Is Language Boring? Last, but Critical.

This is the second half of a two part story about a USAID Uganda School Health and Reading Program  materials development workshop, written by SIL LEAD consultant, Agatha J. van Ginkel. You can find part one on our blog. And ‘like’ SIL LEAD on facebook to get notifications about new stories and continued updates about the USAID School Health and Reading Program.

While we have been developing the materials for grade 4 for the local language, the English team has been upstairs developing the materials for grade 4 English. Grade 4 is a transition year for the children. They will switch from having their local language as the medium of instruction to having  English as the language of instruction. The team realises that the children will still find that very difficult. There are so many words for the children to learn. The team is pondering, “Which words are keywords that need to be included in the materials for grade 4?” Luckily, in grade 4 English as a subject is on the schedule seven times during a week, so the children will have plenty of time. 

On a daily basis the Local language team and the English team discuss together how they can link the two languages. How can English make use of what has been learned in the Local Language first? Making use of what is known is called the ‘interdependence theory’ — what is learned in the first language will transfer to the new language once the learners have sufficient knowledge of the language. 

Another way this transition is facilitated is by integrating some key English vocabulary in the local language books. All the page headers are in English. Each new concept introduced in week 1, practised in week 2, and applied in week 3 is also given its English name in week 3. So, once the children are familiar with the concept in their local language, they learn the English word for it. That will make it easier to make the transition: They know the concept in their local language, they know the label for it in English, and now they can use it in English as well. (This assumes, of course,  that they have sufficient vocabulary to express themselves in English.) 

While everyone is writing, drawing and thinking, the typists keyboard all the outputs. They type away, typing both in languages they know and ones they do not know. While the typists seem to be the last people on the book development chain, their role is crucial. Their work gives the teams feedback about whether sufficient, too much, or too little content was written. The typists transcribe all the lessons directly into the book design program Bloom. It has been developed and set up in such a way that with a little training, they can design the books. 

Materials development for grade 4 is a dynamic process with many different parts. Excitement is in the room as stories are prepared, lesson are written, and illustrations are drawn. Facilitating this process is exciting and challenging at the same time. Days like today are good days—days in which I think I have the best job ever! 

You can read more about the USAID School Health and Reading Program here

Is Language Boring?

This is the first in a two part story about a USAID Uganda School Health and Reading Program materials development workshop in Uganda written by SIL LEAD consultant, Agatha J. van Ginkel. “Like” SIL LEAD on facebook to get notifications about part two.

Looking at their gestures, it is absolutely not boring! It is not boring to think and talk about grammar of your mother tongue. Imagine the enthusiasm in a room where new stories and teaching materials are being created for the heart language of a community that has never had the opportunity to learn in this way before. This is a look at several different aspects of a materials development workshop that are a part of the USAID Uganda School Health and Reading Program. 

Our Ugandan linguist is working with the Ugandan language specialists of two languages to select which morpheme to focus on for advanced blending and segmenting exercises.

A morpheme is the smallest, meaningful part of a word. And these grammar exercises divide words like “unbeatable” into its morphemes, “un-beat-able”so that the meaning can be gleaned from the parts of the whole.


The linguists and language specialists work the whole day together to think through their languages. They need to get the right information to help the learners in grade 4 develop advanced skills for reading fluency. 

In the earlier years or primary school, the children learn to blend and segment simple words into syllables. In grade two, they also learn to recognise the most frequent morphemes of the language for quick word recognition, but after grade two this is a skill that needs to continue to develop. This is especially important in languages that like to cluster many morphemes around the root of the word. 

As the linguistics and language specialists wrestle with grammar, the illustrators are scratching their heads. They were used to drawing large illustrations with many details that showed real life situations. Rather than drawing an illustration of 2 by 4 inches, they have to draw two illustrations that are much smaller. They were thinking and thinking how to do so. In the end, they decided to draw within the small square of the provided box to make sure that their illustration will fit into the space available.

In the student book for grade 4, the illustrations have a different role than previous materials developed for grades 1-3. The illustrations help students predict what the text is going to be about. The smaller illustrations challenge the students to get their information from the text rather than the illustration. 

Competing for Books

Photo: Kerry Bradshaw, VSO volunteer, Uganda 

Photo: Kerry Bradshaw, VSO volunteer, Uganda 

It is hard to imagine, from an American experience, schools or communities without books and libraries for children. But it is a reality for many language communities and schools in other parts of the world, including the schools involved in USAID/Uganda School Health and Reading Program (SHRP) project in Uganda.

Photo:  Kerry Bradshaw, VSO volunteer, Uganda 

Photo: Kerry Bradshaw, VSO volunteer, Uganda 

In March the project held a Reading Competition in the Gumba district. Twenty-seven schools came together to celebrate reading in the local language and to engage the community in encouraging students’ reading. This event was organized to boost interest among children and parents in education and mother tongue literacy.

The participants each received a stack of exercise books and pack of pencils for their classrooms. But as a volunteer Kerry observed, “We had spare A4 photocopies of the paragraph that children read and there was a bit of a scramble to get these to take home—such is the lack of any books or reading material in most children's homes.”

Photo: Kerry Bradshaw, VSO volunteer, Uganda 

Photo: Kerry Bradshaw, VSO volunteer, Uganda 

Books, when readily available, can easily be taken for granted. But they are a powerful tool for building imagination and self-esteem. As Ms Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO has said, “Literacy is the door to knowledge, essential to individual self-esteem and empowerment. Books, in all forms, play an essential role…”

This reading competition not only brought a community together to celebrate reading and provide books, but it was appreciated by the District Education Officers who are now encouraging schools to organize more of these, in classes, to build confidence among learners and provide creative outlets for them to practice their reading skills. The event is also helpful for the teachers to evaluate their students. Charity Baguma, the event organizer, reported that the event “communicated that some children still had fear of talking in front of the groups, others couldn't read a word; while other schools were putting books to excellent use, and this was evident in the reading skills of their learners.

Photo: Kerry Bradshaw, VSO volunteer, Uganda 

Photo: Kerry Bradshaw, VSO volunteer, Uganda 

Photo: Kerry Bradshaw, VSO volunteer, Uganda 

Photo: Kerry Bradshaw, VSO volunteer, Uganda 

On this occasion of World Book and Copyright Day, an annual event organized by UNESCO, take time to appreciate the many different worlds, experiences and people that are available through words crafted to fuel imaginations and impart knowledge. Encourage your children to read and appreciate books in a new way because it is a privilege. Our goal is to help more language communities to have this same access to books through the support of projects like SHRP.

International Literacy Day 2012

Paul Frank presenting the Kom Education Pilot Project on International Literacy Day in Washington, DC. 

Paul Frank presenting the Kom Education Pilot Project on International Literacy Day in Washington, DC. 

In celebration 0f International Literacy Day on September 7, USAID hosted over 650 people to celebrate the important role that literacy plays in development.  

In collaboration with the Global Partnership for Education, the Brookings Institution and Lions Club International, as well as World Vision and AusAID, the event was full of energy as new innovations were presented and 32 awards were given as a part of the Grand Challenge, a grant competition that will allow new projects in literacy and education reach millions of people in the developing world.

Paul Frank participated as part of a panel discussion on reading instruction and presented findings on the impact of a mother tongue-based multilingual education pilot program with the Kom, a language community in Northwest Cameroon. Representing SIL LEAD and SIL International, Paul explained multilingual education and the significance that projects like this one have in demonstrating the relevance of multilingual instruction.

The Kom Education Pilot Project is just one of many indicators of the success of a transitional multilingual education model. Findings from the Kom project demonstrated that after just one year of schooling using Kom, the mother tongue of the children in the classroom, students had higher overall test scores than the students in the schools that were using English as the language of instruction. In addition, students from the Kom education program consistently outperformed their peers in Reading, Math, and Oral English.

After several years, the students in the Kom-medium schools continued to outperform their peers in the control schools. The use of the mother tongue as a medium of instruction has brought significant improvements in learning outcomes, especially in grades 1-3. The children in the experimental schools show stronger reading comprehension, oral proficiency, and general lexical knowledge in English. This advantage persists for at least two years after Kom-medium instruction has ended. The children in the Kom-medium schools actually performed better in English than the children in the English-medium schools, and that advantage persists after at least two years following the end of the intervention.