Reading and socio-emotional skills in challenging school contexts: Evidence from South African primary schools

Lead Research Organisation: Stellenbosch University
Department Name: Economics


Learning to read for meaning is the most important skill that children learn in primary school. Yet children in 90% of South African schools are not acquiring this skill by the end of grade 4 (Spaull & Pretorius, 2019). The most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (2016) (PIRLS-Literacy) indicates that almost one in every eight grade 4 students in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language, despite the curriculum assuming that students can read in both their home language and English by the end of grade 4 (Howie, et al., 2017). Against this context, 'reading for meaning' among young children has recently been identified by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa as a top five national priority (South African Government, 2019). In adopting this new priority goal, South Africa needs to significantly advance the local body of knowledge on reading in African languages, identifying why children can't read, how reading could be improved, and how much improvement we could reasonably expect.

In this study, we aim to fill some gaps in this body of knowledge. First, we will explore reasons for why children are failing to read with comprehension in African languages and English. Comprehension is what reading is all about - and this is what is measured in nationally representative surveys. However, reading comprehension is just the 'tip of the iceberg' with respect to underlying skills required to read (Spaull, et al., 2018). Necessary but not sufficient skills for comprehension include oral language, vocabulary knowledge, print awareness and decoding components such as phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge, word reading and oral reading fluency (Hoover & Gough, 1990). Using new emerging datasets on reading in African languages in South Africa, we will identify to what extent children can master these basics of reading across different languages. We will be able to construct a clearer picture of which of the reading 'building-blocks' children do and don't have, how these differ by language and whether reading skills systematically differ by poverty levels and gender.

Fortunately these new datasets testing reading in African languages and English collect assessment data for the same children over time. With this data researchers can explore how reading skills develop and what gains in skills are acquired by initially low achievers, medium achievers and higher achievers. By observing best possible reading gains, it will be possible to get a better idea of the feasibility of attaining the presidential reading goal under current conditions or when conditions for improvement are created in schools.

The constraints to learning at the school, teacher and classroom level are well understood in South Africa (see for example van der Berg, et al., 2016; Fiske & Ladd, 2004; Carnoy & Chisholm, 2012) with projects underway to address these constraints. But little is understood about underlying individual factors that may enhance or limit children's proficiencies in reading. Bullying, for example, is a very big concern in primary schools with South Africa recording some of the highest levels of bullying across all countries participating in PIRLS (Howie, et al., 2017). Bullying may reflect low underlying socio-emotional skills among children. Yet, international evidence and preliminary evidence from South Africa suggests that socio-emotional skills may be particularly important in fostering academic performance, including reading comprehension skills (Wills & Hofmeyr, 2018; Durlak, et al., 2011; Zins, et al., 2004). We will use available datasets to explore evidence on socio-emotional skills among primary school children in South Africa and identify whether indicators for socio-emotional skills (such as Duckworth's (2007) concept of 'grit') are linked to learning and reading skills in challenging contexts.

Planned Impact

South Africa needs to urgently address the reading crisis it faces in schools. If schooling is to promote the potential of young people, equalise access to opportunities across poorer and wealthier parts of society and ultimately contribute to a society equipped with skills to compete internationally, significant improvements must be made in the teaching and assessment of reading. The ultimate aim of this research is to develop research that will indirectly lead to improvements in reading among young children in South Africa.

Beyond academia, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and other key planning departments will directly benefit from this research. The DBE is coordinating teams both internally and externally to develop norms, benchmarks and targets in African languages. This proposed research will directly support this larger initiative, supporting the work of policymakers and curriculum specialists in realizing plans to improve reading outcomes. This work will indirectly benefit teachers, as curriculum materials could be amended to include clearer reading goals at different grade levels and in different languages that can be used to guide assessment and instructional improvements. Parents may also indirectly benefit as reading norms, benchmarks and targets could eventually be communicated to improve their knowledge of their children's reading development and in turn inform them on the quality of reading instruction in schools. The first step, however, is to provide policymakers with more evidence on the current status of reading in African languages and English.

The proposed work on socio-emotional skills and its links to reading and literacy is of interest not only to the academic community but is directly aligned to the research needs of curriculum design specialists as they re-evaluate the current compulsory Life Orientation and Life Skills programmes in South Africa. Depending on the results, the work may reinvigorate discussions about the importance of developing socio-emotional skills in schools and whether the curriculum could be leveraged to develop these skills. The general public, including parents, are also likely to find this research of value.

The proposed research is well aligned with policymakers' demands for more research on African languages and reading in general in the early grades. This encourages research uptake. Ensuring policymakers are directly engaged in the research process from design to dissemination is also critical to uptake. One of the co-investigators works directly in the DBE as the deputy director of Research, Monitoring and Evaluation and was involved in the initial research project. Additionally, the research process has been designed to allow for collaborations and multiple engagements with other policymakers through presentations, conferences and the dissemination of policy-briefs.

The research team also includes members of the Funda Wande team who are developing materials to train teachers in the teaching of reading in African languages. This is a flagship programme that has the buy-in of the Eastern Cape Education Department and will be rolled out to more provinces in the future. As new insights emerge, these researchers and one of the co-investigators are strategically positioned to incorporate new knowledge on African language reading proficiencies (or realisable classroom goals for reading) into teaching materials. This is one way to develop increased awareness among teachers (and eventually parents) of what skills children can and should be able to master in reading.

To maximise the reach of the research, at least 2 op-eds will be written with the intention of targeting a range of editorials ranging from the more academic Conversation to the Sunday Times with its more general readership.


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