[lg policy] When it comes to learning science, language can determine success

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat May 13 10:30:31 EDT 2017

When it comes to learning science, language can determine success

The Conversation
<https://www.studyinternational.com/news/author/the-conversation/> | May
12, 2017
Social Buzz

Pupils who have access to physical educational resources, such as books and
computers at home, tend to perform better in science than those who don’t.
This has been proved by a great deal of international research

[image: count]

It’s true in South Africa, too, but our research
has found less tangible factors also play a role in pupils’ science
achievement. These factors include parental education levels, parental
involvement in homework – and, crucially, home language.

Language is a factor that makes the South African context unique and has a
noteworthy role in pupils’ science achievements. The language of teaching
and learning is often different from the language spoken in a pupil’s home.
Only 26 percent
pupils who participated in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and
Science Study (TIMSS) spoke the language of the test at home. For our
research, we studied data from 11,969 Grade Nine pupils – on average, 16
years old – who participated in TIMSS in 2011.

Successive apartheid governments used language policy
<https://www.jstor.org/stable/2295225> as a tool to create socio-economic
and educational division. This history means language as a home resource
can’t be overlooked when it comes to understanding pupils’ performance in
science at school. Our results proved just how important language is – the
language most often spoken in a pupil’s home was the single most important

In developing countries such as South Africa, science, technology and
innovation have become forces that drive economic growth and
competitiveness and have the potential for improving the quality of life.
The number of skilled people (such as scientists, engineers and other
technically skilled personnel) in a country is associated with its economic
growth and ability to compete in the global economy.

The development of these skilled people begins at the school level. So it’s
a cause for concern the 2011 TIMSS found the average science achievement of
Grade Nine South African students to be well below the international centre
point of 500 points. Tackling language policy can, we believe, improve
pupils’ performance in this important subject.

Historically, the state provided educational resources in an unbalanced
way. Schools designated for white pupils were well resourced, while those
for black learners were under-resourced. Today, these imbalances persist
<https://ideas.repec.org/p/sza/wpaper/wpapers165.html>. There are vast
in physical resources at poor and affluent schools.

The school resources we included in our study were the condition of the
school building; the use of workbooks or worksheets as the basis of
instruction and class size. We also explored the capacity of the school to
provide instruction based on the availability of resources such as
textbooks, science equipment and computer software.

For home resources, we asked the pupils to report on how often the language
of the test was spoken in the home, the number of books at home, the number
of home assets, parental education levels, and parental involvement in
school homework.

Language emerged strongly as a success factor. Pupils who used the language
most frequently spoken at home in the TIMSS test scored 62 points higher,
on average, than those who seldom spoke the language of the test.

The number of home assets present in a pupil’s home had the second
strongest positive association with science achievement. It was found for
each additional asset (such as a fridge, television, computer etc.) in a
pupil’s home, they scored an average of 11 points higher in science than
their peers.

The third most important predictor of science achievement was the condition
of the school building. Pupils who attended schools with minor problems
with the building performed 24 points higher, on average, than those who
attended schools that reported moderate to serious problems with the

So what does this all mean?

Language development is recognised
<http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0010027793900584> as
crucial for all other learning to take place. Our findings suggest the
language of instruction (and of testing) has not been mastered by the time
pupils are in Grade Nine. This is unsurprising – most of the learners
tested using TIMSS were, in essence, learning science through a foreign

This means pupils are likely to be at a disadvantage because their
knowledge of the language of instruction is below the expected level for
their age and grade. Education policies must seek both to improve the
manner in which the language of instruction is taught to students who don’t
speak that language at home, and concurrently, the policies that promote
instruction in the home language must be strengthened.

It’s important we understand the determinants of science achievement for
South African pupils. This has far reaching implications for the country’s
broader growth and development. This is because successful interventions at
school level may contribute to increasing the pool of matriculants who are
eligible to study science-related subjects at a tertiary level and who will
later join the skilled workforce.

Disregarding these environmental factors may hinder the success of policies
designed to improve achievement and further economic growth.

*By Andrea Juan <https://theconversation.com/profiles/andrea-juan-369081>,
Research Specialist- Education and Skills Development, Human Sciences
Research Council
and Mariette Visser
<https://theconversation.com/profiles/mariette-visser-376051>, Senior
Research Manager in the Education and Skills Development Research
Programme, Human Sciences Research Council



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