ALMOST 80% of primary school pupils did not reach the lowest benchmark in an international test comparing the reading skills of children.
And between 86% and 96% of children who speak African languages did not reach this mark, a Pretoria University academic said yesterday.
SA scored the worst out of 40 countries that took part in the international reading literacy study, in which an average of only 6% of all children tested did not meet this benchmark, Sarah Howie, director of the university’s Evaluation and Assessment Centre, said.
The centre conducted the tests in SA in 2005 for the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which is best known for a similar study, called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, in which SA pupils also came last out of the 46 countries that took part in 2003.
In SA, about 30000 grade 4 and 5 pupils from 400 schools were tested in all 11 official languages. Internationally, 215000 children at grade 4 level were surveyed across the 40 participating countries, with the Russian Federation, Hong Kong, Canada (Alberta and British Columbia), Singapore, Luxembourg and Italy getting the highest scores.
The study is the first and most significant baseline study of reading literacy in primary schools in SA, across all 11 languages, and that also includes international comparative data and international benchmarks .
Howie said education department deputy director-general of further education and training Palesa Tyobeka, due to speak at the launch of SA’s results — the international results were released in Boston on Wednesday — sent apologies and said the department was studying the report and would issue a statement later.
The pupils in SA were tested in October 2005, just months after Tyobeka wrote an open letter to primary school principals admitting many South African children could not read “at all” and instructing principals to get teachers to teach reading. Since then the department had implemented a number of initiatives aimed at improving reading prowess, and a new study should be conducted to assess whether these had had any effect, Howie said.
SA needed a thorough strategy, involving parents and teachers, in which more was expected from schoolchildren and in which textbooks were delivered to every child, Howie said. “In fact, what we need is proper implementation of the curriculum in its current form.”
SA’s grade 4s scored 253 points, while grade 5s scored 302 — children from the top scorer the Russian Federation scored 565 points and the international average score was 500. “We perhaps were expecting to be below the international average, but not 250 points below it,” Howie said.
In an analysis of all 11 languages, those who wrote the test in Afrikaans, regardless of their home language, scored the highest points at 427, with English coming second.
English-speaking pupils who wrote the assessment in English were, however, the best-performing group overall, with grade 4s scoring 458 points and grade 5s 513. Second came Afrikaans-speaking children, who scored 364 in grade 4 and 430 in grade 5.
While the international test looked at pupils who had had four years of formal schooling — SA’s grade 4 level — SA was one of a small group of countries that tested children in grades 4 and 5, Howie said.
This was because of concern grade 4 was a “transition phase” in schooling, and out of a desire to check progress in knowledge between the two grades, she said.