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The role of language in the teaching and learning of early-grade mathematics



Why … investigate the role of language in early-grade mathematics teaching and learning?

South African learners in Grades 4 and 5 performed dismally in reading and mathematics in two recent international assessments (PIRLS 2021 and TIMSS 2019, respectively). 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.

How … was the review conducted?

A landscape analysis reviewed international and local literature, published between 2016 and 2021, and examined the extent to which 15 intervention programmes attend to language-related issues in the design and implementation of their early-grade mathematics programmes. The primary purpose was to identify how intervention programmes mobilise language to promote early-grade mathematics learning outcomes.

What … is the state of affairs in South Africa?

Scholars remain split on the merits of using a single language or a multilingual approach. Government’s approach is seen as additive monolingualism where languages are added, not mixed. Despite the official policy advocating for home language in the early grades, in multilingual classes, especially in urban areas, a mix of languages is used. The poor state of development of the mathematics register in African languages is a major impediment to learning in African languages.

Studies show that learning in the home language in the Foundation Phase has a positive effect on achievement in the Intermediate Phase. However, 5 of the 15 intervention programmes do not provide materials in the learners’ home languages. This indicates that the principle of home language instruction is not being taken as seriously as might be expected. Technology could create an enabling environment with apps facilitating learners’ learning of the mathematical register in their home language.

Research reveals that neither teachers nor learners achieve cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) in English and teachers lack both content knowledge and conceptual understanding. Teachers and learners have been found to unit count and do not understand cardinality or ordinality. A 2014 study showed that most matriculants are “semi-lingual” and not proficient in any language. 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.

How … do we turn the tide?

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 must be raised to weed out academically poor applicants. Initial teacher education programmes must improve the subject content, conceptual and pedagogical mathematical knowledge of student teachers. International trends are shifting to language-responsive teaching of mathematics and advocate for the development of the necessary knowledge and practices needed for the integration of mathematics and language learning in a mathematics-specific way. 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.

The recommendations on language use in terms of curriculum development, pedagogy and teacher education for early-grade mathematics, serve to inform the Zenex Foundation, policymakers, donors, and implementing organisations and contribute to the design and application of programmes in the future.

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