Still Falling at the First Hurdle: Examining Early Grade Reading in South Africa

  • Nic SpaullEmail author
  • Elizabeth Pretorius
Part of the Policy Implications of Research in Education book series (PIRE, volume 10)


This chapter provides an overview of what we know about reading outcomes in South Africa. After an initial survey of some foundational tenets of reading research we show that while reading outcomes in South Africa improved between 2006 and 2011 they have stagnated between 2011 and 2016. The most recent PIRLS study (2016) showed that 78% of Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning in any language. There is nothing inevitable about these results. The knowledge and instructional practices required to teach children to read – as well as the resources needed to do it – are known and well understood internationally, even in high-poverty contexts. We argue that the inequalities evident in the schooling system have their roots in unequal life chances doled out at birth and consolidated through differential reading trajectories. Moving beyond the ‘comprehension iceberg’ we document what lies beneath these dire results. The majority of children have not mastered the basics of decoding in their home language in Grade 1 or 2 making reading for meaning or pleasure unlikely. We advocate an approach focusing on early reading success and ensuring that teachers know how to teach reading, that they have the materials to do so, that children have ready access to books and that reading outcomes are assessed annually.


Poverty Inequalities in reading Decoding Reading comprehension Oral language proficiency 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EconomicsStellenbosch UniversityCape TownSouth Africa
  2. 2.Department of Linguistics and Modern LanguagesUnisa,PretoriaSouth Africa

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