The reality of gaps in learning




Breaks in understanding and disconnected new knowledge that causes learning backlogs. A learning backlog is a gap between a learner’s grade level of proficiency (their effective grade – the grade they are functioning at) and the grade they are enrolled in (their actual grade – the grade they are in).


Dr Nic Spaull of Stellenbosch University showed us dramatically the extent of learning backlogs in mathematics. In standardised test data, he showed the following:

  • 84% of Grade 3 learners were not performing at an appropriate Grade 3 level in mathematics
  • Even though they may have only been at school for three years, by the end of Grade 3, the majority of Grade 3 learners are three years behind their actual grade in mathematics
  • This gap grows to four years by Grade 9


This situation has been confirmed in data collected by Reflective Learning* and the picture has been extended to show that:

  • Grade 10 learners’ maths proficiency is four years behind their actual grade,
  • Grade 11 learners are five years behind and
  • Grade 12 learners are six years behind their actual grade in terms of their mathematics proficiency.
  • Grade 6 level mathematics seems to be a threshold that inhibits the progress of most learners

Interview with Maths teachers, Sithembile Cele:

So, based on the levels of students I’ve seen that in any given class there’s a wide range of abilities. I might have missed some students who really struggled in my classes because they would hide behind the student who performs better.

We did the diagnostic test and I was shocked that I had Grade 8 kids who were performing at a Grade 3 level. So, whenever I planned my lessons I only had a Grade 8 child in mind. So, being able to identify exactly where the problem lies and what the level is I began to understand that I’m just speaking Greek to these kids. So I’m talking abstract Maths and they’re left at Grade 3 / Grade 4 level.



  1. Starting Behind and Staying Behind in South Africa The case of insurmountable learning deficits in mathematics – by Nicholas Spaull and Janeli Kotze