Right to read: Joint efforts to provide books to minority-language learners

During this world-upending pandemic, ethnolinguistic minority learners are falling further through the cracks. Even if they have access to the technology necessary for distance learning, they will likely not receive content in their own language. Here is what organizations like UNESCO are doing to make sure minority learners don’t fall further behind.

February 09, 2021 by Nyi Nyi Thaung, UNESCO Bangkok Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, and Kristen Gracie, UNESCO Bangkok Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education
4 minutes read
Students at the reading corner during morning break. Somsanouk Primary School, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Students at the reading corner during morning break. Somsanouk Primary School, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR.
Credit: Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

A bedtime story or sharing your favorite book with a friend in class are treasured childhood experiences. Children from minority-language communities can miss these life-shaping moments, simply because there are no books available in their language. Without these books, it is difficult to learn to read, and to learn in school at all.

In the classroom, the impacts of this language barrier can be profound. These students are more likely to drop out of school and often struggle with the consequences of low literacy and poor educational attainment for the rest of their lives.

The pandemic is making learning harder for minority children

During the world-upending crisis of the pandemic, ethnolinguistic minority learners are falling further through the cracks.

Less than 30% of low- and middle-income countries have designed distance learning materials for speakers from minority-language communities.

Even if these students have access to the technology necessary for distance learning, they will likely not receive content in their own language. This widens the digital divide for already marginalized groups.

Regardless of the pandemic, however, the solution remains the same and begins with using a language the child already knows. Many studies show that mother tongue-based education is crucial to ethnolinguistic minority students succeeding in school.

Successful mother-tongue based education relies on children having access to books in their own languages first. These learning materials are fundamental to early education experiences that support them for the rest of their lives.

The simple idea of creating books in minority languages has provided a common goal for countless individuals and organizations to rally around. The Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group (MLE WG) is one of them, and is currently leading a series of webinars to support the teaching and learning of ethnolinguistic minority learners.

The most recent webinar focused on efforts to reach these learners with digital educational materials. This effort is driven by a strong, interconnected system of actors working together to make sure every child has access to reading materials in a language they understand. In the COVID-19 crisis, this work is all the more urgent in the absence of distance learning materials in minority languages.

Good practices from India in getting books in several languages

As schools closed in India, for example, the Pratham Education Foundation quickly activated a WhatsApp network to send learning activities to communities in 11 different languages. These learning materials met an urgent need as many of the government schools lacked digital content in regional languages.

The defining feature of Pratham’s efforts has been the use of partnerships. Beginning with existing relationships and networks and expanding as the crisis continued, Pratham has partnered with over 600 NGOs and 14 state governments to reach more than 12,000 communities.

Collaboration in this field extends to the global level in initiatives such as the ‘Translate a Story’ campaign. In light of school closures and the need for digital learning materials, the campaign was launched to create reading materials in local languages using the platforms African Storybook, StoryWeaver (Pratham), Global Digital Library and Let’s Read! (The Asia Foundation).

By rallying volunteer translators, this project was able to translate 6,614 books into more than 100 languages in just under two months. This was possible because the campaign was able to mobilize existing networks of translators that already had experience translating for minority language communities.

Collaboration and partnerships are key

These partnerships have worked effectively through the pandemic because of years of building trust and collaboration. For example, Bloom, a platform for creating, translating and sharing books, jointly decided with Pratham Books and The Asia Foundation to use creative commons licences so books in each of their libraries could be accessed by all learners.

The use of the creative commons licence illustrates the collaborative nature of this effort, extending beyond large global foundations and thriving on the contribution of minority language communities. Sharing materials under a creative commons license matters because speakers from these language communities are actively involved in creating, translating and distributing content.

This initiative can be seen in the Afghan Children Read project, in which participants from the Ministry of Education insisted on creating their own books to reflect their own values and culture. While translating existing books is quicker than creating original materials, culturally tailored materials are uniquely able to reflect the world that children know.

These learning materials will help improve literacy learning outcomes for Grades 1 to 3 students in Dari and Pashto. By using recognizable settings and content, these books support children’s learning and affirm their ways of life.

The project has already printed and distributed 595,000 early grade reading teaching and learning materials that do just this.

The leadership of translators, teachers and organizers from minority language communities makes it possible for children in these communities to experience the joy of reading.

Across the global movement, partnerships bind together the people and groups working from the local level in early childhood care centers and schools to the global level in governments and international organizations.

The response to the pandemic has proven the strength of these relationships and networks, and these are just a few examples of providing acutely needed learning materials in all languages.

Beyond the pandemic, these strong partnerships will be necessary to ensure education for all and meet the needs of the estimated 2.3 billion people who lack access to education in a language they speak.

Learn more about the MLE WG and sign up for the newsletter to receive information about the next webinar in the series on education for ethnolinguistic minority learners.

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