Languages of excellence

When it comes to the education of children in grade R and pre-school, there is little disagreement: they have to be prepared optimally to be ready for formal school so that when they get there they will flourish.

Some children are ready and they flourish. They enter grade one, hold their pencils tightly and launch themselves into a life of formal learning without a hitch.
But they are the lucky few. Many struggle in the first years of school and might never catch up.

The first years of formal learning are not regained once they have been lost. And these are the years when children learn the building blocks of mathematics, science, literacy and the language of education itself.

The example of a young boy I know can show just how vital solid learning is in the first grades of school. He is now in grade five and he is suddenly floundering dismally. Up to grade four, he seemed to cope well. Now he cannot calculate or measure. He is in a messy darkness when it comes to decimals and what used to be good reading in his case is now just a decoding of words and sentences, the meaning of which is lost on him. This boy needs urgent help before he regresses beyond repair.

He basically taught himself
When I looked into his history, it emerged that for the first 18 months of his primary school life he was in a school where he was taught by ill-equipped teachers, ones who had no training in the specialised skills of grade one teaching. He basically taught himself by expanding his intuitive knowledge of numeracy and by using common sense to decode words in print.

When he moved to a school where the teacher paid some attention to him, she assumed that he had built his knowledge of numeracy and of literacy and language on a firm foundation. But his understanding of the number system was not developed and his vocabulary and sense of sentence logic in language were underdeveloped.

Yet he continued to do quite well until, towards the end of grade four, the knowledge and vocabulary demands became incremental and no longer manageable by his intuitive drive. His backlog became prominent when the curriculum required rapid expansion of knowledge and of the linguistic and mathematical codes that embody the knowledge. Knowing more was dependent on already having learned much before.

At the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ’s) Institute for Childhood Education founded last year, we research young children’s learning and development in long-term projects. Children in the Funda UJabule school on the university’s Soweto campus are tracked through their years in the foundation phase.

A partnership between the Gauteng education department and UJ, Funda UJabule is the first teaching and research school of its kind in South Africa. In research known as “panel inquiries”, every child is assessed with the same testing instrument as each moves from grade R to grade three, capturing the individual learner’s development in mathematics, language, literacy and overall cognition.

These are still pilot tests and the results will be released at a public seminar on November 3. But the tests are already saying something about the learning of the first cohort of children from the area of Pimville, where the school is situated. The school is well equipped and managed. The teachers are employees of the Gauteng education department who are appointed in the usual way. The classes are as big as the classes in other schools in the area.

This all means that the school is not essentially different from other schools in this district—the weakest performer in Gauteng—as provincial education minister Barbara Creecy noted in her address at last year’s launch of the institute.

Unusual language practice
But what does make the everyday life at the school unusual is its language practice. One of the two classes in each grade is for children who speak isiZulu and the other class is for Sesotho speakers. So the medium of instruction in the first two grades is (supposed to be) largely in these two languages—until one visits the school and finds that there is something else going on.

First, it is clear that a random mixing of language is not encouraged. The learners are supported in translation to English (which is rife) and in “back-translation” (to their first language). It is a rule of school language practice that no one should code-switch within the same sentence utterance, as is the custom on the street and in the media. The school does not support the making of a new dialect and isicamtho, or tsotsitaal, are not celebrated.

All this has delivered some challenging outcomes so far. Very soon into the year of the first cohort of grade one, the teachers realised that the children found it very difficult to converse coherently about number and mathematical concepts in anything else but English. And, seeing that the school adheres to a “no code-switching” code of conduct, management decided to adjust the rule.

Mathematics is now taught in English from day one. But translation to isiZulu and Sesotho is fostered as a bilingual learning tool. The school has now, organically, become a dual-language school in two ways. It uses two indigenous African languages and it uses them coupled with English in specific lessons.

The school-language plot thickened after this decision. When I visited grade one classes in August, I often heard a teacher explaining a concept, such as the “nineness of nine”, using translation and back-translation to get the children to understand the number. For their conceptual development of mathematics, the young children are using the terminology in English, terms they will use from grade four onwards and for the rest of their lives in the workplace and in society. But at the same time they learn to use the cognitive tool of translation and learn to see their home language as valuable.

The psycholinguistics of bilingual education can be complex. But in the organic development of a language practice at this school, it seems to have been made quite simple: build the language structures that communicate a concept firmly and for long-term use and use translation as a tool to support it.

The danger of a dramatic language shift
My own interest in this area of cognitive development (of multilingual children) is in the possible danger of making a dramatic language shift in grade four. The words, the sounds, the parts of words that are the scaffolds on which understanding has to lean cannot be abruptly removed. I am concerned that meaning may collapse during this “forced removal” as well.

Understanding of difficult concepts is still very fragile by grade four. I am concerned that mother-tongue instruction, if it cannot be retained throughout school, may not benefit young children in urban areas where their mother tongue has become a mixed semiotic. But let us wait for the results of the pilot tests.

Elbie Henning is professor of educational linguistics at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Practice Research.

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