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Department of Basic Education response to release of Progress in International Reading Study 2016 results, 5 December 2017

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) welcomes the findings of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 report, which the Department commissioned to reaffirm findings of the Annual National Assessments, and the NEEDU Report among others that found that our learners still have challenges with their cognitive levels of literacy.

This report provides us with the opportunity to look deeper and try to pinpoint what some of the pertinent issues are, that as South Africa we struggle with. What we may be doing differently compared to other countries around the world that will help us to establish meaningful interventions across the system.

Now more than ever we need to think holistically about the development of children, and ensure that the limited resources we have are effectively allocated and spent in the interests of future generations of South Africans. In this pursuit, PIRLS 2016 offers an incredible data source to the sector. 

In particular, to lift the following noteworthy observations from the report:

a) The Grade 4’s in 2016 achieved a similar score to what the Grade 5’s achieved in 2006. This is an important highlight in the Report.

b) At the Grade 5 level, the 10 year trends show that there has been an improvement in IsiZulu between 2006 and 2016. Given the magnitude of this language grouping in our country, it bodes well for the advancement of African languages.

c) There has been a statistically significant improvement among Grade 4’s in five African languages: IsiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga and in 2016 a significantly larger number of learners who wrote the test in Sesotho scored above the minimum benchmark than observed in 2011. 

d) The scores of girl learners have been better than boys with each test cycle and the gap is widening. Our initiatives on uplifting the girl learner have certainly worked. 

e) There are performance gains of first language learners at English LOLT schools 

These positives bear testimony that we are a system at work with ongoing initiatives to strengthen foundations of learning in literacy and numeracy; encourage the incremental introduction of African Languages in early grades; promote initiatives on English across the curriculum; and increase access and quality for the girl child.Since 2014, the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) has provided stability in the sector by giving teachers clear guidelines on content, pedagogy and assessment and this has positively influenced learner performance across thephases. Each year, we mass produce high quality workbooks that is CAPS aligned, and the PIRLS study with recent others (TIMSS and SACMEQ) corroborate our success in this area of learning and teaching material provision. Annually, as part of the “Read to Lead Campaign”, the Department hosts the Spelling Bee South Africa (National spelling bee championship). The National spelling bee championship which targets learners in Grade 4 to 6 (the intermediate phase) is aimed at improving learners' performance in languages, especially in English.


One of the glaring challenges that is found in this report as with our own research is that as South Africans we are not a reading nation, this report finds that in other countries parents and children read recreationally far more extensively than South Africans. Emphasis is put on the important role that parental support plays with regards to reading, and the difference it makes in a learners ability to read with comprehension.

It is for this reason that when we first began our own research in this area we knew that we had to launch a national advocacy campaign around literacy that didn’t only focus on schools, but looked at getting reading on the agenda in the homes of our nation and among families. Through the Read to Lead campaign we have encouraged South Africans to give books as gifts rather than toys, and read with their children for at least half an hour every day. We have gotten corporates involved by building and donating libraries and books to our schools that don’t have these facilities. Most importantly promoting recreational reading among adults, because our children learn from watching their parents and do what we as adults do. This year we also launched our reading ambassadors programme as part of the Read to Lead Campaign, these Reading Ambassadors are out in our communities and various public spaces, as celebrities, sports people, business leaders and politicians and have committed to assist in promoting reading in their own diverse public platforms.

While we appreciate the hard and fast results of the report, the Minister however has requested that the researchers dig deeper and do more extensive comparisons to find out the root causes of the challenges around reading in order to get to a point where we can put in place effective solutions.

For example the report shows that South African schools don’t spend any less time on the teaching and learning of reading in the classroom, yet our results don’t show the impact of this. The Minister has requested a “deep dive” into the results so that we can look at where the practice of the teaching of reading is not as affective as in other countries, some with similar developmental and language challenges as ourselves. The results alone are not useful to us and we need to get the results of the underlying data in order to get to where we need to be. It is for this reason that the work of the research team is far from over.

As part of our own proactive measures to address challenges around literacy, the Department has also implemented the Early Grade Reading Study, which is a results based study and intervention approach and we are happy to report that this is yielding incredibly positive results that we are truly excited about.

The EGRS study was a large randomised control trial that aimed to determine which (if any) interventions improve early grade reading outcomes in home language (Setswana) in 230 Quintile 1-3 schools in the North West province in South Africa. It was implemented in 2015 (Grade 1) and 2016 (Grade 2). The study finds an improvement of 40% of a year of learning in reading for disadvantaged children.

The three models under evaluation are:

i) A structured teacher support programme with centralised training

ii) A structured teacher support programme with specialist on-site coaching

iii) A parental intervention programme.

The Early Grade Reading Study provides training and support to ensure that teachers are present, skilled and motivated to deliver systemic instruction in Setswana literacy; provides access to suitable graded materials, and expanded opportunities for learners to read. The focus of the project is Foundation Phase classrooms. When the project was launched in 2015 the focus was on the provision of support at Grade 1 level and in 2016, support was provided in Grade 2. In 2017, the project will be concluded with the provision of Grade 3 support.

If we are to truly change the system we know our interventions need to start in the foundation phase where they will have the most significant impact in the long term. In the past we have focused our interventions at the exit point of the system as a quick fix, but these have had limited impact. It is extremely encouraging to see the impact of this intervention in the foundation phase.

It is however a pity that these impressive interventions were too recent to have any impact on this 2016 PIRLS report, but it is important that we continue to participate in these studies and pit ourselves against the rest of the world if we are truly intent on becoming one of the best and truly globally competitive. Currently we are only one of three African countries that participate in this study, ourselves Morocco and Egypt, and only 50 around the world. It is therefore that we see ourselves as a leader in terms of finding suitable, sustainable and effective African solutions to our challenges. We will continue to enter the race and continue to grow and improve. We are confident of our most recent interventions and are hoping these recent results will help us further refine these and ensure that we improve and grow as a country educationally.

What is of concern is disparities between some existing data and some of the findings of the PIRLS 2016. For example data published by the Department of Higher Education and Training in a 2015 report titled: “Relationships between teacher supply and demand and the size, shape and substance of teacher education in South Africa” shows that teacher graduates have grown significantly year on year between 2005 when 5939 teachers graduated from Universities around the country to 2015 where 20 738 teachers graduated. PIRLS 2016 findings suggest otherwise and this disparity of data is extremely concerning, we would need to interrogate some of these findings further and look at the research sample closely to establish how data sets could be so different, especially considering that each year the DHET collects audited data on new teacher graduates from universities and compiles a national report, this report shows substantial increases in the number of qualified teachers entering that system.

As a Department based on initial glaring disparities we will have to further interrogate the findings of the report and establish why these findings have been made when audited data speaks to the contrary.



DBE Enquiries:       Elijah Mhlanga – 083 580 8275

    Troy Martens – 079 899 3070



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Written By: DBE Webmaster
Date Posted: 12/5/2017
Number of Views: 5222

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