The Future is Multilingual: Research to Support the Development and Implementation of Evidence-Based Language of Instruction (LOI) Policies in sub-Saharan Africa
Foundational literacy skills are a catalyst for learning throughout childhood and beyond. However, in 2020, an estimated 581 million children worldwide struggled to read at grade level. Worse, a 2021 United Nations report on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals estimated that 101 million additional children in Grades 1 to 8 are now falling below the minimal grade level proficiency in reading worldwide, due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. A large portion of the world’s non-reading children are in sub-Saharan Africa where, in 2015, 88 percent of children of primary and lower secondary age did not achieve minimum grade level proficiency in reading.
Learning to read with proficiency and comprehension requires that a child possess at least two prerequisites: 1) vocabulary skills in the target language to be able to extract meaning from what they are reading, and 2) mastery of the “code” of that language so that they can recognize what sounds the written (or braille) symbols of that language represent. This is why it is best for children to learn, first, to read in a language that they already know and understand. Working in a highly familiar language to master the mechanics of reading saves the child the effort of simultaneously having to learn and remember a larger number of words in a new language, while internalizing and applying a new and unfamiliar phonology in order to accurately match sounds to symbols to decode words. However, up to 40 percent of children worldwide do not have the opportunity to learn in a familiar language. This is why major institutions in international development, like the World Bank, are now calling for the expansion of “late-exit” programming in low- and middle-income countries to allow students the greatest number of years possible to master foundational literacy skills and academic content in familiar languages. At the same time, students simultaneously and separately begin studying a second or additional language, like English, Chinese, French, or Portuguese to initially only develop the prerequisite oral language and vocabulary skills (prerequisite 1) that will subsequently support their transition to that language for academic instruction in the upper primary grades.
USAID continues to prioritize foundational reading skills and currently funds 19 early grade reading projects across sub-Saharan Africa. To maximize the effectiveness of literacy programming, the USAID Education Policy and the USAID Reading MATTERS Framework emphasize the importance of employing languages children use and understand for effective reading instruction. USAID has also invested significant resources to better understand the complex linguistic landscape across the region by conducting language mapping exercises and developing the Literacy Landscape Assessment. These tools help USAID and other key stakeholders to collect critical contextual information to inform the design of early grade reading programs.
In support of these efforts, the USAID Research for Effective Education Programming in Africa (REEP-A) project, implemented by Dexis Consulting Group in collaboration with subcontractor RTI International, has produced a range of research that further explores the language of instruction (LOI) landscape and assesses the degree to which teachers in sub-Saharan Africa are prepared to offer instruction in line with LOI policies. Previous research on the LOI has primarily focused on the relationship between the LOI and student learning outcomes—how students learn to read best, which languages they should learn, and how best to support their transition between languages. The role of teachers in implementing LOI policies has received comparatively less attention. This research aims to fill this gap. It examines interrelated issues, such as teacher deployment policies; whether and how teachers’ language abilities are taken into consideration in school assignments; how factors such as levels of linguistic heterogeneity among students in the classroom and the availability of materials in different languages can impact teachers’ effectiveness and student learning outcomes; and how various stakeholders’ attitudes and beliefs about language use in education influence policy and practice.
In Teacher Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes Related to Literacy and Language that Influence Early Grade Reading Outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa, we present a comprehensive literature review that examines the following: 1) teachers’ language and literacy skills in African and ex-colonial languages, 2) teacher pedagogical knowledge and skills, and 3) teachers’ attitudes and beliefs towards instruction in African languages. Key findings include:
- Teachers encounter a range of challenges in using both African and ex-colonial languages to deliver instruction. While many teachers, of course, possess oral language skills in one or more African languages, they frequently have not benefited from the opportunity to learn to read or write in those languages. Furthermore, they may not have access to teaching and learning materials produced in those languages. This hampers their capacity to teach reading in the languages their students know and use best. At the same time, some teachers are assigned to teach in an ex-colonial language that they may not be fully proficient in, a fact which limits their ability to support students as they transition to that language. As a result, students are unlikely to receive high-quality instruction to gain foundational literacy skills in those languages.
- Some teachers suffer from gaps in pedagogical knowledge, in part because pre-service and in-service programs often lack courses specifically dedicated to effective pedagogies for teaching reading and writing, and instructional techniques for supporting second language acquisition in ex-colonial languages.
- Teachers’ attitudes and beliefs about the LOI often drive their decisions on which language to deliver instruction in, which leads to gaps between policies and practice. For a host of complex reasons, including existing power structures within and outside of school that favor ex-colonial languages, a lack of personal confidence in teaching reading and writing in African languages, and parental pressure, teachers may opt to use ex-colonial languages to deliver instruction, which may contribute to poor early grade reading outcomes.
Language of Instruction USAID Country ProfilesRead Profiles
To complement this literature review, the REEP-A research team examined country-specific language policies and practices within sub-Saharan Africa and developed 18 country-level profiles to help education stakeholders quickly understand the country’s linguistic and policy context. These profiles describe the country’s linguistic landscape and official LOI policy, as well as the degree to which the LOI policy is implemented through the primary curriculum, teaching and learning materials, pre-service and in-service teacher training, and donor-funded literacy programs operating in the country. The profiles can assist donors, implementers, and other stakeholders to understand the current context and LOI policy, assess the enabling environment for delivering local language early grade reading instruction, and design and implement reading programming as a function of these understandings.
Finally, the REEP-A team has developed the Teacher Language and Literacy Assessment (TLLA), a tool for measuring primary school teachers’ oral language, reading, and writing skills. Currently available in English, French, and Luganda, the tool assesses seven components: listening, speaking, oral reading fluency, silent reading comprehension, grammar, vocabulary and writing. Additional guidance is available to support further field testing and adaptation into other languages. The TLLA provides critical information on teachers’ language and literacy skills and as such could be leveraged as a system diagnosis, a screening of teachers’ linguistic assets for placement or training purposes, or as a monitoring and evaluation tool for interventions aimed at strengthening teachers’ language skills.
To improve early grade reading outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa, stakeholders need accurate, up to date information that helps them understand the complex linguistic environment in African countries so they can effectively align national language policies, teachers’ linguistic assets, and students’ language proficiencies. This need is even more pronounced in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, as governments critically examine how to re-open schools and combat learning loss. Our hope is that this body of research meets this need by providing stakeholders with a set of tools that can inform evidence-based LOI programming and policy decisions in sub-Saharan Africa.