There are numerous obstacles that students in developing countries may face during their journey to learn and grow in school. For some, that obstacle is walking into the classroom for the first time and hearing their teacher speak in a language that they don’t understand. Just as a student’s health, disability, and preparedness can have enormous implications on his or her success in school, so too does the language in which the student is first taught.
Beginning instruction in a child’s first, or “mother” language allows students to start learning, understanding, reading, and writing immediately, as opposed to being burdened with learning a new language before even stepping off the starting line. Once crucial early learning is underway, the student may begin to learn an additional language and gradually transition to instruction in that language.
The benefits of mother language instruction are clear. According to a study that gathered data from 22 developing countries and 160 language groups, children who were taught in their mother language were more likely to be enrolled in school, and a lack of mother language instruction was a significant reason for dropping out.
Some education systems elect not to provide mother language instruction for reasons ranging from political challenges, to not understanding the impact of mother language instruction, to the difficulty of providing it. RTI has described these challenges elsewhere. Nevertheless, the success of a nationwide education program in Uganda shows that these obstacles can be overcome.
When the USAID-funded Uganda School Health and Reading Program (SHRP) began, an Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) showed no children in program schools able to read even one word in the local language. And while the Ugandan government was committed to mother language instruction—the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) has a policy for it to take place from Primary 1 to Primary 3, followed by a transition to English—it lacked the capacity to carry it out.
Building from the ground up, SHRP, which RTI implements, supported the Uganda MoES to standardize the orthographies of 12 local languages and then developed teaching and learning materials in all 12 of these languages. The program also undertook an ambitious teacher training initiative that included developing “champion teachers” in all 12 languages who help train other teachers to master their instructional methods.
While it took a large investment in time and resources to build a foundation for mother language learning from the ground up, the return on investment is strong. An end-of-program EGRA showed that across all 12 languages, learners in program schools are more likely to read 40 or more correct words per minute than learners in control schools. At least 31 percent of learners could read at least 40 correct words per minute in 7 of the 12 languages. Reading comprehension also improved across all 12 languages.
Building on this success, USAID funded a second large scale early grade reading program called the Literacy Achievement and Retention Activity (LARA), also implemented by RTI. Subsequently, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) program managed by World Bank provided a multi-million dollar grant directly to the MoES to expand the program to an additional 31 districts. Altogether, SHRP, LARA, and GPE have reached more than 80 percent of lower primary learners in government schools throughout the country.
Additionally, building a foundation for mother language instruction is a huge milestone in a country’s journey to self-reliance. The Uganda MoES deserves enormous credit for committing to this approach even though they knew the path forward would be difficult and long. With orthographies, curricula, teaching and learning materials, and trained teachers now in place across 12 languages, Uganda is well positioned to achieve improved learning and reading outcomes for lower primary students now and in the years to come.
Providing effective mother language instruction at a national scale is not easy, especially if a country is starting from scratch. But as Uganda is proving, for those willing to commit to it, the impact is real and lasting.