Teaching maths and science in isiXhosa

Learners’ home language plays a major role in primary schooling, particularly in the foundation and intermediate phases. Most learners come to school with their home language the only instrument in which they can express themselves. The learners’ sociocultural background incorporating indigenous knowledge (IK), or local knowledge, is also tied to their home language.

As a result of the latter, the use of the learners’ home language can also shorten the amount of time which learners need in order to cognitively move from what they currently know and what they need or are ready to know. This cognitive distance is what Lev Vygotsky calls the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) of the child (Vygotsky, 1978).

Many recent studies have shown that most learners who speak African languages start failing mathematics when they reach the upper grades. There is much speculation about the causes of this failure. The upper levels of education tend to point a finger at the early years of schooling and vice versa. Afrikaans schools were top performers, it has been said, because pupils were taught in their mother tongue from Grade R to Matric.

Our research sought to understand how numeracy and science is taught in the intermediate phase, and to show how the learners’ home language, isiXhosa, can be used alongside English to enhance conceptual understanding in science and mathematics. We wanted to investigate how dual-medium education models could be established using the concept of mothertongue-based bilingual education (MTBBE).

In South Africa, learners, particularly those who speak African languages, struggle to deal with word problems and with fractions and sums in which geometry has to be used to calculate area. In general, learners experience substantial problems in communicating their answers in the language of the test (usually English). A 2004 study  revealed that the vast majority of Grade 6 learners in the Western Cape have not even mastered the literacy and numeracy levels expected of Grade 4 learners.

Code-mixing: themixing of two or more languages or language varieties in speech.

Most textbooks and other teaching resources, particularly in mathematics and science, are still written mainly in English and most teachers are expected to teach in English. However, most teachers in Xhosa-dominant schools in the Western Cape use isiXhosa to teach or engage in code-mixing and code-switching in order to be understood by their learners. Speakers practise code-mixing when they are fluent in both languages.

The Western Cape Department of Education’s (WCED) Literacy and Numeracy Strategy (LitNum, 2006), and the Language Transformation Plan (LTP, 2007) sought to address these challenges by promoting the use of learners’ mother tongue in the classroom, wherever practicable, at least until Grade 6.

After identifying the basic linguistic and conceptual challenges in teaching mathematics and science, we developed interventions in line with the LitNum strategy and the LTP to enhance learner performance. Because of  space constraints, we confine ourselves to the description of some materials development interventions we made.

Materials development process

Our observations showed us there is a great need for developing and adapting teaching and learning resource materials. We decided to extract all key terminology from the lesson plans, including glossaries from textbooks, in order to form resource packs. In this way, teachers were able to access material that together we developed for use in their lessons.

As the dual-medium team, we introduced a range of materials that disadvantaged schools do not currently have access to. We translated these materials into isiXhosa in order to form bilingual teaching materials.

Mathematics posed a tremendous challenge during this process. Learners find it very difficult to read English textbooks. The content and themes of mathematics and science textbooks are for the most part unfamiliar to them, the vocabulary strange, and new words are introduced at a very rapid pace.

We did not start from scratch in materials development. We translated learning area work schedules and key scientific and technical terms for wall posters. In workshops, we showed the teachers how to plan a bi- or unilingual lesson and develop appropriate materials. We taught teachers methods of choosing textbooks that have, among other things, a good balance of content and teaching methodology. In this process, we had to take into account the mindset of teachers and bolster their self-confidence, so that they would be able to develop teaching and learning support materials in our absence.


In summary, the main findings in this area were as follows:

While there were some bilingual teaching resources emanating from publishers and the WCED, very few covered the subject content adequately,.Most were direct,, translations, which are not meaningful, and in many cases they were translated out of context.

Generally, these textbooks were translated by linguists who were not mathematics or science subject specialists. The writers of most of the published textbooks are not speakers of an African language. It is essential that textbooks be originated in the mother tongue.

Publishers should have dedicated subject specialists  in their translation units working with experienced linguists.

Further reading on these topics is available on www.praesa.org.za