An exploration of the teaching and learning of mathematics word problems in English to second language grade 8 learners in the Mafukuzela-Gandhi Circuit
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The abolition of apartheid in South Africa in the late 1980s and the advent of democracy in 1994 resulted in dramatic changes in the education system. Of great significance to this study is the freedom African parents were allowed in choosing the medium of instruction to be used at schools. Surprisingly African parents encouraged their children to study through the medium of English mainly due to the education and employment opportunities English will provide them in the future (Mda, 1997). Now, seventeen years into democracy, English as a national language and the preferred medium of instruction has been blamed for poor results among ESL learners (Moreosole, 1998). Taylor, Muller and Vinjevold (2003: 54) point out that the difficulties associated with studying in a language other than one’s home language are more pronounced in mathematics, a subject which is strongly dependent on technical language proficiency. A section in the Grade 8 mathematics syllabus that is generally problematic for ESL learners is that of word problems (Wetzel, 2008). This is because ESL learners lack the language and reading skills needed to comprehend word problems, and the listening skills required to understand the educator’s explanation of the solution (Crandall, Dale, Rhodes and Spanos, 1985). To address the aims and objectives of this study, relevant literature was reviewed and various teaching strategies were examined to determine which strategies may be most effective in helping ESL learners solve word problems. Grounded within the Constructivist Learning Theory, this study was based on Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and Bruner’s concept of scaffolding. Using a mixed methods approach, this study investigated problems that mathematics educators and ESL learners experience in the teaching and learning of word problems through the medium of English, and also identified strategies that mathematics educators use to teach word problems to ESL learners. iv Analysis of the educator questionnaire and the focus group interviews with learners revealed that ESL learners are experiencing difficulty solving word problems in English and educators are, to a large extent, adapting their teaching strategies when teaching them. The data also indicated that groupwork was considered by the majority of educators to be the most suitable method in the teaching of word problems to ESL learners, but sadly this method was used less frequently compared to whole class discussion and individual work due to discipline problems, the educators’ inability to handle group dynamics and the tendency for learners not to contribute to the group discussion. The findings also suggest that it is necessary for the educator to use a variety of teaching strategies to ensure that ESL learners enjoy success in mathematics. Based on the findings, this study makes recommendations regarding the teaching and learning of word problems and the use of adapted teaching strategies to foster active participation in lessons and group discussions, thereby increasing learner confidence and aiding in the understanding of English terminology used in mathematics word problems.