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Help students master the language in which they are being taught and they will probably achieve far better in their school and post-school studies.
So says Kathy Martin, head of academics at Ivy Academy, a Gauteng private high school that prides itself on its progressive approach to education.
The school recently decided to make it compulsory for pupils to do a language and comprehension development programme if their English or Afrikaans skills are below average.
Pupils complete the additional programme as part of their normal school day, with no fuss nor extra cost to the parents.
At Ivy Academy the medium of instruction is English while both Afrikaans and Zulu are offered as first additional languages.
“Learners and students who struggle with language do not perform well,” Martin explains. “You first have to fully understand the language in which you are being taught before you can absorb what you are being taught. It does not make sense to give a child extra maths lessons when the child barely understands what the teacher is explaining to him or her.”
The education debate rages on, as we saw on TV in M-Net’s actuality programme Carte Blanche this past Sunday. But Martin believes that more often than not language is the barrier that prevents SA pupils from achieving their true potential.
“Many children are encouraged to attend the school closest to them because such a school is likely to teach in their mother tongue or in the language that is most spoken by the community that the school serves,” she says.
“Such a school is also most likely to offer English, Afrikaans and other official languages as first or second additional languages.”
The language problem arises when a child moves to another school where the medium of instruction, and the language in which subjects are being taught, is a language that the child does not know so well – usually English or Afrikaans.
“It is heartbreaking to see a bright learner who achieved in the past suddenly do poorly at a new school. Parents often think this is due to adjustment issues or bad behaviour, when it’s simply a matter of language differences.”
Language influences, among many other things, how well a pupil understands a concept, the speed at which he or she can work and how well the pupil can follow instructions. “The Department of Education expects schools to assist learners by identifying gaps and offering support,” she says.
“The reason we have installed this language and comprehension development programme is because we have found that language expertise is a common barrier to learning. The programme has, over the years, proved successful at many schools and tertiary institutions. It has 15 different levels, from basic to advanced, and covers spelling, reading, word recognition, comprehension and general language ability.
“We assess our learners’ English at the beginning of the year and should their language skills be below a certain level, they do the extra English – the same applies to Afrikaans.”
Learners don’t need to go elsewhere after school for extra lessons; they do the extra English or Afrikaans – or both – language programmes at Ivy Academy during school hours. Furthermore, Martin points out, the programme is open to all Ivy learners, including those who have good language skills but want to improve them even more.
“Nelson Mandela said a good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special,” she says.
“We are ensuring that all our learners will have the literate tongues and pens needed for a special and exciting future.”
l For more information on Ivy Academy contact 011 551 2111.