Obstacles that hamper learners from successfully translating mathematical word problems into number sentences
Various research studies show that the language ability and Mathematics performance of primary school learners are closely related. In South Africa, as is elsewhere, the language issue at schools has always been shifted from the academic battlefield into the political battlefield. The Minister of Education has always been a politician and therefore the current curriculum in SA is politically inspired and do not always address the needs of learners, according to Sedibe (2003). Many primary school learners with an African background are taught in a second language and not in their mother tongue due to the policy of the National Education Department. It is mostly these learners who find it difficult to relate to the language of instruction and the meaning-making of that language in a Mathematical context. The Annual National Assessment (ANA), an initiative of the National Education Department, shows that most of the primary school learners in South Africa are still not on track concerning Numeracy and Literacy skills. Language barriers for learners who are not taught in their mother tongue lead to misunderstanding regarding Mathematical word problems. The interpretation of word problems has throughout the years been a concern of Mathematics teachers, even if the learners were taught in their mother tongue. The purpose of this study was to investigate, by means of a case study, the barriers primary school learners experience with the translation of mathematical word sums into number sentences. Qualitative research was conducted. The study was grounded in the interpretivist paradigm, hence the reasons for the learners’ problems in converting word problems into number sentences and perations were investigated in real-life situations. Data was collected through observations. Audio-visual material was used. Activities of Grade four learners, from a primary school in the Motheo teaching district of the Free State Province, was recorded audio visually, while being busy with group work. The group work was done in the form of a worksheet, which contained two word problems. The learners had to discuss the word problems in order to compile number sentences. The learners could use any language during their discussions. A Sotho translator translated the discussions into English for analysis purposes. The research findings support the research problem, as it was clear that although learners were presented with word problems in a language other than their mother tongue, they preferred to discuss the content of the word problems in their mother tongue. The main recommendations emerging from this study is that teachers should become more aware of the linguistic issues in learning and teaching Mathematics and must develop tools for talking about language in ways that enable them to engage productively with learners in constructing mathematical knowledge. Teachers in culturally diverse school settings need to develop “tools” to enable learners to understand the mathematical vocabulary better via the language of instruction. The following recommendations regarding these tools can be made. Teachers who teach Mathematics in the foundation phase should compile a Mathematics dictionary as part of their literature studies. These teachers must consult language interpreters in order to find mother tongue words for words that explain mathematical concepts. These words should be repeated regularly throughout their contact time with the learners, even if it is not the Mathematics period. The Mathematical concepts and content must be carried over to non-mother tongue learners in such a way that they can identify the context of their everyday lives in it. Only then will the learners make meaning of word problems and will they be able to compile numbers sentences from the word problem in order to carry out the correct Mathematical operations.