PIRLS 2021 RESULTS: HOW WILL WE RESPOND?
South Africa first participated in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in 2006. This first round provided important opportunities to assess implementation of the study in our local context and demonstrated the deplorable state of reading literacy in South Africa. The 2011 round of PIRLS saw a strengthened data collection process and a set of results to compare against the 2006 baseline. The results were equally shocking and interest around the study began to grow. By the time the 2016 round of PIRLS was carried out, the results were released amidst great furore.
With each round of implementation, there has been growing critique of the study, specifically the assessment tools used to assess learners’ reading skills. The relevance of the texts used in the assessments has been called into question. Storylines reflect Western, privileged pursuits far removed from the daily experience of most South African children. Text lengths are much longer than learners are accustomed to in CAPS. The issue of translation has been heavily debated. The monolingual approach underpinning the entire PIRLS study has been heavily criticised in some quarters, pointing to the persistent hegemony of English, which has been further entrenched since policy and interventions in the basic education system were developed in line with the findings of the PIRLS iterations. The notion of league tables which pit developing countries against better resourced, more advanced nations seems inherently unfair. Despite the backlash, the results of each PIRLS iteration gave us the means of taking a long, hard look at ourselves and galvanised the sector into action.
As the study has evolved in South Africa, the place of systemic evaluations has been largely accepted, if with reservations in some quarters. Instead of squabbling about details, we have begun to work with the information the results provide.
On the eve of the release of the South African results of PIRLS 2021, we face an important moment as the literacy community. It is time to reflect on our expectations of the results, now, before the results are released. What are our expectations? Do we have a predetermined idea of acceptable findings? What is this idea rooted in? Rather than be swept up reactively in a wave of uproar and catastrophising, let us consider what we expect from this round of PIRLS and, more importantly, what our reaction will be.
Let us also be mindful about the language used to describe the results. The well-worn statistic that “78% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning” has been used in unhelpful ways and suggests that accountability for the problem lies with children. This is victim blaming. Perhaps we could rephrase key findings to represent the situation more accurately. This would result in a less pithy soundbyte but would change the way we think about the results. Here is a suggestion: “failures within the South African education system have resulted in 78% of learners not possessing the knowledge and skills to read for meaning by Grade 4”.
We in the literacy community are painfully aware of the challenges facing our education system and the results of PIRLS 2021 are not likely to demonstrate significant improvements in literacy skills amongst young learners. This we already know. Should we be outraged and dismayed if the results continue to paint a dismal picture? Of course! But it is time to begin focusing on the detail in the findings instead of the broad brushstrokes. As responsible stewards of our children’s education and their futures, it is up to us to begin discussions in our circles of influence around our expectations for the results. More importantly, we should discuss what we’re going to do about it. That is the real test.
READING FOR MEANING BY 2030: WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS?
The recent launch of the 2030 Reading Panel has renewed interest in the reading abilities of young South Africans. The goal, as outlined by the panel, is to ensure that by 2030 all South African children aged 10 can read for meaning in their home language and English. One would be hard-pressed to find members of the public who did not support the goal of ensuring that children are able to read for meaning. But what are the implications of children being able to read for meaning by 2030?
According to the 2022 Background Report for the 2030 Reading Panel, reading for meaning is the ability to “locate and retrieve explicitly stated information in a simple and easy text” (page 1) and later it is described as the “skill of being able to accurately and quickly match the sounds in spoken language with the print on the page” (page 5). While these are crucial skills, this is an inadequate conceptualisation of reading for meaning. As with most debates around literacy, there is a spectrum of understanding around this issue that ranges from a highly technicist approach to an approach that is deeply embedded in sociocultural framing. Despite these differing ideological approaches, few people involved in literacy education would be satisfied with a reductionist understanding of what it is to read for meaning.
Let us imagine a scenario in which we are on the way to reaching the 2030 goal. Once we have a group of children who are proficient readers and who love reading, we will need material for them to read. The road to reading proficiency depends on exposure to and the use of reading material of all kinds. There is an entire infrastructure set up to ensure that English-speaking (and Afrikaans-speaking) children can read for meaning, at all levels. The lack of literature available in African languages for the developing reader through to young adult fiction is profound. We need books, in all languages, available to children from birth, not only from when children can read. Who will write and publish these books, in our languages? A strong contingent of writers, publishers and creatives is needed, ranging from small, niche publishing houses to large commercial operators. This simply does not exist. As the esteemed writers who took part in the panel discussion at LITASA’s 2020 conference highlighted, there is little money in the work. It is done out of love.
The recent closure of the South African Book Development Council seems at odds with the urgency around reading expressed by the Reading Panel. How is it that a high-level panel on reading skills amongst South Africa’s youngest citizens has been constituted, just as the body established to represent the South African book sector - to develop and protect writers and publishers, whilst providing strategic vision for the book sector - has been forced to close due to lack of consistent financial support?
If equal attention is not given to the creation of the materials that contribute to all South African children being able to read for meaning by 2030, as is being given to the school-based instruction that leads to this goal, then we have misunderstood the reading ecosystem.
Being a competent reader does not immediately engender a love of reading. Along with the technical skills related to reading, children need positive attitudes towards reading modelled to them, along with time to read on their own and opportunities to choose reading materials based on their personal interests. Indeed, reading must start in the home from early on, through storytelling, songs and rhymes. What is needed is clear and consistent messaging, inside and outside the classroom, that promotes reading as a leisure activity and reinforces the idea that reading is something we can do for the sheer joy of it.
Developing a culture of reading in the country will increase demand for reading material. Given the economic state of South Africa, and the lack of disposable income amongst the vast majority of the nation’s citizens, access to free or low-cost reading materials will be the only way to meet demand. Our thoughts naturally turn to libraries as the source of those materials. However, as a recent Daily Maverick article outlines, school libraries are beset with infrastructure and resourcing challenges, while community libraries are experiencing budget cuts and, in some cases, closure.
South Africa boasts many wonderful organisations already generating high quality texts using alternative publishing models that ensure resources are free (or almost free) to the end user. The work of Nal’ibali, Book Dash, Molteno and Wordworks naturally comes to mind. The focus in recent years has been on texts for early readers though. Organisations such as FunDza, the 2021 recipient of LITASA’s Significant Contribution to Literacy award, have done commendable work in producing resources for teenagers and young adults, simultaneously ensuring future growth by developing writers from within their network of readers. Reading materials across languages and age groups will be needed as the cohort of proficient readers matures into young adults – a practice which is not currently happening due to the significant focus on early grade reading and bias towards English in later grades.
Perhaps digital reading resources would provide a solution to accessing low-cost reading resources. Here, too, we are stumped. The cost of mobile data prohibits extensive use of digital resources and telecommunications companies are notoriously selective about zero-rating websites, even educational ones. There are however some organisations such as Nal'ibali whose websites are zero-rated. These organisations are to be commended for the significant effort made to ensure that their websites are zero-rated.
Does the Reading Panel intend to track whether all children can read for meaning by 2030 at school, because school is the only place where they have access to (limited) reading resources? If we continue to foreground school-based literacy practices as the only legitimate form of literacy, this perpetuates the divide between home and school literacies and does little to develop a culture of reading in society generally.
On the issue of school-based literacy instruction, teachers who have been specifically trained to teach reading in a range of languages are required. Those working in education are aware of the challenges around preservice teacher training programmes that do not adequately prepare teachers to teach reading. Furthermore, targeted programmes to support teachers with struggling readers in grades other than the Foundation Phase are virtually non-existent. Literacy development in content areas such as Mathematics and Natural Sciences has received limited attention.
If we find ourselves with a cohort of children who are proficient readers by the end of the Foundation Phase, they will be capable of much more than CAPS currently expects of them. Will this require a shift in the curriculum or prescribed content to a wider range of longer, more complex texts? A more accomplished cohort of learners will also require teachers with skills to select and use multiple resources in meaningful ways. Shared textbooks will no longer be good enough. As we move increasingly into the digital age, the ability to integrate Open Educational Resources (OERs) into lessons, and to assess the quality of OERs, becomes increasingly important. How will teachers be supported to make this transition? And will they be supplied with multiple resources to choose from, including digital resources, for use in their classrooms?
Finally, we must ask if the Reading Panel intends to track the ability of English and Afrikaans-speaking children in former Model C schools and private schools to read for meaning in at least one African language. The National Development Plan lays out the need for all South Africans to communicate in at least one indigenous language, in the interests of social cohesion. It seems reasonable to expect a fair distribution of this expectation in terms of reading as well.
Ultimately, we need to decentre English and Afrikaans, when the majority of our children in South Africa are African-language speaking. If we speak about tracking reading for meaning, all languages must be given parity. At LITASA, we support the equality of languages in literacy. We also support additive approaches to multilingualism. The shift to English as the language of instruction in Grade 4 is not policy, it is practice. This convention is part of the reason our children are not able to acquire proficiency in either their home language or English. Home language instruction has to be supported beyond the Foundation Phase. Therefore we need teachers who able to teach these languages, through these languages, in the higher grades, with appropriate and supportive reading material.
LITASA welcomes any initiative that promotes literacy development in South Africa, such as the 2030 Reading Panel. We simply ask that reading be viewed as part of the literacy ecosystem, and that initiatives supporting reading development fit alongside other initiatives that ensure success in reading. In so doing, we ensure a society in which all South Africans are literate and able to reach their full potential.