Only 19% of grade 4 pupils can read for understanding – study

The latest report on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) shows that 81% of South African pupils in grade 4 cannot read for understanding.

The report was released by Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga in Pretoria on Tuesday, as the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement released the international report and results.

While only 19% of pupils are able to read for meaning by the age of 10, in grade 6 the percentage of pupils who can read for comprehension is relatively higher but still way below the international benchmark at 44%.

The grade 4 figure represents a 3% decrease from the 2016 report and places South Africa’s performance – in the study that measures pupils ability to read for comprehension – at the bottom with an average score of 288, down from 320 in the last report.

The Pirls study takes place every five years and South Africa has been taking part in the research since 2006.

This year, 57 countries participated in the study assessing 400 000 grade 4 and grade 6 pupils’ abilities to read for understanding.

It was the first time that South Africa’s grade 6 pupils took part in the study.

“Grade 4 learners were assessed across the 11 official languages. Grade 6 learners were assessed in English and Afrikaans,” shows the Pirls 2021 study.

“A total of 12 426 grade 4 learners were assessed, and 9 317 grade 6 learners were assessed. The 2021 sample was nationally representative, and was stratified by language and province.”

The lowest performing languages were vernacular with isiZulu at 267 as the highest and Setswana at 211 as the lowest, while Afrikaans pupils recorded 387 and English 382, respectively.

The Pirls achievement scale has four points as international benchmarks – the advanced international benchmark at 625, high international benchmark (550), intermediate international benchmark (475) and low international benchmark (400).

“For South Africa, the Pirls 2021 study reveals very low performance levels on learners’ ability to read for meaning as they turn 10.

“Singapore was the highest-performing country. All African countries performed below the low international benchmark of 400 points. South Africa, at 288 score points, performed significantly below the Pirls centre point of 500,” shows the report.

Grade 6 pupils also achieved a low benchmark with mean achievement score of 384.

“The grade 6 Afrikaans learners obtained 456 points compared to English learners, who obtained 377 points. There was thus a 79-point difference between these two languages.”

In her speech, Motshekga said Pirls represents the first international large-scale assessment to report results after successfully collecting data during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Motshekga said: “Our expectation is that the result would not be positive given the negative and dire consequences of Covid-19.

“South Africa is not the only country that was impacted negatively by Covid.

“The Pirls International report shows that two-thirds of the countries that participated in the study had a decline in average reading achievement, suggesting at least some widespread negative impact from the pandemic on reading achievement at the fourth grade.”


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