Teaching Mathematics in a School Where the Learners' and Teachers' Main Language Differs

By Pourdavood, Roland G.; Carignan, Nicole et al. | School Community Journal, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Teaching Mathematics in a School Where the Learners' and Teachers' Main Language Differs

Pourdavood, Roland G., Carignan, Nicole, King, Lonnie C., Webb, Paul P., Glover, Hugh, School Community Journal


The intention of this study is to explore mathematical discourse and teaching methods in Grades 6 and 7 of primary school in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. The school's student population changed from predominately white English/Afrikaans-speaking learners before the 1994 election to predominately black Xhosa-speaking students in 2004. The language of teaching and learning is strictly English, and most teachers cannot speak or understand Xhosa. Additionally, some Xhosa-speaking learners cannot clearly articulate their thinking and reasoning in English. The study demonstrates two mathematics classroom interactions and illustrates how language plays a pivotal role in classroom discourse. The findings of the study suggest that working with peers in Xhosa may facilitate learners' skills and development of conceptual understanding of mathematics. Furthermore, the study shows that requiring verbal discourse in the classroom to be only in English limited the learners' success in displaying their mathematical understanding, which in turn made them appear to be lower achieving than those who spoke only in English.

Key Words: mathematics learning, social interaction, culture, language, school community relationship

(ProQuest: ... denotes formula omitted.)


"The road from the apartheid past to quality education for all South Africa's children is long and complex" (Adler, 2001, p. 138). In the context of South Africa, prior to liberation, children were separated into four main racial groups. "Black", mainly Xhosa-speaking in Eastern Cape, are descendants of African people. "Coloured" are racially and ethnically mixed. "Indians" are of Indian descent; "Whites" of European descent are separated into English- and Afrikaans-speaking (Stonier, 1998). After the 1994 election, demarcating the end of the apartheid era, 11 languages became official in South Africa. In the Eastern Cape, where the study was conducted, there are three main languages: Xhosa (pronounced kosa), English, and Afrikaans. The language of teaching and learning in most schools in urban settings is English. Although some Black parents who can afford it financially send their children to urban schools (formerly white schools), some parents do not believe that current integration recognizes their children's cultural heritage. As Setati (2002) observes:

All language practices occur in contexts where language is a carrier of symbolic power. This aspect shapes the selection and use of language(s) and mathematical discourses. The different ways in which teachers and learners use and produce language is a function of the political structure and the multilingual settings in which they find themselves. (p. 18)

In South Africa, the Revised National Curriculum Statements (RNCS, 2002) urges problem-based learning, critical thinking, and written and verbal reasoning (i.e., mathematical discourse). However, since the 1994 election, many schools are unprepared to face the challenge of language when it comes to teaching and learning mathematics with understanding. Differences between teachers' and learners' languages make mathematical discourses difficult. Making the case even more complex is the school's mandate that the learners communicate strictly in English. For example, a group of learners may engage in problem solving in their small group using their main language, although they are restricted from doing so. This communication among learners in their small group is inaccessible to teachers and may not be available to the class due to the language barriers from both sides. In this sense, mathematical discourse may be reduced to focusing on computational procedure rather than mathematical understanding that requires a clear articulation of a learner's thinking and reasoning.

The purpose of this study is to understand and describe mathematical discourses and teaching methods in two primary grade classrooms, with particular focus on language as a medium for teaching and learning.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Teaching Mathematics in a School Where the Learners' and Teachers' Main Language Differs


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?