Solving South Africa’s Literacy Crisis

South Africa has a literacy crisis. Literacy rates in the country are going backwards. That is the finding of the 2023 Reading Panel Background Report, written by education economist Nic Spaull on behalf of a panel of specialists convened by former Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. The report, published in February 2023, reveals that a shocking 82% of Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning.

This is a deeply troubling statistic. Without the ability to decipher the meaning behind the words they read on a page, learners battle to answer questions related to what they have read and, in time, this affects their ability to follow instructions, solve problems and think critically.

Sizwe Nxasana, founder of Future Nation Schools, says:

The root cause of this crisis lies in the problem with South Africa’s language policy, particularly the language of learning and teaching (LoLT) in schools. This, like so many things in our culturally rich country, is a complex issue.

The literacy crisis and South Africa's language policy

The heart of the literacy crisis

According to South Africa’s Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) curriculum, the purpose of ‘English Home Language’ as a subject is to ‘acquire the language skills required for academic learning across the curriculum,’ with the parallel purpose for English First Additional Language to ‘use their Additional Language for academic learning across the curriculum.’

However, take a closer look at our country’s demographics and you will quickly see where the problem lies. Demographically, 80% of teachers and learners do not use English as their home or native language, yet we expect teachers to teach our children English – not just for pronunciation, but for meaning.

This, the first key contributing factor to the low levels of English proficiency amongst learners, has a significant impact on the quality of learning and teaching in our country.

The second, and equally important factor, is dictated by our country’s Language in Education Policy, which requires that learners’ mother tongue is maintained, developed and used as the language of learning and teaching for the first three years of primary school (known as the Foundation Phase).

Thereafter, the policy recommends that the LoLT be English. This sudden change presents enormous challenges, especially in Grade 4, as teachers and learners must now negotiate the transition from an indigenous language like isiZulu as their first language to English.

According to Nxasana, research shows that children who are introduced to learning and teaching in their mother tongue develop a firmer grasp of the concepts they are being taught than those who have not had mother tongue instruction. He says:

Thus, the premature and inconsistent change to English as a LoLT from Grade 4, at a stage when learners are not proficient in English, results in many schools with predominantly native language speakers code-switching between English and the predominant indigenous language in that school. This results in low levels of proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing in English and any other indigenous language which is used as LoLT.

So how do we overcome this barrier? One way, says Nxasana, is to teach differently. And not just language, but all subjects.

Project-based learning at Future Nation Schools

While this might sound like a lofty idea, at Future Nation Schools, Nxasana and his teachers are putting this into action by using Project-Based Learning (PBL) as the schools’ tool for teaching the CAPS curriculum.

According to Nxasana:

PBL is a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects.

By bringing prior knowledge and the indigenous context, working on a project over an extended period of time and across multiple disciplines and subjects, learners actively engage with the topic in a very real, very tangible way to develop deep content knowledge about the topic of their project as well as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication skills.

Project-based learning to solve the literacy crisis in South Africa

Nxasana elaborates:

From a language literacy development perspective, there are a myriad of skills that learners improve when they connect with concepts through PBL.

Each project starts with a driving question – right now Grade 3s at Future Nation Schools, for example, are working on the question: ‘Why are dinosaurs extinct?’ – learners are tasked with solving this driving question through research, interviews and a variety of other forms of investigation – all of which involve critical reading and careful listening. This approach turns them from passive participants in the curriculum to active inquirers.

Teachers using the PBL approach encourage learners to self-discover, self-explore and investigate concepts independently. Students’ interaction with these concepts is not restricted to one language of instruction. Instead learners are able to use the languages with which they are most comfortable.

What this means is that a learner’s home language acts as a support to English. Thus, as learners switch codes throughout their interaction with the driving question, it deepens concepts’ meaning and enables a better understanding of language.

Towards the end of a project’s duration, learners must also take their new-found knowledge and use it to support their claims via a public presentation that answers the driving question. These presentations expose learners to the opposing views of their peers, thus enabling them to critique and evaluate different lines of thinking in relation to the same question.

In so doing, PBL enhances learners’ vocabulary, increases their reading fluency, develops their comprehension skills and also helps them to think critically and learn to make deductions. All these factors are key to the acquisition of a language and the understanding of the meaning of written text.

Reading is the cornerstone of education. Developing literacy at an early age is crucial to ensuring learners’ success in life.

Pupils at Future Nation Schools in Johannesburg

Nxasana concludes:

PBL turns learners into active participants in their own education. These leaners are able to retain the content longer and have a deeper understanding of it – regardless of the content, whether math, language, or indeed a subject like history, biology or geography – thus taking the benefits of PBL far beyond the classroom walls.