Reviewing the Language Compensation Policy in the National Senior Certificate

By Taylor, Stephen | Perspectives in Education, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Reviewing the Language Compensation Policy in the National Senior Certificate


Taylor, Stephen, Perspectives in Education


(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Introduction

The National Senior Certificate (NSC) or "matric" examination is widely regarded by South Africans as the all-important school-leaving examination. Apart from the pressure on schools and government to achieve high pass rates, attaining a NSC substantially improves the prospects for further educational opportunities and successful labour market participation for individuals (Branson, Garlick, Lam & Leibbrandt, 2012).

In order to obtain a NSC, candidates must take one language at the Home Language level, one First Additional Language subject, Mathematics or Mathematical Literacy, Life Orientation and a further three subjects. Candidates must pass at least six of the seven subjects, achieving at least 40% for three subjects and 30% for the remaining three. For practical reasons, candidates must write all non-language subjects in either English or Afrikaans. Therefore, since 1999, a candidate whose first language is not Afrikaans or English has received a compensation of five per cent of their original mark in non-language subjects. This paper investigates whether this policy, initially envisaged as an interim measure, should be continued.

Language in education remains a thorny issue in South Africa. On the one hand, the pedagogical benefits of first-language instruction, especially in the early grades, are widely recognised. The influential work of Cummins (2000) suggests that a strong foundation in first-language literacy is important for the effective acquisition of a second language. On the other hand, there are practical reasons for providing education in English, especially in secondary school. As Alidou, Boly, Brock-Utne, Diallo, Heugh and Wolff(2006:10) explain: "an educational system which emphasizes the use of African languages will only be viable if the socio-economic environment values these languages". Indeed, Posel and Casale (2011) find that English proficiency is strongly associated with higher wages in South Africa, after other productive characteristics such as years of education. Therefore, unless there are major structural adjustments to the economy, such as enforcing a particular language-inthe- workplace policy or a retreat from the global economy - adjustments which are probably not feasible - South Africans will benefit from becoming fluent in English.

Policy and practice reflect these tensions. Most children are educated in theirfirst language during the Foundation Phase (Grades 1 to 3) and then experience a transition to English as the Language of Learning and Teaching (LoLT) in Grade 4. However, there is some debate as to whether this transition should occur later at, say, Grade 6 or 8. Without entering this debate, it is important to recognise that literacy, in particular reading acquisition, is extremely unsatisfactory in South African schools. Data from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) of 2006 indicate that more than 90% of learners in schools with mainly African-language children had not yet learnt to read with comprehension by Grade 5 (author's own calculations using raw PIRLS data). While this dismal situation largely reflects learner socio-economic status and low school quality and not necessarily language policy (Taylor & Yu, 2009), such reading deficiencies are likely to contribute to insurmountable learning deficits in all subject areas that will, ultimately, influence educational attainment negatively.

Fleisch (2008) describes how language disadvantages operate in the school system through children being confronted with unfamiliar words, through the problems associated with teachers switching between languages (which effectively diminishes instructional time) and through a lack of exposure to the language of instruction outside of school. Moreover, many teachers themselves are not fluent in the language of instruction, which further hinders learning (NEEDU, 2013: 33). …

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