05/12/2017 10:25 GMT | Updated 05/12/2017 15:16 GMT

Study Shows SA Kids 'Can't Read For Meaning'

Grade 4 children in SA scored the lowest mark of 50 countries in the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study released on Tuesday.

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The literacy crisis in South Africa is far worse than previously thought, with 78% of Grade 4 learners unable to read, according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report released on Tuesday.

The international comparison study measured literacy levels between 2011 and 2016 and scored South Africa last in reading of the 50 participating countries.

In 2016, PIRLS tested 12,810 Grade 4 students from293 schools across South Africa, in any of the 11 official languages they were most comfortable with.

Some 78 percent, or nearly eight out of 10, of Grade 4 students could not read for meaning. That is to say that they could not reach the low international PIRLS benchmark in reading. They could not locate and retrieve explicitly stated information or make straightforward inferences about events and reasons for actions.

Some 78 percent, or nearly eight out of 10, of Grade 4 students could not read for meaning.

Other findings, according to Nic Spaull, senior researcher at the ReSEP (Research on Socio-Economic Policy) at Stellenbosch University, are:

  • SA lags far behind other countries: While 78 percent of SA Grade 4 kids cannot read, in the U.S. this is only 4 percent and in England just 3 percent cannot read. The study included mostly high-income countries, but there were a number of middle-income countries such as Iran, Chile, Morocco, and Oman. In Iran, only 35 percent of Grade 4 students could not read for meaning and in Chile it was only 13 percent.
  • Some evidence of improvement in reading 2006 to 2011, but stagnant since 2011: The only good news coming out of PIRLS 2016 is that there may have been significant improvements in reading between 2006 and 2011. This comparison seems to suggest quite a significant increase in reading scores between 2006 and 2011. Unfortunately, no evidence of improvement between 2011 and 2016.
  • SA gender gap in reading second highest in the world: Girls score much higher than boys in reading across the board. In Grade 4, girls are a full year of learning ahead of boys. This gender gap is the second largest among all 50 countries that participated -- only Saudi Arabia's is higher. The gap between boys and girls is also growing over time. The gap between boys and girls was larger in 2016 than in 2011.
  • Declining number of SA students reaching high levels of reading achievement: In 2011, 3 percent of SA Grade 4 students reached the High International Benchmark. In 2016, it was only 2 percent.

Spaull said: "To say that they are anything but devastating would be a lie. Eight in 10 children cannot read for meaning. This new report provides the latest evidence helping us to understand the unfolding reading crisis."

Spaull told HuffPost SA: "I think the thing that was most striking for me was that we had previously underestimated the number of South African children that couldn't read for meaning. Previously we thought the number was 58 percent but it turns out that it is 78 percent.

"The other major concern is that boys are doing worse over time than girls when it comes to reading. South Africa has the second largest gender gap of all countries which were assessed."

According to the data, the already tiny group of learners who excel at reading is slowly declining, Spaull said, which was alarming. "In contrast, in England, 57 percent of students reach the High International Benchmark and in Chile this is 25 percent," he said.

There was an expectation that South Africa would show improving literacy levels as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released last year showed improvements in maths and science at the Grade 9 level, Spaull said. "I think most of us were expecting an improvement in the PIRLS scores between 2011 and 2016, so it's very disappointing."

Singapore is the highest-scoring country in reading, followed by the Russian Federation and then Northern Ireland.

The department of basic education said in a statement it welcomed the PIRLS report which found "our learners still have challenges with their cognitive levels of literacy". It stressed South African was one of only four African countries that participated in the study.

The statement continued: "This report provides us with the opportunity to look deeper and try to pinpoint what some of the pertinent issues are, that as South Africa we struggle with. What we may be doing differently compared to other countries around the world that will help us to establish meaningful interventions across the system."

The report found South Africans are not a reading nation, and the department said its national advocacy campaign around literacy looked at getting reading into homes and families and it also said its Early Grade Reading Study was yielding positive results.

"What is of concern is disparities between some existing data and some of the findings of the PIRLS 2016... As a department, based on initial glaring disparities, we will have to further interrogate the findings of the report and establish why these findings have been made when audited data speaks to the contrary", it continued.

** A previous headline to this story erroneously stated that South African children are "the worst in the world". South Africa was in fact the worst among the 50 countries that were part of the study.