This article has been published in Enabling Education 12
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Title: Is Language Key to Effective Family Learning?
Author: Wild, L
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2008

Is language key to effective family learning?

Leni Wild

Everyone says parents are a child’s first and best teachers. One project in Uganda suggests this is true. The project reveals the extent to which language is key to effective learning for the whole family. Here, Leni explains how Education Action, a UK-based international NGO, is working with Literacy and Basic Education (LABE), a local partner in Northern Uganda, to develop new ways of placing language at the heart of learning for children and parents.

A study by LABE in four districts in Northern Uganda found a key reason why children were failing to learn, progress and complete primary schooling was because of the early use of English as the main language of instruction. As a result, at home it became impossible for parents to effectively support their children’s schooling – by motivating them or helping with homework – as they too did not understand the main language of instruction.

The Government now recognises the advantages of mother tongue learning. It introduced a ‘Mother Tongue Education Policy’ for the first three years of primary education, but currently lacks the resources to effectively implement it. The policy aims to provide mother tongue materials (e.g. translations of the national curriculum) for all 52 local languages spoken in Uganda, but so far they are only available in six. Many teachers also lack training in how to integrate mother tongue and English language instruction.

This is where the Education Action/LABE’s project, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development, comes in. With a particular focus on girls’ and women’s education in Northern Uganda, we are facilitating the development of a range of learning activities and resources in mother tongue languages. The project places language at the heart of our strategy to promote education, and we hope to expand this in future programmes.

Education resources in local languages
Most textbooks are printed in the official language (English). However, with our support, resources for children and parents have been translated into local languages. Our project integrates local languages, materials and stories into lessons. Activities with children in the Yumbe and Gulu districts include: making games out of local materials, such as counting games using everyday objects found at home; story-telling in local languages; and composing riddles that carry meaningful messages, appropriate to the local context.

Activities with parents
We provide classes for parents, conducted in mother tongue. These help them to understand and support their children’s education, and to participate more effectively in their local communities, for example, improving their ability to secure better prices for goods at market.

The literacy classes for parents are based on the curriculum for primary years one and two, adapted to suit parents’ learning levels. Parents learn the same concepts that their children do at school, so they can support their children’s learning. Classes are usually held in the afternoon, after domestic and work commitments have been completed. They often take place under a tree in the school compound or at a parent’s home. Parent educators lead the classes. They are volunteers, selected from within their communities, who receive training in adult learning techniques (including use of mother tongue languages).

Participation is key – parents are consulted on the timing and content of classes to ensure that the education meets their needs. Clear communication is needed to enable effective participation, which is why the use of mother tongue has been so important for delivering effective education to parents. This work has led to the development of resources and activities in local languages, including numeracy booklets and parents’ story booklets in the Acholi and Aringa languages.

One deputy head teacher noted:

“The idea of parents and teachers educating children together is the way to forge ahead in the education of our children”.

Life-long education in mother tongue
While learning official languages remains important, our project reveals the need to go further than just encouraging mother tongue communication and teaching during the early years. A few years of learning in their mother tongue is not enough for most children to acquire the language skills needed for learning across the curriculum – including learning an official language. And building effective literacy skills for adults will remain a challenge unless the language of instruction in adult education is given more attention.

Leni Wild is Research and Development Officer at Education Action.
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