The Literacy Landscape In South Africa
12 September 2017
On Literacy Day one year ago, we came to terms with the harsh and sobering reality of the literacy crisis in South Africa. The statistics are shocking. Even more so the thought of their implications in years to come.
As a nation, we cannot afford to operate in silos. We must collaborate, share findings, and critically assess whether interventions are working. It is only through collaboration and shared learning that we can truly be effective collectively in tackling illiteracy in South Africa, particularly among the country’s youth.
In an effort to understand what action is being taken to promote literacy and how organisations can further collaborate to increase consolidation and joined up action, we began mapping the literacy landscape in South Africa. Over the last year, we’ve interviewed a range of organisations each working to tackle illiteracy among South Africa’s children in some way, whether through the provision of libraries and reading resources, training teachers and librarians or providing reading support.
We have by no means covered all of the organisations active in the literacy sector in South Africa and we would welcome your recommendations of organisations to interview. However, are beginning to see a landscape emerge and how each effort provides part of the solution to solving the whole, the challenge of illiteracy.
Taking a step back to reflect once again this literacy month, we spoke with leading South African expert on literacy education, Dr Nic Spaull. We asked him how he understood the literacy landscape, what interventions were missing and how the sector can be more effective.
There are a number of NGOs tackling childhood literacy in South Africa. In your experience, what types of programmes have you found to be effective? Are there key criteria that make childhood literacy programmes effective?
One of the major limitations in the South African NGO space is that few organisations are evaluating what they are doing to see if they are having the kind of impact they hope they are having. I think that structured programmes that firstly determine where children are at, and secondly determine how to take them from there towards improvement, are the most promising. Too often organisations assume that kids can already read, that they’ve cracked the code. Yet there is loads of research showing that this is just not the case. I think that the best organisations complement what’s happening in the classroom and work together with teachers rather than on their own mission.
Where and what are the gaps in literacy intervention in South Africa?
There is so little that’s being done in early reading instruction in African languages. 70% of kids in South Africa are learning to read in an African language first (Grades 1-3) before switching to English in Grade 4. Yet many NGOs are still focusing on English instruction. If we don’t get home language right, we won’t get English right. Period. We need more organisations that are developing resources and interventions in home languages.
How can the literacy sector work together more effectively?
Many of the organisations are already working together informally and have informal meetups and dinners to learn from each other. I think formalising some of that and having a once-a-year get together to share what is working and what’s not in a frank manner would be a good use of time, money and energy.
What is the role of the private sector in literacy development, and how can they engage and support literacy programmes?
The private sector needs to get on board and realise that matric starts in Grade 1 and if a child can’t read for meaning, they can forget about technology, STEM, economic growth and all the other things that seem to occupy the minds of most people in the private sector. Reforming the basic education sector in South Africa will take a long time and will involve everyone, but that’s the way that countries move forward. You cannot move forward and take everyone with you without fixing the basic education system in South Africa. It really is that simple.
About Dr Nic Spaull
Dr Nic Spaull is the Project Director of the Funda Wande programme funded by the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment, the VW Community Trust and the Millennium Foundation. He is also Senior Researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University.