Original Research

Relative difficulty of early grade compare type word problems: Learning from the case of isiXhosa

Ingrid E. Mostert
Pythagoras | Vol 41, No 1 | a538 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/pythagoras.v41i1.538 | © 2020 Ingrid E. Mostert | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 03 March 2020 | Published: 21 December 2020

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Ingrid E. Mostert, Centre for Education Practice Research, Faculty of Education, University of Johannesburg, Soweto, South Africa

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Word problems form an important part of the early grade mathematics curriculum in South Africa. Studies have shown that the relative difficulty of word problems differ: learners are more likely to solve certain types of word problems than others, with compare type problems being the most difficult. In order to help early grade learners understand and solve compare problems, it is important to understand the relative difficulty of different types of compare type problems and the factors that contribute to their relative difficulty. While these factors have been studied in English, less research has attended to word problems in other languages, such as isiXhosa. In this study a typology of isiXhosa compare type (difference unknown) word problem was set up. The typology included two dimensions, namely the problem situation and the comparative question. The relative difficulties of specific word problems from this typology were compared by analysing the results from an early grade mathematics assessment administered to two cohorts of Grade 1–3 isiXhosa learners in five rural Eastern Cape schools. The analysis showed that in isiXhosa, as in English, some compare type problems are easier to solve than others. Problems with ‘matching’ situations are easier to solve than problems with ‘no matching’ situations. Problems with alternatively formulated comparative questions, specifically those using -shota or kangakanani, are easier to solve than those using a more classic formulation. This study highlights the importance of understanding the ways in which African languages express mathematical ideas in order to identify and leverage affordances for teaching and learning mathematics.


word problems; early grade mathematics; compare problems; isiXhosa; mathematical language


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