In the wake of the shock for SA in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2016 released on Tuesday, national director of NGO Read Educational Trust Bertus Matthee says fiction plays an important role in developing reading skills in children.
South Africa placed last out of 50 countries in the study. The 2016 report found there had been no notable improvement in SA children’s reading ability since the previous survey five years earlier.
If children can’t use their imagination to build a picture in their heads, how will they begin to interpret more difficult texts? Matthee asked.
“Looking at the scores of the nonfiction books, like Lifecycle Of A Frog, children perform much worse than they do with a fictional story. So we’re not interpreting nonfictional text with its different genres,” Matthee said.
“We need to look at the problem from a whole community point of view. Our children don’t have the discipline to be able to read a text of more than 800 words. We give our children text of 50 to 60 words, and they can answer two or three questions, and we say that’s good enough,” said a worried Matthee.
To tackle the problem, his nongovernmental organisation is upskilling trainers into reading coaches with the aim of having reading teachers in schools.
The study showed that nearly four out of five Grade 4 pupils in SA fell below the lowest internationally recognised reading literacy level for their age. The groups with the worst problem are in deep rural areas and townships‚ those learning in African languages, and boys.
Doctor Nic Spaull, a senior researcher in the Research on Socioeconomic Policy Group in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University, said: “It’s really concerning that boys seem to be doing worse over time. Although we can’t be 100% sure of the decline, there does seem to be some evidence that girls are doing roughly the same as they always did and boys are doing worse.
“There is also evidence that the gap between boys and girls is growing over time. The gap in 2016 is bigger than it was in 2011, with girls scoring much higher than boys. In fact, SA has the second largest gender gap of all countries assessed.”
The average Grade 4 girl in SA was a full year of learning ahead of the average boy in the same grade, he added.