South African children come last in international reading assessment

SA's grade 4 learners achieved an average score of 288 for reading, which was well below the international average of 500. File photo.
SA's grade 4 learners achieved an average score of 288 for reading, which was well below the international average of 500. File photo.
Image: Michael Walker

South African grade 4 pupils have been placed last out of 57 countries in an international assessment on reading. 

The results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), released by the department of basic education on Tuesday, revealed local pupils achieved an average score of 288, well below the international average of 500. 

South Africa’s average score in the 2016 round of Pirls was 320. 

Egypt and Jordan, the only two other African countries that participated in the 2021 Pirls, achieved average scores of 378 and 381 respectively while the top-performing countries included Singapore, Hong Kong and Russia. 

A total of 12,426 grade 4s were assessed in reading.

Countries were assigned reading comprehension passages based on their previous performance profiles and these were grouped into easy, medium and difficult passages. 

While top-performing countries were given assessments where only 30% of the passages were easy, because of its previous performance profile, 70% of the passages given to South Africa were easy. 

Karen Roux from the centre for evaluation and assessment at the University of Pretoria said the grade 4 average score point “was substantively lower than the international average. 

“But we don’t even want to look at the higher performing countries because as the minister [Angie Motshekga] said, we are competing with ourselves. This is not to say South Africa is so many points below Singapore, Hong Kong or Russia. It’s just not a comparison to make.” 

She said the international benchmark achievement scores showed 81% of grade 4 children locally cannot read for meaning “because they do not even reach the low benchmark”. 

After the 2016 Pirls results, the percentage of grade 4s who could not read for meaning was 79%. 

She said 94% of children internationally can reach the low international benchmark. “So we have a lot of work to do to get the children onto the low benchmark.” 

Grade 6 pupils achieved 384 score points in reading, ahead of Jordan with 381 and Egypt with 378. But Roux cautioned that South Africa's grade 6s were assessed compared to grade 4s from Jordan and Egypt. 

Motshekga said “the results indicate a disappointingly low performance, contrasting with our previous participation in other international assessments which showed that we were a “system on the rise” before the impact of Covid-19”. 

“We must all prioritise and devote adequate attention to enhancing learners' reading ability for meaning. Reading for meaning, or reading comprehension, is the skill of understanding and interpreting the written text.” 

She said Pirls assesses reading comprehension and monitors literacy trends but unfortunately the test results reveal disappointingly low scores in reading literacy. 

“To address this, teachers should assess oral reading performance and evaluate written comprehension and understanding of passages.” 



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