/ 21 February 2023

Why our children cannot read for meaning at grade 4 level

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A young girl reading in a cluttered corner of Foyles bookshop, London. (Photo by Chris Ware/Getty Images)

We are 29 years in since apartheid officially ended in South Africa, but the inequalities between our previously disadvantaged schools and former model C schools persist. Last month, the basic education minister announced the 2022 matric results, showing a 80.1% pass rate which was a 3.7% improvement from the 2021 outcome. 

These numbers, read in straightforward terms, may insinuate some form of progress, but it is essential to contrast them with our literacy levels across the system from the first grade of schooling. 

The recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study report shows that 82% of our learners in grade 4 cannot read for meaning. Although this study focuses on that particular grade, it is a representative sample that exposes serious weaknesses in our basic education system as a whole across all grades. 

In particular, this report shows that the attitudes and habits of learners, teachers and communities about reading are at highly disappointing levels. Reading, writing and learning seems to be a dying culture in most South Africans’ schools and homes. 

While some might argue that comparing the “successful” matric results to the current decline in literacy levels at primary school level is irrelevant, we cannot ignore that those who are doing grade 4 today will be in matric in a few years. If the habit of reading is not inculcated at a young age then it might go on to become a stubborn setback in adulthood. 

This poses a major risk in the overall development of a young adult and it might threaten their potential to lead a successful professional life. The crisis of poor reading habits among our children is an existential predicament. 

Education does not occur in a vacuum

Education is a social function that grows out of the seeds of a community context. Parents, teachers, organisations, learners, the media, leaders and community members have the power to determine what should be the core mission of their schools. They are the ones who are able to initiate the necessary connections between the school and its value towards the development of its community. 

In other words, unless the community begins to see schools as sites of personal development, articulation of skills, cultivation of cultural and family values, and the enabling of curiosity and critical thinking habits then nothing will be done to hold schools accountable for what they teach children. In addition, if homes themselves are not conducive environments for non-formal learning then the efforts of the schools are handicapped. 

These challenges are further compounded in previously disadvantaged schools. The majority of these schools are located in townships. These are communities faced with layers of human challenges, which get transferred to schooling. As a result, children in these communities are required to be extra resilient to overcome a society that was designed to fail them. Because this is where most of our learners are, we stand at a high risk as a country of finding ourselves trapped in a future that doesn’t have critical and empowered citizens. 

The 2030 Reading Panel convened by former deputy president Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka issued a report last week showing that the literacy crisis is worsening at the early childhood development level. For example, learners in grade R and grade 2 from impoverished communities were found to be struggling with understanding the basic alphabetic order. 

This challenge, compounded with the reading deficits found among grade 4 learners, makes it seem impossible for the government to achieve its 2030 target of universal access to literacy. 

We must urgently begin doing the work necessary to overcome these structural challenges. The socio-economic factors at the household level need to be systematically resolved to give children a better chance in life. 

Families that have adults in good jobs or families that are stable have better possibilities of giving their children a good education. In addition, communities and the government need to play their role in governing public schools. The sudden collapse of community libraries in townships, for example, signals the breakdown of social cohesion and active citizenship in these communities. 

They also signal the low levels of performance that have come to characterise municipalities and education departments. The more appalling reality of this matter is the lack of care that communities have about the future of their children. Nobody seems to be interested in fighting for the education of poor children anymore. 

This situation needs to change. Parents and families must get involved in the education of their children and they must establish a daily connection with their teachers. 

They must attend parents’ meetings, track the progress of their children and ensure that schools have extracurricular activities that stimulate learners to enjoy schooling and socialising even more. 

Furthermore, the different stakeholders responsible for education must come together more than ever before to tackle the development of our children. The creation of a learning culture is also the responsibility of a community. 

Functioning local libraries communicate a culture of a learning community, as well as providing children with safe reading spaces. NGOs should also play a more productive role in informing children and parents through awareness campaigns, reading road shows, mobile libraries and human rights advocacy for infrastructural justice in public schools. 

These initiatives would go a long way in addressing the challenges in previously disadvantaged schools. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.