Original Research-Special Collection: Reducing inequalities in and through literacy in the early years of schooling

From ‘sheep’ to ‘amphibian’: English vocabulary teaching strategies in South African township schools

Lieke Stoffelsma
South African Journal of Childhood Education | Vol 9, No 1 | a650 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajce.v9i1.650 | © 2019 Lieke Stoffelsma | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 March 2018 | Published: 11 April 2019

About the author(s)

Lieke Stoffelsma, Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa; and, Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands

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Background: South African learners have performed consistently poorly in reading assessments. This paper addresses two key components in improving reading literacy: vocabulary development and teacher knowledge and skills required for quality vocabulary instruction.

Aim: This small-scale exploratory study reports on the English vocabulary teaching strategies of eight Grade 3 teachers in South African township schools serving poor communities and their implementation of these strategies in practice.

Setting: The Western Cape teachers taught English Home Language (HL) learners. The Eastern Cape teachers taught Xhosa HL and English First Additional Language (FAL) learners.

Methods: Teacher interviews and classroom observations.

Results: The teachers used a range of basic vocabulary teaching strategies that complied with evidence-based vocabulary teaching strategies identified in the literature. However, most of the strategies employed did not reach an advanced level of active learning in which students were challenged and took ownership of their own vocabulary learning. Results showed that especially the English FAL teachers relied heavily on their L1 for vocabulary instruction.

Conclusion: Grade 3 teachers in South African schools that serve poor communities are capable of providing rich print exposure in their classrooms showing that schools can, to a certain extent, play a compensatory role for the limited literacy opportunities in homes of children from low socio-economic backgrounds. However, in order for the learners to develop a more durable, rich vocabulary their teachers would need to engage in more interactive and in-depth instruction. Implications for policy are discussed.


vocabulary; vocabulary instruction; teaching strategies; L2 vocabulary development; South Africa; high-poverty schools


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