Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
International Literacy Day: Innovative teaching methods can help solve reading crisis
Author: Zelda Barends
Published: 08/09/2023

​International Literacy Day is observed annually on 8 September. In an opinion piece for the Cape Times, Dr Zelda Barends from the Department of Curriculum Studies writes that innovative teaching methods informed by evidence-based research can help to solve South Africa's reading crisis.

  • ​Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Zelda Barends*

As we join the rest of the world in celebrating another International Literacy Day on 8 September, we cannot ignore the reading crisis that we face. The latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report released in May this year revealed that 81% of our Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning. And to make matters worse, our teachers continue to be hamstrung in their efforts to improve the literacy skills of learners.

One thing that comes up regularly in my conversations with some teachers is their frustration resulting from many unresolved challenges including overcrowded classrooms and inadequate access to resources, infrastructure, and support. These barriers do not only make it difficult for them to provide individualised attention to learners, but also impact their ability to deliver effective education and literacy instruction.

Teachers also grapple with curriculum changes. The post-Covid situation demands that they adapt teaching plans and curriculum implementation to deliver relevant content and meet the needs of learners considering the learning losses suffered during the pandemic. This is time-consuming and challenging. We should also not ignore the administrative burdens teachers carry such as record-keeping and paperwork which can eat into their time for lesson planning and instruction.

Despite these demands, teachers continue to make use of professional development opportunities to keep up with best practices and innovative teaching methods. One example is the emergence of in-service teachers who are being trained according to the 'Science of Reading', a term that seems to be quite in vogue in education circles.  The most recent interpretation of the 'Science of Reading' places an emphasis on phonics instruction which is a fundamental part of early reading instruction where learners are taught how letters correspond to sounds in a language.

This development should be seen in light of an urgency to respond to our literacy crisis as confirmed by the results of the PIRLS report. While we need to solve this crisis immediately, we should, however, draw on evidence-based research to do so.

The field of reading research has gathered a substantial body of evidence that informs our understanding of how the teaching of reading and literacy develop and why some learners struggle during this process, and how we can enhance learner outcomes by effectively assessing, teaching, and intervening to prevent and address reading difficulties. Although the scientific evidence base for effective reading and literacy instruction has existed for decades, the term 'Science of Reading' has gained traction in the last few years and may have led to potential misunderstandings.

The 'Science of Reading' is not a programme or curriculum. It does not emphasise phonics instruction as a solution to the literacy crisis. Rather, it refers to the body of research and evidence from various fields such as education, linguistics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology about how learners learn to read.  Thus, it is the combination of findings from these disciplines to enhance and validate current research and practices focused on the teaching of reading.

The 'Science of Reading' delves into the cognitive processes involved, the neural mechanisms at play, and the factors influencing reading success or difficulties. So, it is the empirical evidence that should be drawn on to inform educational practices and decisions for the teaching of reading and literacy. The 'Science of Reading' should guide effective teaching methods and interventions to help improve literacy outcomes among learners.

It is timely that teachers learn about the 'Science of Reading'. I encourage all teachers to embrace opportunities to learn about it, provided it is not sold as a programme, curriculum or teaching approach but rather as the multidisciplinary framework that researchers and teachers should draw on when deliberating about reading and literacy instruction. Knowledge of the 'Science of Reading' should help teachers to reflect upon their practice and to challenge approaches to reading instruction that are not aligned with the scientific evidence.

There is a growing body of research linked to the 'Science of Reading' that breaks the process of reading down into five critical skills that every learner must master to become a skilled reader, namely, phonemic awareness (an essential component of early literacy development which provides the foundation for learners to understand the sound structure of words), phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension.  This body of research also highlights that these skills must be taught explicitly, especially in the foundation phase (Grades R to 3) where learners are acquiring the skills to learn to read before they transition to reading to learn in the intermediate phase (Grades 4 to 6).  Moreover, structured instruction and differentiated support in these skills will ensure that learners learn to read.

Explicit instruction typically follows a series of clear, well-thought-out steps. The actions of the teacher are clear, specific, direct, and related to the learning objective. Such instruction is scaffolded where appropriate learning support such as prompts, hints or clues is aligned to the needs of learners and helps guide them toward more accurate responses whilst mastering new skills.

In addition to offering opportunities for teachers to learn about the 'Science of Reading', we should also help them to intensify their instruction of the five critical skills as emphasised by the current curriculum. This can be done by developing and delivering high-quality reading instruction based on and considering evidence-based research. In this way, we will be moving one step closer to solving the reading crisis and giving our learners a fighting chance in life.

*Dr Zelda Barends is a senior lecturer in the Department of Curriculum Studies at Stellenbosch University.