Shattering the misconceptions about Grade R teaching and learning

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File photo: African News Agency (ANA)

With elections done and dusted and a new cabinet finally in place some have noted that the ministries looking after education are as ‘idealess as they are visibly tired…that SA education is going nowhere’. Its not hard to see some truth in that when we consider that despite progress the overall education landscape is defined by inequality of opportunity, access, and quality.

Nowhere is this inequality more profound when you consider that educational achievement is ‘locked in’ from the earliest years of schooling. It is entrenched and compounded from year to year as children progress through our education system, failing them and society, resulting in an ever-widening gulf between middle class and working class, between well- and poorly resourced, between urban and rural, between, still, white and black.  Early education in South Africa does indeed face a steep learning curve.

Early childhood education is, by definition, from birth to 8/9 years (Grade 3). In SA however, ECD typically refers to birth to 4 years and, further, often neglects the 5-6 year old Grade R focus. What this means is that children, especially poor black children, are not effectively prepared for school entry and that this deficit is never really made up, dragging educational achievement downwards for both the child and system. The shape and nature of this lack of efficacy in preparedness is brought into sharp relief around mathematics and literacy. These are cornerstones of educational achievement throughout schooling and indeed post-schooling –fundamental conceptual building blocks that shape educational milestones in years to come even beyond school into FET and career.

We know from sensational headlines how poor mathematics and literacy performance is in South Africa compared to other nations. What is less known is that the purpose and importance of mathematics learning in the early years is not properly understood or valued in our country. This is because of misconceptions around how mathematics skills and ideas develop or how best to approach the teaching of mathematics concepts and fundamentals.

Generally, there is very little understanding about what constitutes early literacy and mathematics and the conceptual underpinning that informs later learning in Grade 1 and beyond. There is also not enough South African research into early mathematics learning and teaching resulting in us continually adapting lessons from elsewhere for our context, to poor results.

What is also not well understood is what mathematics is actually about. Many, including teachers, think mathematics at the Grade R level is about learning identify and say numbers out loud, adding and subtracting. But mathematics, even at a Grade R level – or especially at that level – involves learning the language that makes use of symbols and notations for describing numerical, geometric and graphical relationships. It is a human activity that involves observing, representing and investigating patterns and qualitative relationships in physical and social phenomena and between mathematical objects themselves.

According to Brenneman et al (2009), young children’s competence in the things we think of as mathematics is quite considerable:

“Young children possess considerable competence in numerical operations, geometry and spatial relationships, measurement, algebraic thinking, and data analysis. Most pre-schoolers count verbally, which serves as an explicit sign to adults of the child’s burgeoning number skills. However, research suggests that children have a basic understanding of one-to-one correspondence even before they can enumerate a set of objects verbally. Without counting, they can match up two sets of items or point to items in a collection, labelling each with a number, even if it is not the correct number. Evidence also suggests that they can make a matching collection for one that is not visible but is mentally represented. For example, a toddler who retrieves two dog treats for two pets in another room is saying, in effect, ‘This [one] is for [the first dog], and this [one] is for [the second dog].’ Such intuitive understandings and everyday applications of knowledge may help lay the groundwork for later understandings of numerical equivalence and operations, such as addition and subtraction.”

These academics also say that as important as cognitive concepts, mathematics and literacy in Grade R requires that a child understands how they themselves move in the world. learning via interacting to shape and influence things around them. Kids learn through playing with puzzles and games, nature and the environment, toys and all sorts of objects. This, per researchers, helps kids develop their spatial sense and skills. It goes without saying that this is difficult to do with no puzzles or games, where resources are absent, where the school outdoor spaces are not only lacking but unsafe.

What is interesting is that even where there is quality in teaching and learning in Grade R (when children are 5 turning 6), research tells us that the optimal learning years for mathematics and literacy are between the ages of 3 and 5. Formal teaching, which Grade R forms part of, is thus compensatory from the outset resulting in a deficit-based approach. This is compounded when accounting for factors such as home language versus medium of instruction, level of parent education and their comfort in the instructional languages, time available for working class parents to spend with their children reading and writing, and similar interweaving variables forming an ecosystem of learning in which the child’s mind, body & wellbeing is situated.

Until our education system shatters the misconceptions about Grade R teaching and learning that stubbornly prevail and effectively resource and deliver quality Grade R education, our school system will continue hobble learners from the outset of formal schooling. Understanding the importance of Grade R, what it is, how it should be taught, that it is part of Foundation Phase teaching and not preschool, is fundamental to entrenching Grade R in South Africa, ensuring a greater likelihood of learner and school success in later years.


Cally Kuhne is the Early Childhood Development Stream Leader at the Schools Development Unit, University of Cape Town and worked in this field focusing on education of 5 to 9 year olds for over 30 years. 

Ayesha Fakie is the Head of the Schools Development Unit, School of Education, UCT.