Mother language instruction gains traction but challenges remain, say experts at CIES

By Jillian Slutzker

March 10, 2017

ATLANTA—Development donors and ministries of education increasingly recognize the value of mother language instruction and literacy, but applying it in the classroom is a complex and challenging task, said experts at the Comparative and International Education Society conference on March 9.

“I have never found anyone who would disagree of the value and importance of teaching a child to read in the language that they understand and the language of their home and family,” said Maria Davidson, Senior Reading Specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development, speaking on a panel called “Learning to Read in Mother Tongue: Challenges and Opportunities.”

But issues quickly arise in moving from policy created at the ministry down to the classroom, especially in multilingual countries.

Policymakers and educators encounter must consider multiple languages among students and teachers in a single classroom, limited teacher capacity to teach the language, few in-language books and resources and differing views among community, parents and states on the importance of a particular language.

The case for mother language instruction

“The issue of the language you’re taught in is a lot more than words on a paper. We know that it is connected to your sense of who you are.”

Diane Prouty, Senior Education Research Specialist in Instructional Systems and Governance at Creative

Which language students hear and learn to read first in school, and whether it matches the language they think in and speak at home, can have multifaceted affects, explained panel chair Diane Prouty, Senior Education Research Specialist in Instructional Systems and Governance at Creative Associates International.

“The issue of the language you’re taught in is a lot more than words on a paper,” said Prouty. “We know that it is connected to your sense of who you are. It can reflect a lot of inequities in a country. Whether it is validated or not can affect your mental and emotional growth and your life outcomes.

UNESCO reports that children learn best in a language they can understand; yet up to 40 percent of children around the world do not have access to education in a language they speak and comprehend. The report also highlights that being in taught in a language other than one’s mother tongue can cause minority language speakers to fall behind and experience long-term detriments to learning outcomes.

Alternatively, as panelists pointed out, when students are able to build literacy and learning skills in their mother language first, they have a stronger chance of continued success in school.

This then makes for a more successful transition to a second language of instruction, such as English or Portuguese, as students move from lower to upper primary grades, said Prouty.

“The first language you learn in is a foundation for learning in a subsequent language,” she said.

In cases where learners have more than one mother language spoken at home, educators should ideally “use learners’ strongest languages if possible at the beginning to build on those skills,” said panel discussant Carol Benson, associate professor at the Teachers College of Columbia University.

Benson also noted that the focus on mother language instruction should not stop after early grades but should be addressed beyond primary levels and in adult instruction.

Nigeria: The will to improve learning through mother language

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In Tanzania (pictured above), Afghanistan, Nigeria, Zambia and other countries, Creative works with Ministries of Education to develop mother language storybooks to support student learning.

Nigeria’s northeastern states of Bauchi and Sokoto are in a state of education emergency—home to some of the highest numbers of out-of-school children in the country, poor reading scores and high levels of school dropout. Early grade reading instruction is ineffective and is primarily taught in English in an area where most students speak Hausa at home.

“We know that if you don’t have early grade reading solidly embedded within your program you are not going to manage to get children to primary 4 and up the ladder. You’ll have a lot of dropouts and problem will be exacerbated without children being able to read,” said Joy du Plessis, Senior Reading Specialist with the Northern Education Initiative Plus.

The project, which is funded by USAID and implemented by Creative, seeks to improve access and quality of education for more than 2 million school-aged children and youth.

In an effort to boost student learning, the project is working hand-in-hand with the two states’ education commissioners to implement a Hausa early grade reading program in first to third grades, with a transition to English in grade four.

“There is a strong political will in both states. We have really strong leadership,” said du Plessis.

In addition to rolling out a new Hausa curriculum series, called “Mu Karanta! Let’s Read,” the project and its local partners have undertaken a robust effort to equip teachers with skills to effectively teach Hausa.

They have trained more than 500 master trainers and are working with pre-service teacher training colleges to incorporate mother language literacy courses.

Du Plessis added that some parents were once resistant to the idea of mother language instruction in school, preferring private schools that exclusively taught English. But after seeing the rollout of the Hausa curriculum, which reflects their own language and culture, many have been enrolling their children in public schools.

“Once parents see the materials and stories and know what they stories are about…. We are getting a lot of positive feedback on that,” she said.

The project team is buoyed by this positive reception of the Hausa curriculum and the political will of education authorities to help teachers teach and students learn better in their mother tongue.

However, significant challenges remain, said du Plessis, including building a library of Hausa books for new readers and strengthening the capacity of teachers, some of whom may lack skills in the language or may be speakers of another mother tongue,

Mozambique: Language mapping and collaboration at the start

In Mozambique, a country with more 24 spoken languages and an official language of Portuguese, the debate over language of instruction is longstanding.

In the 1990s, a small group of forward thinking Mozambican educators from the Ministry of Education introduced an experiment with bilingual education. Since then, the program has continued in “fits and starts,” explained panelist Corrie Blankenbeckler, Senior Education Associate at Creative. The program allows for communities themselves to decide whether or not to use bilingual instruction—a bottom-up approach that, while garnering buy-in at the local level, has also led to inconsistency with little formal structure or support, Blankenbeckler said.

Today, as part of Vamos Ler! Let’s Read! Program team, she is looking back at that period to learn from what worked and what didn’t, particularly the benefits and drawbacks of bottom-up versus top-down mother language implementation.

The program is funded by USAID and implemented by Creative, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education (MINEDH) and in partnership with World Education Inc., American Institutes for Research, Overseas Consulting Group, and blueTree Group. The program is designed to develop bilingual education pedagogical tools and activities, improve national early grade literacy policies and delivery and monitoring systems, enhance school leadership and increase parental and community engagement in early grade literacy.

At this beginning stage, Blankenbeckler and her colleagues are joining with the Ministry of Education to conduct several situation analyses, including language mapping. They will examine questions including: What does the community prefer in language instruction? What languages are most familiar to kids and to what degree? And what are the community perceptions around these languages?

“This collaboration and community is key to the project’s success and to ensuring the curriculum achieves its aims of improving early grade reading and learning outcomes,” she said. “We need to take a step back and think about the linguistic and cultural issues in these programs when we want to introduce multiple languages.”

The project team is also looking carefully at the “transition” to all Portuguese instruction after third grade, recognizing that eliminating local language instruction altogether after children learn to read their mother language may not be optimal for their learning.

To think through these issues, the project has developed a bilingual working group of government education authorities, donors, nongovernmental organizations, teachers and community groups.

While the complexities of bringing mother language instruction into the classroom are significant, whether in Mozambique, Nigeria or elsewhere, the global education community is convinced of its benefits to learners and committed to finding solutions.

“We feel compelled to stay vigilant and stay focused on finding solutions,” said USAID’s Davidson. “We hope that as time goes on we’ll find more ways to support and more solutions to some of these challenges that have been raised.”

To visit Creative’s CIES 2017 Special Report hub, click here

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