Will It Take 86 Years For All South African Children To Read For Meaning By Age 10? The 2nd Report from the 2030 Reading Panel

“What progress is South Africa making in enabling all children to read for meaning by age 10?” That’s the question a panel of educators and researchers have been asking over the last two years. This week, IEN shares a blog post summarizing the key findings and recommendations from the Reading Panel’s 2023 Report. The blog post was originally published on the website of Nic Spaull, one of the panel members. To the blog post, we’ve added an excerpt from the report describing some of the more promising small scale interventions that show some evidence of significantly improving reading outcomes. For more on the education research and interventions in South Africa, see three volumes focusing on developments in early grade reading and mathematics between 2010 and 2022.

On the 7th of February we held the second 2030 Reading Panel meeting. The Panel is comprised of 18 respected South Africans who meet annually to review progress towards the Presidential goal of “All South African children being able to read for meaning by age 10 by 2030”, and provides implementable systemic recommendations to government.

Key findings from the 2023 Background Report launched on 7 February 2023:

  1. 82% of SA Grade 4 kids can’t read, up from 78% pre-pandemic: Before the pandemic it was estimated that 78% of Grade 4 learners could read for meaning (PIRLS 2016), new research based on learning losses in the Western Cape suggests that this has risen to 82% as a result of COVID-19 school closures and rotational timetables.
  2. It will take SA 86 years on our current trajectory to reach 95% of children reading for meaning, i.e. the year 2108.
  1. Pandemic has erased a decade of progress, sending us back to 2011. In 2016 22% of Grade 4 children could read for meaning in SA according to PIRLS. Due to COVID-19 it is estimated that now only 18% can read for meaning, the same level as in 2011, erasing a decade of progress in reading outcomes.
  2. 50% of children in no-fee schools do not learn the letters of the alphabet by the end of Grade 1. New research from Limpopo, the Eastern Cape and the North West published in December 2022 shows that less than 50% of children in no-fee schools learn all the letters of the alphabet by the end of Grade 1.
  3. There is currently no National Reading Plan and no national budget for reading. Although the Director General has made reference to a ‘National Reading Plan’ in parliament, no such document exists in the public domain or has been seen by stakeholders. There is also no national budget for improving home-language reading.
  4. Western Cape & Gauteng are both spending more than R100-million over three years to improve reading, the only provinces to do so. The Western Cape is investing in a Reading for Meaning program for Grades 1-3 (2023-2025, R111mil) and Gauteng in their Grade R Program (2022-2024, R107-mil). These are the only provinces to allocate significant budgets to reading (although the Gauteng intervention is 80% donor funded).
  5. Government has spent over R25-billion on PYEI, including Educator Assistants (EA), 10% of which are Reading Champions. As part of its COVID response the Presidency Youth Employment Initiative (PYEI) has employed over 850,000 youth on temporary contracts. It is estimated that 250,000 youth will be appointed in 2023 & approximately 30,000 will be Reading Champions. Although this is a welcome addition, there is currently no face-to-face training for these youth and the only requirement is that they must have passed matric.
  6. Twice as many children learnt to read in Limpopo after a 2-year intervention with trained teacher assistant and new reading workbooks. A new evaluation of the ‘Funda Wande’ intervention in Limpopo (2021-2022) showed that twice as many children learnt to read in the intervention schools (34%) compared to children in comparable schools who did not receive the intervention (18%), the largest gains seen in SA to date. (Full Feb’23 evaluation report here).

The panel found that almost no progress had been made on the 2022 recommendations and therefore reiterated the four recommendations from 2022 and added two more:

  1. Measuring what matters: implementing a universal standardized assessment of reading at the primary school level
  2. Moving from slogans to budgets: allocating meaningful budgets to reading resources and reading interventions not only talking about them
  3. Providing a minimum set of reading resources to all Foundation Phase classrooms (Grade R-3) as a matter of urgency.
  4. A university audit of pre-service teacher education programs.
  5. To publish a National Reading Plan and the budget for its implementation
  6. To improve the implementation of the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative
2030 Reading Panel

Promising Programs (excerpted from the 2023 Reading Panel Background Report)

Is there evidence of small-scale programs significantly improving reading outcomes in SA? There is evidence of small-scale programs improving reading outcomes in the North West, Eastern Cape and Limpopo. The two types of interventions that have the largest gains are employing a teacher coach who visits teachers in their classroom (such as the EGRS study in the North West), or employing Educator Assistants who are trained and resourced (such as the Funda Wande study in Limpopo). (Note that these Teacher Assistants are not the same as the DBE’s Educator Assistants under the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative. In the Limpopo intervention the TAs underwent literacy and numeracy tests in their selection, were trained in-person every term and equipped with a full structured pedagogy program). The results of the Funda Wande Limpopo Teacher Assistant intervention (2021-2022) were released in January 2023 and show that schools that received both additional materials and a dedicated teacher assistant (one TA per teacher) improved reading outcomes by 129% (0,5 standard deviations) in both reading and mathematics (the intervention targeted both reading and mathematics). To date, there have been significant gains seen from both a coaching intervention (EGRS), and a Teacher Assistant intervention (Funda Wande). In both cases there was another arm of the program where schools were only given additional materials with some centralized training. Both studies (EGRS and FW) show that these centralized training programs also lead to improvements, although they were typically half as impactful as the coaching or the TA intervention.

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