The ability to read for meaning and pleasure is arguably the most important skill children learn in primary school. One integral component of learning to read is oral reading fluency (ORF), defined as the ability to read text quickly, accurately, and with meaningful expression. Although widely acknowledged in the literature as important, to date there have been no large-scale studies on ORF in English in South Africa, despite this being the language of learning and teaching for 80% of English Second Language (ESL) students from Grade 4 onwards. We analyse data provided by the National Education and Evaluation Development Unit (NEEDU) of South Africa, which tested 4 667 Grade 5 ESL students from 214 schools from rural areas in South Africa in 2013. This included ORF and comprehension measures for a subset of 1 772 students. We found that 41% of the sample were non-readers in English (<40 words correct per minute, or WCPM) and only 6% achieved comprehension scores above 60%. By calibrating comprehension levels and WCPM rates, we developed tentative benchmarks and argue that a range of 90-100 WCPM in English is acceptable for Grade 5 ESL students in South Africa. In addition, we outline policy priorities for remedying the reading crisis in the country.


Keywords: Oral reading fluency (ORF), English Second Language (ESL), South Africa, National Education and Evaluation Development Unit (NEEDU), words correct per minute (WCPM)



Draper, K., and Spaull, S. (2015). Examining oral reading fluency among grade 5 rural English Second Language (ESL) learners in South Africa: Analysis of NEEDU 2013. South African Journal of Childhood Education. 5(2) pp.44-77.