Sun, 01 Nov 2020

South Africa's relatively poor performance in learning outcomes persist, despite an almost universal primary enrolment rate, government policies that ensure the majority of students have access to mother tongue education for the first three years of primary schooling, and the country's comparatively high expenditure on education by international standards.

The depth of South Africa's reading crisis was laid bare by the poor performance of our learners on the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study international benchmark reading comprehension test.

Almost 80 percent of Grade 4 learners did not reach the lowest international level of reading proficiency, which means they could not read for meaning.

For Grade 1 learners, intervention impacts were the largest on foundational decoding skills - correctly identifying letter sounds and being able to manipulate phonemes.

At this early stage of Grade 1 leaners' development trajectories, these are the skills that are required to decode words, read more fluently and eventually read for meaning.

Subsequently, the impacts on further downstream higher order reading comprehension skills are only detectable for Grade 2 learners.

Viewed together with findings from the EGRS studies, these results support the idea that learners require a range of foundational literacy abilities before they can read with some level of speed and accuracy (i.e. fluency) - and, in turn, they need to read with a certain minimum level of fluency in order to comprehend what they are reading.

In terms of the amount of learning that took place in comparison schools' "business as usual" learning environments, the effects translate to between 20 to 27 percent of a year's worth of learning for Grade 2 learners, and 33 to 58 percent of a year's learning for Grade 1 learners.

Dependent on the outcome measure used, the programme impacts, therefore, range roughly between one and two terms of learning in status quo schooling environments in these three Eastern Cape districts.

A particularly encouraging finding from a policy perspective is that the intervention has fairly consistent positive impacts for learners across the distribution, i.e. at the bottom, middle and top of the class.

Programme impacts also did not vary with learners' baseline reading proficiency level or their relative rank for reading proficiency within their class.

A potentially related finding is the suggestive evidence that the programme helps boys in treatment schools catch up with their girl counterparts, but only in Grade 2 and with the extent of catch-up being contingent on the boys' baseline levels of reading proficiency.

At this stage, only suggestive results are presented for the potential mechanisms at play.

Evidence across more than one indicator suggests that teachers in intervention schools are more likely to:

a) be more attuned to the actual reading proficiency levels of the learners in their class (both in terms of whether learners are at the top or the bottom of the distribution and how the class performs overall).

b) make use of material resources provided more often.

c) use instructional techniques that have previously shown to facilitate more individualised forms of actual learner reading practice and teacher feedback.

Future rounds of assessments and in-depth qualitative classroom observations will delve deeper into both the potential mechanisms at play, as well as the potential characteristics of the Funda Wande intervention that result in it being effective in shifting learning outcomes for learners across the distribution of reading proficiency levels and for learners with the lowest levels of reading proficiency in particular.

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