According to the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) study which tested reading comprehension of learners in their fourth year of primary schooling, South Africa is facing a reading crisis.
South Africa ranked last out of 50 countries that were surveyed in the study.
The PIRLS results, released in 2017, also found that 78% of South Africa’s Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning, according to a report by the Mail& Guardian.
While experts believe that various steps such as promoting a reading culture, encouraging parents to read to their children, making books more affordable and accessible can help in addressing the reading crisis—they also believe that that the crisis can be averted by providing high-quality and affordable education for all.
Head of Schools at SPARK Schools Bailey Thomson says the results are disheartening.
“Keeping in mind that such a high proportion of our GDP is dedicated to education, this result is even more disappointing,” says Thomson.
“South Africa’s literacy instruction is in crisis and there is an urgent need for access to high-quality, affordable education for all South Africans,” says Thomson.
Also notable in the PIRLS study is that 93% of teachers of the learners who were assessed have at least a post-secondary degree qualification such as a bachelor’s degree in education. The study also found that 40% of the teachers of the learners who were assessed in the study have more than 20 years of teaching experience.
SPARK Schools believes these statistics indicate that neither teacher-training institutions nor in-service professional-development programmes guarantee that the country’s teachers are prepared to lead learners to high achievement.
Given the results of the PIRLS assessment, there is no assurance that a South African child educated by a teacher with a teaching qualification or decades of experience will be able to read for meaning by the age of nine.
“This is why at SPARK Schools, teacher training and attracting promising new teachers are two pillars of our strategy to provide quality education in our schools,” says Blake.
She adds that they actively recruit candidates who are recent graduates or in their first five years of teaching and invest heavily in the professional development of teachers.
All SPARK Schools educators are given at least 245 hours of professional development annually, which is the equivalent of roughly a decade of development in a traditional school setting.
“With the ongoing support and coaching they deserve as professionals, South African teachers can produce outstanding results with their students,” says Blake.
SPARK Schools teaches reading for meaning from Grade R. While the complexity increases over time, pupils learn how to make inferences, ask questions and make connections to the text from the beginning.
SPARK Schools Co-founder and CEO Stacey Brewer agree that increasing access to books and developing a culture of reading can play a role in addressing the reading culture but to a limited extent.
“At SPARK schools, reading and writing make up a large proportion of a student’s daily timetable, especially in the foundation phase.
Instruction in reading comprehension cannot begin only after a child reaches phonetic competency and fluency; it must be integrated from the outset,” Brewer says.
“Addressing the problem by increasing access to books and developing a reading culture is helpful but only to a limited extent.”
At SPARK Schools literacy comprises nearly half of the instructional day in Grades R to 3. This is to ensure that pupils learn and practise reading and writing skills that they can confidently take with them into the intermediate phase and beyond.
“Hopefully this will go some way towards moving South Africa up the literacy scale so we don’t find ourselves still last in five or 10 years time,” she says.
For more information on how to apply for a teaching position at SPARK Schools, join the SPARK team page.