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Learning to read in a language children understand

Learning to read is deeply influenced by language abilities which begin developing at birth. To be able to read, children need to ‘sound out’ words (decode) and understand what those words mean (language comprehension). Reading comprehension is a product of these two tasks and a deficit in either skill will severely limit a child’s ability to read.

As research by Grabe and Stroller (2011) shows, native speakers often begin school with a vocabulary of 5,000-7,000 words, whereas non-native speakers may have a vocabulary in the language of instruction (LoI) of just 50 words or less, which puts them at an enormous disadvantage. This is the reality for millions of children in Western and Central Africa who are deprived of the opportunity to learn in a language they speak and understand.

The language of instruction is a determinant for learning outcomes

Approximately one year ago, the World Bank launched its education strategy for Western and Central Africa, From School to Jobs: a journey for the young people of Western and Central Africa. The strategy provides a roadmap for interventions in improving educational outcomes at all levels.

Despite recent progress, education in the region is in crisis: 80% of 10-year-old children in Western and Central Africa are unable to read and understand a simple text, a condition referred to as learning poverty. To accelerate improvements, the regional strategy advocates for instruction in a language children understand (preferably the best) for the early grades of schooling before transitioning to a new language.

Common misconceptions cloud the discourse and policymaking around language of instruction, including believing that first language policies are impossible in linguistically complex environments, that first language instruction limits global opportunities or that transitioning to a second language can hamper education. Yet, evidence shows that children who effectively learn to read in a first language transfer these skills to a second language, such as English or French, and may outperform their peers in that language. For this reason, it is important to monitor and learn from the few country examples in the region that will provide additional evidence on how language of instruction impacts education outcomes.

Promising efforts in The Gambia

In The Gambia, where English is the language of instruction, an appreciation for the use of national languages has long existed but data on language coverage and usage is limited, and no formal national language policy exists. In 2011, a pilot program called Early learning in national languages taught children to read in five national languages.

Grade 1 students in the pilot outperformed non-participating students in recognizing letter sounds and reading simple words. Additionally, many pilot participants were able to read English words. With financing and technical assistance from the Bank and SIL Africa, the government is now undertaking initial steps to mainstream use of the national languages into a revised curriculum.

Consultations and workshops with various stakeholders have been conducted to guide the development of an LoI policy and operational plan for utilizing national languages. The government recently conducted a language mapping exercise of all its lower basic schools to document the languages that children speak as they start school, amongst each other and in communities, and how proficient they are in these languages, as well as the languages that teachers speak and in which they are literate. The Gambians have an important journey ahead but the data gathering, and stakeholder consultations are very important and practical early steps.

In Senegal, instruction in local languages continues to gain ground

Senegal, which has over 20 years of experience with bilingual education approaches is at a more advanced stage. Currently, the primary language of instruction is French, which is spoken by 37 percent of the population and considered the first language of less than 50,000 people out of a population of 14 million, as of 2013.

The World Bank-financed Project for the Improvement of the Education System Performance (PAPSE) is supporting literacy in local languages in grades 1-3. PAPSE builds on interventions supported by USAID for instruction in local languages Wolof, Pulaar, and Seerer Mandinke and Soninke in nine targeted regions. The PAPSE project aims to extend the approach to three additional regions and will likely introduce a sixth language (Joola) into the curriculum following a school language mapping.

PAPSE also seeks to institutionalize the LoI approach through a vastly expanded bilingual teaching approach that is introducing national language literacy modules within pre-service teacher training to better prepare primary school teachers and an intensive training of literacy resource persons to be deployed within the regions to support effective instructional approaches within classrooms.

Addressing complex LoI challenges in Chad

In Chad, challenges around language of instruction are quite daunting. French and Arabic are official languages of instruction but are rarely spoken at home. An estimated 130 other languages are spoken in the country.  

In 2022, Chad received a World Bank grant through the Improving Learning Outcomes Project, which is funding interventions for instruction in national languages—Mada, Chadian Arabic, Massa, Moundang, and Sar—in grades 1 to 3. The project aims to reach 1,200 schools with teachers who master and were trained for effective instruction in selected national languages. Consistently with the Bank LoI policy approach which urges coordination among all stakeholder groups, community outreach is planned under the project to build awareness and engagement among local populations on the rationale of instruction in a language children understand.

Prioritizing language-centered approaches

In alignment with the World Bank’s education strategy for Western and Central Africa, these reforms require collective work across stakeholders towards a future where language is not a barrier but a bridge to inclusive and quality education. By prioritizing language-centered approaches, governments and stakeholders can collectively empower every child to read, comprehend, and succeed, fostering a region thriving with educational and economic opportunities. 

Source: World bank blogs



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