Original Research

A mathematics teacher’s response to a dilemma: ‘I’m supposed to teach them in English but they don’t understand’

Sally-Ann Robertson, Mellony Graven
South African Journal of Childhood Education | Vol 10, No 1 | a800 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajce.v10i1.800 | © 2020 Sally-Ann Robertson, Mellony Graven | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 22 July 2019 | Published: 28 April 2020

About the author(s)

Sally-Ann Robertson, Education Department, Faculty of Education, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa
Mellony Graven, Education Department, Faculty of Education, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa

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Background: English is the dominant language in South African schools although it is the home language for less than 10% of the population. Many schools have yet to embrace the Language in Education Policy’s advocacy of additive bilingualism. This has led to a majority of the country’s children learning and being assessed through a language in which they lack proficiency.

Aim: This article draws on second language teaching and learning theory to make a case for more systematic support for learners’ second language development and for legitimation of use of home language in mathematics classrooms where a different language is the official medium. The article shares empirical data from a South African Grade 4 mathematics teacher’s classroom to illuminate arguments in favour of additive bilingualism.

Setting: A non-fee-paying public school in Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

Methods: Data were collected through lesson observations, teacher interviews and assessment data generated by a professional development project initiative.

Results: The ‘illuminatory’ lesson data suggest that allowing learners to use their home language alongside English facilitated their mathematical sense-making. This suggestion is strengthened by assessment data from a larger development project mandated with exploring ways for improving the quality of primary mathematics teaching and learning.

Conclusion: Insights from this article add to many other calls made for more sustained and serious consideration of the pedagogical and epistemological value of multilingual approaches for South African classrooms.


additive bilingualism; bilingual learners; language-as-resource; mathematical sense-making; multilingualism; second language acquisition principles


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