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
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.
Haiti: Learning to read in creole
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
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.