Where are we now with literacy in South Africa?

KC JOURNAL NO 31 November/December 2012

Proffessor John Aitchison* dicusses the crisis of literacy in South africa, highlighting the lack of training


Where are we now with literacy in South Africa? How did we get here and how can we get away from here? We can anticipate that the description of the here and now is dire, if the titles of the JBF Conference on Adult Literacy sessions are anything to judge by – “The state of the literacy movement”, “Crisis in education”, “Literacy and the funding crisis”, “Challenges for libraries” and the list goes on. Clearly the programme planners had not anticipated Mr Gordhan saying in his 2012 budget: “There’s no crisis in South Africa” and that “There’s no catastrophe that’s gonna hit our country at this point in time.”

In December 1996, we thought we had a golden future of literacy and adult basic education in the bag – the new Constitution told us that basic education, including adult basic education, was a right (notwithstanding a recent pathetic attempt by government lawyers to take that phrase to mean “only the most minimal, most basic provision of education” rather than what the court affirmed it meant: a general level of education equivalent to Grade 9 schooling). Well, it is not a right yet!

What was seen as the successful culmination of decades of struggle for literacy (and since the late 1980s, adult basic education) was, unfortunately, a mirage. The right to adult basic education is not yet real in the sense of being either quickly achievable or enforceable.

Being an academic, I need to immediately digress and look at the somewhat perplexing issue of why a discourse of literacy (powerfully reinforced by the writings of Paulo Freire in the 1970s and 1980s, in which readers of the word would also read and write/right the world) should be replaced by a discourse of adult basic education and training.

On the radical side of the struggle for literacy, there had always been a belief that literacy had to give people access to really useful knowledge – and indeed it was literacy (and numeracy) that enabled you to gain access to that really useful knowledge (much of which was about how society worked and how the rich, aided by military, police and legislation backed up ideologically by compliant educators, priests and artists, ran society for their own benefit). In South Africa’s managed transition from National Party rule to our present state, as academics and politicians discussed the future with businessmen, the industry people (supposedly free of the ideologically excesses of apartheid fundamental pedagogy and open to the outcomes-based processes being implemented in post-Reagan and Thatcher society) seemed to know what they were talking about . The result was ABET, interpreted by both leftists and the other side as being what they wanted to flourish in a really new educational dispensation.

However, the exciting buzz of the 1980s and early 1990s went away. Freire, exciting relevant materials, and the committed literacy and ABET activists withered into tiny pockets of ineffectual resistance. The donors lost interest in literacy, and the Uncle Toms in the old bureaucracies made common cause with the new bureaucrats who soon had set up networks of patronage serving the new and totally parasitic class of new elite ‘tenderpreneurs’. As a result, adult literacy statistics did not change overmuch.

The data on adult (il)literacy

The data on current literacy levels in South Africa is derived from three types of data:

Proxy measures of literacy based on education (schooling) levels (recorded through census and other types of surveys)

Self-reports of literacy competency (usually collected through surveys)

Direct measures of literacy skills (usually through smaller surveys or studies).

Looking at proxy measures first, the 2001 census showed that 32% of adults had less than a Grade 7 level of education [which in the South African context we can take as an approximate indicator of sustainable literacy]. Subsequent community and household surveys in the 2000s have suggested a better picture, but they are not easily reconcilable with the 2001 census baseline. If these new surveys are accurate, the literacy problem is less severe. This may be considered good news. But, even if one assumes that the actual number of functional illiterates may be less than the Census 2001 estimate of 9.6 million, possibly about 8.25 million (25% of adults) (using Gustafsson et al’s 2010 analysis), the raw number of illiterate people is still a huge challenge to a country that claims that basic education is a right. Even though the Census 2011 will update this picture, the continuing ambiguity of these census type statistics affirms the need for a well conducted literacy survey, such as those run in Kenya and Botswana (both of which showed the actual literacy levels to be lower than previously estimated) using direct measuring of literacy skills.

With self-reports of literacy competency we have some more recent South African community and household surveys. The General Household Survey of 2003 found that 11% of the sample considered themselves unable to read and write. The General Housing Survey of 2008 asked respondents whether they and their household members could read and write and found that 10.5% of adults aged 15 or over could not read or write.

Finally, the General Household Survey of 2009 (Statistics South Africa, 2010, pp. 58-63) asked a more complex set of questions about whether adults with less than a Grade 7 education could write their own name, read, fill in a form, write a letter, calculate the change they should receive, and read road signs. Responses were given on a scale of No difficulty/ Some difficulty/ A lot of difficulty/ Unable to do.

However, here one must note that self-reported literacy rates tend to be higher than rates based on proxy measures and may also lead to over-estimates of adult literacy. Variability in the self-reported levels in South Africa results in a decline in literacy levels as based on self-assessment.

UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics is now demanding more direct measures of literacy from member countries (a good African example of such being the Kenya National Literacy Survey of 2007) (Aitchison and Alidou, 2009, p. 26) that will lead to better aligned policies. There is clearly a need for South Africa to periodically test adult literacy levels and this would be relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of adult education programmes.

A number of direct measures of reading, writing and calculation skills directed at South African schoolchildren have also indicated that, when tested with widely used international instruments, the South African schooling system is underachieving in literacy and numeracy (even when compared with other far poorer countries in the rest of Africa). The Department of Basic Education’s own tests in 2011 have average scores, at Grade 3 level, of 35% for literacy and 28% for numeracy. But as, Gordhan says: ‘No crisis, No catastrophe’. Though the testing of reading and mathematical competencies amongst schoolchildren does not directly tell us about adult illiteracy, it does explain why many schoolchildren graduate into functionally illiterate adults. This would suggest that South Africa’s rate of functional illiteracy amongst adults will indeed be very high.

Gustafsson et al (2010, p. 39) note that one interesting measure is how many hours an adult spends reading each week and suggest that less than an hour could be a useful measure of functional illiteracy (and in which case about 25% of South African adults are functionally illiterate). And the cost of all this illiteracy is immense.

Gustafsson et al (2010, p.4) estimate that “[I]f the quality of schooling in South Africa were where it should be (at a level befitting a middle income country), GDP would be R550 billion higher than it currently is, or 23% above the current level… [P]oor quality schooling at the primary level, which increases adult illiteracy in future decades, is undoubtedly a large, and arguably the largest, inhibitor of South Africa’s growth and development.”

The real reading gaps

Dry statistics on literacy levels using mainly census and household surveys do not really help us get to gripswith the real reading gap – that perhaps the majority of adults in South Africa are not fluent readers (in any language). We have a catastrophe in the teaching of reading to children and the majority of parents do not read to their children (many because they cannot and there are no cheap books in African languages for children). Until the Education departments ensure that every school has a simple library, South Africa is not serious about the teaching of reading. Unless every child can have access to cheap suitable books to read in their own mother-tongue, we are not serious about reading.

If we were serious about literacy, we would be demanding of our education authorities that most of our children are reading at least 45 words correct per minute on average by the end of Grade 2 and at least 90 words correct per minute with at least 80% comprehension by the end of primary school.

That we are not attaining such goals (nor generating these statistics on the failures in literacy education in schools and adult centres) is not explained by poverty alone, although the majority of South Africans cannot afford books or to send their children to ex-Model C schools. Even South Africans that are not poor do not prioritise expenditure on reading and they do not demand better service delivery from schoolteachers. In South Africa, we spend twice as much on chocolate a year as we do on books. Our books are overpriced, a function of our local publishers (not that we have many left as most significant South African publishers are now mere segments of huge multi-national publishing for profit empires) who have grown soft on using overpriced textbook publishing as their main source of income. What South Africans do read (those that do) is ephemeral magazines with celebrity fillers for the small spaces between the consumer adverts, rather than books.

Yes, part of our reading catastrophe is cultural. This is not just a problem of previously illiterate traditional communities not having fully taken to a literate society. It occurs at the highest levels of middle class society and the new elite. We treat reading as a lower order activity that is uncool, nerdy and unpopular. All our best schools, private and public, lionise the sportsmen (and now too sportswomen) as the inspirational models and our media publicises so-called celebrities whose highest form of writing the word is on Twitter. We engage in consistent propaganda against serious reading, much of it unconscious. It is not just South Africa, it is part and parcel of modern consumerist society culture and it has been going on for a long time.

What is wrong with this illustration and text in this 1930s USA reading primer page? Apart from the boring triviality of the text, the message is obvious – there is something far more important than reading (play), reading is something only girls do and they can be seduced away from it too.

The idea that reading is of crucial importance is foreign to our society. Don’t confuse small events run by and for a minority, such as the Jozi Book Fair, as representative of our society’s general stance on the non-importance of reading.

We have been through a particularly bad phase, where the outcomes-based education policy didn’t even list reading as something to be done. This is evident in the seven (yes only seven) outcomes in Curriculum 2005 for the “Learning area” of “Language, literacy and communication Now while “Make and negotiate meaning and understanding” is an important outcome, in another sense, as a practical guide to a primary school teacher seeking guidance, it is gobbledegook only understandable by people who read books on applied linguistics. It is, one charitably assumes, meant to cover every conceivable behavioural objective related to reading, writing, and speaking. But, the actual outcome of being able to read and write fluently was not mentioned. You cannot “ make and negotiate meaning and understanding” in a literate sense if you cannot read and write fluently.

Another unintended own goal was the closure of teacher training colleges, ostensibly to improve the quality of teacher education by making it the sole responsibility of universities. The inevitable result was that universities, who had previously mainly taught high school teachers, had to train foundation level teachers – an area of which they knew nothing, and they also inevitably incorporated only those college educators who had postgraduate degrees, that is, generally those who had no great interest in the grunt work of teaching little children to read, but rather aspired to the academic heights of “ making and negotiating meaning and understanding” and getting their doctorates, so that the universities could balance their budgets with the increased subsidy.

In spite of the dawning recognition that South African children couldn’t read or count (most teachers couldn’t do the latter either) and that reading was important and that we needed to recruit people willing to train as foundation level teachers, foundation level teacher training at the universities is a disaster (made worse by the fact that many universities have closed down African language departments because of pitifully low student numbers). A few years ago we found that the number of people training as foundation level teachers in the African languages was minuscule.

The situation gets worse – most teaching about reading instruction in our universities is outdated. Many of our university faculties of education have hardly bothered to do anything about developing expertise in training teachers in reading, or in paying any attention to the modern scientific advances in understanding how reading happens.

The scientific revolution in understanding reading

Scientific advances mesh with the requirement that society needs to ascribe high value to reading if we are going to persuade children (and adults) that they engage in thoroughly unnatural cognitive tasks that are not fun and require really hard work to master.

The progress of cognitive neuroscience over the last three decades has, in a series of extremely elegant experiments, backed up by the marvellous resource of brain imaging machines, such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanners, clarified and resolved a number of debates about reading:

Reading (becoming literate) alters the brain (for those of us who are now irretrievably readers, it is very, very hard to comprehend what it is to be illiterate or semi-literate). Learning the visual representation of language and the rules for matching phonemes and graphemes develops new language processing possibilities. It reinforces and modifies certain fundamental abilities, such as verbal and visual memory, phonological awareness, and visuospatial and visuomotor skills and it influences the pathways used by the brain for problem-solving.

It is best to learn to read early as adults have a harder task to become automatic readers (and seem to have to use alternative brain paths to do so.)

The phonic approach to reading is best. We now know, on the basis of experiments, including the use of fMIR, that the basic foundations of reading are phonic and that letters (or small groups thereof) are the means of reading. It is not that the context in texts is not also a component of mature reading fluency, but it is a lesser component. There has been a huge and massive misjudgement made by middle class academics in espousing whole language approaches to reading (based partly on their preceding misjudgement in thinking that the typical pseudo-phonetic approach to teaching reading in poor schools showed that phonics failed). The United Kingdom has, as a result ofthis evidence, now officially adopted a synthetic phonics approach for all schools. (Incidentally, because of English’s appalling orthography, it is one of the hardest languages to learn to read.)

We can now fairly accurately say that the proportion of the three components of fluent reading are:

Phonic decoding: 62% Whole (high frequency) word recognition: 16% Contextual clues: 22% The actual processes are independent of each other and fluent reading is an additive process (that is, one process does not substitute for the other). However, the three processes work in partnership in this serial word recognition process of reading, with letter recognition handling the bulk of the reading, word shape recognition handling common high frequency words, and context processing reducing the number of possibilities to be dealt with by predicting the next word.

Reading is a thoroughly unnatural activity in which we piggy back on brain functions intended for other purposes (letter recognition uses our brain’s  innate ability to recognise facial features from every angle, which explains why we can in fact decipher huge variants in cursive handwriting).

The following summarises common recommendations arising out of the research:

Teach phonemic awareness explicitly. Although there are some children who have an implicit understanding of phonemic awareness, almost all children benefit greatly from explicit instruction. Phonemic awareness is a prerequisite for successful subsequent phonics instruction.

Teach every letter-sound correspondence explicitly. Research supporting this idea is simply overwhelming. Children who have been trained explicitly to decode words are far more likely to read successfully than children who have had limited training or no training.

Teach high frequency letter-sound relationships early. Successful curricula tend to involve students in activities in which they can experience immediate and ongoing success. A successful phonics program gets children reading as soon as possible by teaching the highest frequency relationships early and presenting students with stories that consist of words containing only the relationships that they have already been taught.

Teach sound-blending explicitly. Students do not necessarily understand how to connect the phonemes in unfamiliar words. Students with explicit training outperform those who have had little or no training.

Correct every oral reading error. All children, and especially children with reading difficulties, benefit the most when they receive corrective feedback regarding all reading errors, regardless of whether those errors influence the meaning of the passage (many meaning-emphasis programs encourage teachers to correct only errors affecting meaning).

Use code-based readers rather than ordinary literature during early instruction.

Any curriculum whose early reading experiences consist only of exposing children to ordinary literature will almost certainly induce a high failure rate, and consequently lead to initial discouragement and confusion among students. Programs which compensate for this failure by encouraging the use of context (i.e. guessing actually hinder reading development. In contrast, curricula that induces and sustains a high level of success, through careful, systematic design, produce the highest levels of reading success and self-esteem.

Some final words

I have tried to show that we have a problem. Most of our people either cannot read or read poorly This impacts negatively on the economy and also their cognition (that is, if people want to use their brains effectively in a complex modern society with a growing knowledge economy).

There are, however, some signs of hope. The Department of Basic Education is taking reading seriously and its Kha Ri Gude adult literacy campaign has delivered extremely well. Its mother tongue language workbooks are excellent and do get reading material into the hands of every schoolchild (when delivered). Good non-profit publishing like that of the New Readers Publishers plays a valuable role in providing mother tongue books for new adult literates. Yet, much more is needed.

When I was a youth, there was a rising awareness of the physical and mental stunting caused by malnutrition because of lack of (healthy) food. We now have generations who have been cognitively stunted because of a massive failure in our culture and our educational provision. It is a kind of cognitive genocide of our population. And we are all implicated if we do not do our utmost to help South Africa learn to read. And we will certainly not see a South Africa written by all of its people unless we do so.

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