It would seem quite normal to expect a grade 4 learner to be familiar with the exhilarating stories of princesses and dragons or little boys who win golden tickets to chocolate factories. We imagine little girls and boys seeing themselves through characters like Matilda, a little girl who used reading as a means to escape her not-so-warm home with parents who often shouted, “A book? What do you want a flaming book for? We’ve got a lovely telly with a 12-inch screen and now you want a book!”

However, we now know that this is not exactly the reality for most children in South Africa given the recent alarming results of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).  From the study, it is evident that a great number of children will not get to read for pleasure because they simply cannot read for meaning in any language.

With 78% of South Africa’s grade 4’s unable to read for meaning in any language, a spark of concern and doubt in the education system has been triggered, regarding whether the children of South Africa are being deprived of their constitutional right to a basic education.[1] As a direct reaction to the recent PIRLS study, the special interest group “Literacy in our Lifetime” emerged. At an event held on the 16th June 2018 in Soweto, the group met to discuss the possible avenues that could be used in addressing the current literacy crisis. These options included advocacy, strategic litigation, improved learning materials and the creation of a movement. Members of SECTION27 attended the event to gain some insight into the current state of literacy and how we as an organisation could best contribute to resolving the current crisis.

The event hosted education experts such as Xolisa Guzula and Brahm Fleisch who shared varying opinions on what they believed were the problems with literacy in South Africa. Guzula saw a problem with the language ideology and how the education system seems to favour a more monolinguist approach to learning. This is clear from the following statistic: 70% of grade 1 to grade 3 learners learn in African languages and then in grade 4 they are forced to make the switch to English as the medium of learning and instruction.[2] This monolinguist approach to learning, according to Guzula poses a problem in that it does not sufficiently accommodate non-English speaking learners, as they will be expected to learn in English while they may not have a strong understanding of the English language. “Literacy shouldn’t mean English”, she says, exposing the cracks in the curriculum and teaching methods.

The second speaker, Brahm Fleisch proposed the “education triple cocktail” to curb the dwindling literacy rates in South Africa. This “triple cocktail” encompasses improved lesson plans, access to appropriate learning materials and one-on-one supportive teacher training.

This identification of problems and solutions conducted by “Literacy in our lifetime” is extremely informative. Another analysis of the literacy crisis together with some solutions was that proposed in a report by Servaas van der Berg and Nicholas Spaull among others (and discussed at the June 16th event) titled “Identifying Binding Constraints in Education.” The binding constraints in education are the important elements in the education system that have to be fixed in order to have a lasting effect. These binding constraints should be addressed in a hierarchical manner as one is likely to give way to another and they do not have an equal effect. The report is available here.

The four binding constraints identified in this report are weak institutional functionality, union influence, weak teacher content knowledge and pedagogical skills as well as wasted learning time and opportunities.[3] The first binding constraint has a bearing on the lack of accountability of the education system – this is because the education powers are vested in provincial governments who are tasked with implementing policy. With weak and ineffective implementation, there results a problem in the standard of our education system due to the immunity of provincial governments from accountability for their performance at schools. Thus, the children within the system continue to be compromised.

The report suggests that trade unions for teachers have also been identified as not always acting in the best interests of the children in the system, as well as their undermining of provincial institutional functions. Through encouraging overspending on teachers’ salaries, compromising the implementation of accountability systems as well as undermining citizen trust in education sectors, trade unions have imposed their undue influence on the provincial government.

The Southern and East Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) study has shown that only 32% of maths teachers in South Africa actually have desirable content knowledge and that this is particularly prevalent in poor schools.[4] The poor content knowledge of a teacher has serious ramifications for the quality of teaching – this explains why children cannot read as their teachers do not know how to teach them how to read.

The last binding constraint is wasted learning time and opportunity to learn. This can be caused by lack of capacity and lack of accountability. This is because there may not be enough teaching staff or the principal of a school may not be monitoring what work has been covered during learning times. This is apparent with less than a half of the curriculum being covered in the year and less than half of the scheduled lessons actually being taught.

Having identified these binding constraints to education, tackling the crisis of poor literacy levels among South Africa’s children appears to be less daunting especially with what the report describes as the “roadmap for reading.”[5] This roadmap proposes that one prioritises, prepares, implements and sustains the implementation of a reading strategy that is sure to be successful.

The ways in which SECTION27 can get involved in addressing poor literacy rates among children is primarily through advocacy and/or strategic litigation. By igniting a national campaign that promotes literacy and highlighting the current literacy crisis, SECTION27 can communicate the moral cause to the public who are likely to recognise the urgency for a solution and place pressure on the state to prioritise literacy. Through strategic litigation carefully challenging undue teacher union influence and the allocation of education budgets, the literacy crisis may begin to be addressed. However, many questions remain unanswered such as who the clients would be and what the failure is in terms of the Constitution.

Taking into account the Binding Constraints report and literacy event it is clear that the need for literacy to be prioritised is a matter of public interest and that it is possible to achieve literacy within our lifetime irrespective of the recent PIRLS study. If children are unable to read in the foundation phase of learning, the road ahead for these children will be riddled with failure and difficultly as reading forms the basis of all learning. Hopefully reading for pleasure will no longer be a privilege that only a few can enjoy.


[1] Spaull “The unfolding reading crisis: The new PIRLS 2016 results” 2017 https://nicspaull.com/2017/12/05/the-unfolding-reading-crisis-the-new-pirls-2016-results/ (09/07/2018).

[2] Van der Berg, Spaull and Wills et al “Identifying binding constraints in education” Research on Socio-Economic Policy (2016).

[3] n 2, above.

[4] n 2, above.

[5] n 1, above.

Christy Chitengu is a second-year law student at the University of Johannesburg.  She spent a month interning at SECTION27 where she worked with our education team.