'Do you understand?' 'Yes Ma'am'


If a child's ability to think abstractly is dependent on the development and use of language, then children who are not proficient in the language in which they learn and are taught will struggle to master conceptual knowledge. Sithabile Ntombela relates a case study of how Zungu Primary School in greater Durban addresses this difficulty.

Zungu Primary is located on the western outskirts of Durban, on the border of a township and an informal settlement. It has 920 learners on its roll, who are served by 36 teachers and two support staff.

As in most African township schools, Zungu Primary teaches in English from Grade 4 upwards. However, most learners struggle to master the language. This creates problems as language is the primary tool for learning. Not only do children need to learn to talk, they also need to talk to learn and this is true for all subjects in a school curriculum. So, it is critical that at primary school level learners are provided with adequate opportunities to engage in collaborative talk with other children to help them make sense of their learning and to develop competence. As such, a learning environment that does not foster mastery of the language of learning and teaching (LoLT), as it is officially known, inhibits learning and development.

In the late 80s when those who could afford to were taking their children to former white, coloured and Indian schools, those parents whose children remained at Zungu put pressure on the school to do something about the learners' level of English.

‘I cannot remember how many parents knocked on my door wanting to know why their children were not becoming fluent in English,' the school principal, Mrs Xulu, told the researchers.

It was clear that when learners were not fluent in the LoLT, language became a stumbling block to learning. ‘They were either reluctant or too self-conscious to volunteer information unless allowed to express themselves in their vernacular. Particularly, it became a problem when they wrote tests or examinations as they did not have adequate vocabulary to answer questions. We tried code-switching which helped during class but still the learners' vocabulary was not improving,' said one of the teachers, Ms Msomi.

To assist with the learning of English, the school has adopted the St Mary's Interactive Learning Experience (SMILE) programme to teach Zulu-speaking children English.

In this programme, high school learners act as facilitators and ‘teach' English to primary school learners one afternoon a week under supervision, which benefits both the junior and senior learners. Class teachers then reinforce what has been learnt throughout the week.

As the name implies, the programme is very interactive, using drama, poetry and art. All Grade 4 learners attend SMILE classes twice a week.

This study, which is still at an early stage and forms part of a larger project, did an initial analysis of the programme by interviewing teachers, children and the programme coordinator.

In this programme, high school learners act as facilitators and ‘teach' English to primary school learners one afternoon a week under supervision, which benefits both the junior and senior learners.

This school was proactive in addressing the problem, which suggests that there is a collective recognition that, as Paul Clarke puts it in Learning Schools, Learning Systems, 2000, ‘Leadership is a responsibility of the whole system and not merely of those who are currently seen as being in charge under the modern hierarchical structure.' An un-proactive school is one at which the problem is placed on the shoulders of English teachers.

The next phase of the study will involve class observation and learner interviews to verify claims made by teachers. Funds permitting, the SMILE materials will be evaluated and/or a comparative analysis will be conducted on similar grades at another, similar school to see if SMILE improves English language use.

Dr Sithabile Ntombela is a post-doctoral fellow in the Policy Analysis and Capacity Enhancement unit.