South Africa’s massive reading problem

 ·16 May 2023

Grade 4 learners in South Africa have the worst reading ability in the world, with 81% incapable of reading for meaning.

This is according to the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2021), which tested 12,426 learners across the country and compared them to students at a similar age level across 42 other nations.

South Africa’s mean achievement score was 288 in the study, far below the 500 international average.

Egypt was the second worst country in the study, but its score of 378 was well ahead of South Africa.

A major concern for South Africa is that its achievement score has dropped significantly from the PIRLS 2016 study, where South Africa reported that 78% of children in Grade 4 could not read for meaning in any language.

However, researchers noted that 21 of the 32 countries with trend data noticed a drop, with the Covid-19 pandemic having a major effect on teaching hours globally.

In the 2021 study, Singapore (587), Hong Kong (573), the Russian Federation (567), England (588), and Finland (549) had the highest overall scores:


The results in South Africa varied heavily across languages. Learners who were tested in Afrikaans and English scored significantly higher than those who were tested in African languages.

Those tested in Afrikaans (387) and English (382) scored well above the average, while nine African languages scored below the mean, with Setswana (211) being the worst-performing language.

Moreover, the Western Cape (363), Gauteng (320) and Kwa-Zulu Natal (297) outperformed the 288 mean, with more remote provinces Limpopo (244) and North-West (232) significantly lower.

The biggest area of concern is that 81% of learners in the study were below the study’s low international benchmark, meaning that 81% of students cannot read for meaning.

Moreover, only 11% of learners reached the low international benchmark, while 94% of students internationally could reach the low international benchmark.

For South Africa, only 2% of readers could reach a high benchmark, while 1% reached the advanced benchmark.

State of education 

The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) previously said that South Africa has one of the worst-performing education systems in the world.

“The President speaks of a ‘silent revolution’, while the minister talks of a ‘system on the rise’. The truth is that we face a silent crisis in our schools: South Africa has one of the worst performing education systems in the world,” said CDE’S Executive Director Ann Bernstein.

The CDE said that South Africa spends roughly 13% of government revenue on education, which should improve competitive learning levels, reduce learning inequality, and train a large workforce.

However, Professor Lant Pritchett said that South Africa is the biggest learning underperformer relative to GDP per capita among low and middle-income countries.

Despite spending equivalent levels as high achieving Scandicanvian countries, South Africa’s learning outcomes are worse than Kenya, Tanzania and Eswatini.

Although poverty and ongoing infrastructural challenges have a debilitating effect on students, the incompetence of teachers has a massive effect on results.

80% of teachers in public schools lack the content knowledge and pedagogical skills for their subjects,

For instance, the proficiency level of South African teachers (41%) is far below that of teachers in Zimbabwe (87%).

Corruption is also not helping South Africa’s education system.

A 2015 report by the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) used to assess rural literacy found corrupt teacher hiring and promotion processes from union involvement.

The “jobs for cash” scandal, as it was known, saw SADTU – the country’s dominant teacher union – get favoured individuals onto school governing bodies (SGBs) to ensure that those who paid positions could get them.

The Minister of Education appointed a ministerial task team (MTT) to investigate the scandal, but Bernstein said that no government officials were prosecuted or suspended.

Moreover, none of the MIT recommendations to tackle corruption have been implemented.

Read: ‘Silent crisis’ at schools in South Africa – education department responds

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