Most primary school teachers’ knowledge of English vocabulary is equivalent to that of a grade three pupil.
This is a preliminary finding of the Literacy Project study conducted by the Zenex Foundation, involving about 300 English first additional language teachers from 24 schools in KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and Eastern Cape.
The teachers, who teach pupils in grades one to three, were asked to write a test designed to assess their word knowledge at five levels.
Western Cape and Eastern Cape participants mastered level one (the lowest level), which means they were familiar with only the 2 000 most frequently used English words.
Most of their KwaZulu-Natal counterparts failed to achieve this minimum standard, despite having two or three letters of the missing answers supplied as clues.
Elizabeth Pretorius, from the department of linguistics at Unisa and one of the study’s researchers, says teachers from rural areas were unable to master level one.
“Words from level one and two can be learnt from chatting to other people but if you are not reading, you won’t be able to master levels three to five. The test gives you an indication of whether people are reading,” she says.
The participants were exposed to eight years of English at school but they were still failing to master the first level.
“The Caps [Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements] document recommends an English first additional language learner should know at least between 2 500 and 3 000 frequently used English words by the end of grade three. They [the teachers] haven’t quite reached the Caps requirement for grade three pupils,” says Pretorius.
Western Cape teachers outperformed the other two provinces, according to the test results. This was not surprising because 53% of teachers in the Western Cape said English was their home language. IsiZulu and isiXhosa were the home languages for teachers in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape respectively.
The researchers said it was important for foundation phase teachers (grades one to three) to perform at a mastery level of one or two.
This is especially urgent in light of the Caps guidelines for the vocabulary size of grade one to three learners,” said Pretorius. “The teachers must have adequate vocabulary knowledge in English first additional language to be able to develop knowledge of these words in their learners.”
Gail Campbell, chief executive of the Zenex Foundation, a nonprofit, independent donor organisation that focuses on maths, science and language education in schools, said the test provided an indication of teachers’ vocabulary levels and the levels required to teach English as a first additional language effectively.
“The intervention is about improving teachers’ vocabulary, which is a proxy indicator of language proficiency. Vocabulary intersects with one’s ability to read and comprehend,” she says.
The intervention asks teachers to:
• Set goals for improvement;
• Keep a vocabulary book and a weekly target of five new words;
• Receive an English dictionary to support their vocabulary development; and
• Share reading books and their vocabulary books during quarterly training sessions.
She says the foundation’s approach to improving teacher English proficiency was based on the hypothesis that it will lead to improved teaching, which will lead to better learner performance.
But teachers’ response to vocabulary interventions was “slow”, she says.
“Initial evidence on take-up indicates that teachers who read more grew up with access to books in their homes. Teachers report that they mainly read romance, religious books and magazines.”
Teachers were not enthusiastic about setting up school-based book clubs. One constraint was time, particularly in rural areas where teachers had to travel long distances to get to school.
“It is hard to establish a culture of reading in adults — and teachers may feel exposed in reading clubs.”
Researcher Nic Spaull says the “headline message” from the study was “learning to read for meaning” in grades one to three.
“An important secondary goal is every child should also be able to read first additional language texts in English fluently and with comprehension by the end of grade three.”