Reading to Learn, South Africa

The Progress in International Reading Literacy (Pirl) study 2016 ranked South Africa 50th out of the 50 countries assessed.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy (Pirl) study 2016 ranked South Africa 50th out of the 50 countries assessed.

The results showed that the lowest level of attainment was across nine of the 11 African languages tested. Children who have learned English and Afrikaans were more likely to be able to read, while 80 per cent of those learning in one of the indigenous languages struggled to achieve a basic level of reading.

Despite highlighting the poor literacy results, the Pirl study also revealed that between 2011 and 2016 there had been improvements in performance for five of the 11 South African languages, including English at grade 4 level.

There have been many different interventions, especially in early grade literacy teaching, which may have attributed to these improved levels. One of these is Reading to Learn (RtL), a method of teaching reading and writing that was initially developed in Australia for use with children struggling academically.


Many South Africa children are already at a disadvantage when they start school - 63 per cent live in poverty conditions. A study by Help to Read, a South African non-profit agency, found that three-year-olds in lower income families will have heard 30 million fewer words on average than their more affluent peers.

South African children start school at six, but recent research has shown that 29 per cent are still illiterate by the age of nine (grade 4). Some experts say one of the reasons for this is the way the South African education system works.

For the first three years of schooling, children are taught in their home language. From their fourth year onwards, they are taught in English based on research that indicates that children acquire English language skills more easily when they receive education in their indigenous language up to Grade 3.

However, due to many children not having mastered reading in their first language, they lack basic literacy skills, say RtL. This leads to them struggling to pick up a second language (typically English), which further inhibits their ability to master literacy skills from grade 4.

According to RtL, this lack of basic understanding means pupils with lower levels of attainment fall behind in Grade 4, and fail to recover the lost ground to achieve educational outcomes by Grade 12. Due to this, 50 per cent of South African learners drop out of school, leaving without any formal qualification.


In the Higher Education South Africa national benchmark tests from 2009, which measured 12,202 first year university students across reading proficiency levels, nearly half performed at the intermediate level, with 41 per cent of these students performing in the bottom half of the intermediate range. Seven per cent performed at the basic level.

This means that 56 per cent of students would need extra support in higher education, with the seven per cent at basic level requiring extensive support.

In the 2016 Pirl study, South Africa was last out of 50 countries. However, improvements were reported by pupils in five out of 11 African languages tested. These five had been the lowest performing languages in the 2011 study.




The RtL programme for teaching reading and writing has been developed in a long-term action research project with teachers in Australia at all levels of education, from early primary through to secondary and tertiary study, across curriculum areas.

The methodology has been developed to help disadvantaged children and young people to rapidly improve reading and writing to enable them to participate fully in education.

The aim of the programme is to support every student in a class to read and write challenging texts at their grade level.

Teaching methods focus on making learning engaging to maintain pupils' interest, with the aim of developing children's comprehension and that they become fluent readers and then use the patterns from reading texts to write their own texts successfully.

The approach is different to traditional methods of teaching literacy in that it focuses on ensuring children understand the text - by a teacher reading the story aloud to them - before going on to study the words themselves. Each layer of preparation supports pupils to recognise and understand each word, in each sentence, in each text (see box).

It includes three levels of support that can be used at various points by teachers.

RtL South Africa is a public benefit organisation registered with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, accredited by the South African Council for Educators.

The programme started off as a project for three schools in KwaZulu-Natal province, and since has been implemented in several schools in the Western Cape and Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape on a smaller scale.

Director for RtL, Mike Hart said that they hope to expand this dramatically in the coming years.


In the December 2016 report to MIET Africa, Sandra Land of the Adult and Community Education Unit at Durban University of Technology, provided statistics showing the progress report of the effects of the RtL approach over the year in two schools.

Between terms one and four, there was a 46.2 per cent average increase in English grades across all the classes and teachers.

The teachers said that it has changed the way they teach independent reading and writing skills. Teaching English has been something South African schools have traditionally struggled with, and teachers reported that the RtL method has given pupils a structured and manageable way to start using their imagination and creativity.


  • At text level Readers must recognise what a text is about and how it is organised; as a sequence of events in stories, or as chunks of information in factual texts.
  • At sentence level Readers must recognise how words are arranged in phrases and what each phrase means; who or what the sentence is about, what they are doing, where and when.
  • At words level Readers must recognise what each word means and how the letters are arranged into patterns that spell that word.

Source: Reading to Learn



  • Reading to Learn (RtL) is an approach to teaching children to read at any stage in education.
  • Developed in Australia in the 1990s, RtL offers a three-stage process to teach children to read, which is designed to develop their reading comprehension levels.
  • It offers a professional teaching development programme, so teachers from different countries can teach reading and writing in English as a second language in the best possible way.
  • Eight-day training programmes equip teachers to implement the programme in schools.
  • In South Africa, four schools have benefitted from the programme's full implementation.
  • Progress reports from two of these schools have shown improvements across most the students in those classrooms.



By Claire Acevedo, international literacy educator, Centre for Research in Education and Education Technology, Open University

Survey and interview data from the Reading to Learn (RtL) trials in the UK showed high levels of engagement with the approach by both educators and classroom teachers and that it offered a completely different approach to reading and writing compared with those that are generally used in school.

The trials ran in five secondary schools in London from 2015-17, and Scotland employed the pedagogy as part of a European Union project in 2011-13.

Almost all teachers perceived it had an impact on their students' understanding of how language operates in different texts to make meaning and on their students' reading and writing, and that they had enjoyed working with the approach. Most significantly, students' assessment scores based on their pre- and post-reading and writing scores showed that all students had improved with the educationally disadvantaged and lower scoring students showing the greatest gains.

The London research is looking at how teachers implement the approach. The preliminary findings indicate that teachers welcome the use of the RtL method in their classrooms as it provides them with new insights about their classroom texts drawn from linguistics and the pedagogy sequences enable them to use the new knowledge for the benefit of their students. They experience higher levels of engagement by students in reading and writing as well as improvement in writing outcomes.

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