Inside the READ Act - part four

“In Languages Children Do Speak and Understand”

- by SIL LEAD Executive director, Dr. Paul Frank

What does it look like when education programs take seriously the need to provide education in languages that children speak and understand? It’s one thing to say that we should  do this and quite another to actually do it.

Anyone who knows SIL International and SIL LEAD knows that we are focused on language, so people expect us to push a language-focused agenda. Indeed, when USAID rolled out its last five-year strategy in 2011, SIL International was one of the few organizations that had the expertise to design educational programs in local languages.

That is no longer the case. Over the past seven years, I’ve witnessed a huge increase in the number and competence of education specialists who understand both the importance of education in children’s languages, and how to go about doing it. So rather than talk about what we have done, I want to highlight the achievement of others in providing education in languages that children actually speak and understand.

Creative Associates International has been implementing Let’s Read, a bilingual early grade reading program in Mozambique. Until recently, Portuguese was the only language of instruction in Mozambique, and “the disconnect between the language spoken at home and the language of instruction (Portuguese) has resulted in low literacy rates and poor student performance.” Let’s Read is poised to change that:

“During the first three years of primary education, students in the bilingual education program learn reading, writing and math skills in one of the selected local languages—Emakhuwa, Elomwe or Echuwabo— while developing oral Portuguese skills in preparation for the transition to full Portuguese instruction in the fourth grade.”

[Ethnologue links added.]

Note that this approach is not about teaching a local language instead of a national language. It’s about sequencing the languages for effective learning. Learning starts in the local language and then introduces oral and  written Portuguese in a systematic way, with a view to Portuguese becoming the language of instruction in the fourth grade. This approach is why many of us talk in terms of “mother tongue-based multilingual education” (MTB-MLE). Education needs to be multilingual and take into account the languages that are relevant in a given place. But it also needs to begin with a language children speak and understand.

“Along with qualified teachers, well-designed teaching and learning materials based on a blended phonics method can help jumpstart students reading in their own mother-tongue languages. This provides a base for them to hone their literacy skills and ultimately transition to Portuguese.”

Advocacy has helped teachers and parents appreciate this new approach:

“In a context where authorities once embraced the idea of assimilating to Portuguese, Patel [Senior Reading Specialist for Let’s Read] says that the Ministry of Education, teachers and parents have quickly realized the value of students first learning to read in their local languages and embraced the program.”

Unstated, but also important, is the fact that schools affirm children’s identities rather than treating the language they come to school with as irrelevant. This program is only one of many where embracing children’s languages is leading to improved educational outcomes. Another great one is Creative Associates’ Mu Karanta! (Let’s Read) Hausa language early grade reading program in Nigeria. As in Mozambique, this effective program includes initial learning in the mother tongue, and is transforming education for Hausa-speaking children. Also worth checking out is EDC’s Basa Pilipinas program in the Philippines, where a shift from education in only English and Filipino to teaching in students’ mother tongues is making a significant difference for young learners:

“A recent study found that second-grade students who acquired a mother tongue foundation in Basa Pilipinas classrooms could read more fluently in Filipino than a similar cohort four years earlier who did not. The study also showed substantial gains in reading comprehension, with current students’ performance on a comprehension task 14 percent higher than that of a previous cohort.”

Children deserve to learn in a language they speak and understand. Not only should that be done, it is being done. And children’s lives are much better for it.

Learn more in parts one, two, and three of Dr. Frank’s series on the READ Act and Strategy.

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.