Evidence Impact: South Africa finds an effective way to teach children to read better
In 2019, as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his State of the Nation address, one of his new policy announcements was the expansion of a program aimed at helping children learn to read.
"The [Department of Basic Education's] early grade reading studies have demonstrated the impact that a dedicated package of reading resources, expert reading coaches and lesson plans can have on reading outcomes," Ramaphosa said in the speech. "We will be substantially expanding the availability of these early reading resources across the foundation phase of schooling."
As the president noted, this policy was supported by research findings – in this case, a study in which 3ie worked with South Africa's Department of Basic Education and its Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation to evaluate and compare several approaches to improving students' reading abilities in the early grades.
The need to improve reading education in South Africa was substantial, with more than three quarters of fourth grade students being unable to read for meaning. Scholars attributed the poor performance to several factors including apartheid-era policies which created inferior schools for the majority of students.
Ramaphosa's announcement was not the only result of the evaluation. USAID reconfigured one of its programs in South Africa, and it also decided to fund an additional follow-up evaluation.
The process was not immediate – development of the new materials started in 2013, and planning for the evaluation began in 2014. Evaluation findings were first available in 2017, leading USAID to alter some of its education programming that same year. In 2018, the Department of Basic Education drafted an improvement plan which included the recommendations, leading to the presidential announcement in 2019.
Even the national-level announcement does not represent the end of the line. Funding for implementation at the provincial level remains a challenge. Nonetheless, solid evidence of which approaches are effective – and which are not – helped steer policy discussion at the highest level of government.
To read more about the approaches that were effective in improving early grade reading in South Africa, the ones that weren't, and the pathway from research to policy, check out the detailed evidence use brief here and the evidence impact summary here. You can find dozens of other evidence impact summaries about how evaluation evidence informed decision-makers across a variety of sectors in this new section of our Evidence Hub.