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Experts urge government to prioritise SA's reading crisis
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing
Published: 20/02/2023

​​Most children in South Africa in no-fee schools leave Grade 1 without knowing the alphabet, while 82% of Grade 4 children across the country cannot read for meaning.

This stark reality provided the backdrop to the 2030 Reading Panel that convened at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) in Stellenbosch in February. Experts warned that the future looks bleak without a national reading plan, budget, or accurate reporting.  

The 2030 Reading Panel is led by former Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and was established in 2022 to track progress towards the goal set by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019 to have all 10-year-olds be able to read for meaning by 2030.  

Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka chaired the recent conference of the Reading Panel in Stellenbosch. The panel comprises 18 eminent South Africans and meets annually to review progress and provide implementable systemic recommendations to government. This year the event was attended by more than 100 delegates representing 60 organisations from business, civil society, academia and the education sector. 

At the conference, a background report was presented by Stellenbosch University (SU) education economist and secretary of the Reading Panel, Prof Nic Spaull. It includes new research on early grade reading outcomes, promising interventions, existing state plans to improve early grade reading, and recommendations for government. The report is supported by eight advisory reports from experts and implementers in the sector.

The event also served as the launch for two new books co-edited by Spaull, Early Grade Reading in South Africa and Early Grade Reading and Mathematics Interventions in South Africa, published by Oxford University Press as part of its Open Access publication programme.   

Reading crisis

The panel's findings showed a lack of investment in reading development, no actual national reading plan in the public domain, no budget for improving home-language reading, and no face-to-face training for over 850 000 educator assistants employed as part of the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative.  

Worryingly, the report shows that South Africa has lost a decade of progress in reading outcomes due to Covid-19 pandemic disruptions.

The report puts the percentage of Grade 4 children who cannot read for meaning in any language at 82%, compared to 78% before the pandemic. The new estimate is based on research conducted in 2021 by Prof Servaas van der Berg, also from SU's Economics Department, which saw all Grade 3 and Grade 6 learners in the Western Cape tested in language and mathematics. It is estimated that if South Africa stays on the current trajectory, it will take 86 years (until the year 2108) to reach the goal of all children being able to read for meaning.  

The findings suggest the wheels are coming off at the very beginning of the learning-to-read journey – letter-sound knowledge in Grade 1. The process of learning to read begins when children start to match the sounds that they hear in spoken language with printed words and letters in their environment and written on a page.  

The report found about 60% of children have not learned most of the letters of the alphabet by the end of grade one, citing data from the Department of Basic Education's Early Grade Reading Study, which has followed children from over 200 schools for more than seven years in the North West province. 

By the end of Grade 2, over 30% still don't know all the alphabet letters. The report finds that these children are “perpetually behind and in 'catch-up' mode, although they never actually catch up". 

“It is clear that we have made no progress in improving reading outcomes since the devastation of the pandemic," Spaull said. “Yet despite this generational catastrophe, there has been no real plan to catch up with learning losses. There is no plan. There is no budget. There is no urgency. Where is the courage and leadership needed to tackle this issue? We are condemning 10-year-old kids to a very dark future," he added.  

Lack of investment

This sentiment was shared by other speakers who agreed too little is being done to ensure literacy is prioritised.

Mlambo-Ngcuka warned that the same mistakes were being made in education as with South Africa's energy crisis. “We are in this situation because we didn't invest enough in generation, therefore we don't have enough energy to transmit and to distribute. Foundation phase (Grade R-3) reading is investing in generation. If we don't do it now, we won't have enough to transmit and distribute. We are load-shedding our children."  

The former deputy president said she is also worried that the load-shedding crisis is overshadowing the reading crisis. “This year we are bringing the issue back on the agenda and will keep it on the front pages and take necessary action. We want to avoid the pain of load-shedding in education," she said.

“When it comes to reading, we need massive investment so that we can break the back of the problem as we have it today. We must make sure that we invest for the long term. We know that at this point we are in a critical situation." 

The Reading Panel report shows that only two South African provinces have implemented province-wide, funded interventions targeting reading in the early grades – Gauteng and the Western Cape. 

The Western Cape Education Department has partnered with non-profit Funda Wande to implement a “Reading for Meaning" programme in the province's Afrikaans and isiXhosa schools between 2023 and 2025. The three-year project has a budget of R111 million and will impact learners in Grades 1 to 3. 

The Gauteng Department of Education has partnered with non-profit WordWorks to provide a Grade R reading programme in all schools offering this grade between 2022 and 2024. A consortium of donors funded 80% of the project's R107 million budget and the Department the remaining 20%. 

Western Cape Education Department Head Brent Walters said there was too much focus on matric results when foundation phase education had to be the focus. “You build a house from the foundation, not the roof."

Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor of education at SU, said that change was not going to come from the top, nor the bottom, but from “the middle" – provincial politicians, private sector stakeholders and local universities. “The downside of change from the middle, the trade-off, is you're not going to get systemic change… but at the very least, and in the meantime, you get three or four provinces on board."

The Reading Panel needed to make a “compelling argument in the public square" for the prioritisation of reading outcomes, Jansen told the conference. “If you're going to change things then you're going to have to start convincing people that this is a priority. With every generation of kids that go through a 12-year cycle, we are losing big time, not only in terms of the economic cost but also the human cost… so, we need a Reading Panel with teeth." 


The 2030 Reading Panel found that almost no progress had been made regarding the recommendations in the 2022 Reading Panel's Background Report. The 2023 report reiterated the four recommendations from last year and added two: 

  • Measure what matters by implementing a universal standardised assessment of reading at the primary school level; 
  • Move from slogans to budgets by allocating meaningful funds to reading resources and interventions; 
  • Provide a minimum set of reading resources to all foundation phase classrooms as a matter of urgency; 
  • Conduct a university audit of pre-service teacher education programmes; 
  • Publish a national reading plan and a budget for its implementation; and 
  • Improve the implementation of the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative. 

The full 2023 Background Report is available here:


Click on this link to view a recording of the full Reading Panel Programme on 7 February: