Original Research

Investigating the comprehension iceberg: Developing empirical benchmarks for early-grade reading in agglutinating African languages

Nicholas Spaull, Elizabeth Pretorius, Nompumelelo Mohohlwane
South African Journal of Childhood Education | Vol 10, No 1 | a773 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajce.v10i1.773 | © 2020 Elizabeth Pretorius, Nicholas Spaull, Nompumelelo Mohohlwane | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 04 May 2019 | Published: 18 February 2020

About the author(s)

Nicholas Spaull, ReSEP, Department of Economics, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Elizabeth Pretorius, Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
Nompumelelo Mohohlwane, Department of Basic Education, Research Coordination, Monitoring and Evaluation, Pretoria, South Africa


Background: Reading development in agglutinating African languages is a relatively under-researched area. While numerous studies highlight the low comprehension levels among learners reading in African languages in South Africa, little has been done to probe beneath this ‘comprehension iceberg’ in terms of decoding skills.

Aim: As a tentative step towards benchmarking in African languages, we analyse the sub-components of reading across three languages (Northern Sotho, Xitsonga and isiZulu), to better understand the nature of alphabetic knowledge, word reading and fluency in these languages, how these relate to one another, and how accuracy and speed relate to comprehension.

Setting: Data was obtained from 785 Grade 3 learners across three African languages in three provinces in South Africa.

Methods: The early grade reading assessment (EGRA) framework was adapted to the written features of the three languages to assess letter-sounds, single-word reading, non-word reading, oral reading fluency (ORF) and oral comprehension.

Results: We present results on fluency, accuracy and comprehension and their interrelationships in these morphologically rich languages. While differences emerged between the conjunctive and disjunctive orthographies, strong relations occurred across the languages between letter-sound knowledge and word reading, word reading and oral reading fluency, and ORF and reading comprehension. Results suggest minimum thresholds of accuracy and ORF in each language, below which it is virtually impossible to read for meaning.

Conclusion: There is a strong need for language-specific norms and benchmarks for African languages. Preliminary minimum decoding thresholds for comprehension found in these three languages serve as a move in that direction.


early literacy; EGRA; letter sound knowledge; word reading; oral reading fluency; reading comprehension; African languages; reading benchmarks; South Africa


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Crossref Citations

1. Editorial: Beyond language policy intention to implementation – Evidence of multilingualism in South African primary school classrooms
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doi: 10.15700/saje.v41ns1editorial