Children the world over have the same potential for mathematics when they enter school, but South Africa is not harnessing this latent capability because of shortcomings in its policy on language in education.
This was the argument of Graham Dampier at the most recent Teachers Upfront seminar, which focused on language and learning in the school curriculum.
"All children are equally well equipped to excel at maths and human beings are born with an equal and universal ability to do maths," said Dampier, a lecturer in the University of Johannesburg's education faculty, at last week's seminar.
"As honeybees build their hives naturally, we analyse reality mathematically from birth," he said, referring to the findings of psychologists in the field of early childhood development.
"We have educated our children out of their ability to do maths because we lack a language policy that is aware of its own limitations regarding when children are immersed in English and how," Dampier said.
South Africa's language in education policy tries to meet two demands at once — "maintaining multilingualism and gaining access to global markets", but children are only exposed to the language of instruction relatively late and for a few hours a week.
"In grade four, we expect our children to learn in a foreign language that they have barely acquired and we suddenly begin to teach them maths, sciences and other subjects in English," Dampier said.
This "additive bilingualism" relies on the notion that it is possible to accelerate the acquisition of a second language by falling back on the mother tongue as a basis. But, Dampier said, it only worked in contexts in which the languages share a common origin, whereas English and our African languages are continents apart.
Playing catch up
The result is that, when children begin to be taught in English full time, they spent most of their time trying to catch up instead of grasping what they are being taught.
He said South Africa either had to focus on "upgrading" our African languages to include space for scientific descriptions, as English and Afrikaans had done over time, or we had to immerse our children in English from a younger age for a longer period of time.
The University of the Witwatersrand's Dominique Mwepu spoke about the legal and constitutional ramifications of language in education.
The interim Constitution of 1993 stated that South Africans had to be allowed to use any official language of their choice, but the current Constitution has constricted that freedom because language use is determined by a range of factors, which include "usage, practicality, expense, regional circumstances and the balance of needs and preferences of the population as a whole".
Mwepu said the South African Schools Act gave too much power to school governing bodies to determine language policy. Several case studies have showed that many Afrikaans-medium schools have invoked the Act to refuse provincial governments' requests to become dual-medium schools and cater for English-speaking pupils.
This limited the growth of diversity, Mwepu said, and if governing bodies tried to function as gatekeepers to maintain the status quo their power had to be limited.
Professor Sarah Howie, of the University of Pretoria's Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, spelled out the role teachers need to play in negotiating these linguistic complexities in the classroom.
All teachers had to be reading teachers, Howie said. "At the very least, all teachers should receive training in how to recognise reading difficulties and further develop literacy and comprehension for learners at the developmental stage they teach."
Howie provided highlights from international comparative assessments on reading literacy and outlined their implications for policy and practice.
Language proficiency had a strong effect on pupils' performance in maths and science tests, she said.
Research findings in reading showed that South African pupils in grade five were about four years behind grade four pupils internationally, Howie said.
Foundation phase black pupils who attended schools where English was the language of learning and teaching were one to two years ahead of those who were at schools with an African language as the language of teaching and learning, because of their greater exposure to English.
Howie said studies showed that almost 90% of South Africa's grade four pupils could not read and about 80% could not read in grade five.
The standard of teacher qualifications was another factor, she said. For example, it can affect instructional practice because teachers may not be able to ask questions that require higher-order thinking. Large classes add yet another barrier to effective learning — teachers cannot give the additional attention needed by pupils with special needs.
Howie proposed several recommendations for policy and practice. These include postgraduate degree programmes to produce literacy coaches to mentor and support teachers, training teachers to use and create reading materials and reinstituting "postgraduate remedial education specialisations".
Every teacher needed a variety of reading materials, Howie said, which had to include children's literature, reading series, textbooks containing a variety of forms, graphs, newspapers and cartoons, and both shorter and longer texts. Children should also have access to these resources after school, which means "teachers need training in managing resources so that children can take them home".
Members of the audience raised other issues that arose in the classroom. These included:
- The extent to which pupils are exposed to other languages differs from province to province;
- Statistics on the languages of learning and teaching do not show whether pupils were tested in their home languages or not; and
- The quality of translated textbooks in South Africa is unacceptable: concepts are oversimplified in the process so that pupils are not given the opportunity for higher-order thinking when they use the books.
Lethabo-Thabo Royds and Barbara Dale-Jones are members of the Bridge education network. Teachers Upfront is a partnership involving the University of the Witwatersrand's school of education, the University of Johannesburg's education faculty, the Bridge education network, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre and the Mail & Guardian.
For debates related to the Teachers Upfront series, see bridge.org.za. For the M&G's articles on the previous seminars, see: mg.co.za/teachersupfront