South Africa

Understanding matric results: Part 1

How language policy can improve student performance

How language policy can improve student performance
Illustrative Photo by NeonBrand on Unsplash

A Grade 4 child born into an African language speaking home is expected to use the same textbooks and write the same assessments as a child born into an English speaking home who reaches Grade 4 with 9–10 years of full immersion in English. This is a gross inequality that continues the legacy of apartheid educational outcomes.

Every January we celebrate the achievements of our matriculants, especially those who have succeeded so remarkably in the face of the multiple challenges of systemic poverty and inequality. At the same time, commentators caution us to put those achievements into perspective and to consider the fate of the large majority of students who have either not made it to Grade 12, or whose results have left them ill-equipped to enter the world of work or higher education.

In this first of a 3-part series of articles from the bua-lit collective (, we will focus on issues of language policy and practice in our schools. We will look at the impact they are having on impeding the success of so many children in their efforts to reach matric and achieve good results.

Twenty-five years into South African democracy we need to ask the question – why are exam question papers, and the curriculum they’re based on, only available in English and Afrikaans, and why do students have no opportunities to write their answers using African languages? In fact why, from Grade 4 onwards, do all African language speaking children have to write every assessment in English (or Afrikaans) and receive textbooks and learning support materials in English only?

The South African Constitution upholds the right of all children “to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice” and the national Language in Education Policy (1997) emphasises the cognitive benefits of home language instruction and bilingual education as well as the goal of multilingualism.

Despite this, the current Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS), supports neither teaching through the home language (where this is not English or Afrikaans) beyond Grade 3 nor bilingual education. CAPS thus works against people’s constitutional rights as well as the national language policy.

While school governing bodies are given the responsibility for determining the language policy of a school, in reality, schools do not have any choice but to switch to English (or Afrikaans) language of learning to teach (LOLT) from Grade 4 for African language children. This change is enforced by provincial departments providing teaching and learning resources as well as assessments exclusively through English (or Afrikaans) from Year 4. There are no textbooks available beyond Grade 3 in any of the African languages.

Imagine how middle-class English and Afrikaans speaking parents would react if their children had to follow a system where they learned an African language, for example, isiXhosa, for 2–4 hrs a week in Grades 1–3 and then switched to having all of their classroom instruction (including all textbooks and assessments) in that language only. We have no doubt middle-class parents would never accept this. Yet this is what the average child in the South African schooling system is forced to do. Watch

With the best intentions and the most dedicated teachers, it is simply not possible for children learning English as a subject in Grades 1–3 to develop the English language proficiency required to understand the full curriculum through English only from Grade 4. Imagine how difficult it must be to continue attending school when you cannot understand or produce the language of teaching and learning, textbooks and assessments?

All language use, like literacy, is deeply related to the context of use, purpose and audience. Thus language can only be understood and learned in contexts of use. The curriculum in the subject English as a First Additional Language (EFAL) teaches children about language (e.g. how to name objects in the home, parts of the body, and colours, as well as how to identify parts of speech such as nouns, verbs and adjectives) more than it focuses on using language.

The current English FAL does not teach the kind English children need to succeed in their other subjects.

For example, children need to learn specialist vocabulary in each subject e.g. in Maths: triangle; quadrilateral; multiply, solve and in Geography, erosion, abrasion, weathering. They also need to learn how language is structured in particular subjects such as Solve for x in: x – 3 = 7 in Maths and in Geography: “The destruction of a land surface by the combined effects of abrasion and removal of weathered material by transporting agents is called erosion….”

[Ref; Gee, J. P. (2008) Essay: What is Academic Language. In Roseberry, A.S and Warren, B. (eds) Teaching Science to English Language Learners, Arlington: National Science Teachers’ Association (NSTA) Press]

More than 30 years ago, Carol MacDonald completed a research project in the former Bantustan, Bophuthatswana, on learners “crossing the threshold” from four years of home language instruction to Grade 5, where instruction continued in English.

Based on an analysis of the curriculum and textbook materials available for Grades 1–4 English as a subject and Grade 5 subjects across the curriculum, MacDonald showed that if the English teacher had done her job well, the average child leaving Grade 4 would have a vocabulary in English of around 800 words. On entering Grade 5 the child would need a vocabulary of at least 5,000 English words (never mind all the aspects of language proficiency beyond vocabulary).

MacDonald concluded that this presupposed a vocabulary increase of 600% which would be unachievable even for English home language speakers. [MacDonald, C., with Burroughs, E. (1990). Eager to Talk and Learn and Think Bilingual Primary Education in South Africa. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, p. 15]

The current implementation of English LOLT assumes that all South African learners have equal proficiency in English. It means that in practice the same children who were racially and linguistically privileged during apartheid schooling, i.e. home language speakers of mainstream varieties of English and Afrikaans, continue to be advantaged.

A Grade 4 child born into an African language speaking home is expected to use the same textbooks and write the same assessments as a child born into an English speaking home who reaches Grade 4 with 9–10 years of full immersion in English. This is a gross inequality that continues the legacy of apartheid educational outcomes.

Given that current language policy implementation discriminates against Black children, while continuing to advantage White children, we can describe its effects as racist. The fact that this gross inequality is not questioned shows how far we have to go in ‘decolonising the mind’ as Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo argued. [Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo. (1986). Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey.]

Our country is blessed with rich linguistic diversity, yet our education system operates as if monolingualism is the norm. The majority of our teachers are bi/multilingual and the majority of our learners are emergent bi/multilinguals or multilinguals, but the curriculum and assessment process operates as if they are monolingual.

If our students have to become at minimum bilingual to succeed in their matriculation exams, they need to be treated as bilinguals throughout the school system.

Building on the untapped foundation of teachers’ multilingual proficiency, new practices can be developed. Innovative multilingual learning materials such as those developed in Rwanda and Tanzania show that this can be done (;

We will not substantially improve the quality or quantity of matriculation passes without addressing the crucial issue of language in schooling. It is essential that in education, we develop and implement bi- and multi-lingual approaches where children are able to learn using a language they understand as they develop proficiency in English. DM

In part 2 of this series, the writers will address the role of language in learners’ success in Science.

Carolyn McKinney and Xolisa Guzula write on behalf of the bua-lit collective.


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