Children learn better in their mother tongue. Part 2
International mother language day on February 21 celebrates using children’s early language skills to improve learning
International mother tongue day on February 21 celebrates using children’s early language skills to improve learning
February 18, 2016 by Chantal Rigaud, Global Partnership for Education|
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Children learn better in their mother tongue.

This was the title of one of our most popular blog posts, topping our monthly lists ever since it was first published in February 2014.

It would seem obvious that children can understand better what they are being taught if their teacher speaks the same language they’ve been hearing at home since they were born.

But in many developing countries, especially those where the number of different languages is high (did you know that Papua New Guinea holds the world’s record, with 820 languages?), the curriculum is usually developed in one of the national languages.

And when children first go to school, they may not understand a word their teacher says. Or worse, a teacher may not speak well enough the official language of instruction and thus may not be able to teach the children how to read successfully.

This is changing though, and some countries have embraced teaching in the children’s mother tongues during the early grades, with good results. Children who learn to read in their mother tongue first are usually able to transfer these skills to a second language a few years down the road.

The Global Partnership for Education supports mother tongue education as part of quality improvements in literacy. Because learning to read is a foundational skill that children need to master to be able to continue learning.

Here are a four examples from GPE partner countries.

The Gambia: a pilot program taken to scale

Children point to the word Baku on their classroom chalkboard

Children point to the word Baku on their classroom chalkboard

Photo Credit: GPE

The government of the Gambia has made reading proficiency and comprehension its priority. The government piloted successfully and evaluated three early literacy programs, which informed its current reading program.

One of the three initiatives piloted in 2011 was the Early Learning in National Languages (ELINL) program. The program was first implemented in 125 classrooms. Children were taught to read in one of the five national languages. During one hour every day, they learned letters one by one along with systematic combinations to blend into words.

When the pilot was evaluated in 2014 the results were striking. Gambian children who participated in the pilot performed better than other children in not only in the national language but also in English.

Apart from the ELINL, positive results were also obtained with Jolly Phonics (GATE) and the Serholt Early Grade Reading Ability (SEGRA) program. Encouraged by the results, the ministry developed a new early literacy program, which integrates elements of all three reading programs. The hybrid has been successfully introduced in all public schools nationwide since September 2015.

Supported by the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education, the program has led to the development of a unified approach to teaching literacy in early grades in the Gambia.

Pupil performance on English connected text reading, EGRA and ELINL comparison

Haiti: Learning to read in creole

Students working with Map li nèt ale workbooks at the Collège Mixte Joinvil in Port au Prince, Haiti

Students working with Map li nèt ale workbooks at the Collège Mixte Joinvil in Port au Prince, Haiti

Photo Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

Map li nèt ale means “I’m reading all the way” in creole. It was designed and funded by USAID and the World Bank as part of a $24.1 million grant financing from GPE to Haiti.

Typically, most schools in Haiti teach children in French, the second official language. The Map Li reading program provides a full course of reading instruction in creole for the first year of school, coupled with a companion textbook.

In class, the teacher receives support from a trained aide to ensure that children follow the steps closely and don’t fall behind. Close to 10,000 children in 299 schools are benefitting from the program.

The objective is to test this approach this school year and the next one and assess its impact compared to control schools where reading instruction remains the same. The results will be shared with the ministry of education, who will decide whether the approach can be spread to more schools and continued in second grade.

The original approach is resource-intensive and Haiti’s education budget is limited, so an adapted method is tested before potentially being used in more schools.

Eritrea: Covering all the bases in mother tongue education

One of the key components of the $25.3 million GPE grant to Eritrea aims to improve the quality of teaching and learning at all levels of education.

To do so, the ministry of education is using several entry points, one of them being to improve the preschool experience for young learners by developing standards translated into the 9 languages of the country.

A second entry point is to ensure that teachers have the required language skills, and so the ministry, in collaboration with the zoba offices (regional administrations) is recruiting grade 10 to 12 graduates to train some of them to be “mother tongue” teachers.

More than 100 teachers have been trained and certified so far. The expectation is that their presence will increase the number of children enrolled in primary school in the communities where they work.

A third entry point is the production of teaching materials in the nine languages: textbooks and audio recordings were produced and distributed to schools. Children are now able to read and listen to songs, poems and rhymes in a language they know.

Finally, the ministry has developed new learning assessments for Grades 3 and 5 students.  Children in these grades will now be able to take their math exams in Tigrinya or Afar, two of the country’s languages.

South Sudan: new learning assessments in 5 languages

Students sit around the room on a rug with their books in front of them. Gudele West BRAC Community Girls’ School, outside Juba. South Sudan. May 2013.

Students sit around the room on a rug with their books in front of them. Gudele West BRAC Community Girls’ School, outside Juba. South Sudan. May 2013.

Credit: GPE/David K. Bridges

In South Sudan, the inclusion of national languages in the curriculum is based on the country’s aspiration to promote multilingualism—in June 2015, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology organized a conference titled: “Unity in diversity through multilingualism for a peaceful South Sudan”—and on credible literature and evidence of the educational advantages of mother tongue usage to improve early learning. 

The South Sudan General Education Act of 2012 stipulates that early grade literacy should be taught in indigenous languages. The new national curriculum reflects this, with mother tongues used as a medium of instruction for early childhood development, and from grades 1 to 3

However, only 10% of learners who start grade 1 complete the primary cycle. To ensure effective learning in the early grades, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, with support from the Global Partnership for Education, identified five national languages to initiate an assessment system that will eventually become part of the national learner assessment procedures.  

Working with local linguists, the early grade reading and mathematics assessments (EGRA and EGMA) were adapted into these five languages, spoken by 65% of the population. They were administered to a sample of 250 learners as “diagnostic” assessments to determine literacy and numeracy in mother tongue as well as English literacy. 

The results are being used to inform the teaching and learning materials developed for early grade learners, as well as teacher training inputs. Both will be essential to achieve improved learning outcomes.

Share your story of mother tongue education

The Gambia, Haiti, Eritrea, South Sudan have embraced mother tongue education.

Do you know of other countries? Have you personally experienced what it’s like to learn something new in a language that you don’t understand?

Please share your experience in the comments.

With thanks to Tizie Maphalala, Fazle Rabbani, Ludovic Signarbieux and Josephine Kiyenje for their contributions to the country examples in this blog.

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Comments

If we want to make our children/youth global citizen, we must give them an opportunity to use their mother tongue or home language (L1), Official language (L2) and International language (English) in education. English is important to learn but first it is important for children or learners to have solid foundation in their familiar language or L1, ... so what is the "solid foundation"? It's concern, I think that L2 and English is so important for all learners to learn, but when is the best time to introduce it? These question's answers are become more important to promote multilingual education in basic education. "The International Mother Language Day (Feb 21) is an important day for all of us to advocate the importance of multilingual education. But I think, now time for action rather than reaction to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism through 'language, education and development' activities." Thank you!

We, the Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation (PCF) is a world-wide operating Non-profit organisation, head-quartered in Switzerland. We are committed to a holistic quality education for vulnerable children and youth, especially children form ethnic and linguistic minorities and the empowerment of their intercultural competences. To accomplish our mission we support local NGO’s in 11 countries around the world, some of them develop projects aiming to mainstream mother tongue education. For example, PCF’s project in Thailand, implemented by the local partner Foundation for Applied Linguis-tics (FAL), developed a project that focus on Mother-Tongue based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE). It was developed based on a MTB-MLE model for solving literacy problem in Thai language for ethnolin-guistic minority children established by the Thai Office of the Basic Education Commission (OBEC) and the Ministry of Education. Throughout the last 9 years, the project has implemented the Multilingual Education with its emphasis on Thai and mother languages in 6 pilot schools across 3 ethno linguistic minority communities. It focuses on helping students to learn the national language better and thus achieve national learning standards in every subject. As a result, school based curriculum in each language group from pre-school to grade 3 level of primary school are being developed. Students’ have completed primary schooling in ethnic and national languages, achieved their academic potential and become self-confident members of their multi-cultural society. Regarding advocacy for MTB-MLE, PCF developed within the International Education Network (IEN) an alternative report on “the Situation of Access to Quality and Relevant Education for Indigenous Children and Youth in Thailand”. It was submitted to the UN committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) in response to the 55th session of the UN Committee on ESCR. In October 2016, the 5th International Conference on Language and Education: Sustainable Development through Multilingual Education will take place in Bangkok, Thailand. Thank you for your attention Grégory Häuptli, Specialist PCF International Programme; Rahel Kölbener Intern PCF International Pro-gramme

Deciding on which language to use in a school in P1 is not alwways easy where there are many languages operating. In Papua New Guinea the advice was to choose the language which children play in. They actually learn more from each other than they do from the teacher. I was alarmed in South Sudan to hear that Juba Arabic was not considered as the language of instruction in early years in Juba. This is the language of choice of most children and parents. The prejudice against it is because many do not consider it a real language. This is the language children use on the palyground so this is what they should be first taught. It makes no sense to teach the arabic script with this as they need later to learn English, so they should learn using the Roman script, using Juba Arabic.

Seeing that each pilot program was monitored by experts, I am wondering how much of the marked improvement may be attributable to the presence of expert monitors or trained teacher aides, or to their general helpful suggestions made quite naturally at the same time that they were helping ordinary teachers implement the mother-tongue program. I can remember my own school days and how differently most teachers taught when the principal decided to sit in on a class! Surely *some* of the improvement would have occurred even without the focus on native language teaching. (Not all of it of course. I have no trouble agreeing that reading is best taught as closely connected as possible to the student's spoken language.)

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