[lg policy] South Africa: Language policy lets pupils down

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jul 28 15:16:09 UTC 2012

Language policy lets pupils down
27 Jul 2012 12:08 - Lethabo-Thabo Royds, Barbara Dale-Jones	

In South Africa, children are exposed to their language of instruction
far too late and for too few hours a week, which cripples their
learning. Children the world over have the same potential for
mathematics when they enter school, but South Africa is not harnessing
this latent capability because of shortcomings in its policy on
language in ­education.

This was the argument of Graham Dampier at the most recent Teachers
Upfront seminar, which focused on language and learning in the school

"All children are equally well equipped to excel at maths and human
beings are born with an equal and universal ability to do maths," said
Dampier, a lecturer in the University of Johannesburg's education
faculty, at last week's seminar.

"As honeybees build their hives naturally, we analyse reality
mathematically from birth," he said, referring to the findings of
psychologists in the field of early childhood development.

"We have educated our children out of their ability to do maths
because we lack a language policy that is aware of its own limitations
regarding when children are immersed in English and how," Dampier

South Africa's language in education policy tries to meet two demands
at once — "maintaining multilingualism and gaining access to global
markets", but children are only exposed to the language of instruction
relatively late and for a few hours a week.

"In grade four, we expect our child­ren to learn in a foreign language
that they have barely acquired and we suddenly begin to teach them
maths, sciences and other subjects in English," Dampier said.

This "additive bilingualism" relies on the notion that it is possible
to accelerate the acquisition of a second language by falling back on
the mother tongue as a basis. But, Dampier said, it only worked in
contexts in which the languages share a common origin, whereas English
and our African languages are continents apart.

Playing catch up
The result is that, when children begin to be taught in English full
time, they spent most of their time trying to catch up instead of
grasping what they are being taught.

He said South Africa either had to focus on "upgrading" our African
languages to include space for scientific descriptions, as English and
Afrikaans had done over time, or we had to immerse our children in
English from a younger age for a longer period of time.

The University of the Witwaters­rand's Dominique Mwepu spoke about the
legal and constitutional ramifications of language in education.

The interim Constitution of 1993 stated that South Africans had to be
allowed to use any official language of their choice, but the current
Constitution has constricted that freedom because language use is
determined by a range of factors, which include "usage, practicality,
expense, regional circumstances and the balance of needs and
preferences of the population as a whole".

Mwepu said the South African Schools Act gave too much power to school
governing bodies to determine language policy. Several case studies
have showed that many Afrikaans-medium schools have invoked the Act to
refuse provincial governments' requests to become dual-medium schools
and cater for English-speaking pupils.

This limited the growth of diversity, Mwepu said, and if governing
bodies tried to function as gatekeepers to maintain the status quo
their power had to be limited.

Professor Sarah Howie, of the University of Pretoria's Centre for
Evaluation and Assessment, spelled out the role teachers need to play
in negotiating these linguistic complexities in the classroom.

All teachers had to be reading teachers, Howie said. "At the very
least, all teachers should receive training in how to recognise
reading difficulties and further develop literacy and comprehension
for learners at the developmental stage they teach."

Howie provided highlights from international comparative assessments
on reading literacy and outlined their implications for policy and

Language proficiency had a strong effect on pupils' performance in
maths and science tests, she said.

Research findings in reading showed that South African pupils in grade
five were about four years behind grade four pupils internationally,
Howie said.

Foundation phase black pupils who attended schools where English was
the language of learning and teaching were one to two years ahead of
those who were at schools with an African language as the language of
teaching and learning, because of their greater exposure to English.

Howie said studies showed that almost 90% of South Africa's grade four
pupils could not read and about 80% could not read in grade five.

The standard of teacher qualifications was another factor, she said.
For example, it can affect instructional practice because teachers may
not be able to ask questions that require higher-order thinking. Large
classes add yet another barrier to effective learning — teachers
cannot give the additional attention needed by pupils with special

Howie proposed several recommendations for policy and practice. These
include postgraduate degree programmes to produce literacy coaches to
mentor and support teachers, training teachers to use and create
reading materials and reinstituting "postgraduate remedial education

Every teacher needed a variety of reading materials, Howie said, which
had to include children's literature, reading series, textbooks
containing a variety of forms, graphs, newspapers and cartoons, and
both shorter and longer texts. Child­ren should also have access to
these resources after school, which means "teachers need training in
managing resources so that children can take them home".

Members of the audience raised other issues that arose in the
classroom. These included:

    The extent to which pupils are exposed to other languages differs
from province to province;
    Statistics on the languages of learning and teaching do not show
whether pupils were tested in their home languages or not; and
    The quality of translated textbooks in South Africa is
unacceptable: concepts are oversimplified in the process so that
pupils are not given the opportunity for higher-order thinking when
they use the books.

Lethabo-Thabo Royds and Barbara Dale-Jones are members of the Bridge
education network. Teachers Upfront is a partnership ­involving the
University of the ­Witwatersrand's school of education, the University
of Johannesburg's education faculty, the Bridge education network, the
Sci-Bono Discovery Centre and the Mail & Guardian.

For debates related to the Teachers Upfront series, see bridge.org.za.
For the M&G's articles on the ­previous seminars, see:


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