Research exploring alternatives to one-size-fits-all solutions to students’ Academic Literacy needs

Published On: 23 August 2023|

Critical research is being done into improving curriculum responsiveness to enhance responding to students’ needs in both teaching and assessment. This is to move away from the “one-size-fits-all” model to getting a clearer idea of what students need, said Ms Sanet Steyn, Academic Literacy (AL) Research Lead at the University of Cape Town.

She was speaking to the topic: Mathematics through the AL lens: Implications for teaching in multilingual contexts during a session titled Language as an Enabler for University Mathematics Success at 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 is the use of multiple languages in classroom instruction, communication, and interaction between teachers and students. The participating groups included 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).

Vygotsky’s Theory

Ms Steyn (below) said her research team used a methodology similar to that in (Russian psychologist and teacher), Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development theory. “His was meant to be seen at the individual level, which is not practical in the context we teach in. The idea is to look for what it is students can do with guidance at a cohort level.” Ms Steyn said they were hoping that the diagnostic information found in certain tools can yield a picture of what students could do with appropriate guidance.

Discipline-language interplay

She said the interplay between maths and language is a global concern, citing numerous studies that have explored the lack of language proficiency as a barrier to learning – not just in mathematics (though a large chunk of research is devoted to maths). “Today, in linguistics, we see a growing number of research topics that are moving into the space of discipline-specific applications of language.” For instance, the Southern African Linguistics and Applied Linguistics (Salals) conference in 2022 featured seven presentations related to Mathematics or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and language. She said education specialists, in general, were showing interest in AL.

Some evidence in NSC results

Ms Steyn quoted some statistics uncovered in the research – in the South African context:

  • Many students are studying mathematics in a language that is not their home language –77% of South African households’ first language is not English or Afrikaans.
  • Trends in National Senior Certificate (NSC) results show that the majority of learners achieve results that are below 40% on the NSC mathematics examination. (NSC diagnostic report shows that in the 2022 cohort, only 36% achieved above 40%.) Many candidates were unable to use the information given in the questions.  Some general observations were:
    • Students seemed to be missing signals in questions – not picking up on terminology like the use of absolutes which impacts on being able to perform the task.
    • Had difficulty identifying language and therefore understanding and interpreting questions as a result.
    • Problem solving was problematic.

More evidence from NBTs

National Benchmark Tests (NBT) results signal that learners are under-prepared for first year higher education mathematics with just under 21% being mathematics proficient. Across the board, at any institution and in any faculty, subdomains that students struggle with are:

  • Academic Literacy: Vocabulary; metaphorical expression; text genre; communicative function.
  • Quantitative Literacy: Change and rates; shape; dimension; space; Data representation.
  • Mathematics: Geometric reasoning; algebraic processing; trigonometric functions and graphs

“With that in mind, we have started exploring ways to deep dive into these types of results at course level. At UCT, we have a diagnostic report “Know your Student. Know your Course” that provides this level of data. We can look at the subdomain level results for a cohort enrolled for a particular course. We also are able to put that into conversation with the performance over five years on the course.”

We’ve seen that non-literal language use and terminology are key things that students are struggling with.

  • We need to look at this problem from a multiple perspective. We have started focusing on the relationship between academic literacy and student reasoning.
  • We have been working on three projects that look at this.
  • We’ve looked at Hungarian mathematician, George Polya’s Problem Solving Strategy and its link to Academic Literacy skills.
  • We’ve started exploring the performance patterns when comparing NBT mathematics and NBT academic literacy results.
  • We’ve started a project that looks at how we could potentially integrate AL type of assessment questions into mathematics assessments.

Implications for teaching in Multilingual Contexts:

  • Understanding the relationship between mathematics and a very specific type of language proficiency (AL) allows us to identify the potential language hurdles students may face.
  • The hurdles need to be approached from multiple angles. We hope our ideas regarding integrating AL development into the mathematics classroom (and later into other STEM subjects) will help create a blueprint for developing resources and creating learning opportunities that will both enable and encourage students to utilise their existing linguistic capital.
  • One aspect, outside the scope of the work we have done, that is also important is the impact of cultural differences in terms of our selection of scenarios for exemplification could be crucial.


Professor Mbulungeni Madiba (left), Dean of Education at Stellenbosch University and previous Director of the Multilingualism Education Project at UCT:  The studies show us that the more languages involved, the better. But I don’t think we can make a case that if I am using more languages in mathematics that will make it more accessible. We need to invest more in the pedagogy of multilingualism; how do teach in a way that you are developing not just knowledge but other skills, like critical thinking and collaboration. These case studies show us that language is one of the sources to teaching. It’s one of the sources of meaning.

Professor Emmanuel Mfanafuthi Mgqwashu, Director: Faculty Teaching and Support at North-West University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning: “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 decidedly 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.

Ms Steyn (right): We select a framework to try and find a language to describe what we see happening. It’s not that we believe that to be superior in anyway, but that it is a step closer to describing the type of interaction that happens through the medium of language when you’re dealing with an academic project.

I don’t think that a person’s academic literacy should be used as a stick to punish them.

The reason we are moving our research to how this can help curriculum responsiveness is that we want to put more tools in the hands of the lecturers who need to help students. It’s one way to try and understand what could potentially help. It’s not supposed to be a pronouncement that cannot be critiqued or engaged with.

Finally, I was part of the team working on the Umalusi Home Languages Project a few years ago, where we looked at the NSC home language papers. I was responsible for creating a universal – across all languages – assessment. The description for what is to be taught in home language and in first additional language, regardless of the subject, is the same. There is an English and Afrikaans document, replicated for each of the other languages. There is no real acknowledgement in the language-specific features. We found there is a set of generic language abilities that you can find in the interactions across all of the languages that do not rely on language specific features. These also seem to be the precursors to the Academic Literacy skills.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Unversities South Africa