South Africa


The sudden transition to English in Grade 4 is a gross injustice for African-language speaking children

Illustrative image: A Pupil raises his hand at Crags Primary School. (Photo: Daily Maverick)

It is time for the knowledge and experiences of the African language speaking child to be taken as the starting point in education. By the BUA-LIT COLLECTIVE

This is an Open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa and  Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga

President Ramaphosa, we congratulate you on the formation of our new government and Minister Motshekga on your re-appointment.

Alongside the people of South Africa, we of the bua-lit collective and our many affiliates working in education live with renewed hope that government will honour its mandate to address the deep systemic inequality that persists so long after 1994.

The promise of a renewed effort to create jobs is significant, as is the promise to support the key areas of basic education that President Ramaphosa committed to in his February State of the Nation Address,  namely, that government will invest in early childhood development (ECD), early reading literacy and digital technologies. We applaud this focus.

However, if our education system is going to produce school leavers who can meet the demands of a 21st-century economy and of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the provision of quality education for all must be prioritised.

Our work over decades in the field of language and literacy education has led us to draw your urgent attention to the current stumbling blocks to addressing our education crisis.

We are convinced that unless the South African education system shifts from a monolingual to a bi/multilingual orientation, and from a simple/narrow focus on early grade reading to a rich view of literacy, we will not move beyond the current failure to produce school leavers who are all prepared and equipped either for further education or to enter the job market.

Monolingual and bi/multilingual education

Monolingualism is not the norm globally or in South Africa, yet our education system operates at every level as if it is. Like all growing children, African language speaking children come to school with rich language resources.

But unlike English-speaking children, these language resources are not celebrated and expanded. They are rather seen as stumbling blocks to children’s educational success.

African language speaking children receive their first three years of instruction in their home language. They are then expected to make a sudden transition to learning in English from Grade 4 onwards with all textbooks, assessments and learning materials provided in English only. From Grade 4, the first year of their switch to English, they use the same textbooks and write the same formal assessments as English-speaking children who have been immersed in English since birth. This is a gross injustice.

There is currently no plan to tackle this unjust expectation that children should learn exclusively through English after only three years of minimal instruction. Nor is there a plan to build an appropriate curriculum for bilingual children.

Parents and learners should not be expected to choose between home language and English language of instruction. It is possible, and preferable, for our teachers and learners to work with their most familiar language resources and to learn academic English through their schooling career to achieve the kind of bilingualism and biliteracy needed to succeed. It is possible for all our children to receive quality education.

However, quality education requires a bi/multilingual orientation, including bi/multilingual teaching strategies and the production of bilingual language supportive textbooks and assessments. With appropriate support, teachers can harness and develop their existing multilingual practices such as code-switching to optimise learning.

Teaching reading and writing

As President Ramaphosa indicated, the Government has recognised the urgency of addressing the teaching of literacy in our schools. Significant attention and funding are being directed at what is called Early Grade Reading in Grades 1-3.

However, we believe that the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) current plan to roll out teaching and learning resources based on the Early Grade Reading Study needs careful reconsideration. This plan is limited in what can be achieved because the interventions focus on decoding letter-sound relationships and reading single words and isolated texts.

As well as explicit teaching of decoding and comprehension strategies, children need to be engaged in specific, meaningful and pleasurable daily practices that demand and model different kinds of reading as well as writing, involving a wide range of texts.

Children need to have a purpose to read and write (beyond assessment), positive reading and writing role models, and they need to learn how language and meaning work differently in different kinds of texts, for example, a story versus the instructions for a science experiment.

In the 4IR/digital media era, children must learn to read critically, identifying fake news as well as whose perspectives are included and whose excluded.

What the DBE’s plan also ignores is that engagement with literacy begins long before schooling.

For example, while middle-class parents are praised for engaging in (undoubtedly beneficial) book-sharing practices with their pre-school children, the rich resource of the oral storytelling tradition is ignored.

Schooling must build on the rich range of pre-school language and literacy practices of all children and not only those of the English-speaking middle class. It is time for the knowledge and experiences of the African language speaking child to be taken as the starting point in education. All children need to be given the opportunities to develop rich literacies.

A new approach to providing quality education for all our children requires the support of government, schools, higher education institutions, civil society, NGOs, families, communities and funders. But the government needs to take the lead and shape a policy that opens the way for bi/multilingual African language children and teachers to use all their language resources and to engage in rich literacies throughout their schooling.

Vulindlela Minister Motshekga. DM

Bua-lit is a collective of language and literacy researchers, activists, educators and teacher educators who share knowledge and resources and speak out about multilingual language and literacy education in South Africa. This open letter was signed by Soraya Abdulatief, Xolisa Guzula Prof Catherine Kell, Glynis Lloyd, Prof Pinky Makoe, Prof Carolyn McKinney and Dr Robyn Tyler, as well as 35 other affiliates. For more information, please visit


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