Research and Evaluation Reports

Understanding Literacy in a Multilingual Environment

This study explored the nature of the interaction and engagement that occurs in multilingual learning environments through investigating teacher practices and learner performance in both their Home Languages and English in Grades 1- 3.


Name of researcher: Professor Leketi Makalela, Wits School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand

Name of project/intervention: Understanding literacy in a multilingual environment

Duration of Project: 2014 to 2016

Geographic area of the project: Gauteng and Limpopo provinces



Recent research shows that the majority of South African primary school learners are reading at three to four grades below their expected reading proficiencies. This problem persists in both English and African languages. This delay in reading development has long-term cognitive ramifications, with very little scope to recover throughout the educational experience.

Professor Leketi Makalela, Head of the Division of Languages, Literacies and Literatures at Wits School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand, undertook a two-year study from 2014 - 2016 to better understand underlying causes of underperformance in reading in both languages. The hypothesis was that teachers teach African languages using the principles and language architecture that underpins the English language. This results in delays in the acquisition of African languages, which in turn affect performance in English.

This study explored the nature of the interaction and engagement that occurs in multilingual learning environments through investigating teacher practices and learner performance in both their Home Languages and English in Grades 1- 3. This study was premised on the notion that there is insufficient knowledge about teaching and learning in multi-lingual South African environments. More specifically, the overall research question focused on how literacy is taught in both English and African languages, and what are the implications for learner outcomes.

A case study approach was used at four schools, looking at teaching and learning practices in diverse language contexts - First Language isiZulu, Sepedi, Xitsonga and Tshivenda. The choice of languages was informed by their different linguistic structures, which would deepen the scope for understanding the relationship between specific language structures and English. The researcher conducted 24 visits to the four schools. During visits, three teachers per school were observed and interviewed and a sample of Grades 1 - 3 learners were tested.
Key findings
Overall, the study confirmed that hypothesis that teachers adopted the structure and principles underpinning English in teaching African languages. There was evidence of a lack of requisite understanding of the differences between the languages, resulting in poor performance in both languages.

The findings were informed by three sources of data, namely: teacher observation and interviews; learner assessment and classroom resource assessment. The findings included:
Teacher observations

Finding 1: Teachers use English language principles to teach African languages
The study found that teachers were not always aware of the different rules underpinning the structure and form of the different languages and were unable to make these explicit to learners. It was evident that teachers were using more than one language in their practices; however, they were not doing so informed by a pedagogical reasoning that informs literacy practices. Instead, they randomly switched between languages and used the same approach to teach both languages. Languages differ with respect to their phonological rules and their morphology, which should inform their teaching. Instead, the rules for English have been ‘borrowed’ to teach African languages.

Finding 2: Inadequate teacher training hampers effective instruction
The majority of literacy teachers explained that they did not receive adequate training from the DBE and that the Curriculum Assessment and Policy Statements (CAPS) guides are complex. They noted that application of the CAPS document was a challenge for them for various reasons, including the fact that they do not know some of the concepts used in the curriculum guides.

It appears from several interviews that teacher were not confident about what they taught. They followed advice from the subject advisors, but they were unable to provide logic and rationale for the practices they followed on a daily basis.

Learner performance

Finding 1: Learner performance is poor in all the languages
Learners underperformed in both English as well as African languages when compared to the required standards of achieving 75% competence scores in the range of sub-tests to become efficient and effective readers.

Finding 2: Learners performed better in English than African languages
This was evident in all sub-tests, except for word reading. However, even though learners performed slightly better in English than in an African language, there was not much difference in their performances across the two languages. Learner performance across the African languages were similar.

While the performance data was aggregated across the grades, the researchers indicated that the performances were generally lowest at Grade 3.

Classroom displays

Finding 1: Insufficient quality print rich classroom environments
The research found that classrooms had low levels of print and displays, that displays were not accessible to learners (relating to factors such as height of displays and size of text) and they were not of high quality. They concluded that opportunities for incidental reading development were not sufficient.


The study makes the following recommendations:
• revise the CAPS curriculum for Foundation Phase, specifically to improve morphology in African languages, and reduce phonological awareness;
• teacher training programmes must focus on building teachers’ knowledge on how to teach in English as well as an African language, highlighting the differences and similarities and maximising the strengths of both languages;

• promote reading for enjoyment; and

• promote print rich environments using carefully constructed rubrics to promote high quality incidental reading. Teachers can easily be taught how to achieve quality print rich environments.


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