Academic journal article School Community Journal

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

Academic journal article School Community Journal

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

Article excerpt


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

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"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. …

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