Improving opportunities for student success: Mother-tongue education in Cameroon

A teacher guides student learning in one of the Kom-medium experimental schools in the study. This and other studies have indicated that instruction in the language students speak at home leads to greater success in school.

(August 2012) The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) recently convened a meeting of its Community of Practice for Early Grade Reading. SIL is one of the development partners participating in this effort to improve education for children in developing countries. Among those who shared research and led discussion at the meeting was Dr. Steve Walter, one of SIL’s senior literacy and education consultants and Associate Professor of Language Development at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics. Walter presented the results of a study evaluating the effectiveness of mother-tongue-first multilingual education in the Central African nation of Cameroon.

In the area where the research was carried out, Kom is the primary language spoken, but English is the language of instruction in local schools. In 2007, SIL introduced an experimental program in which twelve schools were designated to provide classroom instruction in Kom (the students’ first language) through Grade 3.* Research gathered during the past five years of the program indicates that students in the Kom mother-tongue program scored better in almost every measure of student progress.

In contrast, assessments indicate that the students in the study’s twelve English-medium comparison schools are struggling to learn to read. In fact, this group’s test results all the way through Grade 5 are very similar to what one would expect from random guessing. In his presentation, Walter emphasized the distinction between learning to read and learning a foreign language—two very different skills. He states, “Reading is vastly easier to teach when the target language of reading instruction is one the learner understands and speaks well.” Conversely, students who attend school in a language that is foreign to them (often a second language for the teacher as well), encounter great difficulty in mastering the basics of education while simultaneously struggling to learn a foreign language.

While the benefit of the mother-tongue-first model is clear, Walter also notes that these first three years of mother-tongue instruction are not sufficient to provide ongoing academic success, as test scores of students from the Kom-medium schools decline quite dramatically once students enter English-medium instruction in Grade 4. He proposes that students would be better served by a “late exit” model which continues some mother-tongue instruction while also providing more time to master English in preparation for English-only instruction.

*During this time, students also study English as one of their school subjects (oral English in Grades 1 and 2, with students learning to read and write English in Grade 3). From Grade 4 onward, English is the medium of instruction in all schools.

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