SALDRU evaluates promising program to improve reading for meaning

Image courtesy of Funda Wande.

South Africa’s relatively poor performance in learning outcomes persist despite an almost universal primary enrolment rate, government policies that ensure that the majority of students have access to mother tongue education for the first three years of primary schooling, and the country’s comparatively high expenditure on education by international standards. The depth of South Africa’s reading crisis was laid bare by the poor performance of our learners on the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) international benchmark reading comprehension test. Almost 80 percent of Grade 4 learners did not reach the lowest international level of reading proficiency, which means they could not read for meaning. Several localised early grade reading studies have shown that the majority of foundation phase learners lag behind in the fundamental skills essential for learning to read. Children cannot read to learn when they have not yet learnt to read.

In response to the reading crisis, there are a range of ongoing initiatives and strategies to support early grade reading. These include provision of reading materials, campaigns to promote a culture of reading at school and at home, improvements in initial teacher training and ongoing teacher professional development. SALDRU researchers are involved in a number of projects that aim to feed into the small but growing body of evidence on which of these myriad programmes and strategies have the potential to address South Africa’s reading crisis.

One of these SALDRU research projects is evaluating Funda Wande, an organisation that aims to achieve the following goals:

  • By 2030 all South African children can read for meaning by age 10
  • All Grade 1-3 teachers are well equipped to teach children how to read by 2030

Recognizing the limited opportunities for South African teachers to acquire specialized knowledge in teaching reading, particularly in African Languages, Funda Wande has created a course to train teachers on how to teach reading for meaning in African languages. Funda Wande provides home language text resources for learners and teachers, curriculum aligned lesson plans, videos, assessment booklets and online pedagogic resources for teachers, accompanied by in-classroom coaching support, feedback and South African Qualifications Authority accredited training for Foundation Phase heads of department. The programme builds on lessons learnt and promising insights from previous interventions and research (e.g. the Department of Basic Education’s Early Grade Reading Studies (EGRS)).

Funda Wande was invited by the Eastern Cape Department of Education to pilot their in-service coaching model in primary schools in the province. SALDRU researchers were charged with conducting an impact evaluation of the programme with the primary aim being to assess the causal impact of Funda Wande coaching on foundation phase learners’ ability to read with meaning. Secondary aims of the evaluation are to contribute to ongoing research on how to appropriately measure reading for meaning. The longitudinal data collected for the evaluation will also feed into and build on existing empirical research on African languages in South Africa, including the establishment of reading benchmarks.

The impact evaluation uses a randomized control trial with schools randomized into one of two arms – Funda Wande and control. The 59 evaluation schools were selected from urban and peri-urban areas in three education districts in the Eastern Cape. All schools in the evaluation are no fee, quintile three public schools with an isiXhosa language of learning and teaching. Randomly selected learners in Grades 1 and 2 were assessed at the beginning of 2019 school year before the programme began. These same learners will be re-assessed at the end of each school year for a four-year period (2019-2022).

The results for the first year of the programme indicate that Funda Wande is effective in improving Grade 1 and 2 learners’ isiXhosa home language reading outcomes.

The programme effects are positive across all sub-domains of reading proficiency that could be reliably measured. For Grade 1 learners, intervention impacts were the largest on foundational decoding skills – correctly identifying letter sounds and being able to manipulate phonemes. At this early stage of Grade 1 leaners’ development trajectories, these are the skills that are required to decode words, read more fluently and eventually read for meaning. Subsequently, the impacts on further downstream higher order reading comprehension skills are only detectable for Grade 2 learners. Viewed together with findings from the EGRS studies, these results support the idea that learners require a range of foundational literacy abilities before they can read with some level of speed and accuracy (i.e. fluency), and in turn, they need to read with a certain minimum level of fluency in order to comprehend what they are reading.

In terms of the amount of learning that took place in comparison schools’ ‘business as usual’ learning environments, the effects translate to between 20 to 27 percent of a year’s worth of learning for Grade 2 learners, and 33 to 58 percent of a year’s learning for Grade 1 learners. Dependent on the outcome measure used, the programme impacts therefore range roughly between one and two terms of learning in status quo schooling environments in these three Eastern Cape districts.

A particularly encouraging finding from a policy perspective is that the intervention has fairly consistent positive impacts for learners across the distribution i.e. at the bottom, middle and top of the class. Programme impacts also did not vary with learners’ baseline reading proficiency level or their relative rank for reading proficiency within their class. A potentially related finding is the suggestive evidence that the programme helps boys in treatment schools catch up with their girl counterparts, but only in Grade 2 and with the extent of catch-up being contingent on the boys’ baseline levels of reading proficiency.

At this stage only suggestive results are presented for the potential mechanisms at play. Evidence across more than one indicator suggests that teachers in intervention schools are more likely to a) be more attuned to the actual reading proficiency levels of the learners in their class (both in terms of whether learners are at the top or the bottom of the distribution and how the class performs overall), and b) to make use of material resources provided more often, and c) to use instructional techniques that have previously shown to facilitate more individualised forms of actual learner reading practice and teacher feedback. Future rounds of assessments and in-depth qualitative classroom observations will delve deeper into both the potential mechanisms at play, as well as the potential characteristics of the Funda Wande intervention that result in it being effective in shifting learning outcomes for leaners across the distribution of reading proficiency levels (and for learners with the lowest levels of reading proficiency in particular).