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Addressing South Africa’s Literacy Crisis: The Aweh! Intervention Programme for Early Grade Reading Improvement

by | Jul 6, 2023 | News, Schools

Executive summary

The white paper focuses on the literacy crisis in South Africa, as evidenced by the latest findings from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in 2021. The study revealed that 81% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa could not read for meaning in any language, a significant increase from 2016. South Africa ranked last out of 57 participating countries in the study. 

This paper highlights the decade of evidence-based interventions that have been implemented to improve literacy outcomes in South Africa. Notably, the Early Grade Reading Studies (EGRS) and Funda Wande interventions have shown consistent and positive effects in improving reading achievements, particularly in no-fee schools and poorer provinces. 

To address the literacy crisis, this paper presents Oxford’s Intervention Programme for Early Grade Reading Improvement as a solution. The programme aims to improve reading outcomes in Home Language for Foundation Phase learners in no-fee primary schools over a three-year period. It focuses on providing quality resources, professional development, on-going coaching support, and leadership training.

The paper concludes by highlighting the importance of addressing the literacy crisis and calls for action. It recognizes the potential of the Aweh! Intervention Programme to make a significant difference in the lives of South African children. By working together, it is possible to create a future where all South African children have the necessary literacy skills for academic success and personal development.

1. Introduction: South Africa’s Literacy Crisis

South Africa is currently facing a severe literacy crisis, as indicated by the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) findings from 2021. The study reveals that Grade 4 learners in South Africa are struggling to read for meaning, highlighting a pressing need for improvement in the country’s education system. In 2021, a staggering 81% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa demonstrated an inability to comprehend written texts in any language, marking an increase from 78% in 2016. Furthermore, South Africa ranked last among the 57 participating countries in the PIRLS study, emphasizing the urgency for effective interventions.

Additional findings from the PIRLS 2021 report highlight the following key points:

  • Early literacy impact: Learners who performed well in early literacy tasks in Grade 1 demonstrated higher reading achievements in Grade 4, emphasizing the importance of developing early literacy skills.
  • Socioeconomic disparities: Learners from higher socioeconomic backgrounds achieved significantly higher scores compared to those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Rural challenges: The reading crisis is particularly severe in rural areas, with regions such as North West, Free State, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo experiencing significant declines compared to the 2016 PIRLS results.

These statistics indicate that South Africa has regressed in literacy levels, returning to the same alarming state observed in 2011, where 82% of Grade 4 learners struggled with reading comprehension. The nation has lost a decade of progress, necessitating immediate action.

CONCERNING STATISTICS
  • 8 of 10 Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any of the 11 official languages in South Africa.
  • 75% of South African schools reported having a shortage of reading materials. This is much higher than international average of 45%.
  • 40% of South African schools reported having a shortage of qualified teachers.
  • Learners at no-fee schools are estimated to have lost between 70% to a full year of schooling due to school closures and rational timetables during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 80% of South African schools are no-fee schools.

2. Evidence-Based Interventions to Improve Literacy Results

Despite the bleak PIRLS results, South Africa has a wealth of educational research, particularly in the field of literacy. Numerous evidence-based interventions implemented over the past decade have shown promising results in improving reading outcomes, especially in no-fee schools and disadvantaged provinces. The recent publication, “Early Grade Reading and Mathematics Interventions in South Africa” by Spaull and Taylor (2022), summarizes these interventions and provides valuable insights into effective strategies for literacy improvement.

Key interventions with consistent and positive causal effects include the Early Grade Reading Studies (EGRS) and Funda Wande interventions. These structured learning programmes focus on providing quality teaching materials and support for teachers through professional development, coaching, and teaching assistants. Notably, the EGRS coaching intervention in Home Language showcased an impact equivalent to an extra 40% of a year of learning. Strengthening Home Language instruction appears more strategic than focusing solely on English First Additional Language.

In short, we know what factors have contributed towards South Africa’s low ranking in the PIRLs study and what we need to do to turn this around.

FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TOWARDS SOUTH AFRICA’S LOW RANKING IN PIRLS, 2021

There are a number of factors that may have contributed to South Africa’s low ranking in the PIRLS study. These include:

  • The quality of instruction: There is a shortage of qualified teachers in South Africa, and many teachers are not adequately trained in literacy instruction.
  • The availability of quality reading materials and resources: Many schools in South Africa do not have adequate resources, such as books, computers, and other learning materials.
  • The socioeconomic status of learners: Many learners in South Africa come from low-income families, and they may not have access to the same opportunities for learning as learners from higher-income families.

The impact of school closures and rotational timetables due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 further exacerbated the literacy crisis.

To address the literacy crisis effectively, South Africa needs to ensure the availability of quality resources, including graded literacy texts, and enhance teachers’ theoretical understanding, pedagogical content knowledge, and classroom practices. The National Framework for the Teaching of Reading in African Languages in the Foundation Phase emphasizes the crucial role of trained teachers and appropriate materials in launching learners into successful reading trajectories from the beginning of their schooling journey.

3. The Aweh! Intervention Programme for Early Grade Reading Improvement

The Aweh! Intervention Programme for Early Grade Reading Improvement, developed by Oxford University Press South Africa (OUPSA), aims to enhance reading outcomes in Home Language for Foundation Phase learners at disadvantaged schools across South Africa. The program combines evidence-based practices from successful interventions, such as EGRS and incorporates key elements necessary for sustainable and scalable impact.

3.1 Programme Components

The Aweh! Intervention Programme consists of the following components:

a. Quality Learning Materials: OUPSA will provide age-appropriate and culturally relevant reading materials, including storybooks, textbooks, and workbooks, to participating schools. These materials are aligned with the South African curriculum and designed to foster a love for reading while developing essential literacy skills.

b. Teacher professional development and learning communities: Teachers receive iterative professional development courses designed to enhance their pedagogical content knowledge, teaching methodologies, and reading comprehension strategies. Professional Learning Communities are fostered to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing.

c. On-Site Coaching: Trained literacy coaches will be assigned to participating schools to provide ongoing support to teachers. Coaches will observe classroom instruction, provide feedback, model effective teaching practices, and offer guidance on instructional strategies. The coaching process will help build teachers’ confidence and competence in delivering high-quality reading instruction.

d. School Leadership Support: The Aweh! Intervention Programme recognizes the critical role of school leaders in driving literacy improvement. OUPSA will work closely with school principals to strengthen their understanding of effective reading instruction, promote a culture of literacy in schools, and facilitate the allocation of resources for literacy development.

Aweh! is an exciting new graded reading scheme from Oxford University Press. It is available from Grades 1-3. The focus of these new products is that it is structured around vocabulary development.Each grade consists of four levels [levels developed against the CAPS curriculum] with 20 fiction stories, 13 non-fiction and 7 fictional stories linked to the Life Skills topics for that grade.

3.2 Implementation and Evaluation

The Aweh! Intervention Programme for Early Grade Reading Improvement is designed with evaluation as a central activity. To measure the causal impact of the intervention activities, a randomized controlled trial (RCT) will be conducted. In addition, a range of qualitative research methods, including classroom observations, will be used to generate evidence which can inform wider practice and policies about which coaching and instructional practices work best in the context of the intervention schools and why.

4. Conclusion

The Aweh! Intervention Programme for Early Grade Reading Improvement represents a targeted and evidence-based response to South Africa’s literacy crisis. By addressing key factors contributing to low literacy outcomes and leveraging successful interventions, the programme aims to empower teachers and ultimately improve early grade reading proficiency.

To achieve sustainable impact, it is crucial to garner support from government agencies, donors, and other stakeholders committed to education in South Africa. By working collaboratively, we can make significant strides in improving literacy outcomes and ensuring a brighter future for South African learners.

References

Department of Basic Education. (2023). PIRLS 2021: South African Preliminary Highlights Report. Department of Basic Education: Pretoria.

Department of Basic Education, (2020). Action Plan to 2042: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2030. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.

Department of Basic Education, (2020). National Framework for the Teaching of Reading in African Languages in the Foundation Phase. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.

Department of Basic Education, (2015). Professional Learning Communities: A Guideline for South African Schools. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.

Department of Basic Education (2017). The Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS): In-depth case studies of home language literacy practices in four Grade 2 classrooms in Treatment 1 and 2 schools. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.

Education Endowment Foundation, (2022). Moving Forwards, Making a Difference: A Planning Guide for Schools, 2022-23. London: Education Endowment Foundation

Day, C. and Sammons, P., (2014). Successful School Leadership.London: Education Development Trust.

Fleisch, B. and Alsofrom, K. (2022). Coaching research in the Early-Grade Reading Studies in South Africa. In Spaull, N. & Taylor, S. (Eds) Early Grade Reading and Mathematics Interventions in South Africa, Volume 3. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Hoadley, U. and Boyd, C. (2022). Early grade reading instruction in South African classrooms, 2010-2020. In In Spaull, N. & Pretorius, E. (Eds) Early Grade Reading in South Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Howie, S. C. (2017). PIRLS Literacy 2016: South African Highlights Report. Pretoria: Centre for Evaluation and Assessment.

Kraft M., Blazar D., Hogan D. (2019) The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement. Review of Educational Research.

Mohohlwane, N. and Shepard, D. (201). The Impact of COVID-19 in Education – More than a Year of Disruption. NIDS-CRAM, Wave 5

Sims, S., Fletcher-Wood, H., O’Mara-Eves, A., Cottingham, S., Stansfield, C., Van Herwegen, J., Anders, J. (2021). What are the Characteristics of Teacher Professional Development that Increase Pupil Achievement? A systematic review and meta-analysis. London: Education Endowment Foundation

Spaull, N. (2016). Excessive class sizes in the Foundation Phase. Stellenboch: RESEP, Department of Economics, University of Stellenbosch.

Spaull, N. (2022). Background Report for the 2030 Reading Panel. Cape Town: Chair of the 2030.

Spaull, N. and Taylor, S. (2022). Impact or scale? The trade-offs of early grade reading and mathematics interventions in South Africa. In Spaull, N. & Taylor, S. (Eds) Early Grade Reading and Mathematics Interventions in South Africa, Volume 3. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Spaull, N. and Taylor, S. (2022). What works and what scales? Returning to a tradition of evidence-based system-wide programs. In Spaull, N. & Taylor, S. (Eds) Early Grade Reading and Mathematics Interventions in South Africa, Volume 3. Oxford University Press

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