Theory of Change and Theory of Education: Pedagogic and Curriculum Defects in Early Grade Reading Interventions in South Africa




theory of change , early grade reading , decodable text , group guided reading


Much of the field of educational change has focused on better understanding the theory of change, that is, what knowledge is needed to make substantial educational change, particularly improvement to learning outcomes at scale. This article suggests that the South African early grade reading study community may have been looking in the wrong place. The search for the optimal theory of change or theory of action is obviously very important, but could it not be that a key part of the problem is defects in our theory of education? It is argued that there may be something educationally unsound in certain aspects of the official pedagogy and curriculum. As such, the South African education system is unlikely to make much progress towards the goal of getting children to read for meaning by the time they are 10 years old if these defects are not addressed. To illustrate this argument, the article points to data from two examples in South African education policies on pedagogy and curriculum: the first relates to the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) Foundation Phase document’s under-specification and weak guidance with reference to the teaching of phonics with linked decodable texts; the second concerns the CAPS document’s privileging of an unworkable reading teaching methodology called Group Guided Reading. The article concludes that to achieve real knowledge breakthroughs, university academics working alongside researchers in government need to develop rigorous research programmes aimed at improving foundational learning outcomes.


Metrics Loading ...


Ardington, C., and T. Meiring. 2020. Midline 1: Impact Evaluation of the Funda Wande Coaching Intervention Midline Findings. Cape Town: Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit.

Castles, A., K. Rastle, and K. Nation. 2018. “Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert”. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 19 (1): 5–51. DOI:

Cilliers, J., B. Fleisch, J. Kotze, N. Mohohlwane, S. Taylor, and T. Thulare. 2022. “Can Virtual Replace In-Person Coaching? Experimental Evidence on Teacher Professional Development and Student Learning”. Journal of Development Economics 155: 102815. DOI:

DBE (Department of Basic Education). 2011. Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement: Foundation Phase Grades R–3; English Home Language. Pretoria: DBE.

DoE (Department of Education). 2008. Teaching Reading in the Early Grades: A Teacher’s Handbook. Pretoria: DoE.

Fleisch, B. 2018. The Education Triple Cocktail: System-Wide Instructional Reform in South Africa. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press/Juta. DOI:

Fleisch, B., V. Schöer, G. Roberts, and A. Thornton. 2016. “System-Wide Improvement of Early-Grade Mathematics: New Evidence from the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy”. International Journal of Educational Development 49: 157–74. DOI:

Fleisch, B., K. Pather, and G. Motilal. 2017. “The Patterns and Prevalence of Monosyllabic Three-Letter-Word Spelling Errors Made by South African English First Additional Language Learners”. South African Journal of Childhood Education 7 (1): 1–10. DOI:

Fullan, M. G. 1999. Change Forces—The Sequel. London: Routledge. DOI:

Goodman, K., and Y. Goodman. 1977. “Learning about Psycholinguistic Processes by Analyzing Oral Reading”. Harvard Educational Review 47 (3): 317–33. DOI:

Hargreaves, A., and D. Shirley. 2020. “Leading from the Middle: Its Nature, Origins and Importance”. Journal of Professional Capital and Community 5 (1): 92–114. DOI:

Harris, A., and M. Jones. 2017. “Leading Educational Change and Improvement at Scale: Some Inconvenient Truths about System Performance”. International Journal of Leadership in Education 20 (5): 632–41. DOI:

Hatcher, P. J., C. Hulme, and A. W. Ellis. 1994. “Ameliorating Early Reading Failure by Integrating the Teaching of Reading and Phonological Skills: The Phonological Linkage Hypothesis”. Child Development 65 (1): 41–57. DOI:

Hubers, M. D. 2020. “Paving the Way for Sustainable Educational Change: Reconceptualizing What It Means to Make Educational Changes That Last”. Teaching and Teacher Education 93: 103083. DOI:

Katz, J., and M. Lawrence. 2012. Bala. Johannesburg: Molteno.

Kazungu, T. 2023. “Decodable Texts in African Languages: Early Grade Reading Teachers’ Views from South Africa 2023”. Paper presented at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Meeting, Washington DC.

Kotze, J., B. Fleisch, and S. Taylor. 2019. “Alternative Forms of Early Grade Instructional Coaching: Emerging Evidence from Field Experiments in South Africa”. International Journal of Educational Development 66: 203–13. DOI:

Kruizinga, A., and R. Nathanson. 2010. “An Evaluation of Guided Reading in Three Primary Schools in the Western Cape”. Per Linguam: A Journal of Language Learning 26 (2): 67–76. DOI:

Makumbila, M. P., and C. B. Rowland. 2016. “Improving South African Third Graders’ Reading Skills: Lessons Learnt from the Use of Guided Reading Approach”. South African Journal of Childhood Education 6 (1): a367. DOI:

Mourshed, M., C. Chijioke, and M. Barber. 2011. “How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better”. Voprosy Obrazovaniya/Educational Studies Moscow 1: 7–25.

Mullis, I. V. S., M. von Davier, P. Foy, B. Fishbein, K. A. Reynolds, and E. Wry. 2023. PIRLS 2021 International Results in Reading. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College, TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center. DOI:

NORC (National Opinion Research Center). 2019. Story Powered Schools Impact Evaluation. PowerPoint presentation provided by Director of Research.

Öney, B., and A. Y. Durgunoğlu. 1997. “Beginning to Read in Turkish: A Phonologically Transparent Orthography”. Applied Psycholinguistics 18 (1): 1–15. DOI:

Pearson, P. D., and M. C. Gallagher. 1983. “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension”. Contemporary Educational Psychology 8 (3): 317–44. DOI:

Rigole, A., and P. Cooper. 2017. Literacy Program: South Africa (Sepedi): 2016 Midline Evaluation Report. Room to Read. Accessed July 24, 2023.

Spaull, N., E. Pretorius, and N. Mohohlwane. 2020. “Investigating the Comprehension Iceberg: Developing Empirical Benchmarks for Early-Grade Reading in Agglutinating African Languages”. South African Journal of Childhood Education 10 (1): a773. DOI:

Spencer, L. H., and J. R. Hanley. 2004. “Learning a Transparent Orthography at Five Years Old: Reading Development of Children during Their First Year of Formal Reading Instruction in Wales”. Journal of Research in Reading 27 (1): 1–14. DOI:

Wimmer, H., and P. Hummer. 1990. “How German Speaking First Graders Read and Spell: Doubts on the Importance of the Logographic Stage”. Applied Psycholinguistics 11 (4): 349–68. DOI:

Zenex Foundation. 2019. “NECT Early Grade Learning Programme Evaluation”. Accessed July 24, 2023.




How to Cite

Fleisch, Brahm. 2023. “Theory of Change and Theory of Education: Pedagogic and Curriculum Defects in Early Grade Reading Interventions in South Africa”. Education As Change 27 (August):14 pages.



Received 2023-03-08
Accepted 2023-08-10
Published 2023-08-10