Only 18% of grade 4 children can read for meaning: Report

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There is a reading crisis in South Africa as only 18% of children in grade 4 can read for meaning, and it is estimated this cohort is a full year behind same age children from 2019.

The Covid-19 pandemic has erased a decade of progress in reading, sending us back to 2011. File photo.
Image: Supplied

This was revealed by the annual 2030 Reading Panel convened by former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on Tuesday.

The report compiled by Nic Spaull, a researcher at Stellenbosch University, found despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2019 state of the nation address statement that reading was a top 5 priority, there has been “no progress, no plan, no budget” for reading since then.

It found 50% of children in no-fee schools do not learn the letters of the alphabet by the end of grade 1 and there is no national reading plan and no national budget for reading.

“Using Western Cape learning losses as a proxy, new research suggests the percentage of grade 4 pupils who cannot read for meaning has risen from 78% (in 2016) to 82% (in 2021) as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the report.

The 2016 round of Progress in International Reading Literacy Study showed 78% of grade 4 pupils could not read for meaning in any language (all 11 official languages were assessed), and they could not reach the low international benchmark because they were unable to “locate and retrieve explicitly stated information or make straightforward inferences about events and reasons for actions”,

Children in 2023 are estimated to be a full year behind same age children from 2019. The real possibility is the pandemic has wiped out a decade of progress in reading outcomes.

In her background note for the Reading Panel, Dr Gabrielle Wills reported on the findings of the “Covid Generation” research project summarising the impacts of the pandemic on education from large studies in Mpumalanga, North West, Eastern Cape and Western Cape. She reported learning losses for children in the early grades range from 50% to 120% of a year’s worth of learning.

Put differently, the average 10-year-old in 2022 has worse reading outcomes than the average nine-year-old from 2019.

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