Language matters: Linguistics and early grade reading education

By Evelyn Rupert

March 29, 2018

MEXICO CITY — Special characters in Hausa, diacritics in Arabic and a rich landscape of Bantu languages in Mozambique: Linguistics must play a central part in designing and teaching early grade reading, a panel of experts said at the Comparative and International Education Society’s 2018 Conference.

“We need to think more than reading, we need to think language,” said Fathi El-Ashry, Senior Associate for the Instructional Systems and Governance Practice Area at Creative Associates International. He said that this requires going “beyond reading.”

Speaking on a March 28 CIES panel entitled “Language Matters: How Language Impacts Reading Instruction,” El-Ashry and other early grade reading specialists shared insights from across the globe and discussed how education must consider not only the mother tongue languages of students, but also the linguistic implications of those languages on materials, curricula and instruction.

“When we say language matters, it matters because we all work through it. If we talk about reading instruction, learning to read or reading to learn, we are working within the frame of the language,” El-Ashry said.

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Panelists Agatha Van Ginkel, Fathi El-Ashry, Samima Patel, Bilyaminu Bello and Penelope Bender at CIES.

Building consensus around dialects

In Afghanistan and elsewhere, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Creative and partners have worked closely with education ministries to produce and disseminate early grade reading materials.

Agatha Van Ginkel of SIL LEAD, who works on the Afghan Children Read program, described the lengthy process of drafting, testing and revising textbooks, workbooks and teacher guides in collaboration with the Ministry of Education.

She said that in the process of creating these standardized materials, the project encountered differences in dialects within the country’s official languages, Dari and Pashto, requiring some revisions to make the textbooks easily understood by all.

“One of the things we did was we looked at the stories and as much as possible and tried to make sure the words are used in both dialects,” she said. “Still, that wasn’t sufficient, so for the teachers there is now a glossary at the back of the book where they can look up some of the words.”

In Mozambique, the official language is Portuguese, but a wide array of Bantu languages are prevalent; in rural areas, less than 2 percent of people may speak Portuguese.

In designing teaching materials in three mother tongue languages, the USAID-funded Vamos Ler! (Let’s Read!) program had to navigate this diverse map of languages, dialects and variations of dialects to work toward increasing literacy in two provinces.

Samima Patel, Reading Specialist for Vamos Ler!, said this context presents a challenge for building consensus around teaching materials. She recommended bringing together a diverse group of authors who speak different variations and can agree on text that can bridge those linguistic divides.

“In some cases, it’s very easy when the variants are similar and you can standardize across the language. But in other cases, there’s a lot of negotiation on which variant to use and which one to standardize,” she said.

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The Vamos Ler! (Let’s Read!) program in Mozambique is working to bridge the gap between local languages and Portuguese, the national language. Photo by Leopoldino Jeronimo.

Making materials accessible to students

In his presentation focused on young Arab students, El-Ashry noted several characteristics of modern standard Arabic that can hinder early grade reading.

Arabic script itself, in which the shape of letters change depending on their position in a word, can be challenging for young learners. And in Arabic writing, vowels and diacritics – marks that signal pronunciation and grammar – are often omitted, including in learning materials. But for students learning modern standard Arabic, these gaps can make pronunciation and comprehension more difficult.

“Kids in Arab countries face unusual challenges when they have to learn in standard Arabic,” El-Ashry said. “Arabic families look at standard Arabic as a different form of the language.”

El-Ashry said textbooks should be mindful of young students’ limited ability to use context clues to discern a word’s meaning. Maintaining vowels and diacritics, at least until students are comfortable with the language, is key to learning, he said.

El-Ashry also added that material design should not fall into using cramped script and instead rely on short words and sentences with generous spacing to facilitate reading.

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The Northern Education Initiative Plus program in Nigeria provides schools with educational materials in Hausa, the local language. Photo by Erick Gibson.

Training teachers and improving instruction

Panelists agreed that developing materials is only part of the early grade reading picture. Instructional time with well-trained teachers is essential to make the material come to life for students.

Bilyaminu Bello, Hausa Reading and Standards Specialist for the Northern Education Initiative Plus project in Nigeria said extensive “cascade” teacher training is being conducted for bilingual Hausa-English education that includes extensive practice on the local language. Hausa is the most common language in Northern Nigeria.

“The initial training we provided got the teachers more familiar with the concepts and then more familiar with the sounds,” Bello said. “For some teachers, Hausa is not their first language, and there are challenges in pronouncing special characters.”

Van Ginkel of SIL LEAD said that teaching early grade reading in Afghanistan also requires moving away from Western methods that prioritize individual letter sounds.

“People don’t perceive sounds, they perceive syllables,” she said. “So, it’s better to use more of a syllabic approach to teaching reading.”

Reflecting on the panelists’ presentations, discussant Penelope Bender, Head of Global Education Services at Burda Education, said better understanding the intricacies of local languages will continue to hone early grade reading initiatives.

“Some languages require more of teachers than other languages,” she said. “I think that the more that we work on instruction in different countries, the more we’re coming to learn that the languages that we might have thought were transparent actually really aren’t, and there’s more work to be done.”

Attending CIES?

To visit Creative’s CIES 2018 Special Report hub, click here.

For a full schedule of Creative’s CIES 2018 panels, including panelists, times and locations, click here. In addition to the panel sessions, stop by booth 54 to engage with education experts and to learn more about Creative’s global projects. Follow us on Twitter @1977Creative for live updates.

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