This International Literacy Day there’s plenty to celebrate – the number of young people aged 15-24 with no literacy skills worldwide has fallen by 27% since 2000, a fact we hope to see reflected in plummeting adult literacy rates over time too. But this still leaves 100 million youth unable to read. How did so many get left-behind?
Levels of illiteracy are disproportionately high in Sub-Saharan Africa, affecting one in four young people. This is not only down to poor teaching, low school attendance, poverty or conflict, but also has a lot to do with a policy shared by most countries in the region: to teach children to read in official languages – English, French or Portuguese, rather than in the language they speak at home. It was estimated in 2000 that 87% of children were taught to read in languages they didn’t speak at home. For many children, the language of instruction at school is their third or fourth language.
In our 2017/8 GEM Report, we observed this impact of language policy on literacy. Our analysis showed that, in 36 countries in the region, 69% of adults whose five years of education were in systems privileging home languages could read a sentence, compared with 41% in colonial or mixed language systems. In Côte d’Ivoire, 55% of grade 5 students who spoke French at home learned the basics in reading, compared with only 25% of the students who spoke another language at home.
A policy paper we released in 2016 entitled, ‘If You Don’t Understand, How Can You Learn?’ made the case for teaching children to read in their mother tongue for a host of reasons, among them the fact that parents, undeterred by a language barrier would be more likely to enroll their children in school, and then to engage in their children’s learning. Mother-tongue instruction also improves the inclusion of disadvantaged groups like girls and rural children who have less exposure to official languages in early childhood.
International languages don’t need to be eradicated from schools in Sub-Saharan Africa altogether in order for literacy rates to flourish. Reading should be taught in the home language, which could act as a bridge between two phases in the child’s learning. Home language instruction is recommended for preschool and for several years in primary school. Some argue it should be used at least until the end of primary school: bilingual or multi-lingual instruction needed to last between six and eight years to be effective.
UNESCO has campaigned on the use of home language since 1953. The GEM Report found in 2016 that, thanks to decades of advocacy in the region, there was a growing trend towards teaching children to read in local languages, with 38 out of 47 countries embracing the approach. In 2014, the Ethiopian government launched a reading curriculum in seven Ethiopian languages to improve reading skills. Recently other international actors have also voiced support. For example, the Global Partnership for Education, Save the Children and USAID have called for children to learn to read in their home language.
Children should not transition to reading in a second language until they have built up a wide vocabulary and spoken fluency, which takes several years. But research indicated that most Sub-Saharan African countries transitioned too early, and reading skills were lost. In an experiment in Cameroon across in twelve schools in the Boyo District, children who learnt to read in Kom, a local language, were stronger in both literacy and numeracy than their peers who had been taught in English. But in Grade 4, or aged eight, English became the only language of instruction, and the first group of children quickly lost their advantage over their peers.
Rolling out bilingual and multi-lingual instruction will put us on a firmer course to meet SDG target 4.6, ‘to ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030’. It is no surprise that the policy features the Education 2030 Framework for Action, the game plan for hitting SDG 4.
All Sub-Saharan African countries are multi-lingual. There are 2,144 African languages in total. Burkina Faso, for instance, has about 60 languages. But beyond just recognizing this reality, education policies in the region need to invest more energies to help teachers make the most of this linguistic diversity.