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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Latest News

R1,5 million project to study literacy

Date Released: Wed, 7 November 2012 09:42 +0200

Rhodes linguists Dr Mark de Vos and Kristin van der Merwe have been awarded a grant of R1,5 million over three years to study foundation phase literacy in African languages.  The grant, which comes from the Rhodes University Council's Sandisa Imbewu fund, will be used to fund a post-doctoral research fellow and postgraduate students interested in solving one of South Africa's most pressing educational problems.

Literacy is probably the single most important skill for the individual and society at large. It is an empowerment tool that gives access to further education and life opportunities. Literacy “determines educational success” (Pretorius & Mokhwesana 2009:55) and is a significant predictor of success in life (IRA & NAEYC 1998). Furthermore, foundation phase literacy (grades one to four) is crucial to educational success as grade three literacy results are a good predictor of whether a learner will eventually graduate from high school (Snow, Burns, Griffin 1998).

Literacy is a central component of the economy, transformative democracy and an individual’s life competencies. In this context, it is crucial that foundation phase literacy be taught effectively and that there be structures in place that can identify reading problems as early as possible. It is then surprising that literacy provision remains an enormous challenge in South Africa. The statistics are horrifying. 


In 2001, the national average for grade 3 literacy with just 38% (DOE 2003). Even in the province with the highest pass rate, only 39% passed the grade three literacy requirement (Pretorius & Mokhwesana 2009:55). Furthermore, subsequent research in 2004 showed that only 28% of grade sixes could read at or above their grade level (DOE 2005).

This literacy crisis is confirmed by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2006) where South Africa was the worst performer out of 40 countries (including developing countries like Iran, Georgia, Macedonia, Indonesia and Morocco). “Not only did we come last, but we came badly last with a long tail of underachievement” (Pretorius & Mokhwesana 2009:55). The international average was 500 points and the best countries/territories (Russia and Hong Kong) got 565 and 564 points respectively. Even the countries which scored less than average were within 100 points of the average (only four countries scored less than 400 points). South African scored just 302 points! (PIRLS 2006:18).

When these statistics are broken down by language, the picture becomes even worse (PIRLS 2006:21). The best performers were Afrikaans and English: home-language Afrikaans and English speakers tested in their languages of instruction scored 364 and 458 respectively (PIRLS 2006:22). Note that both were well below the international average. However, scholars tested in African languages scored extremely poorly: the best performer, Setswana scored just above 250 points. IsiNdebele and IsiXhosa scored below 200 points. The remaining African languages scored between 200 and 250 points.

These statistics mean that only 13% of South African grade fours reach the minimum international benchmark of 400 points. This can be contrasted with 98% for Russia and the international mean of 94%. Only 1% of South African grade fours reach the Advanced International Benchmark. Most shocking of all is that only 1% of IsiXhosa, SiSwati and IsiNdebele learners reach the minimum international benchmark by grade four. This means that 99% of these learners are illiterate after three years of schooling.

The problem has at least four linguistic dimensions: uneven levels of linguistic prestige and dialectal variations, orthographic difficulties, a delay in automaticity and vocabulary development, and a lack of normative data.  Mark De Vos and Kristin van der Merwe intend to address all four of these dimensions.  For more information on each of them, and on the project in general, visit the project website.

Postgraduate students who are interested in working on South Africa's literacy problems may apply at any time to Dr Mark de Vos.  Apply now and join our growing group of dynamic and enthusiastic postgraduate students who are involved in this project.  

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