Estimating the impact of language of instruction in South African primary schools: A fixed effects approach

Stellenbosch Working Paper Series No. WP21/2013
 
Publication date: 2013
 
Author(s):
[protected email address] (Department of Basic Education)
[protected email address] (Departement Ekonomie, Universiteit van Stellenbosch)
 
Abstract:

For many children around the world, access to higher education and the labour market depends on becoming fluent in a second language. This presents a challenge to education policy: when and how in the school programme should a transition to the second language occur? While a large theoretical literature exists, empirical evidence is limited by the difficulties inherent to measuring the causal effect of language of instruction. In South Africa, the majority of children do not speak English as their first language but are required to undertake their final school-leaving examinations in English. Most schools offer mother-tongue instruction in the first three grades of school and then transition to English as the language of instruction in the fourth grade. Some schools use English as the language of instruction from the first grade. In recent years a number of schools have changed their policy, thus creating within-school, cross-grade variation in the language of instruction received in the early grades. We use longitudinal data on school characteristics including language of instruction by grade, and student test score data for the population of South African primary schools. Simple OLS estimates suggest a positive correlation between English instruction in the first three grades and English performance in grades 4, 5 and 6. After including school fixed effects, which removes the confounding effects of selection into schools with different language policies, we find that mother tongue instruction in the early grades significantly improves English acquisition, as measured in grades 4, 5 and 6. The significance of this study is twofold. Firstly, it illustrates the power of school-fixed effects to estimate causal impacts of educational interventions. Secondly, it is the first South African study (and one of a very few international studies) to bring robust empirical evidence to the policy debate around language of instruction.

 
JEL Classification:

I24, I25, I28

Keywords:

Education, language of learning and teaching, South Africa, fixed effects

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BER Weekly

27 March 2017
Domestically, the economic data released last week was on the positive side. High commodity prices supported exports handsomely in the final quarter of 2016, resulting in a reduction in the deficit on the current account (CA). Meanwhile, consumer inflation eased in February as annual food price inflation moderated. Internationally, the March flash Purchasing...

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