Natelee, from the Bay Islands in Honduras is the second participating teacher in our ten-week #TeacherTuesday campaign. She describes the challenges teaching in a multilingual environment, and the barriers to learning for children who do not benefit from a bilingual classroom.
There are 9 indigenous and minority groups in Honduras (Miskitu, Tawahka, Lenca, Tolupan, Maya-Chorti, Garifuna, Nahao, Pech, Negro de Habla Ingles) and 7 languages. Spanish is the first spoken language on the mainland, but English is the main spoken language on the Bay Islands, whose inhabitants are mainly descended from the Grand Cayman and Jamaica, with a scattering of Garifuna people.
“It leaves a gap,” said Natelee, a teacher in the Bay Islands, when we asked her what it was like being taught in a language different from your your own. “Some children won’t be able to read or write because they’ve been taught in a language they don’t understand.” Our Report shows that, in Honduras in 2011, 94% of those who spoke the language of instruction at home learned the basics in reading in primary school compared to only 62% of those who did not.
Being taught in a language they don’t understand not only impacts on whether children make the grades, but also whether they decide that school is worth carrying on with. “Over the years there have been a number of dropouts in our system,” Natelee explained, “Sometimes it’s because their learning style is not catered to, and others it’s because the language at school is not their first language”. The EFA GMR 2013/4 shows that in Honduras in 2010, only 75% of children were surviving to the last grade of primary education, with 25% dropping out.
Those least likely to complete their education the world over are the poorest, who often make up some of those speaking minority languages. Poor students speaking a minority language at home are among the lowest performers. In Honduras in 2011/12, only 10% of the poorest young people completed lower secondary school, compared to 84% of the richest. If these trends continue, it is projected that the poorest young people will reach lower secondary completion almost 100 years later than the richest young people.
Teachers are rarely prepared for the reality of multilingual classrooms, which exacerbates the learning barriers faced by children speaking minority languages. Our latest Report tells us that more than half the achievement gap in Guatemala between indigenous and non-indigenous speakers is attributed to the fact that indigenous children attend schools with fewer instructional materials, lower quality infrastructure and less qualified teachers. This underscores the importance of redressing such deficits to improve learning outcomes for indigenous children.
“You need to keep an open mind,” Natelee told us, when explaining the skills needed as a teacher when faced with a multilingual classroom. ‘A multicultural, multilingual classroom needs multimodels of teaching.’ Teachers need to respond to the children making up their classroom and integrate that response into their teaching methods, she told us; in other words, ‘placing the child at the centre of the process.’
Language and ethnicity are deeply intertwined, and this needs to be appreciated in teaching methods as well. As Natelee notes, in the Bay Islands the students have different traditions, religious and spiritual beliefs. “Some chant, some are more evangelistic, some rain dances, or drum, and appreciate connections with the earth and the ground” she said. She incorporates these cultures into all her classes, counting with almond seeds in mathematics class, for instance, using coconut as drums in music class, and teaching about the islands’ local coral in science lessons.
By accepting and embracing different languages and ethnicities into their teaching styles, teachers will be teaching the values of diversity to their students as well. “Just because you speak a different language, doesn’t mean you’re less important than others”, Natelee said. Providing an inclusive education results in a classroom of children who are “proud of their cultural identity and respectful of others.”
Unless we ensure education works for all children, no matter their background, we will not be guaranteeing children their right to a quality education. This year is ‘El Año de la Inclusión’ – The Year of Inclusion – in Honduras. Let’s hope this spirit carries forwards after then into 2015 and beyond, not just in Honduras, but all around the world.