Dec 15, 2017

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South Africa’s literacy crisis


15 December 2017: In a standardised comparison, that is carried out every two years, South African ten-year olds had the lowest level of literacy across 50 countries.  Put another way, most Grade 4 children in South Africa are six years behind their peers in Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Ireland – the top-performing education systems.  Many see information technology as the solution.  But recent breakthroughs suggest that it is the design of the intervention, rather than the computer in the classroom, that will make a difference.

Information Technology has been seen as the panacea for education deficiencies for a long time; a claim that has often been contested. For example, Richard Clark concluded in 1983 that “there are no learning benefits to be gained from employing any specific medium to deliver instruction” and that computers are “mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.”

None the less, optimism persists. For example, early in 2015 the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) published an Africa-wide overview of the potential of digital technologies for improving basic education provision across the continent.  Its authors were upbeat:

Africa accounts for almost 700 million mobile phone owners, which is more than the United States and Europe. With a level of penetration already at some 70%, the most isolated regions will be opened up in the short term and services are becoming widely available that will change the lives of the inhabitants. For the moment, only 16% of Africans have an Internet connection – the lowest level in the world – but here, too, technological solutions are set to improve the situation in the medium term.

And last month the AFD revisited their 2015 report, restating the optimism of three years earlier:

Although the time for innovation and experiment will never end, now is the moment to put systems and strategies in place for moving to the next level, particularly by setting up stakeholder coalitions. ICT will not resolve all of Africa’s education problems. But it can help to fundamentally change the current paradigm of skills development systems.

But there’s a snag.

International, standardised tests of literacy at Grade 4 have been carried out every two years since 2001, producing a data-informed time series. This shows that South African schools have only shown slight improvements in literacy levels through time. These gains were for literacy in five African languages (isiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Tshivenda and Xitsonga); there were no statistically significant improvements for learners taking the test in Afrikaans and English between 2006 and 2016.  But this is the period over which access to some form of digital technology has mushroomed.  Richard Clark’s pointed conclusion that a computer is little more than a delivery truck seems to apply thirty-four years on.

This is why the emerging results for a new digital intervention are significant.  In this online, phonetics-based programme, learners in Grades 1, 2 and 3 – who are taught in their home language – engage with the basic structure of English.  This equips them for the critical change to English as the medium of instruction in Grade 4.

The Click Foundation, which has been developing and applying this model since 2012, has already enrolled just under 40 000 learners across three of South Africa’s provinces.  The data from this intervention will allow a statistically-valid evaluation of whether the intervention makes a difference; the outcomes of the evaluation are eagerly awaited. The key point is that it’s not the computers – the “delivery trucks” – that are making the difference. It is rather the design of the intervention and its relentless focus on the essential foundations of literacy.

It is also important to reach behind the headlines of education failure, and use the evidence to seek out the causes.  In addition to allowing empirical cross-country comparisons, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) provides some interesting indicators of what is causing the problem.

For the 2016 analysis, 12 810 Grade 4 learners in 293 Schools were assessed. All provinces and all official languages were represented in the survey.  PIRLS uses a set of benchmarks to make comparisons between countries.  At the lowest of these – 400 points –  learners are not able to read for meaning or retrieve basic information from a text in order to answer simple questions.  Overall, 4% of children fail to meet this benchmark. But across South African schools, 78% of Grade 4 learners are not at this level.


The PIRLS research shows that there is a complex intersection of factors.  But there are also persistent indications of the pervasive and corrosive effects of inequality.  The data showed a significant difference in the literacy levels of learners from poor households (averaging 309 points, and well below the benchmark) and from more affluent backgrounds (428 points, and above the benchmark).

Among other recommendations, the PIRLS team emphasises strengthening the teaching of reading literacy, increasing the amount of time spent on reading from Grade 1 onwards, providing enhanced resources, and increasing effective and sustainable access to appropriate digital resources.  There is a strong alignment here with the focus of the Click Foundation project.

Jonathan Jansen, commenting on the PIRLS report, stresses the centrality of early attainment of literacy:

What makes this crisis so serious is that reading enables other achievements among children; reading is, moreover, a proxy for the overall health of the school system. A child who can read well in a language class can also understand texts in a science or economics class. A child who can understand what she reads is able to make connections between real and abstract things, something essential for advanced learning.

Information technology alone will not help with this crisis. But carefully designed digital interventions, such as the Click Foundation project, could work wonders.


Agence Française de Développement, 2015.  “Digital Services for Education in Africa”, Paris.   available here

d’Aiglepierre, Rohen,  Amélie Aubert and Pierre-Jean Loiret, 2017.  How digital technology can help reinvent basic education in Africa.  The Conversation,  5 November. available here

Clark, Richard 1983. “Reconsidering Research on Learning from Media.” Review of Educational Research 53 (4):445–449.

Click Foundation:  “Welcome to The Click Foundation Innovative Education through Technology”. available here

Howie, S.J., Combrinck, C., Roux, K., Tshele, M., Mokoena, G.M., & McLeod Palane, N. (2017). PIRLS Literacy  2016: South African Highlights Report. Pretoria: Centre for Evaluation and Assessment. available here

Jansen, Jonathan 2017.  Abysmal state of SA education is a crisis.  Time Live, 7 December. available here



Filed under: Education