To improve learning, teach in the language students use and understand best

Loud and Clear Report Cover Loud and Clear Report Cover

It sounds obvious: teach students in the language that they understand. But it isn’t obvious for many. Over the last decades we have witnessed tremendous progress in increasing access to schooling, yet the world still finds itself amid a global learning crisis. Despite most countries having universal or near-universal enrollment in primary education, too little learning is taking place. More than half the world’s primary school students face Learning Poverty because they fail to be able to read and understand a simple text by age 10. Their ability to succeed in school and invest in themselves and their futures as adults is imperiled as a result.

One reason for this is hiding in plain sight: up to 37% of the world’s school children are taught in a language they do not speak at home and do not use and understand well. Language of instruction policies, which should be setting children up for success, are too frequently dooming them to failure right from the start of primary school.

The Science of Learning

The research is clear: students learn to read and write by mapping the sounds and symbols of a writing system onto the words they learned in their parents’ laps. The better their oral language abilities, the faster and easier they learn to read. When confronted by an unfamiliar language in the classroom, progress becomes next to impossible. This is part of the reason why, in some countries, many students are not able to read any words, and only know a few letter names in the language they are required to learn in. They are in school, their parents assume they are learning, but they aren’t. It happens to Nigerian kids who should be taught in Hausa, to Haitian kids who should be taught in Haitian creole, to Mozambican kids who should be taught in Makhuwa.

A new report by the World Bank points out the many ways the situation can and should be improved. When students are taught in the language they speak and understand well, they learn to read better and faster. They are also better placed to learn a second language; to master other academic content such as math, science, and history; and to develop their cognitive abilities most fully. Children learning in their home language are also more likely to enroll and stay in school longer. Effective language of instruction policies improve learning and school progression and also reduce country costs per student, enabling more efficient use of public funds to enhance access and quality of education for all children.

Successful Approaches to Language of Instruction

Countries face a diverse array of challenges. One country may have dozens of different languages spoken. In another, students may speak one language at home, another on the playground, and be expected to learn in a third, national language. From these varied experiences, the report showcases successful approaches: (i) teach children in their home language starting in early childhood education through at least the end of primary school; (ii) use the home language for instruction in academic subjects beyond reading and writing; (iii) introduce any additional language as a subject with primary emphasis on oral language skills; (iv) continue to use the home language for instruction in some form, even after a different language becomes the official language of instruction; and (v) continuously plan, develop, adapt, and improve the implementation of language of instruction policies.

By bringing a language lens to the students’ school experience, policymakers orient their school systems for success as they consider how to build back better post-COVID19. Systems need to focus on essential learning and raise the efficiency of the teaching and learning process. Teaching in the right languages and implementing good language of instruction policies will help achieve these goals.

Good Language Policies are Critical but Not Enough

While representing an important factor for literacy promotion, these language of instruction policies need to be well integrated within a larger literacy policy package of policies. Isolated initiatives are ineffective. There must be: (i) a political and technical commitment to literacy, partly reflected by a commitment to measure and monitor learning outcomes; (ii) teachers must be supported with lesson plans; (iii) teachers should be coached; (iv) quality books and texts must be available; and (v) parents and communities must be engaged to foster a love of books and reading at home.

At the same time, wise use of technology can facilitate the implementation of the whole package and, in general, the design and implementation of good language policies and practices. Whether it’s innovative ways to map and measure proficiency levels of students and teachers, simplify the creation and adaptation of new learning materials across languages, or deliver and supplement instruction itself, technology is producing better and more reliable tools. Many of these, such as cellphone-based technologies, have become commonplace even in the poorest regions of the world. They can now make teaching in the right language faster, easier, and potentially less expensive.

Ultimately, to tackle learning poverty, an instructionally coherent approach is needed. An approach centered on what it takes to improve the teaching and learning process between student and teacher, and then seek aligned and coordinated ways to support this at scale. A literacy policy package in the right language can ensure basic literacy and allows for a better experience in school and an easier introduction of a second language. Investments in education systems around the world will not yield significant learning improvements if, at the end of the day, students do not understand the language in which they are taught.

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Jaime Saavedra

Human Development Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank

Michael Crawford

Lead Education Specialist

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