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Address Delivered by the Minister of Basic Education, Mrs Angie Motshekga, MP, at the Release of the of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) Results, 05 December 2017

Programme Director;

Deputy Minister Enver Surty;

Members of Parliament and MECs for Education present;

The Director-General and provincial HoDs (in absentia);

Professor Sarah Howie, Director of the Africa Centre for Scholarship at the University of Stellenbosch;

The researchers from the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA) at the University of Pretoria;

Senior officials from the DBE and Provincial Education Departments;

The media, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;


Today, we have just received an independent and encouraging account of how we measure up in yet another widely recognised international assessment study, aimed largely at testing whether countries are making progress in Reading Literacy over time.

At the outset, I wish to thank the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA) at the University of Pretoria, particularly its former Director, and now the Director of the Africa Centre for Scholarship at the University of Stellenbosch, Professor Sarah Howie and her team of researchers, for the wonderful work they have done.

Fellow South Africans, it was not a mistake that we consciously decided to participate in the national, regional and international assessment studies.  This we did, because we wanted to know whether we are making any tangible progress, especially when we measure ourselves against the best in the African Continent and the world.  Our participation in Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ), the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), are intended to provide us with tangible evidence on the progress we are making (or not making) in the basic education landscape.  We may be the ponies in the race-course, but we are not scared to gallop against the well-groomed horses of world.

Foundations of teaching and learning

Ladies and gentlemen, it is important to continuously remind ourselves that, if we have to attain improved and quality outputs and outcomes in the schooling system, we must continue to improve the fundamental quality of learning and teaching, well before Grade 12.  Research continues to show us that the major root causes of dropping out of school towards the end of secondary schooling (one of our major challenges), are weak learning foundations in the early Grades.  Therefore, the most important priority for all of us as a nation, must be to improve the quality of learning and teaching inputs, outputs and outcomes in the early Grades, so as to ensure that learners are equipped with the basic skills needed to cope with the curriculum requirements of the higher Grades.

Early this year, we noted through the 2015 TIMSS and the SACMEQ IV results that the performance of South African learners is gradually improving – indicative of a system in an upward trajectory.  The 2015 TIMSS results confirmed noteworthy growth patterns, which when compared with the performance of Grade 9 learners in other countries since 2003, showed that South Africa attained the largest improvement of 87 points in Mathematics, and 90 points in Science.


The SACMEQ IV study results on the other hand, further affirmed the upward trends; and showed that for the first time, South African Grade 6 learners achieved Mathematics scores above the significant centre point of 500 points.  It is noteworthy that the Grade 6 learners scored an average of 538 points in Reading, and 552 points in Mathematics – an increase of 42 points in Reading, and 57 points in Mathematics respectively from the SAQMEC III study.  More importantly, South Africa had the best improvement rates in Reading and Mathematics among the 13 countries that had participated in the SAQMEC IV study.  The largest gains, were evident within the historically disadvantaged quintile 1-3 schools.


Reflections of the 2016 PIRLS Report

Ladies and gentlemen, let me upfront state that the 2016 PIRLS results, are lower than what we had expected as a sector.  Be that as it may, we receive the 2016 PIRLS Report with appreciation, noting that there is much to be proud of, while at the same time, there is much to be done.

The UNESCO Sustainable Development Goal 4, the Continental Education Strategy for Africa on the African Agenda 2063, the National Development Plan Vision 2030, and our Action Plan to 2019: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2030 provide a clear direction in improving access, redress, equity, efficiency and quality of learning outcomes through the implementation of the Medium-Term Strategic Framework and the National Strategy for Leaner Attainment.  The goals and targets we have set ourselves have emboldened us to strive for academic excellence in priority areas, such as Mathematics, Science and Languages.  South Africa can only realise these goals and targets through –

  • an inclusive, equitable, efficient quality education system;
  • drawing on the energies of all our people;
  • growing an inclusive economy; and
  • promoting positive and accountable leadership and partnerships.

In this regard, the 2016 PIRLS Report becomes a valuable tool.

Fellow South Africans, as in the 2015 TIMSS, we again find ourselves as the sole representative of Southern and East Africa, pioneering an undaunted African initiative to self-reflect, and drive improvements through robust data-driven system measurements.  As the only African representative in the governance board of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) – the controlling body for TIMSS and PIRLS, the board is increasingly looking towards South Africa for input and collaboration, to strengthen the relevance of its programmes in contexts of developing countries.


Our participation in internationally benchmarked studies, provides valuable and credible information that can disentangle post-truth politics, and affirm the upward trajectory in the sector, evidenced by improving Mathematics and Science skills; better schooling conditions; and decreasing inequality and inefficiency in our system.  Large-scale assessment programmes, such as PIRLS, TIMSS, and SACMEQ, offer a reliable independent measure to monitor the performance of our learners in key subject areas, in order to assess the health of our basic education system.


We remain committed towards using data from these studies to progressively improve the quality of education outputs and outcomes, and get ourselves appropriately ready to deal with mechanisms of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In a month from now – on the 04th of January 2018 to be precise, we will officially release the results of another large-scale assessment – the National Senior Certificate Examinations results for the Class of 2017.


Once again, I wish to thank Professor Howie and her team from the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA) for presenting a clear and concise Report on the findings of the 2016 PIRLS.  I am pleased to note several noteworthy take-away points for the sector, which we will use in our efforts to advance quality basic education, irrespective of the geographical location of our learners within our country.  Therefore the value of this Report is worth more than an isolated look at a country score at a glance.  In particular, I want to lift the following noteworthy observations from the Report –

  • more than 60% of the learners who participated in the 2016 PIRLS, came from rural schools.  This is poignant when considering the dearth of literature in the Home Languages dominant is such areas;
  • the score of the Grade 4 learners is significantly below the PIRLS centre point of 500; while 78% of the Grade 4 learners, were unable to reach the lowest benchmark.  This compared to 4% internationally;
  • the highest performing test languages for Grade 4 learners were English (with 372 points) and Afrikaans (with 369 points); and the lowest were isiXhosa (with 283 points) and Sepedi (with 276 points);
  • the Grade 4 learners in 2016, achieved a similar score to what the Grade 5 learners achieved in 2006;
  • there has been a statistically significant improvement among Grade 4 learners in five African languages, namely, IsiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga; in 2016, a significantly larger number of Grade 4 learners, who wrote the test in Sesotho, scored above the minimum benchmark than observed in 2011;
  • both Grade 4 and 5 learners in schools with libraries, obtained higher mean scores, than those in schools without libraries;
  • 49% of the Grade 5 learners were unable to reach the lowest benchmark, compared to 4% internationally;
  • there was a significant improvement in Grade 5 scores for English and Afrikaans, but a much significant improvement for isiZulu between 2006 and 2016;
  • in both Grades 4 and 5, the scores of girl-learners, were better than boys with each test cycle; and the gap is widening; and
  • the performance of second language learners at schools where English is the language of instruction, is improving significantly.

Initiatives to improve the foundations of learning is our schools

These positive observations, bear testimony that we are a system at work, with ongoing initiatives to strengthen the foundations of learning in literacy and numeracy; encourage the incremental introduction of African Languages in early Grades; introduce English First Additional Language in the Foundation Phase, 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.  This has positively influenced learner performance across the phases.  Each year, we mass produce high quality workbooks that are CAPS-aligned.  The DBE has also produced its own sets of Readers in these languages.  Even the regional and international assessment studies corroborate our success in the provision of learning and teaching materials.


Annually, as part of the “Read to Lead Campaign”, the Department hosts the National Spelling Bee South Africa, which targets Grade 4 to 6 learners – our Intermediate Phase, and is aimed at improving learners' performance in languages, especially in English.

The 2006 and 2011 PIRLS results were instrumental in raising awareness in the sector about the critical need to strengthen the learning foundations provided through Early Grade Reading.  The 2016 results, tell us that the need is just as relevant today, as it was in 2006; and we must make Reading Literacy our number one priority in the sector.  The importance of “Learning to Read” in one’s Home Language, cannot be overstated.  We know from several research studies, that better Home Language Reading in the Foundation Phase, leads to better learning outcomes in other subjects, especially when transitioning to English as a language of instruction.


As Professor Howie has reported, we have to give greater focus to learners who have the potential to improve their scores to above 400 points.  This will positively influence our results even further in the next PIRLS cycle.  The profile of Reading comprehension at this level, will assist the sector to identify areas where basic reading skills can be improved; so that we can move above the minimum benchmark in the next study.  The PIRLS data, will also be used to further inform current and planned interventions that have been proven through rigorous evaluation to improve Reading outcomes.  A number of initiatives are already underway to improve Reading Literacy.

The Department has been implementing the Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS) in the North West and Mpumalanga since the start of 2015.  Through this project, we have implemented and evaluated several new intervention models all aimed at improving Early Grade Reading.  The results are suggesting that it is possible to substantially improve classroom teaching and learner Reading outcomes through the use of CAPS-aligned lesson plans, specific additional reading materials, and supported by specialist on-site coaching for teachers.  We are now exploring mechanisms to implement this effective model on a wider scale.

Ladies and gentlemen, to improve Reading outcomes, a collective societal effort is required.  The DBE, in partnership with the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), has developed the Primary School Reading Improvement Programme (PSRIP), which is aimed at building the capacity at subject advisory and teacher levels to strengthen the teaching of English First Additional Language in the Foundation Phase for both comprehension and pleasure.  Through this programme, over 11 700 teachers have been trained over the course of 2017; thus benefiting over half-a-million learners.  The DBE is collaborating with the British Council, and has trained over a 1 000 Subject Advisors and Lead Teachers in the teaching of Reading at school level, especially in the Foundation Phase.

The significance of these programmes for Grade 4 and beyond, is that the learners of the teachers, who were beneficiaries, will progress into subsequent Grades from 2018 with a stronger foundation, literary and informational texts, and greater exposure to higher order reading skills.  Hence, the DBE and the NECT have requested funding from the ETDP SETA to extend the Primary School Reading Improvement Programme to cover more Foundation Phase teachers, and also to expand the programme to the Intermediate Phase.

To highlight the urgency of promoting Reading Literacy, the “Read to Lead” Campaign is now in its third year of implementation.  The Campaign aims to stimulate the energies of all South Africans to contribute to Reading promotion, by supporting schools through the provision of libraries and books.  The Campaign supports the refurbishment of a 1 000 libraries a year.  We are meeting this target through the collective efforts of the DBE, Provincial Education Departments (PEDs), and public-private partnerships.  Even the 2016 PIRLS has amplified the importance of libraries in schools.

We have also strengthened our partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), and through the conditional grant managed by the DAC, classroom library collections will be provided to primary schools; over and above the school-community libraries they are already setting up.


The 2016 PIRLS also shows that there is still extensive work required to improve the reading skills of learners in languages, such as Sepedi, IsiXhosa, Setswana, and Tshivenda.  We are currently engaging a number of stakeholders to support the development of reading materials in indigenous languages.  One of these, is the “Room to Read”, that have secured funding from the World Bank to develop indigenous language storybooks, particularly for the marginalised languages.  The DBE has also developed its own sets of Readers in these languages, in addition to the Workbooks.


Programme Director, Ladies and Gentlemen, I was pleased to note that learners, who wrote in Sesotho, performed extremely well, and contributed to the improved ranking of Free State.  However, we will have to step-up our language strategies in the rural areas, such as Limpopo, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal – the three of which have the largest number of learners in quintile 1-3 schools.  I want to congratulate Western Cape for maintaining its top spot.


The context of the 2016 PIRLS


It is important to foreground the importance of PIRLS contextual data for improving educational outcomes in the sector.  The contextual data is quite striking and interesting to note.  The Reading performance by province and school type, show that there is still a high variation in the physical conditions of schools, and the contexts in which they are located.  While government has a concentrated pro-poor strategy to support schools in Quintiles 1 to 3, we have to strengthen our efforts as a sector to close the differentiated gap in performance between public no-fee paying schools, and public fee paying schools, in favour of raising performance in poorer schooling communities.

I was particularly intrigued by the performance of the girl learners, significantly outshining the boys.  The trend for girls is up, but down for boys.  This study and others, have identified the boy-learner as an “at risk” learner.  The DBE is exploring a partnership with the Joint Education Trust (JET), aimed at the creation of materials inclined towards stimulating interest in boy-children – these will include materials such as super-hero comic books, robotics, coding, etc.

In terms of curriculum achievement, specifically pertaining to specific content areas and cognitive domains, there are pockets of excellence; but the data must be mined further to extract deeper understandings of diagnostic learning gaps in Reading domains.  The high level observations suggest learners on Reading comprehension, are doing better on literary (stories) rather than informational texts.  More emphasis must be placed on teaching and mastering the move from “Learning to Read” to “Reading to Learn”.


On teacher absenteeism, the DBE is currently strengthening its data and reporting mechanisms.  This will ensure that there is reasonably accurate information on teacher absenteeism to inform decision-making.  In addition, the performance indicator on teacher absenteeism will be added to the 2018/19 Annual Performance Plans as one of the Programme Performance Measures.  This will also allow the DBE to have accurate data to undertake informed interventions, where necessary, by targeting problem areas; for instance, authorised leave – such as illness, or family responsibility; versus unauthorised leave.


Finally, in terms of the 2016 PIRLS results, I want to comment on Bullying in our schools, which is a growing concern for the sector.  The DBE is implementing the National School Safety Framework, which encompasses, among others, the establishment of school safety committees, the development of schools safety policies and plans, including implementation of an Anti-Bullying Programme at a school level.


We have produced information pamphlets to guide parents, educators and learners in identifying, managing and further preventing incidents of Bullying in schools.  In addition, I will be launching an Anti-Bullying Campaign in 2018, which is a 360 degree mass media campaign, using television, print, and social media platforms, to mobilise learners to speak against bullying.  The tag line of the Campaign will be “Stop, Talk and Walk”.




Given the richness of the data, it will be important for data utilisation to go beyond academic research, and reach the level of the classroom.  The findings must inform classroom practice, and help raise standards in Reading Literacy.  I have requested the Centre of Evaluation and Assessment to work with curriculum and assessment experts, to mine the data for further diagnostic analyses that will benefit the sector.  Provincial workshops to discuss the diagnostic analyses will take place in the first quarter of 2018.  The inputs from these workshops, will be documented in the form of guidelines on the utilisation of diagnostic information to strengthen and improve Reading.  The PIRLS released items, will be packaged for release to schools, together with a supply of national diagnostic assessment tools designed to further support teachers in designing high quality school-based assessments.


In conclusion, let me welcome the official release of the 2016 PIRLS Report to the public domain.  Professor Howie and her team have done a sterling job of reporting the results and identifying areas that represent the potential for growth.  It is now up to us in the sector, to move with the necessary zeal, and emblazon the findings into focused interventions that can lift the country’s performance in Reading Literacy to levels we all can be proud of.



I therefore invite all education stakeholders and the broader South African society, to view the results with a sense of ownership and involvement, to support the projects, programmes and efforts of the Department, in our mission to deliver quality and efficient basic education in Reading Literacy.

I thank you.



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Written By: DBE Webmaster
Date Posted: 12/6/2017
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