We need collaboration and innovation to address the literacy struggles in South Africa

Written by:
Krista Davidson
Published on:
May 23, 2023

South Africa is facing a literacy crisis. Recent statistics making headlines in the news show less than two in 10 Grade 4 South African learners can read with comprehension. To some, this is just another shocking data point validating the notion that the education system in South Africa is failing our children. While there may be some truth to such a statement, it’s worth looking at the bigger picture and approaching it with a solution-oriented mindset.

In 2016, the Progress on International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found the percentage of Grade 4 learners who could not read for meaning to be sitting at 78%, indicating an improvement over the 2011 figure (82%). However, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent measures have disadvantaged South African children more than ever – backtracking on the progress we once made. So, what does this mean? Well, when children can’t access the classroom and they’re not presented with effective alternatives to continue learning, their literacy suffers. Not exactly surprising.

Raising South Africa's literacy levels and improving learning outcomes in the country will require coordinated efforts from the Department of Basic Education, provincial and district education departments, as well as the dedication of teachers, schools, learners, and caregivers. To address the scale and severity of the challenge, and to ensure we’re prepared next time catastrophe strikes, we have no choice but to also look to educational technology (EdTech).

Fortunately, many EdTech solutions are accessible through smartphones, and considering South Africa’s smartphone penetration rate is close to 100%, this presents an opportunity that we’d be silly to discount. It’s also crucial to acknowledge that South Africa has 11 official languages, and children are often expected to learn in a language that is not their mother tongue. This further compounds the difficulties faced by South African children. EdTech can help.

As an example, Ambani Africa has successfully developed learner-focused language learning products using augmented reality, animation, and gamification. They offer a free language app that currently supports six African languages. Another solution addressing the issue, FunDza's approach revolves around locally written, engaging reading materials that reflect the unique experiences, perspectives, and languages of South African youths. It’s a platform created by the youth, for the youth. Both of these solutions are accessible via smartphones and can be readily adopted by learners to improve their reading, writing, and comprehension skills at low or no cost to the end users.

Education, and particularly literacy, serves as the foundation upon which individuals build the rest of their lives. To make a bright future possible for all South Africans, it’s imperative that we innovate to ensure teaching and learning tools are accessible and engaging to our young learners, especially. This requires collaborative efforts, embracing technology, and ultimately, setting our children up for success.