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Friday, June 18, 2021

Better literacy can help improve performance in maths and science, says expert

Thabo Mohlala

Most learners fail maths and science primarily because of the academic language in which the subjects are written and taught. This is according to Catherine Snow, a Distinguished Visiting Professor and Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Professor Snow was delivering a public lecture this week at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in Auckland Park on the importance of reading competence for learning science and maths and other school subjects. The lecture was titled: Improving Literacy by Focusing on Science and Social Studies.

Professor Snow said academic language is designed to use sophisticated and complex grammar that is likely to present a serious barrier to learning and comprehension. She said learners need assistance to navigate this challenge and how to master the academic vocabulary as well as process difficult concepts used in the subjects.

“A major challenge to students learning science is the academic language in which it is written. Academic language is designed to be concise, precise and authoritative. To achieve these goals, it uses sophisticated words and complex grammatical constructions that can disrupt reading comprehension and block learning. Students need help in learning the academic vocabulary and how to process academic language if they are to become independent learners of science,” Snow said. 

If learners, said Snow, struggle to read they will most probably find it difficult to learn science and mathematics in primary school when they are expected to work from textbooks, worksheets and technology-driven devices.

South African learners perform badly at the global benchmark tests notably Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), compared to their counterparts in developing countries. The Human Sciences and Research Council noted that in the last TIMMS test written in 2015, “the proportion of the South African learners who attained ‘intermediate’, ‘high’, or ‘advanced international benchmark levels is worryingly low”.

It also noted, however, that 54% of Singaporean grade eight mathematics learners achieved an advanced level, a very high value compared to 1% of South Africa. The observation echoes the fact most experts have consistently highlighted that countries whose learners perform well in maths and science use mother tongue as a medium of instruction at lower grades of their education system.

Professor Snow is a member of the research team under the leadership of another decorated academic, Professor Elizabeth Henning, who holds the South African Research Chair in Integrated Studies of Learning Language, Mathematics and Science in the Primary School at UJ. 

The research team is looking at developing reading tests in which the vocabulary of science and mathematics will feature prominently. The tests will be in English and will use the terminology of the science and maths school curriculum

The research community, according to Professor Henning, needs to know much more about how the English language is learned and used as a medium of study in school – specifically from grades 4 to 7.

She said: “The majority of our learners at primary school don’t speak English at home. They go to school and are confronted with new concepts in mathematics and science in the English language, which may be their second or third language.

“Therefore, for many children, not only the concepts are new, but also the words and the sentence structure of English. The goal is for learners to understand textbooks, worksheets and apps. Children cannot infer meaning from the text if they do not have some basic vocabulary and some sense of word order and typical phrases in the English language.”


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