literacy South Africa

In Grade 4, children shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Image: The Conversation.

Motshekga blames Covid-19 pandemic for low literacy rates

South Africa was ranked last in an international literacy study. Education Minister, Angie Motshekga blames the Covid-19 pandemic.

literacy South Africa

In Grade 4, children shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Image: The Conversation.

Department of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga says losses in schooling hours because of the Covid-19 pandemic had a huge impact on the reading literacy levels of learners in South Africa.

Motshekga said this on Sunday, 18 June during a media briefing following the release  of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in which South African learners came last in a reading ability study which included 50 countries.


In May 2023, the results of the 2021 Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS) revealed that 81% of the nation’s Grade 4’s couldn’t read to understand any language.

Professor Nic Spaull, who was part of the Background Report for the latest 2030 Reading Panel released in February, said the same children that failed the PIRLS assessment in Grade 4 failed basic fluency assessments in Grade 2 and did not know all the letters of the alphabet by the end of Grade 1.

ALSO READ: Two thirds of SA children don’t own a book before primary

“The smoking gun at the crime scene of South Africa’s literacy crisis is the fact that our learners do not acquire the most elementary building blocks of the literate world when they need to: in Grades 1 and 2. Policy attention must turn to what is happening in Grade 1 and 2 classrooms that prevent this most basic knowledge from being acquired,” Spaull said.

literacy South Africa
Minister Angie Motshekga speaking at the launch of the National Reading Coalition (NRC): a self-sustaining, agile ecosystem of reading initiatives across South Africa – Photo: GCIS

In response, Motshekga said the report confirmed that South Africa, like virtually all countries, saw lower primary reading competencies declining due the pandemic related to school disruptions.

Motshekga said the magnitude of the country’s decline relating to the pandemic does not come as a surprise. 

“South Africa was amongst the countries most actively gauging impacts on learning outcomes during the pandemic and the results we see now in PIRLS are in line with the earlier findings that we did say as the department,” she said.

ALSO READ: Reading literacy: steps to address literacy crisis in South Africa


While Motshekga acknowledged that her department plays a big role in the development of learners, she also encouraged families to breed a culture of reading at home.

The Minister said more than anything, what is important about PIRLS and the reading is that South Africa has to recognise that learning does not start at Grade R, it starts at zero. 

“Whilst as a department we play a very important role in supporting early learning skills and teaching children how to read, the entire ecosystem must also be involved. Schools do play a very important role in providing material especially for families who rely solely on them,” she said.

ALSO READ: South Africa’s 10-year-olds are struggling to read – it can be fixed

Meanwhile, the recently launched National Reading Barometer by Nal’ibali, has painted a bleak picture of South African children’s literacy. A survey revealed that two-thirds of South African children below the age of 10 do not own a single children’s book.