Learning to read for meaning is arguably one of the most important skills that a child can learn in the early years of schooling. The 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results revealed that 78% of Grade 4 South African learners could not read for meaning in any language. Professor Martin Gustafsson from the University of Stellenbosch and Ms Carol Nuga Deliwe, Acting Director-General for Business Intelligence from the DBE, maintains that learning losses due to the COVID-19 Pandemic are expected to go beyond what is suggested by the actual number of schooling days lost, since prolonged school closures could have resulted in children forgetting the skills they had acquired before school closures.
In South Africa the National and Provincial Education Departments (PEDs), as well as various stakeholders launched reading initiatives, strategies and policy documents, all focusing on improving literacy outcomes in the Foundation Phase. The virtual Early Grade Reading Dialogue, co-hosted by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the World Bank that took place from 06 to 07 April 2021, is the first of many online dialogues to deliberate a coordinated, integrated approach to the Early Grade Reading Programme (EGRP). Presentations were made by various DBE managers on work being done in SA to facilitate the scale-up of evidence-based programme support. All national and international presentations, from Kenya, Brazil and India will be combined in a report that will be made available to participants for collaboration on a joint response to the challenge, crafting a way forward for future dialogue.
A background paper on initiatives were delivered by EGR expert, Mr Luis Crouch and Ms Jesal Kika from the World Bank. These included, amongst others, the National Reading Strategy which was developed in 2008; the first Early Grade Reading Study developed in collaboration with academics at the University of the Witwatersrand, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Georgetown University in 2015; and the second Early Grade Reading Study in 2017 that sought to provide support to teachers in the Foundation Phase in teaching English as a First Additional Language (EFAL) since most learners need to learn in English from Grade 4. The National Reading Coalition was established by the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) and the DBE as a comprehensive national response to the reading challenges facing South Africa. It is essentially a coordinating structure that aims to serve as an umbrella where all reading initiatives and interested stakeholders come together to share knowledge and successful learning experiences. The NECT was represented by their CEO, Mr Godwin Khosa.
To eradicate literacy policy, all participants agreed that political and technical commitment with clear goals and measures are required for literacy progress, as well as effective teachers with the necessary support; learning and teaching support materials; and instruction in a home language are four key elements, whilst class size, norms and standards, time for reading activities, as well as assessment are all important for improved reading outcomes.