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Developing a Programme to Address Mathematics Backlogs in Grade 3




Recent research in Foundation Phase numeracy shows that the current mismatch between learner competence and grade-level demands is negatively affecting learning outcomes. The problem stems from the overloaded curriculum, which teachers struggle to cover sufficiently. The early grade numeracy curriculum also does not take into account the initial ability of young learners in South Africa.

As a result, some learners are now three grades behind, and the problem is exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education system. Only 16% of children in South Africa are able to meet the curricular demands, and these children are largely from well-resourced schools. This further disadvantages learners in resource-constrained circumstances.

The strategic focus of Zenex includes effectively dealing with backlogs at the Foundation Phase. The Mathematics Backlogs Project is thus being backed by Zenex to develop Mathematics resources that will adequately support early-grade teachers and learners.

While much is known about the extent of the Mathematics backlogs, little research has been conducted on the nature of the problem and viable solutions to overcome it. Therefore, this project is concerned with understanding the nature of the backlogs and using the findings to build teaching and learning tools that will make a real difference in disadvantaged schools.

Project Overview

The Mathematics Backlogs Project runs from 2020 to 2022, and it is being conducted by the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development (NMI) at the University of Fort Hare. The NMI team is particularly well suited to this project as they have expertise in Mathematics teaching from an academic, linguistic and practical perspective at the interface of African language resources, early learning and literacy.

The project combines lessons from whole-class teaching initiatives with those making use of differentiated approaches to inform resource development processes. In the resource design, the project applies evidence collected using the Early Grade Mathematics Assessment (EGMA) Toolkit, as well as recent data from experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. A teacher guide and learner activity books will be developed and tested in IsiXhosa at Grade 3 level. If proven successful, other languages will be included for wider distribution. Although the outputs are aimed at Grade 3 learners, the data analysis covers other grades to provide insights into where backlogs start and how they progress over time.

The resources will be highly structured and progression-based, as this approach is most effective in improving learners’ understanding of Mathematics. The resources are being designed to allow for different implementation modes, as backlogs can be dealt with through homework and solutions integrated into classroom practices in different ways according to contextual needs.

The Mathematics resources will focus on fluency and conceptual understanding, while taking into account the critical role of the learner’s home language in Foundation Phase learning. This is important as teaching Mathematics in English is much less effective for some learners.

Three schools in the Eastern Cape will be involved in the pilot phase. During the testing phase, orientation will be provided to teachers, and classroom observations and reflection discussions with teachers will be conducted.


The Mathematics Backlogs Project is driven to meet the following objectives:

  • Improving our understanding of the gap between learner knowledge and curriculum expectations and the resultant backlogs.
  • Developing and piloting resources to address backlogs in Mathematics teaching and learning in IsiXhosa at Grade 3 level. In the long term, these resources may be developed in other languages to make a systemic contribution to improving Mathematics performance
  • Engaging with the Department of Basic Education on lessons learnt during the project, implementing and expanding the resources, and policy implications.


The Mathematics Backlogs Project is working towards the following outcomes:

  • Development of new Mathematics resources, including:
  •  Grade 3 Learner Homework Book covering home-based fluency games, number fluency work, patterns and measurement.
  • Grade 3 Fluency Games for the Classroom, an illustrated booklet with clear instructions to guide lessons.
  • Grade 3 Conceptual Progression Booklets, which provide tools for teachers to assess learners’ understanding of individual concepts, as well as providing urgently needed solutions to address learner challenges in the classroom.
  • Detailed reports, including a final research report and a report on the EGMA results and expectations of the National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS).
  • A policy brief on early grade Mathematics based on the research findings.


The Mathematics Backlogs Project will enhance our understanding of the gaps between what learners know as they enter a grade and what they are expected to know, as outlined in the CAPS. It will also result in the development and testing of resources to address learner backlogs in early grade Mathematics, which is critical to any strategy aimed at improving learning outcomes. This is in line with Zenex’s strategic focus on the Foundation Phase and dealing with backlogs.

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