Original Research

Eleven Grade 1 teachers’ understandings of mathematical language in a South African context

Tanja Coetzer, Candice Livingston, Elna Barnard
Reading & Writing | Vol 14, No 1 | a409 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/rw.v14i1.409 | © 2023 Tanja Coetzer, Candice Livingston, Elna Barnard | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 26 October 2022 | Published: 07 July 2023

About the author(s)

Tanja Coetzer, Department of Foundation Phase, Faculty of Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Wellington, South Africa
Candice Livingston, Department of Research and Postgraduate Studies, Faculty of Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Wellington, South Africa
Elna Barnard, Department of Foundation Phase, Faculty of Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Wellington, South Africa


Background: Fluency in mathematical language is essential for learning mathematics. Teachers must understand and use their diverse mathematical knowledge, including language and communication difficulties inherent to mathematics instruction. According to recent South African research, Grade 1 teachers are not equipped to utilise learners’ linguistic skills for efficient learning of mathematics.

Objectives: This research investigates South African Grade 1 teachers’ mathematical language perceptions, experiences, and feelings. These Grade 1 teachers’ transcripts were analysed to discover their understanding of the language of mathematics.

Method: Exploratory, descriptive, and contextual research designs were used in conjunction with an adapted interactive qualitative analysis technique. Focus group interviews, individual interviews, and lesson observations, together with a purposive sampling technique, were used to gather the data from both public and private primary schools.

Results: The results showed that Grade 1 teachers view mathematics as a separate language with its own vocabulary and register. The findings highlighted the need to simplify the language of mathematics to enhance understanding.

Conclusion: This research concluded that language is essential to mathematics learning and that mathematics has its own register, which is acquired like any other additional language. To help isiXhosa learners understand mathematics in English, scaffolding strategies must be aligned with their linguistic demands.

Contribution: This article provides important recommendations for teachers who need to recognise the reality that English is the lingua franca and ensure isiXhosa home language-speaking learners receive the necessary support to acquire actual proficiency in the academic register of English for mathematical language learning.


English Grade 1 classrooms; Grade 1 teachers; isiXhosa home language-speaking learners; mathematical language learning; scaffolding strategies; South African context; understanding of mathematical language.


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Crossref Citations

1. Subject competency and teacher knowledge: An exploration of second-year pre-service mathematics teachers’ difficulties in solving logarithmic problems using basic rules for logarithm
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doi: 10.29333/mathsciteacher/13887