In the third-grade classroom at Ecole Patti, near Makalondi in Niger’s Tilaberri Region, four Fulani girls huddle around a single textbook.
Asked by the teacher to read aloud, their fingers point to the words on the page one by one—but the only words that are spoken come from the teacher standing beside them prompting them for almost every word.
While it’s a given that learning outcomes are affected when students must share a textbook among four students, this is not a textbook issue - it is a language issue.
The language issue
There are 10 ethnic groups in Niger, with 10 different local languages. However, under Niger’s traditional primary school curriculum, students learn in French with teachers who only speak French, but not the local languages.
When the girls move outside for break, the teacher expresses her frustration: “It is really difficult to teach students who understand nothing but their own local language,” she says. “It is painful, frustrating and challenging because I have to ask a question so many times before they start to understand.”
It is a scene that has played out in schools across Niger since the colonial era, but with the support of the Global Partnership for Education, will soon become a thing of the past.
Niger has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. In 2008, Niger’s Ministry of Education began the process of curriculum reform, and two years ago piloted a new curriculum in 500 schools in three regions of the country, including Niamey, the capital. The new curriculum uses local language almost exclusively in the early grades and gradually introduces more and more French over students’ six years of primary school.
A US$84.2 million grant from the Global Partnership for Education is making this possible, along with support from AFD and the Swiss Cooperation. Part of the program focuses on improving the quality of teaching and learning by providing new learning materials, reviewing the curriculum, and providing pre-service and in-service training for teachers.
As of August, the GPE grant has helped to expand the country’s initiative and develop textbooks and teacher guides in three local languages (buduma, gulmancema and tubu) for grades 1, 2 and 3. The GPE grant also helped the development of guidelines in local languages for preschool teachers and about 2,950 teachers, inspectors, pedagogic advisors, trainers and school principals have received training in the new curriculum during the pilot phase. Because the program is moving swiftly, the Niger authorities decided to expand the pilot from 500 schools to 5,000 for the new school year (2017-2018) and to generalize the new curriculum for grade 1 to grade 3 in 2018.
The results are already impressive. Studies comparing student performance in traditional (Francophone) schools, Franco-Arabic schools and bilingual schools (where students learn in their mother tongue and French), found that bilingual schools ranked highest with French-speaking schools ranked last.
“Niger's case has really proved to be a lesson,” says Director General of l’Ecole Normale d’Instituteurs de Niamey, Mamadou Boubacar.
School Director, Namata Roukeyetou, agrees, having seen the benefits of the new curriculum first hand. Her school, Madina III Primary School in Niamey, is one of the 500 pilot schools.
“Since we started the reform two years ago, the students’ level of understanding has improved so much,” Ms. Roukeyetou says. “Because they started in their own language, they are more comfortable at school. Students are more confident, more open minded, and they express themselves so much more fluently—even when they are speaking French.”
Building up to French
French is by no means excluded from the new curriculum. It is being introduced, but only gradually.
“In the first grade, French is used only 30 minutes a day,” she explains. “In the second year, it is one hour a day; in the third grade it is 50-50 mother tongue and French; and by sixth grade, they will be using their mother tongue only about 10% of the time. Then, when students go on to seventh grade, they are ready for instruction entirely in French.”
Motivating parents, students and teachers
The only people who were initially opposed to the new approach to learning were those parents who had never been to school.
“They were really skeptical about their children using the local language at school,” says Ms. Roukeyetou. “But after seeing the results, they were convinced. And now they are very happy. When students go home and talk about what they learned, the parents can help them and this motivates everybody even more.”
Kadiadia N’Diaye, a second-grade teacher at Madina III Primary School, says she experiences the impact of the new curriculum every day.
“It was really hard to teach under the traditional system,” she explains. “The new curriculum makes it much easier. It is easy for me as a teacher because I can easily pass on the learning to the students. And it is easy for students because they receive everything in their own language. They are excited to be here; they are more involved in class; and they can understand what is being talked about.”
“But for me, the biggest difference is that, right from the first grade the children can easily read—flawlessly.”
Greater competencies for children
The pilot program started with just five languages in 500 schools, and based on initial assessments there are plans to expand it to 5000 more schools and add three more languages – and that is just the start.
“From what we have seen so far, the impact is clear: a child who is taught in his or her mother tongue understands much more of what is being taught,” says Ms. Yacoubou.
“What we are really heading towards here are greater competencies for children.”