Why involving parents make sense in mother tongue education
An innovative programme in Ugandan schools is showing how parental involvement in mother tongue and early childhood education strengthens primary school outcomes for children, unlocks adult literacy and puts parents at the heart of their children’s education.
February 18, 2016 by Lucy Maina, Africa Educational Trust
7 minutes read
A Grandmother reads with her grandchildren, Bushenyi District, Uwezo Uganda Credit: Hamis Adam/Save the Children

In Uganda, like many multilingual countries, children face pressure to start their education in the dominant regional or international language, leaving their mother tongue at the school gate. Yet the evidence is that this does not serve children well.

Existing academic research (Bell 2011) has shown that instruction in the local or home language is important for the child’s cognitive, linguistic and academic performance. Further, it is better to allow a child to become highly proficient at basic skills in their home language, with six to eight years of academic instruction in this medium before engaging in academic work in a second language.

Yet language of instruction remains controversial

Despite this evidence, the socio-political implications of language instruction means that controversy remains over education in local, mother-tongue language versus the dominant regional or international language.

Uganda has a complicated history in language education. At various periods different regional languages and Kiswahili as well as English have been promoted as languages of instruction.  Parental and community feelings about language of instruction were often inevitably linked to their own hopes for their children’s education.

While some parents placed a social value on their local language, most parents’ primary concern was for their children’s economic well-being, which they saw as being best served by being proficient either in English or Luganda, the dominant regional languages.

Prior to the mother tongue project starting, Ugandan parents shared the views found in other bilingual communities such as in Peru or Vietnam (Buchman & Trudell 2008), where a high value was placed on international languages, and local language instruction was seen to represent ‘second-class education’.

Changing minds by teaching parents

Africa Educational Trust (AET) has been working together with Literacy and Adult Basic Education (LABE) to supports local language instruction in Northern Uganda. The project operates through both schools and community-run home early learning centres with the aim to improve learning outcomes and reduce drop-out rates.

Ongoing parental involvement throughout all aspects of the project has been key to winning parental support for mother tongue education. The AET project has taken the innovative approach of incorporating adult education alongside primary school education.

Northern Uganda as a region has the highest rate of adult illiteracy, largely the legacy of 20 years of conflict: most adults in this region never had the chance to attend school. The AET project gives parents the chance to attend literacy classes in their home language, learning alongside their children once a week at the government-run primary schools and also through classes at the community-run home learning centres.

As a result newly literate and numerate parents can engage with local businesses, health care and education services: they see the immediate benefits of mother tongue language education, which gives them confidence in the strategy for their children’s schooling.

This approach also strengthened ties between parents and teachers and increased parents’ involvement in their children’s education. Parents actively participate in learning activities within the school and the home learning center and support the creation and use of learning materials. A similar program in Papua New Guinea (Benson 2010) found that parental input aided production of more culturally relevant curricula and learning materials.

The results: higher enrollment, lower dropout

Mother tongue education has made significant inroads into addressing some major problems that the education sector faced. It has led to higher enrollment and retention in schools in Northern Uganda, where the drop-out rate is among the highest in the country.

In three years, schools using mother tongue as the medium of instruction have increased their overall enrollment by 35%, with a higher rate of 38% for girls, reflecting evidence that local language education is particularly important for girls (Benson 2001). Initial improvements in academic performance were observed, though further follow-up is needed to confirm long-term impacts on student’s performance.

In the face of these benefits, an evaluation after three years of the project found no resistance among parents, educators or local officials towards using mother tongue as a language of instruction, and widespread support for the project to continue.

To hear more about parental involvement with mother-tongue and early childhood education, please register for our webinar with Dr. Alison Clark and Stellah Tumwebaze, Executive Director of LABE.

Learn about more about education in Uganda and GPE support


Benson, Carol (2001), Bilingual Education in Africa: An Exploration of Encouraging Connections Between Language and Girls’ Schooling Stockholm, Sweden: Stockholm University http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Benson, Carol (2004), The Importance of Mother Tongue-based Schooling for Educational Quality Stockholm, Sweden: UNESCO

Benson, Carol (2010), Real and Potential Benefits of Bilingual Programmes in Developing Countries. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism London, United Kingdom: Routledge

Bell, Jessica (2011), Enhancing Learning of Children from Diverse Language Backgrounds: Mother Tongue-Based Bilingual or Multilingual Education in the Early Years Paris, France: UNESCO http://bit.ly/1WpkZHZ

Büchmann, Dörthe & Trudell (2008), Barbara Mother Tongue Matters: Local Language as Key to Effective Learning Paris, France: UNESCO http://bit.ly/1WpkZHZ

Heugh, Kathleen (2013) An Evaluation of the Literacy and Basic Education (LABE) Mother Tongue Education Project. Australia: University of South Australia http://africaeducationaltrust.org/our-resources/

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Literacy, Mother tongue
Sub-Saharan Africa: Uganda

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