Numeracy Chair Marks Africa Day with New Research and Training to Improve Teaching

Numeracy Chair Marks Africa Day with New Research and Training to Improve Teaching

South Africa and countries across the continent generally implement mother-tongue instruction in public schools up to Grade 3; a situation that education theory supports on the basis that early learning should happen in a language that the child understands.

The switch to teaching and learning in English as a language of instruction occurs in Grade 4, and vernacular becomes a subject. But are teachers generally prepared for this major switch? In other words, are they equipped to teach learners proficiently who have just made the switch to a new language of instruction?

To mark 2024 Africa Day, Associate Professor Anthony Essien, Interim Numeracy Chair under the South African Research Chairs Initiative (DSI-NRF SARChI), reveals how teacher educators are beginning to grapple with these questions. Prof Essien is Associate Professor in Mathematics Education at the University of the Witwatersrand and implements Numeracy Research Chair projects through the institution. One of his six current projects tackles the challenge of learner transition to English as a language of learning and teaching (LoLT).

This year’s Africa Day theme is Educate an African Fit for the 21st Century: Building resilient education systems for increased access to inclusive, lifelong, quality, and relevant learning in Africa. It is linked to the African Union’s decision to make 2024 the Year of Education, and its call on governments to “…accelerate progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4)“. SDG4 urges governments to “…ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all“. The United Nations makes this call based on the findings that many children in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia particularly do not acquire basic skills, as quality education is hampered by the lack of trained teachers and adequate school facilities.

“We cannot separate quality education from language,” Prof Essien points out. “If you look at language in terms of the African continent, our own way of including the indigenous language in education is the exit model, where we start with home language. In South Africa, it’s the first three years and then we switch at Grade 4. That’s our own way of including indigenous languages in education.”

Prof Essien stresses that, while this language approach was necessary, it must be taken into consideration that many teachers are not trained to manage the transition. “Grade 4 teachers receive learners who have been doing everything in their home language and who are now expected to do things in English. That is not a straightforward situation to manage. There’s always that assumption that learners have gained competence not just in their home language but also in English and therefore if you switch up to English, they’ll understand everything,” he says.

Teachers, particularly new graduates, were left to fend for themselves in terms of managing the learners’ transition to being taught in English, Prof Essien says. “As universities, we do not have something specific around the transition from home language to English.”

A seminal project implemented by Prof Essien through the Numeracy Chair is changing the status quo. A total of 60 Grade 4 teachers are being trained this year through the project to manage the learner language transition. Next year will see an additional 60 teachers join the project.

Says Prof Essien, “The whole point is for them to understand that it’s not straightforward; that their university education will not automatically equip them to deal with such complex situations when learners arrive in their classrooms. So, we teach them things such as how to recognise learners’ language needs, how to support and how to further develop their language.”

Prof Essien asserts that there were many issues to tackle in discussions about quality education in Africa. Many of the aspects that exclude a significant number of learners from attaining quality education require bold decisions from authorities.

“There are many things to consider. The first, of course, is how we stem the dropout rate. What do we do to prevent dropouts as much as possible? I think South Africa has done a lot in that area. Some decisions are controversial, such as the concept of automatic promotion. But of course, you see that these things are done for a particular reason. If you have someone failing Grade 4 many times, in the end what you should expect is a dropout,” he says.

“The same also applies to the pass mark. It is controversial because 30% is quite low, but at the same time the Government has a reason for doing that, based especially on the historic past and it is also about preventing dropouts. But I believe that at some point, we could comfortably say it is time to move that pass mark to something higher.”

“The reasons for high dropout rates on the African continent are numerous. Some countries are experiencing wars and terrorist activities. There’s also poverty that prevents learners from going to school. There’s distance, especially if the school is deep in the rural areas. I completed my undergraduate degree in the Congo, and I know some schools are located in areas inaccessible to learners. At times they walk about 10km to get to school. How long can this situation be sustained?”

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