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5th March 2017
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5th March 2017


Excitement was in the air when matriculants of Westbury Secondary school received their matric certificates. Pass rate is 89%. Madelene Cronjé

Using home languages to support maths teaching

Hamsa Venkat & Lynn Bowie

In South Africa, language is often described as a “problem” or a barrier to successful learning. This view goes against international evidence that points to home language use at primary level supporting mathematics learning. In this article, we look at some ways in which language can be used as a resource in mathematics teaching in the early primary years.


In South Africa, national policy related to language encourages the use of home languages in the Foundation Phase. This links well to the evidence that says, simply, that it is helpful to learn in the language that one speaks at home. Without this, children are often in a situation where they are faced with the difficulty of trying to learn mathematics in a medium that they do not yet understand or possess any fluency in.

Learning the number words in the correct sequence is very important in early number learning. But teachers working with young children know that this is not easy! There are lots of words to remember, and they have to come in a specific order. When counting out objects, children have to keep track of the objects they have counted, the objects left to count, and the words they are saying alongside this tagging of objects.

The number words in English are particularly difficult for a host of reasons. After learning the words from “one” to “ten”, another set of words need to be learned to say the numbers from “eleven” to “twenty”. After twenty, a more regular pattern sets in with: twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, etc

Young children often get to “twenty-nine” but then say ‘twenty-ten’ because they know that ten follows nine. And similar problems come in after ‘thirty-nine’ and ‘forty-nine’ and so on. A new set of special words have to be learned for all the multiples of ten: twenty, thirty, forty, and so on.

In contrast to English, many of the South African languages have a much simpler and more regular structure. Look at the following table of numbers showing how to say the numbers from one to thirty in Sepedi:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
tee pedi tharo nne hlano tshela supa seswai senyane lesome
11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
lesome tee lesome pedi lesome tharo lesome nne lesome hlano lesome tshela lesome supa lesome seswai lesome senyane masome pedi
21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
masome pedi  tee masome pedi pedi masome pedi tharo masome pedi nne masome pedi hlano masome pedi tshela masome pedi supa masome pedi seswai masome pedi senyane masome tharo

Neither of us are Sepedi speakers, but we both began by learning the number names for one to ten. Beyond this, paying some attention to the patterns and structure that we can see emerging in this table allows us to ‘construct’ the number names for the next line. We can see the following patterns:

11 is “lesome tee” or, literally, “ten, one” (10 and 1, if we write this using the number symbols)

12 is “lesome pedi” which is “ten, two” (10 and 2)

13 is “lesome tharo”, “ten, three” (10 and 3)

We can follow this pattern through to 19, and we then see that 20 is “masome pedi”. Here, the prefix for some has changed from le- to ma-. The “ma” tells us that we have a plural number of tens, and the “pedi” that follows “masome” tells us that we now have two 10s, not one 10 as before. After 20, the same pattern seen before repeats itself:

21 is “masome pedi tee” – “twenty, one” (20 and 1), and so on.

Unlike in English, where a new word needs to be learned for 30, the pattern seen above continues in Sepedi:

30 is “masome tharo” – “tens – three”

What is important is that we are paying attention to the patterns and structure of how numbers get built up in Sepedi rather than trying to remember a long sequence of numbers.

This is important for teaching. We think that paying attention to the structure of number names in Sepedi is the more important aspect to focus on after learning the number names for 1-20, rather than trying to teach children to learn long lists of number names. Learning how numbers are constructed allows children to create larger number names for themselves using the rules of the pattern. Tasks for focusing on these rules include questions like these:

  1. 34 is masome ______ nne
  1. Jabu says 46 is masome nne tshela

Thuli says 46 is lesome nne tshela

Who is correct — Jabu or Thuli?

We would use 10 sticks and unit squares to help children to see what these numbers look like as quantities — for example, 34 is shown below:

We enjoyed extending our learning of number names to an unfamiliar language. Our thanks to Manono Mdluli, a colleague and lecturer in the Wits School of Education for teaching us how to construct the numbers up to 99 (so far) in Sepedi.

Start a Wits Maths Circle at your school!

Each month, we will set a maths problem for you to think about and try. You can try it on your own, with colleagues in your school, with your learners or with your own children. Or all of these! You can email your solutions to us and/or bring them along to a Wits Maths Circles event for primary teachers at the Wits School of Education that we will hold on March 23, from 2.30 – 4.30 pm, Room M4, Wits School of Education. Our aim is to discuss different participants’ ways of thinking about the problems that we set— it will be a relaxed environment for all of us to share and discuss our different approaches.


Let us know if you want to come to the Wits Maths Circle event on March 23 ar this address: And you can email solutions to us through this address as well — write “Wits Maths Circles-January problem” in the subject line.


Wits Maths Circles is an initiative focused on primary mathematics teacher development through building platforms and spaces for primary teachers to work on mathematics –— for themselves and for their teaching — in fun, supportive and non-threatening ways. It is an initiative built on a partnership between the Wits Maths Connect Primary project at Wits and the Teacher newspaper. The “ticket” for entry to a Wits Maths Circle event is some work on one or more of the problems that have been set in the Teacher during that term.

Wits Maths Circles – January Problem

The problem below is from the NRICH website — a really good source for interesting maths problems.



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