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Mathematics in African Languages Research Project



The research was undertaken to better understand how children learn mathematics in African languages. The project also developed and tested teaching and learning resources for Foundation Phase mathematics in isiXhosa that was informed by the research. 

Name of Organisation / service provider:      Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development, University of Fort Hare

Duration of Project:                                         October 2014-April 2018

Geographical area of project:                         Eastern Cape

Project Background

The Nelson Mandela Institute (NMI), an independent Trust based at the University of Fort Hare, undertook a study to explore Foundation Phase language and mathematics in African languages. This study explored how Foundation Phase teachers in rural communities teach mathematics and informed the development of resources to support them. UNICEF funded the language component and the Zenex Foundation co-funded the mathematics component with UNICEF. This summary is on the mathematics component.

Research focus and project description

Research Aim: The overarching aim of the study was to learn about the teaching and learning of mathematics in the Foundation Phase in a rural context. The objective of the study was to design and test a toolkit designed to expand early grade mathematics that is calibrated to the needs of learners and teachers in the rural Eastern Cape.

Research Question: What knowledge, tools and practices can expand and sustain early grade mathematics teaching and learning in African language-dominant classrooms in the rural Eastern Cape?

Site of Intervention: This project was implemented in 14 schools, working with 86 Foundation Phase teachers in Mbizana and Qunu.

Data collection: Data was collected through teacher questionnaires, interviews and discussions with teachers, classroom observations, learner work and systemic assessments.

Intervention: The NMI undertook a study to explore the relationship between language and mathematics and then used the research findings to develop and implement a comprehensive toolkit for teachers and learners. NMI indicated that mathematics is not merely a narrow set of arithmetic facts and rules, but instead involves problem solving, conjecture and generalisation which is heavily dependent on language. When instruction is not undertaken in a language that is meaningful, the mind must circumvent meaning by attempting to memorise what is required.

The NMI involved teachers and academics in the development of the toolkit. Over the course of the study there were two iterations of the mathematics toolkit, one in 2014 and the other in 2017. The first iteration contained teacher lesson plans, a teacher guide and a NMI learner workbook. The second iteration only used teacher lesson plans and a teacher guide. Instead of the NMI learner workbook, teachers used the DBE learner workbook. The NMI learner workbook focused extensively on number sense and additive relations, placed value and emphasised the language and narrative elements of instructional practice.

Teacher development and support was conducted bilingually (isiXhosa and English) with teachers engaging primarily through isiXhosa. There were five primary goals to training in this period: 1) to entrench classroom routines; 2) to discuss the six secrets and characteristics of a mathematics classroom; 3) to familiarise/ instruct teachers on the use of the workbooks; 4) to discuss and practice teaching concepts, with an emphasis on how to use isiXhosa fluently as an instructional tool, and 5) to discuss the relationships between concepts. Instructional coaches spent two days at each school during each term, supporting teachers.


The following is a summary of the key findings from the study:

  1. Learner performance was better with the first iteration of the toolkit. The high quality learner workbook was the key to better results.
  2. The need for promoting a structured approach to support teachers confirmed the importance of quality teaching and learning resources.
  3. Resources must be structured, easy to use and must not overwhelm and confuse teachers. Learner workbooks were significantly better than lessons plans to support structured learning. The NMI learner workbook was the bedrock of the toolkit.
  4. Teacher training and support is most effective when it is scaffolded or phased.
  5. Once routines are established, the shift to understanding how to achieve quality is the second phase. This entails using time in classrooms productively for learning which involves facilitation of concept development and extensive dialogue with learners. Phase three involved a focus on differentiated teaching.


The NMI team made the following recommendations:

  1. Review the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS): Whilst CAPS is systematic and structured, it is very challenging to implement. Teachers are covering content superficially and leaving learners behind or not meeting the curriculum pace. Sequencing should challenge but not overwhelm teachers and learners. This study calls for a review of the CAPS. Specifically, it refers to the need to foreground number sense in content and assessment above all other areas of mathematics.
  2. Develop bilingual Foundation Phase teacher education pre-service and in-service programmes.
  3. Investigate the effects of transitioning to English at Grade 4 in order to inform policy.
  4. Institute a comprehensive and systematic learner workbook. This is different from the DBE workbook which is intended for supplementary work and does not cover the entire curriculum.


Even though there were some implementation challenges, the work undertaken by this study is important to inform the relationship between mathematics and language. There is interest in exploring the use of the toolkit on a wider scale. This toolkit is effective for teaching and learning in rural multi-lingual classrooms. It takes account of the resource constraints, the language issues and large classrooms. In responding to this context, it promotes a bilingual teacher training programme with highly structured resources. Of particular note is the scaffolding of teacher training and the development of a fully comprehensive, step by step learner workbook that is the backbone of the toolkit. The NMI are revising the toolkit, which will be implemented and evaluated by the DBE Research Unit. This is being funded by UNICEF.

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