Turning The Page On SA’s Illiteracy Crisis: How Technology Could Help

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Earlier this year it emerged that 81% of grade 4 learners can't read for meaning - a massive concern considering that illiteracy is costing the South African economy R119.03 billion, according to the World Literacy Foundation.


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“In a country where three million people struggle to read and write, how do we remedy the situation?” asks Dr Corrin Varady, CEO of ed-tech platform IDEA.

Speaking in light of International Literacy Day (ILD), he notes that rapidly improving these outcomes requires urgent interventions at school-level where emphasis must be placed on whether necessary baseline standards are being met as opposed to the relatively meaningless statistic of the matric pass rate.

The 2023 Reading Panel Background Report highlights that efforts need to be directed predominantly towards training teachers to teach reading.

Compiled by the 2030 Reading Panel comprised of a group of leaders and researchers convened by former Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the report states that “unless teachers know how to teach reading and are equipped with the resources to do so, as well as the support and accountability mechanisms to reach the goal [of ensuring that all children learn to read for meaning by age 10 by 2030], this trajectory will remain unattainable”.

Dr Varady points out that while the report advocates for the retraining of the majority of Foundation Phase teachers and recruitment of new teachers who have been properly trained to teach reading, it does make note of the improvements in reading outcomes that have emerged in small trials where teachers receive regular in-classroom coaching from a verified expert.

Unfortunately, this is simply not feasible on a larger scale, both from a human capital and financial point of view, given the enormity and expanse of the problem. But perhaps the deployment of digital training programs and materials geared towards upskilling teachers could accelerate the process and at a far lower cost.

He adds that with there being a disproportionate learner-to-teacher ratio in most classrooms, digital learning solutions could also be deployed amongst pupils to personalise their learning experiences and address issues as they arise.

“This approach can contribute to establishing an equitable future for all pupils by closing the literacy gap faster while also improving their digital literacy and computer skills.”

“Technology is the key if we are to action this year’s ILD theme of ‘Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies’,” concludes Dr Varady.

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