A 2016 study by the Department of Economics at the University of Stellenbosch for Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP) found that of 15744 Grade 4 learners tested, “58% of the Grade 4 sample could not read for meaning in any language (i.e. the intermediate benchmark) and 29% were completely illiterate.” These statistics differed between provinces with Limpopo scoring the worst where at the end of Grade 4, “50% were illiterate and 83% could not read for meaning.” Help2Read says that “The foundation for literacy is built long before a child begins Grade 1. It starts while still in nappies. Learning to talk, listen and understand are precursors to identifying letters and sounds, and eventually words and whole sentences.”
The Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University said, in a summary of their research, that the majority of brain development takes place from birth to five years of age. This period of rapid growth forms the foundation for a child’s educational ability. The Centre on the Developing Child also explains the concept of brain plasticity saying that, “The brain is most flexible, or ‘plastic’, early in life to accommodate a wide range of environments and interactions, but as the maturing brain becomes more specialized to assume more complex functions, it is less capable of reorganizing and adapting to new or unexpected challenges.” Literacy is a very important component of our lives, and children who develop literacy skills earlier have a higher chance of success. A 2011 article published in Mind, Brain, and Education titled ‘Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education’ states that early exposure and processing of phonetics is a strong predictor of “future competence in language and literacy.” This means that the more infants are spoken to or read to, the more their literacy skills improve.
Although South African early reading skills are poor, another problem is the language of tuition, the 2013 Annual National Assessments found that in 70% of students, learning from Grade 1 to Grade 3 takes place in an African language and from Grade 4 onwards learning for 90% of students takes place in English. Switching languages further hinders students, especially since the 2016 study by the Department of Economics at the University of Stellenbosch found that these students are not able to read for meaning in their first language.
In 2010, Stellenbosch University released a report titled “The costs of illiteracy in South Africa” which estimated that illiteracy is costing South Africa “R550 billion per year in income and GDP.” The paper explained the effects of literacy at an individual level saying, “the literacy of parents (and their behaviour, such as their reading behaviour) displays a large association with learner literacy (the magnitude of parent factors, relative to that of other factors, is arguably larger than is commonly believed).” The paper also said that “Literacy is associated with self-reported satisfaction, and health, and with a healthy questioning of those in political power, and political parties generally.” The socioeconomic cost of illiteracy was further illustrated by a 2010 paper released by UNESCO titled ‘The Social and Economic Impact of Illiteracy’ which found that “During the first few years of their lives, children of illiterate parents probably have few opportunities to learn communication codes, or to learn to read and write […] Illiteracy among adults increases present and future socioeconomic vulnerability, and is a significant factor in the reproduction of such vulnerability through children.” The research by UNESCO also found that “Illiterate adults face serious employability issues, given their low level of knowledge and expertise. This is attributable to a lack of formal schooling, caused either by an early departure from school to enter the labour market or the loss over time of the ability to read and write.”
However, interventions have been shown to have positive impacts. Literacy for All conducted a programme at Isiphiwo Primary School in Khayelitsha. In 2006 the Western Cape Education Department Systemic Test results for Grade 3 showed that 5.3% of learners reached the required literacy standard, August 2006 and April 2007 learners used the ‘Kagiso Readers’ programme and teachers were trained by Literacy for All. When the test was conducted again in 2008 “52,7% reached the required standard for Grade 3.”
Illustration: Michelle Hartzenburg