 2050. 

While population growth in Asia is declining, Africa’s people boom is on the rise. By 2030, one in every five individuals in the world will be African, signifying a demographic shift with profound implications. Consequently, the emphasis on technology, infrastructure, health,and education will be instrumental in propelling this rapidly growing market to the forefront. However, education emerges as a critical factor that demands urgent attention.

Recognising the significance of education, South Africa has set 2030 as a milestone year. 

The “2030 Reading Panel,” an annual gathering of esteemed South African leaders convened by former deputy-president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, seeks to address the question of what needs to change to ensure that all children learn to read by 2030. The panel recommends fundamental reforms in teacher recruitment, training, certification, support and evaluation, as well as educational financing and school resourcing. 

While the government must spearhead these reforms, it cannot be expected to shoulder the challenge alone.

READ Educational Trust was established in 1979 precisely because South Africa has long struggled with low literacy rates. It operates on the belief that literacy and access to quality education are fundamental for empowering individuals. The organisation boasts an impressive track record, having positively impacted 7.5 million learners, 250 000 teachers and 40 000 schools across the country. READ has played a pivotal role in influencing and reforming the education system post-apartheid, with its methodologies widely adopted by teachers and literacy NGOs.

While READ has been successful in the past, the rapidly evolving global environment and technological advances necessitate agile adaptation to address present-day literacy needs. 

Over the last 18 months READ and its publishing arm, READing Matters, have undergone re-engineering to equip them to respond effectively to current and future challenges. This strategic repositioning centres on a methodology that:

  • Incorporates the knowledge, skills, and competencies that children bring to the classroom, regardless of their economic background.
  • Uses the child’s home language as a scaffold in the process of learning an additional language.
  • Develops learning resources that are culturally appropriate and aligned with the above priorities.

READ is a firm advocate of impact measurement — using credible, scientific tools — that not only reflects the children’s abilities but also informs the design of our literacy interventions.

The recent results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) underscore the seriousness of the situation South Africa faces. The study revealed that a staggering 81% of South African children in grade four struggle to read with comprehension. This marks a significant deterioration from 76% four years prior and it is likely that Covid-19 played a role in eroding the gains made in a decade of slow progress since 2011. 

While South Africa ranked last among the 57 assessed countries, it is important to note that very few low- and middle-income countries participated in PIRLS.  The survey benchmarked us against the best-resourced education systems in the world and its message — that South Africa must strive for better outcomes — cannot be ignored. This is the generation that must grasp and shape the promising future of the African continent in a competitive world.

The challenges faced by READ, other private literacy organisations, and the government are undeniably daunting. However, they are not insurmountable. The appropriate response should not be one of despair, but rather a resolute call to action for the government and the private sector to improve the life opportunities of South Africa’s children.

Education reform, enhanced teacher training, adequate resources and private sector interventions can collectively pave the way for a brighter future. By prioritising literacy and education, South Africa can unlock the potential of its children, preparing them to thrive in this changing world and contributing to the nation’s overall progress.

— Sizile Mabaso is the CEO of READ