/ 13 May 2024

Health problems the hidden hurdle behind learners’ reading difficulties

Graphic Edu Schools Twitter
The annual competition gives learners an opportunity to work with the Constitution and questions of equality, freedom and dignity (John McCann/M&G)

In the villages of Limpopo, where Sepedi is the dominant language and economic problems are prevalent, a deeply concerning issue persists — poor reading proficiency among children in their mother tongue. 

Recent findings from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2021 reveal a staggering 81% of South African learners struggle to comprehend written text in any language. Limpopo consistently ranks as one of the provinces with the lowest reading outcomes in Sepedi. 

Numerous local and international reports on literacy and numeracy, along with research, have identified multiple problems contributing to early grade reading difficulties. These include insufficient teaching materials in indigenous languages, ineffective bilingual curriculum implementation, inadequate literacy teaching strategies, educator shortages and insufficient support from district officials.

While considerable attention has been given to systemic factors within the education system and policy frameworks, a critical aspect often overlooked is the health of young learners, particularly in the foundation phase of South African classrooms.

My classroom observations in rural Limpopo further underscored these statistics, revealing a significant yet under-discussed dimension: health barriers hindering children from mastering basic reading skills. Rather than struggling with the language itself, many children have hearing impairments, vision deficiencies and speech disorders. In resource-constrained classrooms, these conditions often go undetected because of a lack of teachers with specialised training.

A prevalent problem was visual impairment. Some learners struggled to perceive the written text or content on the chalkboard, despite teachers’ efforts to enlarge letters or sentences. Even with such accommodations, learners continued to face obstacles in effectively observing and conveying information. Teachers frequently posed questions such as, “Can you see what is written?” or “Can you identify the sounds or letters in each word?” It became evident that some learners were unable to see the text clearly because of vision deficiencies that teachers may not have been aware of.

In one instance, I observed learners squinting, to the extent that some stood up or copied the written text from their peers. Alternatively, they would take their classwork books, move closer to the chalkboard, sit on the floor and write their classwork activities. 

Another classroom presented a different problem where a teacher paired slow-paced learners with fast-paced learners. The fast-paced learners were tasked to point out the text as they read, showing the slower-paced learners how to read. But some reported that their partners were either not reading or pointing to the text correctly.

During another lesson, the learners struggled with reading text written in their mother tongue. The problem did not lie in the design or presentation of the materials; rather, the learners simply could not read. Some looked around the classroom when the teacher read for them, and while the teacher walked around assisting them, some learners only pointed at the words without reading or pronouncing them. 

In other cases, when asked to copy words directly from the chalkboard, learners still could not see the words clearly even though they were written in a large font, and often wrote the words incorrectly. Some learners were struggling because of vision impairments while others had hearing difficulties. 

We must ask ourselves: Can the children see? And if so, what do they see, and are they able to read aloud clearly to themselves, their peers, and their teacher? If not, what are the underlying issues? 

In addressing these questions, we can better understand the multifaceted nature of the difficulties learners encounter and work towards implementing effective interventions to support their literacy development.

Teachers, although capable of identifying such health problems, lack the necessary training to address them effectively. Consequently, they may only be able to provide limited assistance, such as referring children to healthcare practitioners. But many parents are hesitant to accept such referrals because they are concerned about their children’s access to education and potential stigmatisation.

It is time to recognise the interconnectedness of health and education. Educators must expand their roles to include identifying and addressing health-related learning barriers. This requires theoretical and practical training on recognising signs of such barriers and facilitating appropriate interventions. Collaboration between teachers and health practitioners, involving professionals such as psychologists, physiotherapists, speech therapists, audiologists and ophthalmologists is essential in diagnosing and treating these conditions.

But addressing these problems is not solely the responsibility of educators. Government and education stakeholders must prioritise integrating health screening into the education system through policy reforms mandating regular health assessments for school-age children. Additionally, teacher training programmes should incorporate modules on recognising and addressing health-related learning barriers.

Community programmes are equally important. Mobilising resources and support from local health services, NGOs and community leaders can ensure that no child’s learning potential is hampered by undetected health issues. Collaboration between literacy NGOs and health practitioners can provide valuable insights into addressing reading problems comprehensively.

Addressing poor reading outcomes in South African indigenous languages requires acknowledging and addressing the underlying health factors. Breaking the silence surrounding these unseen barriers and working collectively towards building an inclusive education system are imperative to ensure every child can speak, see, write and hear so that they thrive in reading.

Nombuyiselo Zondi is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pretoria, Faculty of Education.