Workbooks to play strategic role in improving education and literacy

A study on the Progress of International Reading Literacy levels presented to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga recently, found that almost nine out of 10 learners could not read at Grade 4 level, while eight out of 10 could not read at Grade 5 level.

For the minister, identifying and tackling specific areas of weakness in education is therefore a major priority for the department, one that needs educators and stakeholders for it to succeed, writes Gabi Khumalo.

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga

At a discussion attended by education officials and experts on how workbooks should be tailored to address specific needs, said tests should not only be used to prove “how badly we are doing”, but also be used as a diagnostic tool to help the department learn where it should focus its efforts at remediation.

The 2006 study found that among the major problems in reading, learners were unable to write straight forward answers to questions and fare very badly in longer texts. It found that South African learners in Grade 5 are approximately four years behind in terms of reading compared to Grade 4 learners internationally.


“9.6 learners cannot read in isiXhosa and isiNdebele, and 4.5 to 4.8 learners cannot read in English and Afrikaans,” said Professor Sara Howie, Director for the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment at the University of Pretoria.

“Learners are unable to do the lowest level of skills such as focusing on and retrieving explicitly stated information from text. Even in ‘Africanised’ texts, learners do not perform at an adequate level,” Howie said.


The study revealed that curriculum implementation is lacking as teachers do not challenge learners to progress at developmentally appropriate levels and only a third of learners have reading instruction every day.

“There is a lack of development of higher order thinking and strong focus on low level oral questioning in low achieving classrooms and there is not enough exposure to sufficient reading materials in a variety of forms,” she added.


The study found that some teachers were confused on whether they needed to use materials for English Additional Language or English First Language, when dealing with non-English learners in English language schools. Teachers cannot source appropriate books for their English Second Language learners it said.

It recommended the need for teacher training in managing the integrating of children with learning difficulties in their classes as well as a need to assess specialist reading teachers and other remedial specialists.
“Children with special difficulties who are in large classes need to be placed in classes for special needs and access to remedial support for children with learning difficulties is needed.

“Only approved teaching practical schools with teachers who are recognised as skilled in the teaching of foundation phase literacy should be used for practicals and better monitoring of teaching practicals is needed and requires more teacher educators at universities,” Howie recommended.

Research on Grade 1 to 6 Mathematics Performance from the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring in Education Quality and Annual National Assessments findings indicated that the majority of learners in the primary sector function at levels or grades lower than their actual grades.

Currently, the department is in the process of developing workbooks in maths and literacy for Grades 1 to 6 that will be distributed to schools next year.

The department’s Systemic Evaluation Director, Meshack Moloi, said a significant proportion of Grade 6 learners are still functioning at levels as low as Grade 3 in terms of the numeracy skills they demonstrate.


“This poses challenges for both teaching and provision of appropriate curriculum materials,” Moloi said adding that pitching lessons at inappropriate levels for learners could frustrate them and exacerbate the apparently high current repetition rates and possible dropout rates.

He stressed the need for a particular teaching and assessment style which recognises the exaggerated discrepancies in skills distribution.


“For effective learning to take place, there must be an educationally and cognitively sound alignment including the levels of knowledge and skills already acquired or reliably assumed to be acquired by learners, the levels at which lessons are pitched, the manner in which learning and teaching materials are structured and how assessment is conducted,” Moloi said.

Motshekga reiterated that the workbooks will complement what already existed and play a strategic role in improving the education system.


“I do believe we should go beyond this lamentation about how badly our children and teachers are doing and begin to identify and tackle specific areas of weakness. Among the recommendations that we need to consider are those for the development of courses targeted at specific officials and teachers.

“These courses need to be both pedagogically sound and content rich. Working together in our different ways to support our schools can make a big difference to education. Our children are our national treasure. Let us put the education of our children at the top of our agenda,” said Motshekga.

Source: BuaNews, amitypublications.com, sasix.co.za, unesco.org

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