A framework for thinking about languages and literacies towards university mathematics curriculum for access and transformation

Published On: 23 August 2023|

To make a case for a curriculum that encourages greater access and transformation, a mathematics education language development specialist used students’ talk about their experiences, and difficulties with languages, literacies, and university knowledges, as they transitioned into first-year university mathematics.

Kate le Roux (above), Associate Professor in Language Development for Science and Engineering in the Academic Development Programme of the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Higher Education Development, was addressing the first joint colloquium of three Universities South Africa’s Communities of Practice held in Stellenbosch last week.

Over 50 delegates representing all public universities attended to explore Multilingualism in the teaching and learning of Mathematics in Higher Education – Enhancing Success.

Multilingualism refers to the use of multiple languages as a means of instruction, communication, and interaction between teachers and students in classrooms. The participating groups were the CoP for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL), the CoP for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics (CoP TLM) and the Education Deans’ Forum (EDF).

An intersection of multiple disciplines

Associate Professor le Roux spoke to the topic A Framework for thinking about languages and literacies towards university mathematics curriculum for access and transformation – in a session titled Language as an Enabler for University Mathematics Success.

She said her work, located at the intersection of the three participating CoPs, focuses on ‘the interplay of language and literacies, mathematics, and disciplinary knowledge in science and engineering. “I bring to this work critical thought in mathematics education within the socio-political and socio-ecological, languages and literacies, and decoloniality from the South.”

For context, she began by sharing student voices, as presented in research.

The student talk points to how students come to university with and use flexible language practices, and they narrate their difficulties trying to access university mathematics knowledge in English. For example, a school mathematics teacher may have used both English and isiXhosa flexibly to support learning. Yet students note their difficulty listening to university mathematics lecturer talk exclusively in English, and do not feel comfortable asking questions. They express difficulty making links between school and university mathematics knowledge, soon falling behind in first year. Yet students may also want to challenge the ‘universal’ nature of that university mathematics knowledge.

Reflecting on the students’ talk, Associate Professor le Roux said she found the scholar Rob Nixon’s notion of ‘slow violence’ (from their 2011 book ‘Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor)’ productive for thinking about and understanding the “delayed attritional, often invisible, harms of the related linguistic epistemic, ontological and social injustices of global coloniality”.

Pertinent questions

In this context, her collaborative research and educational development with disciplinary lecturers at UCT asks:

  • What knowledge and practices?
  • For whom (Students? Society? The earth?)
  • Using what language and literacies?

Specifically, this involves navigating how to enable access to mathematical knowledges in English, while critically understanding this power and “exploring the reach of historically buried languages and literacies and their meaning towards redesign and transformation”.

She argued that this is not an easy task. For pervading our thinking in this context is conceptualisations of hierarchically ordered, fixed, bounded languages and literacies, speakers of languages, ‘cultures’, and ‘knowledges’. She drew on the thinking of scholars such as Jan Blommaert, Suresh Canagarajah, Catherine Kell, Caroline Kerfoot, Lara Krause, Finex Ndhlovu, Mastin Prinsloo, and Christopher Stroud, to think about the school-university mathematics transition to UCT. New students at UCT, she suggested, are required to socialise into “a global’, formal mathematics register and mathematics discourses such as defining, proving, using written and symbolic modes, and ‘standard’ English with particular accents and demeanours”.

Disconnecting from roots

Thus, Associate Professor le Roux argued, students wanting to succeed in the academy need to leave behind their “local knowledges, their home and community registers, oral and embodied modes, their daily languaging practices, ‘African’ languages, and dialects”.

She noted that the cited scholars suggest that the dominance of such thinking about languages and literacies in our context explains why “notions of ‘multilingualism’, ‘translanguaging’ and ‘language diversity’ often fail to gain traction and to reduce inequity as hoped”.

A framework to inform curriculum design and pedagogy in this context

For her work in maths, science and engineering in this context, Associate Professor le Roux has – in collaboration with her UCT colleagues – developed an evolving resource that offers what she calls “tools for thinking how we use notions of languages and literacies and knowledges in curriculum design and pedagogy”.

This resource seeks to broaden thinking about languages and literacies, moving from just binary thinking (of just ‘English’ and ‘isiXhosa’) to adopt a notion of languages as various modes, genres, registers, discourse practices, named language codes, dialects, and accents. It takes in a broad view of literacies, not just written text, but writing, reading, talking, looking, listening, drawing, moving, acting, and working with information and available technologies.

She said that when thinking about how they might use language and literacies in curriculum design and classroom pedagogy, she and her colleagues aim to be alert for what the scholar Pam Christie, in her 2005 work, calls ‘moments of fracture’. These are opportunities to work with dominant discourses for socialisation, that is, to support students to use languages and literacies to access, learn and communicate understanding of currently dominant mathematics knowledge. Yet, crucially, also opportunities to work against dominant discourses. This involves “critical, reflexive thinking about contemporary local and global conditions, and where necessary troubling, dominant institutional and individual ‘certainties’, and legitimising other ways of knowing, valuing, being and using languages and literacies”.  The latter is “what we call the transformation and redesign imperative”.

She then addressed the question, “If we want to work for and against dominant discourses in this way, what role are we using language and literacies for, in teaching? She discussed, with examples, four roles. Firstly, using languages and literacies to access maths knowledge, for example, in a lecture, textbook, or online video. Here, we might support students to take notes, while listening, looking and reading in lectures delivered in English. We can offer strategies for reading a university mathematics textbook and embed multilingual glossaries in our resources.

Secondly, students need to use languages and literacies to learn maths knowledge in formal and informal spaces. This requires that we create safe spaces for students to use multiple languages flexibly for conceptual understanding, as has already been demonstrated by our colleague Mbulu Madiba. And opportunities to use multiple modes, such as informal writing, actions, gestures, drawings, and so on.

Thirdly, students need to communicate their understanding of maths knowledge in formal and informal assessment. And Associate Professor le Roux questioned whether formal written mathematics in English is always necessary to assess understanding. Might communication in other language modes and languages allow us to assess conceptual understanding? Finally, as lecturers, we also want students to demonstrate their use of formal written mathematics as an outcome, so we also need to teach them to write in this way.

She said the final aspect of the framework aims to helps lecturers locate their work in wider discussions around language policy, both nationally and at their institution. So, while our curriculum design and pedagogy may focus on what is called “language for learning, teaching, and assessment” in policy, we can think about how, as lecturers, our own use of multiple languages and the norms created in the classroom relate to how language is used for “inclusive communication” at the university more broadly. Crucially, to think about how our language practices in our courses contribute to thinking about “African languages for scholarship”.


Professor Emmanuel Mfanafuthi Mgqwashu, Director: Faculty Teaching and Support at North-West University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, asked: “Notions of academic literacy have been communicated as though those who are supposed to receive it have some kind of deficit and they need to be helped – very patronising – and as if there are no literacies from where they come. So, to what extent are all the attempts that have been presented been made explicit to students — that they already have literacies from which they can leap as opposed to “poor you; we are here to help you.”

Professor le Roux: Thank you, Emmanuel, for that provocation. What I’m trying to get at with my notion of identifying ‘moments of fracture’ for working with the tensions – the socialisation imperative, and the transformation imperative – is seeing it is as an opportunity to bring the discussion of languages and literacies and related knowledges explicitly into discussion in the classroom with students.

For example, why are we using a particular language, and knowledge, at a particular time? What are the power relations between the languages, literacies, and knowledges brought to the course? That is the hard work we are trying to do. It’s hard in mathematics to trouble the dominant knowledge. That’s the strategy I‘m working with in teams of colleagues from various backgrounds, which has been helpful for getting multiple lenses. And when I refer to ‘knowledges’, I argue we have to think of the past, present and future. What mathematics knowledge might be ‘relevant’ now to understand the contemporary challenges related to sustainability of all humans and the planet itself? For some of the dominant maths has been used in harmful ways to entrench inequity. So, it’s very much a critical mathematics education perspective on knowledge.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.