Newsletter 138 - Research 6/7 - Early Grade Reading in African Languages


Investigating the Comprehension Iceberg: Developing empirical benchmarks for early grade reading in agglutinating African languages by Nic Spaull (RESEP), Elizabeth Pretorius (UNISA), Nompumelelo Mohohlwane(DBE) RESEP, Stellenbosch University  UKFIET 2017 4 Sept 20


  • Falling at the first hurdle
    •  27% of the learners at the start of Grade 3 were getting every second letter-sound incorrect. 25% of the sample could only correctly sound out 15 letters in a minute. This is insurmountable.
  • Accuracy thresholds differ by language
    • Children reading with 95% accuracy or higher can read 51+ wcpm in N.Sotho; 31+ wcpm in Xitsonga; 21+ wcpm in isiZulu
  • Minimum fluency thresholds (very similar to accuracy thresholds)
    • to get 25% or more on the comprehension questions (Emergent-reader) one would need to be reading at least
    • 53 WCPM in Northern-Sotho,
    • 39 WCPM in Xitsonga and
    • 20 WCPM in isiZulu
  • Minimum comprehension thresholds
    • To get 62,5% or more, then learners need to be reading at least
    • 66 WCPM in Northern Sotho,
    • 48 WCPM in Xitsonga and
    • 32 WCPM in isiZulu.                                                                                                                                                                                      


  • Differences in word length in the disjunctive and conjunctive orthographies of Northern Sotho and isiZulu respectively affect reading rate. This has important implications for benchmarking and for identifying at-risk readers at different grade levels.
  • We need to move beyond a repetitive focus on low comprehension outcomes; this is simply the tip of the iceberg.
  • What is lacking is research on the different reading components or the “cognitive-linguistic processes involved in reading” (De Vos et al, 2014) in African languages’
  • We need to better understand this cognitive linguistic data generating process for African languages.
  • Below the surface there is widespread evidence that most children have not acquired the basic ‘tools’ for reading success – the ability to accurately and fluently decode letters and words and move from an effortful activity to an automated skill

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