[lg policy] South Africa: For better maths, science marks, instruct in English

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue Feb 13 10:28:40 EST 2018

-- For better maths, science marks, instruct in English

Opinion <https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/opinion> / 12 February 2018, 4:45pm
 / *Siwaphiwe Myataza*

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INSTRUCT IN ENGLISH: (From left) Athi Menziwa, Philisiwe Ncube and
Elizabeth Moyo read at Cape Town Library. Improving pupils’ grasp of
English will lead to better marks being achieved in maths and science, says
the writer. Picture: Cindy Waxa/African News Agency (ANA) archives
Maths and science in rural schools will improve once English competence is

You cannot expect rural pupils to perform well in either subject if you do
not strengthen their understanding of English.

I say this because some pupils struggle hugely in exam halls while
attempting to understand questions written in English - more so than they
struggle to apply their knowledge.

So, teachers, please be mindful that educating pupils in their
mother-tongue languages increases failure rates and does not help to
achieve high pass rates in maths and science.

The language of instruction in classrooms should strictly be in English.

In the context of rural schools in South Africa, oral reading fluency data
was collected by the National Education and Evaluation Development Unit
(Needu) in 2013, which tested 4 697 Grade 5 pupils from 214 schools.

A sub-sample of 1 772 of these pupils was selected for an oral reading
fluency test.

The results showed that only 6% of the sample achieved comprehension scores
above 60% and that 41% of the sample were non-readers (illiterate), since
they were reading so slowly that they could not understand what they were

Sadly, 11% of the sample could not read a single English word from the

Similarly, in 2016 Research on Socio-Economic Policy (Resep) identified
other culprits behind mass illiteracy in South Africa, which are:
insufficient policy for early childhood development and primary schooling;
weaknesses in the relationship between teacher, student and curriculum
content, known as the instructional core; home background; and large class
sizes in the foundation phase.

What Needu and Resep found in their reports was what occurred on a daily
basis in rural schools, especially from Grade 4 onwards. Pupils could not
read, as they could not understand English. Therefore, how can one possibly
demand better performance in maths and science, because an understanding of
English influences how they write and, simultaneously, the marks that they
attain in these subjects.

In rural schools, some pupils attest that they passed matric through their
own efforts, because they would be taught maths, science, geography and
other major subjects in IsiXhosa - whereas in the exam hall, they would be
expected to write and articulate their knowledge in English.

At the time that they were being instructed, they were misled into seeing
nothing wrong with being given maths examples in isiXhosa, as they felt it
helped them to understand the subject better.

This is not the case, however, so this is one belief that we need to
eradicate as a nation. If the curriculum approves of English as the
language of instruction, then teachers must instil a culture of speaking
English in classrooms.

If this is not done, pupils will continue to struggle during exams and most
rural pupils will continue to confess that they leave some questions blank
and unanswered, not because they are too lazy to write, but because they
don’t understand some of the questions.

This becomes a problem, because without the ability to understand what they
read in English, pupils are unable to engage with what is being taught.
They are excluded from engaging with every aspect of the formal curriculum,
which from Grade 4 presupposes both the ability to decode (read)
independently and the ability to read for meaning, making links between
passages of text and one’s own experiences or knowledge.

With every school day spent struggling unsuccessfully over the hieroglyphs
of English sounds and words, these pupils lose learning time and fall
behind. They cannot recover this lost ground. The texts become more
complicated and the gap widens.

These pupils will be haunted by poor academic performance for the rest of
their school careers.

Evidence shows that students who have fallen behind in school by Grade 4
struggle to achieve educational outcomes by Grade 12.

Pupils become demotivated and disengaged, disillusioned that there is any
hope or future for them inside the school system.

Moreover, when pupils continue to perform poorly in maths and science, we
always look for bigger faults to point to and forget about the tiny
mistakes that are practised daily in classrooms, frequently yielding poor

So, it’s a new year with new resolutions, and rural schools must note that
if they miss the gist in the beginning, it will be hard to make strides
that lead to success later in the year.

We have all observed in previous years how basic education in South Africa
is struggling to yield excellent performances in both urban and rural

Most schools that perform well in maths and science are urban schools,
which have an adequate understanding of the English conveyed by teachers to

Meanwhile, in rural schools teachers are not comfortable about addressing
pupils in English, hence they fail to boost pupils' confidence in speaking
the language. It is therefore the duty of each of us to work together to
bring change to rural schools by instilling English competence.

The change begins when we know our responsibilities and respect the
language policies in schools. I am not saying that pupils shouldn’t be
allowed to speak their mother tongues inside school premises, but that all
pupils should be taught in English.

Furthermore, as a new school year commences, I believe that we should learn
from our faults and comprehend that development is feasible only when we
plan to give our best when it comes to advancing the learning processes in
rural schools.

In this way, pupils will score excellent marks in maths and science.

We are forced as community builders, teachers, parents and pupils to be
strident about eradicating all stumbling blocks in schools. Teachers are
influential overseers in schools and so it’s better to work with them to
solve the issues affecting schools.

The vision of strengthening English competence requires undivided attention
by the Department of Education, as this is the only possible channel to
facilitate improvement in maths and science results in rural schools.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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