Teaching maths and science in the vernacular

One of the important factors in understanding key concepts in the mathematics and science curriculum is the proficiency in the language in which these subjects are taught, according to Marc Schafer, FirstRand Foundation South Africa mathematics education chair.

Schafer was speaking at the launch of volume two of Understanding Concepts in Mathematics and Science, a multilingual book that translates mathematical and scientific concepts from English to isiZulu, isiXhosa and Afrikaans. The book is published by Maskew Miller Longman while the Zenex Foundation funded the project.

The book targets grade 10 to 12 learners and consists of 68 units of concepts.

Schafer said South Africa has only two standardised mathematics and science registers (language or discourse used in a particular field) in English and Afrikaans. This poses an enormous challenge to teach these subjects in indigenous languages, he said. “You cannot have sufficient conceptual understanding of a subject without being proficient in the language it is taught in,” Schafer said.

He added: “The development of a mathematics and science register in all indigenous languages is fundamental to the realisation of the vision that asserts that each child should have the choice of his or her language of instruction.”

Most teachers resort to code-switching — the use of vernacular and English to explain difficult maths and science concepts.

Schafer said that, even though after grade four the medium of instruction is English, teachers continue to use code-switching for the duration of schooling. This seems to overcome the language barrier.

But, “the problem comes when the learners face examinations presented in English and no facilitation from teachers is permitted. Hence, a thorough understanding of the subject matter in English is necessary to be realistically evaluated on their subject knowledge.”

Schafer headed a team that conducted research by observing code-switching during the lessons of two grade 10 maths Xhosa-speaking teachers. He noted that, before the use of the book, the teachers used the vernacular when giving instructions but things changed when they started to explain and illustrate mathematical concepts and terms because they switched to English.

After they used the book “the use of Xhosa increased markedly when asking questions, expressing self and explaining”. The use of the first language increased and they appeared more confident using Xhosa in teaching mathematical concepts, said Schafer.

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Thabo Mohlala
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