Reversing The Challenges of South Africa’s Quality of Education – By Nonkululeko Kubheka

Reversing The Challenges of South Africa’s Quality of Education

By: Nonkululeko Kubheka

There have been alarming reports in the media since the release of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study’s 2021 report on the literacy rate of Grade Four learners. The inability of learners to comprehend the material related to their learning activities is having negative impacts on their literacy. However, external factors beyond the schooling environment aren’t taken into consideration when these results are being shared, and this article will highlight some of the most common factors that could be contributing to the high illiteracy rates and also provide some possible solutions to address these.

The future of learning is being compromised by outdated methods of teaching that are limiting the capacity of advancing learning in an era where keeping up with technology will impact future work prospects. While it is easy for us to focus on the alarming numbers that are being returned by research on literacy rates, we cannot isolate the underlying conditions that learners are faced with.

Since 2001, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) has been conducting literacy assessments every five years in 57 countries across the world, with Egypt, South Africa, and Morocco being the only African countries included in their most recent study. In the PIRLS 2021 study, it was highlighted that 81% of grade four learners cannot read for meaning, while this was at 76% in 2016, 82% in 2011, and 87% in 2006. A majority of schools have no library and limited reading material, so a culture of reading isn’t being promoted as much.

This study cannot be blamed entirely on the issues of the schooling system because there are multiple socioeconomic issues that many learners in South Africa–especially those from underprivileged backgrounds–are confronted with. Many learners rely on social grants, which barely see them through the entire month. There are nutrition programmes within schools, where some learners only have this as their only provision and face hunger outside of school. The high rates of violence cannot be overlooked since children are often too distressed to pay attention at school if there are domestic or social issues they cannot immediately address or discuss with anyone else. Out of fear of being discriminated against, many children fail to openly speak about their conditions.

The growing concerns about child-headed households impact children’s ability to actively participate in learning activities. Illiteracy rates are also impacted by illiterate parents, where children sometimes don’t have someone who can understand their learning material to help them with homework, for instance.

The school language policy and curriculum policy are crucial contributors to consider revising since children first need to be established in their home language before they can find meaning in the language they are being taught in. The education minister has been the same person for over a decade, and not much positive curriculum adaptation has been seen. The country’s Apartheid history has shaped the education system, and this has seen a need to get specialists to be considered for executive roles in the education ministry.

While it’s easy to point out the shortfalls of an education system, it’s crucial to weigh in on factors that impact the quality of knowledge reproduction. Mandisa Ndlovu pointed out in her 2023 article that a survey completed by the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA) highlights that books commercially published in African languages only account for 2%. This alludes to a lack of motivation for a majority of learners since limited access to relatable reading resources inevitably will contribute to lower literacy rates.

Children being taught in a language that isn’t their native tongue plays a major role, as they aren’t as motivated to engage with learning material that has no relatability to their background. Even indigenous languages have become hard for children to grasp within education systems because of how these are being withered down even through a lack of daily use.

How then can we expect that there will be comprehension from children? What hope are children being given if a country that boasts 12 official languages only subscribes to English being the medium of teaching and learning?

Offering Hope to Young Children

September 8th is International Literacy Day, with National Book Week being celebrated in the first week of September. April 23rd is World Book Day, the National Library Week is celebrated during March, and these events shouldn’t serve to remind us of the high illiteracy rate in the country, but to offer practical solutions to counter this.

Below are some of the solutions that can help with countering this issue:

  • Teachers have a role to play in the assessment of reading being done more efficiently, by expanding it across the languages that children are exposed to.
  • Quality libraries need to be revived in schools, where reading time should form part of the daily timetable.
  • Children should be encouraged to ask questions about their learning material so that it can be established whether they understand it or require further elaboration.
  • The under-preparedness of learners can also be attributed to the Covid-19 global pandemic and its impact on lost learning time. Recovery plans have been slow to mitigate the situation and require re-evaluation.
  • More social reading programmes need to be established to motivate learners to read outside of school as well. Government intervention is necessary for the sustainability of such programmes where funds are sorted towards these and the necessary measures are put in place to ensure that funds aren’t being misappropriated.
  • Family members need to assume responsibility for children’s literacy and become actively involved in assisting with reading activities. They need to stop leaving this to teachers only and find ways to also enhance their literacy too.

By accepting that South Africa has a concerning literacy rate, it is vital to not isolate underlying societal circumstances that contribute to this. It becomes imperative to not only highlight these as areas of concern but to seek redress for them too since that is the only way to promote a reading nation.



Kell, C., McKinney, C., Tyler, R. and Guzula, X. (2023). South Africa’s reading crisis: 5 steps to address children’s literacy struggles. The Conversation.

Ndlovu, M. (2023). South African children face [a] reading crisis. Mail & Guardian.

PIRLS 2021 International Results in Reading.

Roux, K. (2023). South Africa’s 10 year-olds are struggling to read – it can be fixed. The Conversation.

Singh, K. (2023). IN NUMBERS | SA produces one of worst global reading results among over 50 countries. News24.


About the author:

Nonkululeko Kubheka is a professional, academic, and creative writer, who is passionate about topics relating to leadership in Africa, decoloniality, African spirituality, socioeconomic conditions, and mental health. She is a member of the Activate! Writer’s Hub 2023 cohort, and her writing experience dates as far back as 2012, where she has been freelancing as a professional writer since 2021.

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