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Language proficiency is critical for mathematical mastery

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11.06.2023

Language proficiency is critical for mathematical mastery

Two recent international assessments (PIRLS 2021 and TIMSS 2019) found that learners in Grades 4 and 5 perform dismally in both reading and mathematics.

Performance in language and mathematics is closely linked because language is critical for cognitive development and mathematical thinking. The eleven official languages and a policy that leaves the choice of language in Grades 1 to 3 to a school’s governing body, make for a complex, multilingual context. Considering this, the Zenex Foundation commissioned a landscape analysis that reviewed local and international literature and examined the extent to which 15 early-grade mathematics intervention programmes mobilise language to promote learning outcomes.

Studies show that learning in the home language in the Foundation Phase has a positive effect on achievement in the Intermediate Phase. However, a third of the intervention programmes do not provide materials in the learners’ home languages. The poor state of development of the mathematics register in African languages is a further impediment to learning mathematics. Teachers prefer to teach in English as the language of most resources, and parents favour their children being taught in English as it is linked to academic progress and socio-economic advancement. However, research reveals that neither teachers nor learners achieve cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) in English. A 2014 study showed that most matriculants are “semi-lingual” and not proficient in any language. In the early grades, unit counting and a lack of understanding of cardinality or ordinality are prevalent and of major concern.

How do we improve performance?

Rigorous large-scale studies are needed to investigate the relationship between home language instruction and learning outcomes in early-grade mathematics and to gain insight into how to harness language to improve conceptual understanding. Bilingual classroom materials for both teachers and learners, with text in English provided in parallel with the African-language text, are advocated. It is important to develop consensus around phrasing for fundamental number ideas in the home languages.

Entry levels for teaching students should be raised to weed out academically poor applicants. Teacher education programmes must improve the subject content, conceptual and pedagogical mathematical knowledge of student teachers. The most urgent priority is to understand how to mobilise language for teachers to achieve a flexible understanding of the principle of cardinality, and also to equip them to transfer this understanding to learners.

Read more about the landscape analysis in the learning brief on the role of language in the teaching and learning of early-grade mathematics.

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Visit www.bua-lit.org.za for details.

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