Cape Town – English does not determine the academic ability of Grade R pupils, according to a study.
Dr Michelle White, a part-time lecturer at the Department of General Linguistics at Stellenbosch University (SU), who recently obtained her doctorate, wanted to find out what the cognitive and linguistic development of a typical Grade R pupil looks like who is in the process of learning English as a medium of instruction.
She found that Grade R pupils whose mother tongue is not English perform just as well as their English-speaking peers when it comes to storing and processing small amounts of information needed for learning, problem-solving and performing calculations, among other things.
White investigated the development of Grade R pupils’ English language skills and the cognitive processes that underlie these skills in a multicultural classroom in an English-medium school.
Thirty-four pupils at a culturally and linguistically diverse school in the greater Cape Town area participated in her study.
One group had English as a home language, whereas the other group spoke nine different home languages and had little proficiency in English.
These pupils were tested three times over the course of one school year with a complete English language assessment, an English vocabulary test and four tests of working memory.
“The tests on working memory, in particular, were crucial as this part of our short-term memory is very important in our daily lives and also a key cognitive process that underlies language learning and performing well at school in mathematics and reading, among others,” said White.
She said the pupils performed tasks that required them to remember block sequences, to identify and remember the location of different shapes and to repeat made-up words.
A block sequence is a computer-based task where pupils see blocks light up in various sequences; once the sequence is completed the children must reproduce the sequence by pointing at the blocks.
In addition to the language assessment and tests, White interviewed the pupils’ parents to find out more about their language habits at home.
“My study showed that pupils with English as a home language and their second language peers scored comparably on the working memory tasks throughout the year, which means that their working memory ability is independent of how much English they know.
“Even though the English home language children were better on all English measures, ie, the language assessment and vocabulary test, those with different home languages caught up well and by the end of the year a couple of the children had almost caught up with the English home language children.
“This means that, regardless of the knowledge that non-English speaking children start off with, the route or trajectory that their cognitive and language development follows is the same as that of their English monolingual peers.
“Now that we know that the trajectory of the cognitive and language development looks the same in both groups, we can see if they are developing without the presence of a learning disorder and if they are not, we know to send them to a professional for proper assessment."