According to the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), grade 4 learners in South Africa have the worst reading ability in the world, with 81% incapable of reading for meaning.
This represents a concerning 3% decline in literacy rates since the previous assessment conducted in 2016.
The study tested 12,426 learners between August and November 2021 across the country and compared them to students at a similar age level across 42 other nations.
In efforts to address the issue, Education non-profit 'Youth@WORK' has called for collaborative action amongst all shareholders including parents and the department of education.
Erica Kempken Co-founder of Youth@work says the tools, resources, and technology to improve literacy rates are available, but what is needed is to ensure widespread access to these resources across as many schools as possible.
It is a real crisis, and it is something that we’ve known for years and now we’ve just got results that it’s gotten even worse than what we thought it was.’
“What it really means is that if our children can’t read at the age of 10, then they will probably not be likely to have a job later,” said Kempken
She stressed that failure to take immediate action would have dire consequences for South Africa’s economy and society.
Kempken says they are in talks with various organisations including the YES programme and the presidency on putting measures in place to tackle the crisis.
Youth@WORK has appealed to all schools, parents, businesses, and organisations to explore partnership opportunities with NGOs to ensure children had access to the necessary tools and opportunities to thrive.
No culture for reading
According to experts, some of the challenges with reading for meaning were the lack of a culture of reading in many households, poorly resourced schools, and a lack of emphasis on reading during the early childhood development phase.
A new study commissioned by the Department of Basic Education and Unicef’s South Africa revealed that more than 43% of households in the country don’t have books, this means that more than 4 out of 10 families have no access to books at home.
The study further shows that around 58% of the caregivers surveyed noted that they have books available, but only 32% use them regularly, and storytelling is rarely used in play and learning with their children.
Unicef's Lungile Mdluli says that the study also found that there is still quite a huge perception from parents who believe that learning and teaching is the responsibility of educators.
There are quite a lot of parents who do not want to take that responsibility of teaching and learning with their children.
She adds, “The most important thing that we found in the study is that there is limited knowledge of them knowing the importance what reading to a child means to their development.”
Unicef says parents and caregivers need to be encouraged to engage in read and play with their children as an essential early stimulation and child development approach.