Msindisi Fengu

Lunga Siquku* finds it difficult to answer questions written in his home language, isiXhosa. He is among 78% of South Africa’s Grade 4 pupils who cannot understand what they read. This is what results showed when the pupils were tested on literacy skills in languages used at their schools and in the language they spoke the best.

Although Lunga failed isiXhosa, his first additional language, he was allowed to pass because the rest of his marks were good. “I struggle with comprehension. A teacher, or my mother, has to help me to understand and answer questions,” said the boy, who speaks both isiXhosa and English at home. At least the 10-year-old, who goes to a former Model C school in East London, does far better in English as his first language subject.

His mother, Noxolo*, says his school is lacking in books and other materials in isiXhosa.

According to Professor Sarah Howie, national research coordinator at the University of Pretoria, this is one of the reasons South Africa’s Grade 4s fared the worst out of 50 countries in the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) report, released this week.

Last year, a sample of 12 810 Grade 4 pupils from 293 schools were tested in the language they had used at school in Grades 1 to 3, as well as the language with which they were most familiar.

The study results released this week coincided with Wednesday’s release of The Pedagogy of Mathematics in SA, a book by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection which highlighted the importance of African languages in teaching maths, especially in lower grades.

“Without an adequate level of cognitive academic language proficiency in their home language, there is little hope of achieving the levels of interaction and co-construction of understanding in a second language,” the study found.

Howie cites the following additional reasons for the Grade 4s’ poor performance:

  • Poorly trained teachers in the foundation phase (grades 0 to 3) who use poor teaching strategies;
  • Universities no longer producing African-language teachers because it is not a popular course;
  • Some African-language teachers being unqualified to teach them, but because they are first language speakers, they are appointed to those posts; and
  • A scarcity of books written in African languages, as well as a shortage of well resourced school and community libraries, which diminishes a culture of reading in school and at home.

“Reading outcomes haves hardly changed”

Siyabulela Fobosi, an education expert at Rhodes University’s Public Service Accountability Monitor, said the provincial education department reported that it had filled only 108 out of 223 approved vacant library posts for the year 2016/17.

Fobosi said early childhood development also “remains underprioritised and underresourced by government”.

He said schools needed to be better supported and monitored to ensure that teachers did their jobs, pointing to the need for “routine and rigorous” teacher assessments to be conducted to correct teaching failures.

Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the basic education department, said although progress had been made, the Pirls scores – especially for reading – were low and set weak foundations, which could result in pupils dropping out in senior grades.

“Despite numerous initiatives undertaken by national and provincial education departments in recent years, it would appear that reading outcomes have hardly changed since 2011,” said Mhlanga.

“The reality is that shifting learning and teaching on a large scale is a lot harder than one might think.”

Mhlanga said the department was trying to find ways to roll out the Early Grade Reading Study.

The study, which aims to improve home language reading in grades 1 to 3, has been piloted in 230 schools in the North West since 2015.

Mhlanga said a number of lessons were emerging. These included the need to train teachers and provide them with daily lesson plans, the need to offer them in-class support from specialists, and the need to involve parents in encouraging their children to read.

The coaching, he said, had helped boys catch up to girls. “One of the alarming results of the Pirls is that South African boys in Grade 4 are a full grade level behind girls. This is consistent with the data from the Early Grade Reading Study, in which large gender gaps were apparent at the start of Grade 1 and persisted thereafter. However, in those schools that received the coaching intervention, the gender gap was smaller.

“This is consistent with evidence that boys tend to respond worse than girls to poor or unstructured teaching.”

Mugwena Maluleke, the general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), said members were “deeply disturbed” by the Pirls results, but welcomed the study.

He said the union felt vindicated by some findings, including one that poor performance was the result of compromised teaching, manifested through the Annual National Assessments, which put teachers under pressure to shift from teaching for learning to teaching for tests.

Maluleke said Sadtu could not be blamed for the poor performance as there were many factors at play, the quality of teaching being just one of them.

*Not their real names