"Reading is important" - so why is there a reading crisis?

“Reading is important”

We all know the line. We all sing along to the chorus.

And yet currently 78% of children in Grade 4 in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language. In other words, they can’t accurately decode, comprehend and engage with the written word. I was reminded of this sad fact by the press release announcing the inauguration of South Africa’s 2030 Reading Panel. A powerhouse panel drawn from government, NGOs, academia and business that will meet annually to ensure we meet the goal that all children can read for meaning by age 10 by 2030.

The outcome, based on an extensive background report that looked at a range of data sets as well as issues such as the impact of Covid on South African education, was that we are not on track to meet that goal.

This should not surprise anyone, as the PIRLS study results released in 2016 painted a bleak picture. For example, Iran and South Africa have the same GDP-per-capita yet 65% of Grade 4s in Iran can read compared to 22% of Grade 4’s in South Africa (using the same test translated into local languages). Reading in the early years is a foundational skill on which all future learning is built. A shaky foundation creates a shaky academic future for far too many children.

What is also made clear from this report, is the extent that the school closures and rotational timetables to avoid overcrowding in classrooms because of the pandemic, set back slow, but steady improvements in education. Most school children lost 60% of school days in 2020.

The report made for some sobering reading and certainly should inspire a “back to the drawing board” approach for anyone engaged in the field of education. How do we improve reading levels? How can we make reading fun, accessible, and free it from being simply a tool to learn, to being a satisfying activity that says getting lost in a story is a central part of learning too? How do we not just say reading is important, but actually show this through action (and funding)?

Find out more on the Reading Panel website .

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