Evaluation of English as a barrier and bridge to learning Mathematics and Science in the Dinaledi Schools Programme: summary of findings
Duration of Project: 2007 - 2009
Geographical base for project: Western Cape and Gauteng
Evaluation conducted by: Quality Projects in Education
Evaluation period: 2008 - 2009
The Dinaledi Schools programme was launched by the Department of Education to improve the quality of teaching and learning in Mathematics and Science in a select number of schools.
It included the support of learners to improve their language skills, given that extensive studies show strong relationships between language competence and performance in mathematics and science.
The Zenex Foundation supported a programme to improve learner's language skills and competencies in 67 Dinaledi schools. The objective of the Dinaledi English Programme was to improve the English language learning of Grade 10 and 11 learners in selected Dinaledi schools. This was done through the provision of a structured 36-week learning programme, along with improving the requisite subject and pedagogical knowledge together with classroom support of teachers. In addition, teachers and learners were provided with the necessary learning materials to support this programme.
The Foundation commissioned an evaluation to better understand the relationship between language competence and performance, and more specifically, the impact of language on learner performance in Mathematics and Science.
The two primary objectives of the summative evaluation study were to:
- Provide the Zenex Foundation with information about the need for any additional English language provision in Dinaledi schools in order to have a positive impact on FET level Mathematics and Science results.
- Give direction to the Zenex Foundation in respect of any future language interventions which seek to improve learner comprehension and performance in Mathematics and Science.
The following interrelated deficiencies were shown to be the main barriers to learner understanding and performance in English, Mathematics and Science:
English as a medium of instruction
The majority of learners' English was too weak to function as an effective medium for learning across the curriculum. The language of learning and teaching was generally characterised by excessively simple language and was far removed from the levels of abstraction required for academic literacy.
Mathematics and Science teachers' concern about helping their learners to understand these subjects often resulted in the use of such simple examples and explanations that the specifics of Science or Mathematics were 'drained out' of the lesson.
Lost in translation
An excessive amount of switching between English and the vernacular took place in the classroom. After switching code, teachers seldom reverted into subject- or genre-appropriate English. Participant descriptions suggested that a limited amount of unmixed or sustained English was spoken in the classroom.
In order for learners to access meaning in Mathematics and Science, they and their teachers constantly translated from spoken and written English into the vernacular and vice versa. This was a cognitively demanding and time-consuming process.
Weak Mathematics and Science foundations
In addition to the learners' poor foundations in English, they had even weaker foundations in their Mathematics and Science knowledge and skills. As a result, unreasonable demands were placed on English, Mathematics and Science teachers to find simpler ways to teach Grade 11 work.
They were expected to compensate for learners' poor foundations in these subjects, while teaching large, mixed-ability classes of learners. Inadequate conceptual foundations also resulted in the learners being ill-equipped to integrate new lessons with their existing knowledge. Therefore, they struggled to retain what they had learnt.
Counter-productive coping strategies
Learners lacked confidence in their own abilities and ideas. Instead of developing their self-reliance, the majority had developed unproductive coping strategies. The most common of these included excessive dependence on teachers and peers, copying from the better learners, plagiarism and avoidance of challenging work.
The majority of learners and teachers went to great lengths to avoid complex ideas and information because they had neither the language nor the background knowledge and skills to deal with these challenges. In general, therefore, learning in Mathematics and Science was reduced to a process of memorising step-by-step procedures without the learners having a conceptual framework for understanding the principles behind these procedures.
Language across the curriculum
Each school should be instructed to adopt either an English or a bilingual (dual medium English-Vernacular) language policy and to implement this consistently across the curriculum. Learners have to be exposed to the development and practice of subject-specific language in a register which was appropriate for their grade.
Ability streaming for mathematics and science
Without streaming learners by ability, teachers were unable to give sufficient attention to either learners who struggle or to those who were considerably more advanced than their peers.
A Grade 8 bridging curriculum
A bridging curriculum in learners' first year of high school was urgently required to provide a systematic and remedial approach to learners' poor foundations from primary school. The current GET curriculum should be suspended for all Dinaledi Grade 8 classes and should be replaced with a curriculum which provided for two periods a day of English, Mathematics and General Science.
A helping hand
Volunteer ex-teachers who were English-speaking and able to share language and learning skills should be recruited to team- teach or share classes with Grade 8 teachers. By strengthening foundational learning in this way, content (the 'what') and ideas (the 'why') could better be integrated with the teaching of the logic (the 'how') of Mathematics and Science.
Appropriate Mathematics and Science materials
'Language of Mathematics and science' materials (such as grade-appropriate dictionaries and glossaries), and three dimensional models to demonstrate geometric or scientific principles (such as circuit boards for the teaching of electrical principles) should be provided to the schools.
Read to learn
The Foundation should consider adopting a focused and sustained programme to promote independent learner reading across all grades in Dinaledi schools. A reading programme from Grade 8 to Grade 10 would provide learners with the necessary reading foundations for the transition from 'learning to read' to 'reading to learn'. Such a programme could build on the popular Zenex Foundation reading competition.
School libraries could also be supported with the provision of attractive and level-appropriate books as well as newspapers and magazines for independent reading by learners.