When it comes to learning science, language can determine success

When it comes to learning science, language can determine success
The resources kids have at school and home influence their performance in science. Source: Shutterstock.

Pupils who have access to physical educational resources, such as books and computers at home, tend to perform better in science than those who don’t. This has been proved by a great deal of international research. The Conversation

It’s true in South Africa, too, but our research has found less tangible factors also play a role in pupils’ science achievement. These factors include parental education levels, parental involvement in homework – and, crucially, home language.

Language is a factor that makes the South African context unique and has a noteworthy role in pupils’ science achievements. The language of teaching and learning is often different from the language spoken in a pupil’s home. Only 26 percent of pupils who participated in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) spoke the language of the test at home. For our research, we studied data from 11,969 Grade Nine pupils – on average, 16 years old – who participated in TIMSS in 2011.

Successive apartheid governments used language policy as a tool to create socio-economic and educational division. This history means language as a home resource can’t be overlooked when it comes to understanding pupils’ performance in science at school. Our results proved just how important language is – the language most often spoken in a pupil’s home was the single most important predictor.

In developing countries such as South Africa, science, technology and innovation have become forces that drive economic growth and competitiveness and have the potential for improving the quality of life. The number of skilled people (such as scientists, engineers and other technically skilled personnel) in a country is associated with its economic growth and ability to compete in the global economy.

The development of these skilled people begins at the school level. So it’s a cause for concern the 2011 TIMSS found the average science achievement of Grade Nine South African students to be well below the international centre point of 500 points. Tackling language policy can, we believe, improve pupils’ performance in this important subject.


Historically, the state provided educational resources in an unbalanced way. Schools designated for white pupils were well resourced, while those for black learners were under-resourced. Today, these imbalances persist. There are vast differences in physical resources at poor and affluent schools.

The school resources we included in our study were the condition of the school building; the use of workbooks or worksheets as the basis of instruction and class size. We also explored the capacity of the school to provide instruction based on the availability of resources such as textbooks, science equipment and computer software.

For home resources, we asked the pupils to report on how often the language of the test was spoken in the home, the number of books at home, the number of home assets, parental education levels, and parental involvement in school homework.

Language emerged strongly as a success factor. Pupils who used the language most frequently spoken at home in the TIMSS test scored 62 points higher, on average, than those who seldom spoke the language of the test.

The number of home assets present in a pupil’s home had the second strongest positive association with science achievement. It was found for each additional asset (such as a fridge, television, computer etc.) in a pupil’s home, they scored an average of 11 points higher in science than their peers.


The third most important predictor of science achievement was the condition of the school building. Pupils who attended schools with minor problems with the building performed 24 points higher, on average, than those who attended schools that reported moderate to serious problems with the buildings.

So what does this all mean?


Language development is recognised as crucial for all other learning to take place. Our findings suggest the language of instruction (and of testing) has not been mastered by the time pupils are in Grade Nine. This is unsurprising – most of the learners tested using TIMSS were, in essence, learning science through a foreign language.

This means pupils are likely to be at a disadvantage because their knowledge of the language of instruction is below the expected level for their age and grade. Education policies must seek both to improve the manner in which the language of instruction is taught to students who don’t speak that language at home, and concurrently, the policies that promote instruction in the home language must be strengthened.

It’s important we understand the determinants of science achievement for South African pupils. This has far reaching implications for the country’s broader growth and development. This is because successful interventions at school level may contribute to increasing the pool of matriculants who are eligible to study science-related subjects at a tertiary level and who will later join the skilled workforce.

Disregarding these environmental factors may hinder the success of policies designed to improve achievement and further economic growth.

By Andrea Juan, Research Specialist- Education and Skills Development, Human Sciences Research Council and Mariette Visser, Senior Research Manager in the Education and Skills Development Research Programme, Human Sciences Research Council

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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