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African Languages Reading Benchmarks Project: Early Grade Literacy




Benchmarks are set expectations and norms for literacy and reading performance for each grade. They ensure teachers can assess African language learners’ literacy levels systematically and accurately.

The African Languages Reading Benchmarks Project is part of a larger umbrella of programmes designed to complete benchmarking in all African languages and English First Additional Language (EFAL) for use across the country by 2024.

The project is led by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) with a range of partners and donors, including Zenex Foundation, the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, Old Mutual, Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU), and USAID. Oversight and strategic roles are fulfilled by a steering committee with representatives from funders including Zenex and the project management team.


Effective benchmarks for early grade literacy development ensure proficiency standards are maintained. To date, English benchmarks have been applied to African languages, but this is ineffective due to significant differences between languages.

Common benchmarks are being developed for language sub-groups, including the Nguni (isiZulu, isiXhosa, isiNdebele and Siswati) and Sotho-Tswana (Setswana, Sesotho and Sepedi) language families. The DBE is developing benchmarks for EFAL to ensure learners can successfully adjust to English as a medium of instruction from Grade 4.

Significant progress has been made for Nguni languages based on existing datasets from studies such as the Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS II), Zenex Literacy Project, and Funda Wande Project. Benchmark development for Setswana, Sesotho, Tshivenda, Xitsonga and EFAL are also underway.


The main objectives of the African Languages Reading Benchmarks Project are to:

  • Complete benchmarking development, which requires:
    • Benchmarks for Oral Reading Fluency (ORF) and sound-letter recognition;
    • Written and verbal reading comprehension;
    • Complex consonant sequences;
    • Reading accuracy and expressive vocabulary; and
    • Composite benchmarks for language sub-groups.
  • Conduct a pilot phase in 40 schools from April to October 2022 on communicating and disseminating literacy benchmarks for classroom use.
  • Incorporate the benchmarks into CAPS and roll out at scale.

Zenex currently supports three components of the African Languages Reading Benchmarks Project:

  • Sepedi benchmark development to be completed by the end of 2021.
  • Composite benchmark analysis and reporting across the Sotho-Tswana languages to be completed early in 2022.
  • Teacher usage pilot to be completed by the end of 2022.


The Zenex-supported portion of the African Languages Reading Benchmarks Project is currently working towards the following outcomes:

  • Sepedi Benchmarks
  • Consolidated Sotho-Tswana Benchmarks
  • Teacher Guidelines Document.
  • Teacher Use Evaluation Report.
  • Final Project Reports.


Zenex has consistently supported literacy research and development in African languages over many years, including the creation of readers for learners that are essential to improving literacy outcomes, lesson plans, and training for teachers, such as the successful structured learning or “triple cocktail” teacher training model.

The African Languages Reading Benchmarks Project is integrally linked to Zenex’s current work in literacy education. Previous projects all point to the need for contextually relevant benchmarks. It is thus a critical step in Zenex’s ongoing contribution to literacy development, and it complements and strengthens the portfolio of existing projects.

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