Why are South African children struggling to read properly?

Poor reading scores among South African children highlights the need for decolonization in book publishing, teaching and policy implementation.

Image credit 6000.co.za via Flickr.

Eight out of every 10 children in South Africa can’t read properly. Not in English, not in their home language, not in any language. According to The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international comparative reading assessment: 78% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning, and this is significantly worse for children tested in African languages—93% of Grade 4 students tested in Sepedi could not read for meaning with similarly large percentages among Setswana (90%), Tshivenda (89%), isiXhosa (88%), Xitsonga (88%), isiZulu (87%) and isiNdebele (87%). At this stage of a child’s development, the ability to locate explicit information and make straightforward inferences about events and reasons for actions is considered crucial for learning other subjects from Grade 4 onward. South Africa is unique among upper middle-income countries in that less than half of its primary school children learn to read for meaning in any language in lower primary school. Out of the 50 countries surveyed, South Africa came last.

According to Stellenbosch University economist Nic Spaull, there are three explanations: Foundation Phase teachers (grades 1-3) do not know how to systematically teach reading; the poorest schools in the country are extremely text-poor and there is wasted learning time during the school day. But this becomes more complicated when viewed through the language lens: the sobering reality is that because many children are quickly pushed into learning in a new language (English), and this is a major factor contributing to their low academic success. The negative effects of early illiteracy cascade to adversely affect the development of cognitive skills and later educational development.

Neuroscience research reveals that early childhood is the ideal time to develop the basic skills for reading fluency, and the degree to which children acquire language skills and become motivated, habitual readers, is a strong predictor of future academic success, educational attainment, employment and income. Additionally, the costs of addressing reading problems are much lower in early primary school. But improving literacy outcomes requires resource inputs—teaching, learning and leisure reading materials—for both teachers and children to use in class and at home. Research has shown that if children learn to read in a familiar language, not only do they stand a better chance of learning to read with meaning, but the transfer to English is easier. And yet, despite all this evidence that reading books are a cost-effective means of improving education outcomes, South Africa is very far from having abundant, accessible and affordable African language reading materials. Why?

Answering this is tricky—it’s almost impossible to separate the global challenge of English’s hegemony from national policy issues on language use in schools; or to prioritize the technical development of one language (through editing guides or benchmarking standards) at the expense of another (South Africa has eleven official languages). Other issues include cultural biases in books translated from English, the marketability of African language books deterring traditional publishers, and the dearth of information about the demand for African language children’s books. So, poor in-school early literacy results concatenate with many other factors that extend far beyond the domain of education departments.

The policy context

South Africa’s legislation gives specific recognition to the right of learners to learn in their home language, illustrating the government’s awareness of the value of teaching and learning in indigenous languages. Recent policy developments bringing together issues associated with South Africa’s multilingual reality include The Draft Incremental Introduction of African Languages policy, which aims to improve proficiency in previously marginalized African languages, and The Draft Learning and Draft Teaching Support Material (LTSM) policy, intended to guide the provision and management of LTSM in schools. The Legal Deposit Act requires producers of any type of publication to deposit one or more copies of the publication at a recognized national institution, most commonly, the National Library of South Africa. But a cursory look at most library catalogues, where English and Afrikaans books reign supreme, drives home just how rare quality children’s books in African languages are. Fortunately, there is body driving book development in the country: The South African Book Development Council (SABDC) originated out of an industry-led initiative in 1998 and, despite the absence of statutory recognition and inconsistent funding, continues to operate as an effective non-profit organization, driving a successful national reading campaign, an Indigenous Language Publishing Programme and excellent research reports.

Mapping the market

Issues of demand manifest differently across the four types of book markets: academic (“university press”-type); educational; trade (fiction and non-fiction books aimed at the general market); and libraries (school libraries fall under the Department of Basic Education, public libraries under the provincial Department of Arts and Culture, managed by municipalities).

Some of the challenges associated with stimulating demand include: in class, learners typically have to share books and are seldom allowed to take them home; at home, many learners have no books to read and only 15% of learners can take a library book home; and only 8% of public schools in South Africa have functional libraries. A no-brainer would be for parents and caregivers to drive children’s reading development by taking them to public libraries, but 73% of South African adults (nearly 24 million adults) self-identify as not being readers. Similarly concerning, only 60% of teachers read outside work requirements. Few adults show a preference for reading in African languages.

Additionally, factors driving up the cost of books (across markets, in all languages) include skills shortages across the book development value chain (except for distributors); high paper pricing; high VAT charged on books; and offshoring of printing. Publishing in African languages is perceived to be a high-risk venture by publishers, because of the market driven nature of the industry, which requires economies of scale, well-functioning distribution mechanisms and, critically, a market that can afford to buy. Smaller publishers are most likely to publish in African languages but struggle to get their books on government-approved distribution lists—often the only route to become financially viable in a concentrated market. In fact, the Competition Commission recently initiated an investigation into a cartel of book publishers. Small publishers also face high distribution fees and prohibitively expensive marketing costs, more so for African languages.

At traditional publishers, decision-makers are rarely African language speakers, with a limited understanding of the experience of growing up without enough to read. Consequently, developing these books is not an intuitive priority. Limited sectoral transformation also means limited original writing by black authors, so most publishers default to poor quality translations of English books. Despite the limited authorship, editing, publishing and distribution capacity, there is a sense that the tide is turning, and hope that more support opportunities will arise.

The South African publishing sector is extremely sophisticated. According to the Annual Book Publishing Industry Survey 2016, annual turnover exceeds $365 million and educational publishing makes up 67% of total net turnover for publishing and, uncannily, 67% of these publications are in English. These outputs and sales are almost entirely dictated by the National Department of Basic Education through its curriculum requirements and procurement. In trade publishing, 69% of books are in English, 29% Afrikaans and only 2% of adult fiction and non-fiction are published in indigenous languages. Remember, South Africa has eleven official languages. For Children’s Literature, 37% English, 61% Afrikaans and only 2% for all the indigenous languages combined. Output and sales here are primarily based on consumer demand and library purchases. Clearly, tackling multilingual early literacy requires multi-sectoral, economic and political efforts.

Translating from English to African languages might be a quick way to get more titles out, but this has both cultural and linguistic disadvantages—the world portrayed in translated books is not always relevant to African children, often with Eurocentric underlying social constructs, so the context of the stories may be unfamiliar, or the illustrations may have a racial bias. Once translated, rhyming stories for children often no longer rhyme in African languages. This is a very small number of skilled professionals able to translate fictional texts, particularly for children. So, more technical support is needed for the book development sector to support authors, editors and illustrators producing original children’s titles in African languages. Similarly, attention to procurement, distribution and marketing is needed to advance publishing in African languages.

This is where decolonization discourse should be front and center, not as sloganeering, but as a set of practical, policy-orientated propositions to systematically change oppressive industries and institutions. For example, the design of mechanisms to ensure fair payment for children’s authors working in African languages or prioritization of guides to elevate standards for writing, editing and translating across African languages.

In 2018, I attended a seminar by the National Education Collaboration Trust on “Language and Decolonization.” The keynote speaker, Professor Leketi Makalela, specializes in the interface between languages and literacies, and advocates for multilingualism to enhance identity construction and epistemic access. His exposure of monolingual and epistemological biases as a burden for educational development; and his decolonization agenda, with its empirically sound explanation of literacy challenges in South Africa as a colonial carryover, took me down a riveting rabbit hole of linguistic slavery and hybrid languages like Kasi-taal as the antidote. Decolonization according to Professor Makalela helped me to locate literacy challenges in South Africa outside of both the too-recent Apartheid imaginary and the one-dimensional framing of literacy as solely a problem for teachers to fix.

Much promising work is currently being done by both individuals and organizations invested in improving early literacy (many of whom helped this research) and there is growing social awareness on the importance of both reading and African languages. Responding to early literacy challenges in a multilingual country means bringing these two together; but it also means expanding decolonization agendas from the current focus on higher education to start right at the beginning of the education journey.

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