South African pupils may be failing at maths because they are not proficient enough in more than one language, a maths professor has suggested.
Professor Anthony Essien, head of mathematics at Wits University, said he was concerned with the standard of maths teaching in the basic education system.
He said other than a lack of qualified maths teachers in the correct grades, language was one of the main factors holding back South African pupils who could do better in maths and maths literacy.
The latest reports from the department of education indicated a downward trend of national senior certificate candidates who pass maths with more than 50% over the last few years.
Last year, only 50 701 matrics made this mark, more than 5 000 fewer than in 2016.
The maths literacy pass rates were also down, with only about 133 000 pupils passing the subject at 40% or above last year, compared to the more than 140 000 who reached this benchmark in 2017.
Referring to a recent paper he published on the correlation between language and mathematics, Essien was adamant that South Africa needed to reform its policies on home language teaching at basic education level in accordance with his and many other studies which indicated that the ability to learn maths was more of a function of language skills than just logical thinking.
“If pupils are proficient in more than one language – like their home language as well as English – their chances of being proficient in mathematics are higher,” said Essien.
In the study conducted in four countries, including South Africa, pupils were categorised according to their proficiency in English and a home language other than English. It found that those who were only proficient in one language, whether it was English or not, were at a disadvantage over those who were multilingual or bilingual.
“Proficiency is the keyword here, because the pupil need not only know the languages but must be proficient in them,” said Essien.
Equal Education researcher Rone McFarlane added that South Africa’s early learning crisis highlighting low literacy rates in Grade 4 pupils was at the core of other learning challenges in the basic education system.
“Reading forms the basis of learning and not being able to read with understanding at a certain level makes it impossible for you to make the switch between learning to read and reading to learn,” said McFarlane.
Essien suggested the role of mother tongue learning was also a core factor in the ability of a child to learn maths.
“Research has found a correlation between the delay of switching from mother tongue to English medium in primary schools and the ability to learn maths.
“If a child is learning in a language other than English, the longer you delay the switch the better the child’s chances of achieving good grades in maths.”
One of the study’s findings was that the implementation of language in education policies in the three different focus countries was fraught with difficulties owing to a number of factors, including the fact that indigenous languages were not yet fully developed as academic languages.