Rampant illiteracy in primary schools across home languages and English

More than two thirds of Grade 5 English Second Language (ESL) students from a sample of 4667 learners could not pass a simple English comprehension test with more than 30%, a study has found. The vast majority of these students could also not read for meaning by the end of grade 4 – even in their home language.

The findings of a recent study by Kim Draper and Nic Spaull, from the Centre for Development and Enterprise and the Stellenbosch University Department of Economics, respectively, finds crisis-level illiteracy rates in primary school learners of South African schools.

They find that almost a third of students will still be functionally illiterate by the time they reach grade 6. Draper and Spaull focused their study on an understanding of oral reading fluency (ORF) of Grade 5 ESL learners in rural South Africa.

ORF is an essential component of competent reading, and is the speed at which written text is reproduced into spoken language. This translates into the ability to read text quickly, accurately, and with meaningful expression and is correlated with comprehension and understanding meaning in texts.

Draper and Spaull used data from a non-random sample of 4667 Grade 5 learners in 214 rural schools across all nine provinces of South Africa. The sample is still seen as representative in that the results would be positively biased, if at all.

Of the sample, only 1772 students completed the ORF Test 1 from which insights are gained. Of these students 41% were reading at less than 40 words read correctly per minute (WCPM). This translated into 88% of them achieving less than 20% on the silent reading comprehension test that followed.

The international literature points to a threshold of 40 WCPM as being the absolute lower-bound threshold, below which children do not understand what they are reading at all. International benchmarks, however, see South African learners’ ORF rate comparable to US Grade 2 ESL learners currently.

Due to a lack of contextual relevance across international standards, the authors suggest that through a series of adaptations to current models that take into account uniquely South African factors, a more attainable and appropriate benchmark for Grade 5 ESL learners would be 90-100 WCPM. Currently these results are only being attained by 9% of the sample.

The authors point to a need for drastic policy intervention to see that the single most important goal for the first half of primary school tuition should become the solid acquisition of reading skills where every child can read fluently in their home language by the end of Grade 3 and read fluently in English by the end of Grade 4 – since English becomes the medium of teaching from Grade 5 onward for the vast majority of learners.

What stands in the way of this is the fact that the majority of primary school teachers do not know how to teach reading in either African languages or English.

To achieve the proposed goals, policy will need a medium- and long-term focus, they suggest, and will need to cater for the clear need to convene a group of literacy experts to develop a course to teach Foundation Phase teachers how to teach reading.


To access the research as contained in Working Paper No.9 of the Stellenbosch University Department of Economics , please click here.