November 29, 2018

Leveraging our collective wisdom to solve the literacy challenge

Getting literacy right is of critical importance in South Africa. The results of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) show that 78% of South African Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language. South Africa was placed last out of 50 countries in this study (behind middle-income countries such as Iran, Chile, Morocco, and Oman) and some six learning years behind the highest performer, Russia.

The Zenex Foundation has a history of committed and evidence-based support for literacy. Over the 23 years of its existence as an independent donor, Zenex has supported literacy through interventions in schools, materials development and research. Evaluations of Zenex’s work in literacy have provided important lessons about supporting literacy improvement at school level. Zenex is committed to sharing these lessons with the education sector and ensuring opportunities for literacy stakeholders to connect and share what works.

It is against this backdrop that the Foundation convened a whole-day Literacy Symposium on 24 October 2018 in Johannesburg. The aim of the Symposium was two-fold, namely: to present the evaluation findings on the flagship Zenex Literacy Pilot Project; and to use the Symposium as a springboard for collaboration among literacy stakeholders across the country. Over 130 guests were in attendance – academics, government officials, NGOs, donors, and M&E practitioners. The event was an opportunity to share lessons and experiences from various literacy programmes and research, candidly reflect on what works and does not work and identify synergies and gaps that can be collectively maximised and addressed.    

A plenary session exploring the complexities of evaluating literacy interventions set the scene for the day. This discussion was foregrounded by lessons learnt from the Evaluation of Zenex Literacy Project (Zenlit). A discussion of the evaluation of literacy interventions is essential given the critical role of evaluation in informing what kinds of interventions might work for improving literacy outcomes in complex educational contexts. The presentations and responses examined pertinent issues regarding evaluation design, methodologies, assessment, ethical considerations and fieldwork.

The plenary was followed by three parallel commissions on Literacy Teacher Training, Literacy Coaching and Literacy Research, where examples of practice and studies were shared and discussed. The aim was to deepen engagement on each topic. Each segment was headlined by presentations that stimulated discussion, and learnings were extracted from each commission and shared with the wider plenary.

The day was concluded with a presentation that gave guests a glimpse into the National Education Collaboration Trust’s planned National Reading Coalition (NRC). The NRC, scheduled to be launched later in the year, seeks to “mobilise support for and mobilise coordination of reading initiatives” across the country. The Coalition aims to align reading initiatives to maximise their impact, reach and effectiveness. This was an apt closing for a Symposium premised on the need for collaboration to solve the persistent literacy challenge facing the country.

The challenge after such a comprehensive and collaborative effort to unpack issues in literacy is how we can take our collective effort forward and develop meaningful partnerships and forums, for sharing that can ensure that South African learners are literate. A symposium report will be published shortly but you can read the presentation by Gail Campbell who attempted to capture some of the key lessons from the literacy symposium.


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