South Africa: Grade 8 pupils can't read, state warns

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Aug 28 13:00:09 UTC 2006

Grade 8 pupils can't read, state warns

By Eleanor Momberg

A shockingly high number of South African school children are unable to
read at their appropriate grade and age level, the department of education
has confirmed. Palesa Tyobeka, the deputy director-general of general
education and training in the department, said the problem, particularly
at primary school level, is "quite serious". In an open letter to primary
school principals, Tyobeka appealed to educators to teach children to
read. "Reading is a foundational skill that all our children need if they
are to succeed in life. Sadly, all our assessments of how well our
children read reveal that a shockingly high number cannot read at the
appropriate grade and age level. Many simply cannot read at all. We cannot
allow this continue," she said in the letter.

It was for that reason that she challenged all primary schools to improve
the reading skills of their pupils, including those who were perceived to
be at the appropriate level for their grade and age. Tyobeka said that an
evaluation to determine the levels of literacy and numeracy among grade
three pupils in 2001 had raised flags when poor levels of both were
revealed. Last year's systematic evaluation among grade six pupils had
also showed low levels of reading, numeracy and science abilities. Of the
pupils who participated in the survey, the average score for maths was 27
percent compared with the average score of 38 percent for language and 41
percent for natural sciences. "I have been sending the message to schools
and have done policy briefings on what the areas of concern are - it all
goes back to reading," Tyobeka said about the letter.

While the curriculum guidelines allocated sufficient time for language
instruction, including teaching children how to read, it appeared this was
not being done properly. The department was now offering additional
support and guidelines to all schools so that principals would know how to
support teachers in this exercise. In the letter, Tyobeka said all schools
should set aside at least 30 minutes a day for the entire school to read,
including the principal and staff, in any language. "This period can be
handled in different ways: children who are able to read independently
should be encouraged to do so; older learners can read to the younger
ones, or teachers to their classes or to groups of children," said the

She said the department would be sending storybooks to all schools,
starting with those in the poorer communities. This year packs consisting
of 100 storybooks each were sent to schools to be put out in 5 628
foundation-phase classes. Next year books would be sent to 6 000 schools.
Because only 19 percent of schools in South Africa had libraries, mobile
libraries had already been introduced in KwaZulu-Natal and similar
projects would be started in other provinces. Schools were also being
encouraged to use community libraries over and above referring children to
the Internet for project information. Tyobeka said that, since sending out
the letter, she had received an "amazing" response not only from schools
but also from parents. One parent had written to her telling of her child
in grade eight who "can't read at all". A Durban teacher confirmed this,
saying that most of his grade nine class were "semi-literate" and two
"cannot read at all" despite being able to put pen to paper.

Tyobeka, teacher bodies, teachers and researchers have all confirmed that
there has been a shift from what reading levels should be at a certain
age. The teacher said he had found that most 14-year-old pupils were only
reading at the level of an 11 or 12-year-old, adding that their writing
reflected that. "Most children who have English as their home language
cannot spell simple words like shirt," he said. "It is a huge problem at
the school where I am teaching." Tyobeka said the department was "terribly
concerned" because an inability to read properly, and understand what was
being read, affected everything else the child did later on in life,
including the ability to access information.

Universities have stated that, because many schools still do not have
adequate libraries to enable students to develop necessary reading and
comprehension skills, they are obliged to engage students in programmes
that bridge the gap. The University of Pretoria requires all first-year
students to write an academic literacy test before the start of lectures.
Depending on the outcome of the test, the student is required to complete
additional modules to develop his or her academic literacy through courses
in academic or legal reading and writing, or communication skills for
engineers or prospective businesspeople. The University of the
Witwatersrand said that while it did not conduct literacy or comprehension
tests on students, it had streaming options for students whose primary and
secondary schooling had not prepared them adequately for university

"Matriculants who are ill-prepared for a university education are required
to take an extended curriculum programme - this means going into a
four-year programme to cope with a three-year degree," said Prim Gower,
the spokesperson for Wits. "In the first two years there is an enrichment
programme that covers areas including language and comprehension, combined
with the course work. The streaming of these students is done through a
biographical questionnaire, or we assess the background of the matriculant
before admitting him or her into the degree." While computers, television,
under-resourcing of rural schools in particular and a lack of books in the
home were among the reasons given for poor reading performance, another
was that parents often insisted that their children change from
mother-tongue education to English or Afrikaans.

Sue Muller of the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South
Africa said teachers were extremely concerned. She said the curriculum for
languages had not been properly designed, as there was no longer a
"hierarchy" of languages where a child had to learn a first and second
language, and then had a choice of a third. Tyobeka said she hoped the new
effort to get primary school children to read would contribute to ending
illiteracy. Tests on the reading levels of grade three pupils would be
done later this year to assess whether this project was a success.

The department was already talking to publishers about the "inhibitive"
and "criminal" cost of children's books in the hope that either prices
could be dropped or discounts offered so that children could have books in
their own homes to read. The department was also considering allowing
children to take the books they read at school home. "Many of us don't
read anymore, so I hope this will lead to a reading nation," she said.



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