Monthly Archives: October 2013

Language(s) of learning in South Africa

Mud schools, no lights or electricity, overcrowded. Madelene Cronjé

One of the perennial issues that arises when discussing South African education is our complex language policy. For those who aren’t from South Africa, we have 11 official languages – Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho sa Leboa, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. What happens in South African schools is that children usually learn in their mother-tongue for the first three years (Grades 1-3) then switch to either English or Afrikaans in Grade 4 and continue with that language for the rest of their schooling career.  Although this is what government recommends, many parents choose to send their children to straight-for-English schools (i.e. English from day 1), and this is especially true for wealthier parents. This situation gives rise to a number of questions like when and how one should transition to English. Two friends (and colleagues) of mine have recently completed a Working Paper (“Estimating the impact of language of instruction in South African primary schools: A fixed effects approach“) which is well worth the read – methodologically interesting and highly policy-relevant, the very thing we need more of in South Africa. For those less interested in fixed effects and more inclined to scroll to their conclusions, you’re better off reading a Mail & Guardian article they wrote last week which I am going to include verbatim below because I think it is a truly excellent article! Enjoy the read…

(Update: Sara Muller provides a useful summary of some the qualitative research on language of learning and teaching in SA here – go check it out.)


[The following article appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 18th of October]


Mother-tongue classrooms give a better boost to English study later  Stephen Taylor & Marisa Coetzee

What language should South African children be taught in? The ongoing debates about the language of instruction in schools evoke strong (and often emotional) responses, as has again been seen in the various contributions in the media during the past two weeks.However, these responses are seldom backed by evidence. A more scientific approach is required to address such an explosive topic and this week we released a working paper that we believe offers this.

English first?

First, though, some background. In his recent Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture to the English Academy of South Africa, Professor Jonathan Jansen recommends the introduction of English as the language of instruction as early as possible (“Wrest power from English tyranny“, Mail & Guardian, October 4). As Jansen observes, many black parents recognise that English proficiency is important for successful participation in the economy, and therefore conclude that their children should be instructed in English. But this conclusion rests on a key assumption: “Instruction in English from as early as possible is the best way to become fluent in English.”

At first this seems like a fair assumption to make: Surely the earlier you start with English the better? Doesn’t practice make perfect?However, most linguistic theory doesn’t agree. Many linguists argue that when it comes to learning a second language it is crucial to first have a solid foundation in one’s first language. These theories predict that several years of mother-tongue instruction will lead to better second-language acquisition than being instructed in that second language from the first day of school. So education policymakers in countries with multiple home languages, such as South Africa, have a dilemma. The goal is to optimise educational outcomes, which include English fluency, mother-tongue fluency and skills in other subject areas, for pupils whose first language is not English but how does one best achieve this?

The choice is between English instruction from grade one or starting with mother-tongue instruction and transitioning to English as the language of instruction at a later grade. Although there is a lot of theory about this, there is very little empirical evidence on the causal impact of these alternative instructional models. As researchers focused on education in South Africa, we recently conducted a study that we believe provides some preliminary evidence on one important part of the language in education debate. We will describe our findings below.

Current policy

Because non-language subjects in the matric exam are available only in English or Afrikaans, schools with pupils who are neither Afrikaans- nor English-speaking must figure out when to begin using English (or in a minority of cases, Afrikaans) as the language of instruction. The current language in education policy encourages the use of mother-tongue instruction in the first three years of primary school followed by a switch to English or Afrikaans in grade four, but allows schools to make the final decisions.

Some schools choose to commence immediately with English as the language of instruction from grade one (these are sometimes referred to as “straight-for-English” schools). On the other hand, most schools choose to teach in the home language of the majority of the children in the school during grades one, two and three while they take either English or Afrikaans as a language subject to help them to prepare for the switch (we refer to these schools as mother-tongue schools).

About 60% of children in grade three learn in a language other than English or Afrikaans. By grade four, this proportion is only about 5%. Most children experience a transition from mother-tongue instruction to English instruction in grade four, something that by all reports is a difficult process. However, the suggestion that using English as the language of instruction from grade one would avoid this difficult transition is too good to be true. Learning, including language learning, begins well before children enter formal schooling. Therefore, a “straight-for-English” approach still involves a transition in a child’s language of learning, and children may be less well prepared for such a transition in grade one than in grade four. But these arguments only take us so far. What we need is rigorous evidence.

Comparing apples with apples

Measuring the impact of this language choice on the academic performance of children later in life is no simple task. First, schools that decide to teach in English are, on average, more likely to charge school fees, have smaller classes and have access to more resources than mother-tongue schools. Even more importantly, the quality of teachers, their English background and other aspects of school quality are typically stacked in favour of these “straight-for-English” schools. In addition, children who attend the “straight-for-English” schools are on average from richer households where they receive more academic support from better-educated parents or caregivers, are less likely to go to bed hungry, have fewer siblings with whom they need to share resources and are more frequently exposed to English on television and in the home. Both sets of factors – school quality as well as the home environment – have been shown by research to impact strongly on the academic performance of children. When we therefore observe that children in the “straight-for-English” schools perform much better than their peers in the home-language schools in both English and mathematics, it would be naive to conclude that this is primarily driven by the language of instruction. Rather, what is required is to separate out the effects of the various factors affecting academic performance. The real question is how much of the differences in performance is explained by children’s home circumstances, how much by a school’s quality and, lastly, how much by the language in which children are taught.

Evidence-based findings
In light of these challenges, and bearing in mind the need for evidence-based policy, we have released a working paper containing our research on this issue. We used data from the department of basic education’s “annual survey of schools” to identify the language of instruction in each grade in each school for the years 2007 to 2011. We also used test score data from the annual national assessments of 2012 for all children in grades one to six. Combining these data sets, we are able to separate the effects of overall school quality and home circumstances from the impact of language of instruction on the performance of children in a standardised English test written in grades four, five and six. The motivation for this study was to gain insight into the situation at the schools where this policy matters most. Therefore, our analysis was limited to the 9 000 or so primary schools that serve predominantly black children who come from the poorest households in South Africa.What we found is quite striking.

Among children in schools of a similar quality and coming from similar home backgrounds, those who were taught in their home language during the first three years of primary school performed better in the English test in grades four, five and six than children who were exposed to English as the language of instruction in grades one, two and three. The size of the difference is not inconsequential: it is equivalent to about a third of a year of additional learning for children who were instructed in their home language during grades one, two and three compared with their peers who were instructed only in English during that same period. This finding seems to be in line with the thinking of education specialists, who have for many years promoted the advantages of mother-tongue instruction in the early stages of children’s education.

What we can and cannot say
As with any study, our findings have their limitations. This research tells us the average effect of language of instruction in South African schools as things are currently being implemented. Advocates of both “straight-for-English” approaches and mother-tongue instruction envisage a carefully thought-through set of instructional practices implemented by high-quality teachers and supported by sufficient materials. However, we estimate the impact of the alternative models as they are being implemented currently, within specific contexts of schools, teachers and homes. Therefore, we cannot make deductions about what the impact would be if all teachers were able to speak English fluently and household poverty and gaps in school quality were eliminated from the South African landscape. We are therefore not making any conclusions regarding the impact of English instruction in a utopian version of reality where all policies are perfectly implemented, but rather looking at the school system that we do have.

Although our study confirms that the language of instruction is an important contributor to the academic performance of children, it is not the main contributor. Factors such as community- and home-level poverty, weak school functionality, weak instructional practices, inadequate teacher subject knowledge, and a need for greater accountability throughout the school system all represent much more severe constraints to achieving better education.

Our results are not directly informative for policy decisions regarding the extension of mother-tongue instruction beyond the grade three level. This policy decision would require additional research. Similarly, our study has no direct application to the language policy debates at the university level. It is important to recognise these limitations, because there are many policy issues and arguments that often get confused in South Africa’s language debates.

Our study provides preliminary evidence on one key aspect of the matter: as things are currently being implemented, the choice to use mother-tongue instruction as opposed to English instruction in grades one, two and three generally leads to better English learning in the long run.

Finally, although our study points to the value of the mother tongue as the language of instruction, it may well also be important to strengthen the teaching of English as a subject in the early grades to help to facilitate the transition to English in grade four, as the curriculum and assessment policy statements recommend.

In conclusion, our research indicates that, as far as we can tell from empirical analysis, the current language policy is on the right track. Given the practical realities of the South African education system, the policy to encourage the use of mother-tongue instruction in the foundation phase but still allow schools to make the final choice based on their specific circumstances seems to be beneficial. We believe these research findings to be an important starting point from which to take the language debate forward. In order to make headway on this important issue, we need to move beyond a discourse fuelled by ideology and emotions towards one informed by rigorous research. After all, evidence-based policy needs exactly that – evidence.

Dr Stephen Taylor works in the department of basic education and Marisa Coetzee is a researcher in the economics department at the University of Stellenbosch. They write here in their personal ­capacities as academic ­researchers. Their full academic paper is ­available at

Education is the key to success.

Education is the key to success

  • The uber-cool, sharp, funny and highly relevant Lant Pritchett (definitely on my top-five-academics list) has finally published his book “The Rebirth of Education: From Schooling to Learning” which I have obviously ordered and cannot wait to read properly. I’ve actually read a good chunk of the book already since Lant put the chapters on his site for comment a while ago already (see here for pre-publication chapters and here for chapter one of the book). If you haven’t already watched his entertaining and informative Young Lives presentation, do yourself a favour and go and check it out (here).
  • Favorite quote of the week: “There are few policy questions to which improving the quality of education is not a reasonable answer” – well said! Economist article on the value of good teachers
  • Peggy Nkonyeni is the new MEC for education in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa’s most populous province). For background information on the appointment see this DailyMaverick story.
  • What a week of groceries looks like around the world (via Esther Etkin). Perspective is everything.
  • For a laugh watch this video on scaring potential employees 🙂
  • Last year Alistair McKay wrote an article reflecting on race and consciousness in a post-apartheid South Africa – I agree with many of his sentiments but would obviously have played up the education side of things had I wrote it myself 🙂 I’m currently thinking of writing an article titled something along the lines of “Why we can’t just bury the hatchet”
  • If you feel like going down the rabbit-hole of South African education research Martin Gustafsson’s personal website is a really good place to start. His draft (read: practically final) PhD thesis is somewhere there. It should be published as a book and then shown to all first-year-PhD students once they’ve registered and passed the point of no return. Primarily for intimidation/motivation purposes. I am a huge fan of Martin’s pragmatic-yet-rigorous research and will personally hold a funeral service for the quality of SA education should he decide to leave education research anytime in the near future.
  • Quote of the week comes from the introduction to the NSES book (edited by Nick Taylor, Servaas van der Berg and Thabo Mabogoane – not released yet but see here):
  • “The systematic study of schooling has long been plagued by acrimonious debates around theoretical foundations and research methods. Our starting point is that the existence of these debates is indicative of the enormous complexity of the field, and that, far from representing the most appropriate approach, each of the contending perspectives provides a partial view and limited but valuable insights into the terrain of schooling. Thus, research studies that utilise multilevel modelling techniques attempt to unravel the many variables that direct and shape teaching and learning, and to understand their relative importance and interactional effects. Within this broad church, the traditions of school effectiveness research and the economics of education bring complementary perspectives to bear. While the former assumes that individual actors, and in particular school principals and teachers, are motivated by altruism and the desire to do the best for the learners in their care, economists assume that actors are motivated largely by self interest. Taken together, these views sound like a good description of human behaviour.”
  • For the next 10 days I need to find my productive-panic mode since I have a looming deadline and I am yet to find the rabbit in the hat, let alone pull it out…on the upside it does look like a promising paper looking at learning trajectories and accumulated learning deficits.

“South Africa’s Education Crisis 1994-2011” – My new CDE report


Yesterday the CDE released a 65-page report I wrote for them titled “South Africa’s Education Crisis: The Quality of Education in South Africa 1994-2011.” The graph above comes from the report and shows the large differences between the richest 20% of South Africa’s students and the average student in the Eastern Cape. Learning deficits grow as children move through the school system until they reach a zone of improbable progress where the possibility of passing matric is virtually non-existent. This is just one of about 10 topics that are covered in the report, some of the others are teacher content knowledge, inequality of educational opportunity, matric outcomes, youth unemployment, international rankings and policy suggestions. I include the first paragraph from the executive summary which provides an indication of the contents:

“The aim of this report is to provide an empirical overview of the quality of education in South Africa since the transition to democracy and, in doing so, comment on the state of the country’s education system. It will become increasingly clear that the weight of evidence supports the conclusion that there is an on-going crisis in South African education, and that the current system is failing the majority of South Africa’s youth. By using a variety of independently conducted assessments of pupil achievement the report shows that – with the exception of a wealthy minority – most South African pupils cannot read, write and compute at grade-appropriate levels, with large proportions being functionally illiterate and innumerate…While there have been some recent improvements in pupil outcomes, as well as some important policy innovations, the picture that emerges time and again is both dire and consistent: however one chooses to measure learner performance, and at whichever grade one chooses to test, the vast majority of South African pupils are significantly below where they should be in terms of the curriculum, and more generally, have not reached a host of normal numeracy and literacy milestones. As it stands, the South African education system is grossly inefficient, severely underperforming and egregiously unfair.”

 I wrote most of it last year, finished it up earlier this year and I’m very glad that it’s finally out. I think it’s a pretty good summary of our thinking on how the quality of education in South Africa has changed between 1994 and 2011 (at least as measured by assessments). I think the one thing I would add if I had to do it again is a more formalized discussion of accountability and capacity. I’ve subsequently written a paper for the IJR which should come out in 2014 where I flesh out the relationship between the two but it would’ve been nice to include it in this report as well. You can also look at this presentation for a brief snap-shot of that research.

If you know of anyone who may find the report interesting please do pass it along to them – the more the merrier! The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one, the second is correctly diagnosing its causes, and the last is correctly identifying the interventions necessary to deal with the causes and solve the problem. We’re currently at about stage 0.8.

Remember. You are here.

you are here

  • Republicans shut down prefrontal cortex – classic New Yorker article worth a read.
  • I always have time for the erudite Alistair Sparks. In this Business Day article “A crippling disconnection in our economic thinking” he outlines why the status quo isn’t leading anywhere particularly hopeful.
  • Another faux pas of the DBE – they will only use MS Office for Computer Applications Technology (CAT) – i.e. no open source programs allowed. And only Delphi for computer programming, not the sharpest tool in the shed  – see article here.
  • One of the few RCT’s in the field of education in South Africa. Essentially it evaluates the causal impact of the matric Mind The Gap series (PDF here). For background reading on RCTs see this report by the UK government.
  • On the 23rd of September Trevor Manual gave the keynote address at the Growth Week 2013. You can listen to the speech here – I didn’t find it hugely absorbing though.
  • If the U.S media covered the recent shutdown the same way they covered news from other countries, it’d look something like this 🙂 I chortled once or twice…
  • Pic via @PaulaLouise

The amazing Susan Sontag on photography…

train mountain

As photographs give people imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure … Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that the fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of families, friends, neighbours. But dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing doesn’t fade when people travel more. Taking photographs fills the same need for the cosmopolitans accumulating photo-trophies of their boat trip up the Albert Nile or their fourteen days in China as it does for the lower-middle-class vacationers taking snapshots of the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls. A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures” (Susan Sontag On Photography p10).

I really love this piece of cultural observation from Susan Sontag (published over 36 years ago). More than a few friends of mine have remarked how liberating it felt when they forced themselves to put their camera away for a few days while travelling. After getting over the initial fomo they recalled a far more tangible sense of being present and living the experience now rather than living it to recall later. In reading her thoughts I find myself smiling guiltily as she easily enumerates my unknown motivations for taking photographs. Whether it be ‘certifying experience’ and providing indisputable evidence that ‘fun was had’, or as a way to placate my own insecurities of being unproductive on holiday – I have been exorcised of my naïve view that photographs are just a means to remember events. Reading things like this helps me to realize that it is easier to focus on doing rather than being, but that being is more important. Doing usually produces something tangible – evidence or proof, something to show for it – what does being produce? Perhaps a life without regrets?

*For an excerpt of the book see here (PDF).

Maties diversity week

Racial breakdown - SU and UCT

So this week is Maties Diversity Week at Stellenbosch University. While racial diversity is only one element of diversity, given that it was the primary mechanism for discrimination during apartheid, I thought it would be a good one to check. So I went looking for the racial composition of Stellenbosch University and thought I’d chuck in UCT for good measure. (UCT stats from here, SU stats from here). Obviously the major difference between UCT and SU is that SU is primarily an Afrikaans-medium university while UCT is an English-medium university*. Given the correlations between race and language, it is clearly more difficult to attract Black students to SU than it is to UCT (we could also talk about institutional culture and threshold effects but let’s not go there :). What was surprising to me is that there is a lot of talk about transformation at SU, but the numbers suggest very little transformation. In 2009 14% of the SU student population was Black, in 2012 that figure was only 16%. For UCT the figures are only slightly better growing from 26% in 2009 to 30% in 2012. As an aside, it’s helpful to remember that 80% of South Africa’s population is Black (according to the 2011 census). I was especially surprised by the nonexistent growth in the proportion of coloured students at SU (16% in 2009 and 16% in 2012). Given that most coloured students speak Afrikaans as a first language, recruiting the best and brightest coloured students seems like a no-brainer?

I do think that Stellenbosch is moving in the right direction. Recently the SU Council passed a motion that 30% of all first year residence places are reserved for previously disadvantaged students (see Res Placement Policy here), a move that was vehemently opposed by some former SU students.

The links between race, class, language and culture mean that transformation at SU was never going to be easy. Thankfully it looks like those in power at the University have their heads screwed on straight and realize that increased transformation is sorely needed. Given the tortured past that we have in South Africa, it is going to be a difficult task to balance the linguistic rights of Afrikaners with the rights to higher education of a previously disadvantaged and heavily exploited majority. One thing is crystal clear – the status quo is unsustainable and even more than that, it is undesirable.

Also see SU’s 2013 Transformation Strategy here.

*(That being said, there is a push to offer more and more courses in English as well as Afrikaans. for example, if you enrolled to do a BComm in 2013 you could do your entire course from start to finish in English).

Short interview…


Recently I did a short interview on education in South Africa for the 2013 CSI Handbook (see here for the 2012 handbook). Although it may get edited, I suspect that it will be mostly what you see below. I’m interested to hear your answers to these questions – feel free to include them in the comments below…

  • What relationships have you discovered between access to education and quality of education in your research?
    • Access to education is a necessary but not sufficient condition for learning. Just because children are enrolled in school does not mean that they are learning, in fact, most of the evidence suggests that the majority of South African children are between one and two years behind the curriculum. So, although we have one of the highest rates of primary school enrolment in Sub-Saharan Africa (98%), hundreds of thousands of South African children are functionally illiterate. Rather than only looking at what proportion of grade 6 South African children are enrolled (98%), if we look at the proportion of South African 13 year olds that are literate, the figure is only 71% (in Tanzania it is 82% and in Kenya 87%).
  • You argue that there are two primary school education systems in South Africa and have pinpointed specific factors affecting wealthy and poor schools differently, based on analysis of SACMEQ data. What does this mean for how education interventions are implemented in different schools?
    • Almost all of the evidence we have suggests that we have two public schooling systems in South Africa, not one. The wealthiest 25% of schools are mostly functional and able to educate learners while the poorest 75% of schools are dysfunctional and unable to equip students with the numeracy and literacy skills they should be acquiring in primary school. Given that these two school systems are vastly different and that they face different problems, it’s only logical that interventions should be tailored to that particular school system. School interventions that work for poor schools that are atomized and badly run will, in all likelihood, be inappropriate and unnecessarily constraining for well-functioning schools.  
  • You’ve been vocal in asserting: “Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know”. How are teachers falling short, and why?
    • We know teacher content knowledge in South Africa is a major problem, particularly mathematics teacher content knowledge. Given that teacher content knowledge is central to teaching mathematics (and an integral part of the professional identity of the teacher), we really need to figure out how to improve both what teachers know, and how they teach. Simply getting the right answer isn’t the only concern: overly concrete mathematical methods may ‘work’ in grades one and two, but they prove problematic in higher grades.
  • Is there any empirical evidence to show that investing in teachers’ knowledge improves leaner outcomes? If not, what does improve learners’ results?
    • Internationally there is strong evidence that mathematical content knowledge for teaching does improve learner outcomes but locally there is less evidence. But that’s because very few South African studies of teacher content knowledge employ evaluation methods that are rigorous enough to draw causal conclusions, and most are very small localized studies which are not nationally representative. Perhaps the most convincing international research regarding improving learner outcomes is the importance of quality early childhood development – I think that is really where we need additional emphasis in South Africa. Assessing and raising the quality of Grade R (and pre-Grade-R) in South Africa.
  • Where are the gaps in education research in South Africa?
    • Three things we don’t really understand are 1) The impact of language switching between Grades three and four, 2) how to do in-service teacher training (almost all the existing programs don’t work), 3) what proportions of the low and unequal learning outcomes that we see at the end of Grade 3 are attributable to low quality preschool, home background and low quality Foundation Phase teaching.  

*Thanks @MarinaPape for the cool pic 🙂