This post was originally published in the World Education Blog of the Global Education Monitoring Report. Reposted with permission.

Imagine a classroom in which a teacher is required to teach in a language her students do not speak or understand well. During the reading lesson, students struggle to master the most basic skills because the words and sounds of the language taught are foreign to them. During the science lesson, the children are unable to read their textbooks or apply their existing knowledge on the topic. When it comes time for mathematics instruction, the teacher struggles to communicate in a language that is challenging to her, too, while students find it hard to understand and ask questions. At home, most students are unable to receive support from their parents, who also do not understand the language of instruction.

The situation described above is all too common in many places throughout the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, where millions of children are expected to learn in a language they do not understand. According to a recent paper on language policy in education by the GEM Report, up to 40 % of the global population does not have access to education in a language they understand. Teachers, too, may be required to teach in languages they do not know well. The consequences are profound, with children unable to learn and increasingly at risk for dropping out; teachers demoralized by their inability to communicate well with students; and entire school systems failing to provide a meaningful education.

Often, issues of how language is used—and which languages to use—in the classroom are viewed as too political, too complicated or too costly to tackle. Yet the longer efforts are postponed, the more children will continue to be denied access to education and to meaningful, child-centered learning. And even if they gain access, detrimental language policies and practices increase the likelihood that students will leave school before completing their education.

This is why all education stakeholders—from donors to Ministry of Education officials to educators and project implementers—need to engage now in language use planning.  This includes providing instruction in children’s familiar language, which has multiple advantages, including enabling students to apply their language skills and existing knowledge to the learning that takes place at school.. This approach  fosters better teacher and student engagement, as well as parental involvement in education.

A blueprint for improving language use in education

Addressing and planning for how languages are used in the classroom is necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and other paramount education sector goals set by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and others. .

To support their achievement, USAID recently published Planning for Language Use in Education: Best Practices and Practical Steps for Improving LearningThe content and recommendations covered in the guide are summarized below.

Key factors to consider when planning for language use in education

Developing a holistic, effective plan for language use in the classroom requires understanding and planning for several key issues, including the following:

  • Research on language and literacy acquisition. Knowing how children learn languages and learn to read is key to decision-making.
  • Goals of the education system. The language(s) used to educate learners should be linked to a country’s education access, equity and learning goals.
  • Sociolinguistic context. This includes the number of language(s) spoken in the environment, parental and teacher language proficiency, and languages’ writing system.
  • Educational context. Understanding the context, including instructional time available, curriculum and materials, teacher skills and training, and teacher placement.

Key recommendations for planning for language use

  • Engage a wide range of stakeholders and conduct advocacy. Successful planning and implementation require the involvement, support, and resources of a wide range of stakeholders, from senior education officials to teachers and parents.
  • Conduct relevant situation analysisThis may include gathering information about policies, practices, programs and education materials available, and obtaining an up-to-date language map or conducting a mapping exercise.
  • Identify pedagogical approaches and languages for instruction. These should be based on how children learn to speak, comprehend and read different languages, and the contextual and situational analysis about what is feasible—in the long and short term.
  • Develop curriculum, materials and assessments for languages used. Children and their teachers must have appropriate and quality teaching and learning resources for the languages used for learning. Recent country experiences with developing materials across multiple grades and subjects (as was done inEthiopia), as well as new technology such as the Bloom software, provide ideas and support for doing so.
  • Align teacher training and placement with languages and instructional approach. Teacher training, recruitment, and placement should all align with the language approach.
  • Develop and implement a language policy and/or plan. An approach to language use in education may be codified into official policy, but this alone is inadequate. An accompanying plan with key objectives, a time line, and a budget needs to be collaboratively developed.
  • Monitor and evaluate outcomes and refine the approach as needed. Any approach for using language for learning should be monitored and evaluated to identify what works from an implementation perspective, and to identify whether learner outcomes are actually improving. Refinement may be needed over time before the “best” approach is identified.  

The Guide contains key planning tools and resources, including:

  • A summary of research regarding language learning and acquisition
  • A review of worldwide evidence and best practices regarding multilingual instruction
  • A summary of activities and tasks to conduct during the planning process
  • A situation analysis planning worksheet
  • A checklist of conditions for effective language plan development and implementation.

Together, the advice and tools included in The Guide will help to facilitate the careful and collaborative planning that is needed to improve language use in education so that, every day, both teachers and students are engaged in meaningful learning, and have the support of parents and education leaders to achieve their potential.

About the Expert

Alison Pflepsen was a Research Education Analyst for RTI International’s International Education group until 2016. Ms. Pflepsen has more than 12 years of experience designing and managing education and health programs for children, youth and adults in sub-Saharan Africa at the community, national, and international levels, with specific expertise in reading assessment, reading program design and implementation, language-in-education issues, teacher training, and issues of gender equity. Her experience includes implementation and evaluation of early grade reading programs; development and implementation of research, monitoring and evaluation plans, and tools; and developing technical documents related to language use in education.