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Media Statement: Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2021 Results

Attention: Editors and Reporters

16 May 2023

81% of SA Grade 4’s cannot read for meaning in 2021: The South Africa Human Rights Commission (Commission) is deeply concerned about the state of reading in South Africa. The results from the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) showed that in 2021, 81% of South African Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning in any language. This is up from 78% in 2016. South Africa was ranked last out of the 43 countries and experienced the largest decline of all the countries participating. It is additionally important to note that the South African assessment occurred a year later than most of the countries assessed.

Covid had a catastrophic impact on a generation of learners:  At a seminar held this morning by the Department of Basic Education at their offices, the Minister of Education, Ms Angie Motshekga, expressed her disappointment at the PIRLS results but stated that the decline in results could be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated already-poor reading outcomes. She stated that “this disappointing outcome does not reflect a deterioration in the overall functioning of our basic education system but rather the unprecedented and catastrophic impact of the pandemic on the education of an entire generation of children.”

While there is some merit to this argument, it would be remiss not to mention that over 4 million learners would have been “catastrophically impacted” and currently, there is no coherent plan to accelerate learning and address backlogs experienced by the “Covid generation” or provide quality education to all learners who will come through the system.

No single plan exists to address the ongoing reading crisis: The Minister went on to list the myriad interventions aimed at improving reading in South Africa, including the Revised National Reading Plan – which should ensure access to learning and teaching materials, provide targeted teacher training and support on the use of materials, with a focus on home-language literacy and English first-additional-language literacy.  However, if history is anything to go by, the existing national reading plan is just a long list of items that have led to uncoordinated and ad hoc responses from each of the provinces. If any reading plan is to be successful, it must be clear on minimum inputs (teacher training, LTSM, testing, time to teach reading), timelines for implementation and have a specifically allocated budget. There should in short be a single-mindedness across all teaching and learning programs and among all stakeholders and role players in the education field.

In South Africa, the Constitution states that everyone has a right to basic education. There are various caveats to the realisation of the right to education that includes, amongst others, the provision of infrastructure (i.e., norms and standards), learning and teaching support materials and a quality education that meets specific national and international standards. There is clearly a need for a focus not just on access to and quality of education for learners from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, but also on poverty and inequality alleviation strategies in the country in its entirety.

We call on Minister Motshekga to treat the PIRLS findings with appropriate urgency and develop a coherent, time-bound national response to the reading crisis. The Commission reiterates its calls for the Department to give effect to the Commission’s Right to Read and Write Report, which found that
➢    a child must be able to read and write with understanding at a basic level, in their mother language, by the age of 10;
➢    the inability to write proficiently is a barrier to academic progress and self-expression;
➢    unless and until a child is educated to the requisite minimum level, the constitutional right to a basic education remains unfulfilled; and
➢    the State must ensure that all learners with visual disabilities are able to read and write on par with other learners by having access to the same learning materials, with the necessary accommodations made.

Issued by the South African Human Rights Commission.

Wisani Baloyi – Acting Communications Coordinator Tel: 081 016 8308 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Alucia Sekgathume Tel: 082 689 2364 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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