The Three Rs – Reading, Reading & Reading


There is a reading crisis in South Africa with the country ranked last out of 50 surveyed.

This according to the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) study which tested reading comprehension of learners in their fourth year of primary schooling. The latest PIRLS results, released late last year, also uncovered that 78% of South Africa’s Grade 4 students are unable to read for meaning.

A recent article written by Ingrid Willenberg and published in the Mail & Guardian discussed these dismal statistics.

However, things are not going to get better anytime soon unless urgently addressed at the right level.

While the experts acknowledge and agree that various steps can be taken to help the situation, such as promoting a culture of reading, encouraging parents to read to their children and making books more affordable and accessible, almost all agree that the main responsibility lies with the South African schooling system and the urgent need for access to high-quality, affordable education for all.

Says Bailey Thomson Blake, Head of Schools at SPARK Schools: “Keeping in mind that such a high proportion of our GDP is dedicated to education, this result is even more disappointing.”

“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.”

Also notable in the PIRLS study is that 93 percent of teachers whose students were assessed have at least a post-secondary degree qualification such as a bachelor’s degree in education. Forty percent of the teachers of learners assessed in the PIRLS report have more than 20 years’ 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 students to high achievement.


Given the results of the PIRLS assessment, there is no assurance a South African child educated by a teacher with a teaching qualification or decades of experience teaching 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. “We actively recruit candidates who are recent graduates or in their first five years of teaching and then invest heavily in the professional development of them.”

This means that all SPARK Schools educators are given at least 245 hours of professional development annually – 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 teaches reading for meaning from Grade R. While the complexity increases over time, students learn how to make inferences, to ask questions, and to make connections to the text from the beginning.

Says SPARK Schools co-founder and CEO Stacey Brewer: “Instruction in reading comprehension cannot begin only after a child reaches phonetic competency and fluency; it must be integrated from the outset.”

“Addressing the problem by increasing access to books and developing a reading culture is helpful but only 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. Literacy comprises nearly half of the instructional day in Grades R to 3, to ensure that students 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.”

*Ingrid Willenberg is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the Australian Catholic University. This article was originally published in The Conversation.


For more information on how to enrol your child at SPARK Schools, visit our enrolment page.

For more information on how to apply for a teaching position at SPARK Schools, join the SPARK team page.

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