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

  • Stephen Taylor


    (Department of Basic Education)

  • Marisa Coetzee


    (Departement Ekonomie, Universiteit van Stellenbosch)

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.

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Paper provided by Stellenbosch University, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number 21/2013.

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Date of creation: 2013
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Handle: RePEc:sza:wpaper:wpapers197
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  1. Joshua Angrist & Aimee Chin & Ricardo Godoy, 2006. "Is Spanish-Only Schooling Responsible for the Puerto Rican Language Gap?," NBER Working Papers 12005, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. van der Berg, Servaas, 2008. "How effective are poor schools? Poverty and educational outcomes in South Africa," Center for European, Governance and Economic Development Research Discussion Papers 69, University of Goettingen, Department of Economics.
  3. Casale, Daniela & Posel, Dorrit, 2011. "English language proficiency and earnings in a developing country: The case of South Africa," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 40(4), pages 385-393, August.
  4. Ivlevs, Artjoms & King, Roswitha M., 2014. "2004 Minority Education Reform and pupil performance in Latvia," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 38(C), pages 151-166.
  5. Katherine Eriksson, 2014. "Does the language of instruction in primary school affect later labour market outcomes? Evidence from South Africa," Economic History of Developing Regions, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 29(2), pages 311-335, December.
  6. Servaas van der Berg & Cobus Burger & Ronelle Burger & Mia de Vos & Gideon du Rand & Martin Gustafsson & Eldridge Moses & Debra Shepherd & Nicholas Spaull & Stephen Taylor & Hendrik van Broekhuizen & , 2011. "Low quality education as a poverty trap," Working Papers 25/2011, Stellenbosch University, Department of Economics.
  7. Angrist, Joshua D & Lavy, Victor, 1997. "The Effect of a Change in Language of Instruction on the Returns to Schooling in Morocco," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 15(1), pages S48-76, January.
  8. Joshua D. Angrist & Jörn-Steffen Pischke, 2009. "Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist's Companion," Economics Books, Princeton University Press, edition 1, number 8769, 01-2013.
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