Inside the READ Act - part two

“In a language children understand"

- by SIL LEAD Executive Director, Dr. Paul Frank

In my previous post, I talked about the READ Act and the Administration’s strategy for implementing the Act. In this post, I want to look at the strategy from the vantage point of minority language communities.

The strategy highlights the learning crisis:

  • “387 million children of primary school age (56 percent) are not reaching the minimum proficiency level in reading and math.” (p.7)

We agree wholeheartedly with this assessment and also with one of the factors the strategy cites that contributes to this crisis:

  • “Where students do have books, most are poor quality, and often they are written in languages they do not understand.” (p.7)

That’s an aspect of the learning crisis that we particularly resonate with and can actually do something about. Far too often, education is being delivered—in both written and spoken forms—in a language that kids do not speak or understand. That’s a recipe for failure.

Since 2011, USAID has placed great emphasis on improving children’s ability to read in the early grades. Another aspect of the READ Act and strategy that we especially appreciate is that it covers a broader range of ages and needs, from early childhood to workforce development. In our experience, many children in developing country contexts are not ready to learn to read when they come to school. Whether it is nutrition, health, or “print awareness”, we need to help children become ready for school—ready to learn to read. This new strategy holds out hope that the early childhood piece of the puzzle will receive more attention in the next few years.

One of the key objectives of the strategy is to “Expand access to quality basic education for all, particularly marginalized and vulnerable populations” (p.4). Although when defining marginalized groups, the READ Act and strategy do not list language as a source of marginalization*, the Act’s definition of marginalized and vulnerable groups does mention ethnic minorities and indigenous people. Such groups often speak a non-dominant language while the education system is based on dominant languages.

Children that receive a strong foundation at an early age have a greater chance at success later in life.

The strategy specifically prioritizes helping “individuals who experience discrimination and marginalization.” There are no doubt many ways in which people are marginalized, but people within non-dominant language communities often experience discrimination and exclusion because of their language. When a child’s language is not accepted at school—explicitly or implicitly—she can experience discrimination and be at a disadvantage relative to children whose language is used in school.

We applaud the strategy’s call for “quality education programs that are inclusive and culturally sensitive...and are accessible in local languages, particularly for indigenous communities and ethnic minorities” (p.42, emphasis added). We feel privileged to have had an opportunity over the past seven years to participate in U.S. Government-funded education projects that include local languages in Uganda, Ethiopia, Nepal, Afghanistan, Senegal, Ghana, DRC, Mozambique, Guatemala, among other countries. We look forward to many more opportunities to make our contribution in programs initiated under this new strategy.

In light of the above, I find it curious that the strategy says, “U.S. Government programs, where appropriate, will encourage schools to utilize student-centered learning and to teach in a language children speak and understand” (p.32, emphasis added). On one hand, it is encouraging to see this explicit mention of the importance of the choice of language in education. On the other hand, we might ask when is it not appropriate to “teach in a language children speak and understand”? Many of us involved in international education and reading would argue that it is critical that children be able to effectively communicate with their teacher and peers in a language they all speak and understand. But that’s the focus of my next post.

  • The strategy lists three broad groups: 1. Children and youth affected by crisis and conflict, especially those who are displaced; 2. Individuals who experience discrimination and marginalization, including girls; and 3. Children and youth vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exploitation, particularly child laborers, married adolescents, and victims of trafficking (p.38).

Paul Frank Sketch.jpg

Paul Frank, PhD, is SIL LEAD’s Executive Director. As one of SIL LEAD’s founders, Paul brings 30 years of experience working with language issues in developing country contexts.

Prior to leading SIL LEAD, Paul was the Director of International Relations and Vice President for Academic Affairs for SIL International. For 17 years, he implemented and led language development fieldwork in Colombia for SIL. Paul has also served as a board member for SIL International for three years. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania.