Last year, Professor Jessica Ball presented with clarity the evidence that children learn better in their mother tongue. She explained that a child’s first language is the optimal language for early literacy and building foundational skills (UNESCO, 2008a). She also underlined that more research is needed on how best to prepare children in the early years for the mix of languages that will be used in primary school. How can we efficiently connect teaching in their mother tongue to teaching in a second language later on?
Teaching the foundational skills (early literacy and numeracy) and critical thinking in a language that the child speaks and understands is one of the most effective ways to reduce school failure and drop out in the early grades. And more importantly, these foundational skills significantly increase learning later on.
Addressing the learning crisis by teaching early literacy skills in mother tongues
2015 is the final year to reach the Millennium Development Goals which were established in 2000. Around the globe around 250 million children are still not learning basic literacy skills, even after four years of school.
This “learning crisis” primarily affects students from the lower socio-economic quartiles, rural and isolated communities and cultural and linguistic minorities, thus compounding existing inequalities (UNESCO GMR 2013/14).
However, it is encouraging to see that the evidence that young children learn better in their mother tongue is growing and comes from developing countries themselves. To address the massive learning crisis and reduce dropout rates in early grades, several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, have introduced mother tongue instruction in preschool.
This makes schools more welcoming for parents and communities. Most importantly, it allows teachers to communicate in a language that children understand.
Countries are also making additional efforts to better plan the transition from mother tongue instruction (Language 1 or L1) to a second language (L2) later on, often the official country language.
A good demonstrator of this effort is the Early Literacy in National Languages pilot program (ELINL) in the Gambia, supported by the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education.
The figure below extracted from a 2014 evaluation report (MoE 2014) shows promising results regarding the reading fluency in five national languages in the Gambia (correct words read per minute in connected text). Growing evidence in other literacy programs adopting similar methodologies (i.e. Malawi, Kenya, among others) also showed encouraging improvements in the foundational reading skills (USAID, 2014).
Fig. 1: Reading Fluency in five national languages the Gambia (data 2014)
The foundational skills acquired in the mother tongue are transferable to a second language
Field evidence confirms that students learning the foundational literacy skills in their mother tongue can transfer theses skills to a second language. In the Gambia, students who participated in the ELINL program and received additional instruction on reading in their mother tongue in one of the 5 national languages outperformed students who received only reading instruction in English (MoBSE, 2014).
Key components of a promising early literacy program in mother tongue
The ELINL program is now recognized as the most successful early literacy program in the Gambia and is under implementation at the national level with World Bank and GPE support. The key components of the program using multilingual education are the following:
The Gambia approach shows policy makers that a cost-effective, sustainable and country-owned program can successfully address the learning crisis in early grades that affects the most disadvantaged children.
Ultimately, by carefully planning transition policies and programs for the second language in a multilingual education context, the mother tongue programs can reinforce inclusiveness and success for students who are most likely to drop out or fail.
- Cross-language transfer of phonological awareness. Durgunoğlu, Aydin Y.; Nagy, William E.; Hancin-Bhatt, Barbara J. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 85(3), Sep 1993, 453-465. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-06126.96.36.1993
- Goswami U. The development of reading across languages. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008 Dec;1145:1-12. doi: 10.1196/annals.1416.018. Review. PubMed PMID: 19076385.
- Benson, C., & Kosonen, K. (Eds.) (2013). Language issues in comparative education: Inclusive teaching and learning in non-dominant languages and cultures. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
- Zafeirakou, A., (forthcoming, March 2015). Early Literacy for All students in their Language: how Gambia is scaling the reading reform. Washington DC. The Global Partnership for Education.
- The Early Literacy in National Languages Pilot Program, Year I, Ex-post Assessment. Prepared by Pei-tseng Jenny Hsieh for the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, the Gambia, 2013 (unpublished report)
- The Early Literacy in National Language Pilot Program, Year III evaluation Study. Prepared by Pei-tseng Jenny Hsieh for the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, the Gambia, 2014 (unpublished report).
- UNESCO 2008: UNESCO (2008a). Mother Tongue Matters: Local Language as a Key to Effective Learning. Paris: UNESCO.
- UNESCO (2008b). Mother tongue instruction in early childhood education: A selected bibliography. Paris: UNESCO.
- Education Data for Decision Making eddata II, USAID: https://www.eddataglobal.org/reading/index.cfm