Research Impact: Researchers collaborate across continents to develop app to improve South Africa’s literacy levels

3 May 2024

Child being taught by teacher

British Academy funded researchers from the University of the West of England (UWE) teamed up with the University of Zululand (UNIZULU) in KwaZulu-Natal to develop an app designed to support teachers and trainee teachers in rural and township schools with reading development and the teaching of reading comprehension.

According to the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study which tested the reading ability of 400,000 students globally, literacy levels in South Africa are among the lowest globally. The enduring legacy of apartheid continues to perpetuate inequalities within South Africa’s education system and despite numerous literacy reforms and initiatives aimed at enhancing reading proficiency, progress remains limited.

Researchers on this new project had previously worked with teachers in the Madadeni and Dundee townships, collaborating with teachers, lecturers, and students at UNIZULU around the teaching of reading as part of the University of the West of England’s ‘Project Zulu’. The reading project was led by Dr Jane Carter, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education and Childhood at the UWE and led to the creation of an app designed to support this work. The project was funded through the British Academy’s Humanities and Social Sciences Tackling Global Challenges scheme.

The app, called Read Assist, was designed for teacher and student teacher use. Utilising photo text recognition, the app evaluates the difficulty of any book within a school's collection enabling teachers to tailor book selections to the individual reading abilities of their students, hopefully ensuring a better match between students and their reading materials.

The app also included a wide range of strategies and reading tips for teachers, to complement effective lesson planning. Trainee teachers used the app as part of their teacher training programme, to help bring theory to life during their teaching placements. Thanks to a network of schools that were already engaged in a partnership project with the University of the West of England, the project was able to reach 293 teachers who took part in the study.

While the app proved to be a success, evidenced by one teacher's endorsement of it as an effective "compass", the initiative has also uncovered the ongoing need for further research and efforts to enhance literacy levels over the long term. Moving forward, Dr Carter intends to expand the scope of the project, fostering deeper collaboration with the University of Zululand and broadening engagement with a larger network of schools and teachers.

Dr Carter said: “This project has brought together teams from two universities, allowing us to collaborate on a subject we are deeply passionate about. The participants found the app to be a useful tool providing helpful tips and strategies. However, the research also revealed that some of the foundational reading knowledge we assumed was well-understood is not as secure as expected.

“We certainly also encountered a wide range of challenges – floods, civil unrest and Covid – which disrupted the roll out of the app to schools and students. Despite this, participants provided insights into the ways that the app could be adapted and developed as well as its benefits and uses.

“An additional bonus for the project was the ability to employ a final year computer science student from UNIZULU who supported the development of the app alongside an industry specialist. This experience contributed to the student securing employment which is no mean feat in a country with almost 50% youth unemployment.”

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