Nigeria’s national education policy says children in preschool and lower primary school should be taught in their mother tongue or the local language where they live. But in practice, most children are taught in English all across the country. CHIKEZIE OMEJE reports that the failure to teach pupils in their home language is a major reason for poor literacy and comprehension among school children. Research has consistently shown that children do better if they are taught in their home language in their early years of schooling.
On the blackboard facing the class, Sadika Mohammed Abdullahi writes: “Nigeria’s national flag is in the form of a rectangle.” She draws a shape of the flag and adds: “It has two colours – green and white.” After writing in English, she speaks in Hausa to her pupils who are sitting on mats laid on the cement floor.
Mohammed says she combines English and Hausa to teach her 24 pupils in the nursery class at Kofa/Nassarawa Special Primary School in Kano because the children, who are between three and five years, do not understand English.
“We don’t have instructional materials in Hausa,” she says. “We are mixing the two so that they will understand better.” Not only are the pupils’ textbooks written in English, but the charts, posters and all the learning materials in the class are, too.
This pattern is repeated all over the country. Although the government, since 1981, has officially called on schools to teach young children in their native languages, over 25 million primary school students and about 13 million pre-primary school pupils are still taught entirely or at least partly in English, a language many of them do not understand. The decision reflects both practical considerations – textbooks and teaching materials almost always are written in English – and the fact that many Nigerians want their children to be taught in English because they believe it is the language of upward mobility in today’s world.
That may be misguided, according to many experts. Suddenly expecting pupils to learn a new language actually slows down learning at a crucial time. Forced to learn a new language from scratch instead of building on vocabulary they already have from home, pupils learn by rote, mechanically repeating the names of objects their teachers mention in English rather than build new mental skills.
Fatima Ibrahim, the desk officer for early childhood education in Kano State’s Universal Basic Education Board, does not see any problem with the bilingual methodology of teaching simultaneously in English and Hausa. “We even use Arabic because children can learn more than five languages at this age,” argues Ibrahim. “We are using this period to introduce them to different languages.”
However, research suggests the approach can put children at a disadvantage. Evidence shows that children who first learn to read and write in their native language learn all subjects faster. They even learn English faster than children who are forced to shift to English the moment their formal education begins.
National policy-makers have long recognised this, specifying that the mother tongue or language of a child’s immediate environment should be the medium of instruction in preschool and lower primary school years. According to the policy, English should only be taught as a subject at this stage, and should not be the medium of instruction in all subjects. Official policy holds that English should only become the medium of instruction from Primary 4.
Contrary to the policy, most schools teach preschool and lower primary school children primarily in English, offering instruction in local languages only in classes dedicated to those languages. The practice is not particularly disruptive in cosmopolitan settings where English is now the home language of a growing number of children. But that is less true in rural areas where it is more common for schools to use a combination of English and local language because the pupils enter school with only their mother tongue.
“We teach in English, but we also explain to them in Igbo because that is the language they understand,” says Elizabeth Okpara, Headmistress of Central School, Amucha, Njaba in Imo State.
Theresa Eze, Headmistress of Government Primary School, Afikpo in Ebonyi State, also told the ICIR that the pupils are taught mainly in English.
“It is wrong to teach in English,” says Abba Haladu, Executive Secretary of National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult Education, and Non-Formal Education. “The policy is clear that children should be taught in their local languages in the early years of their education.”
Haladu says the relevant quality control agencies in the federal and state governments should step in to ensure that the policy on the medium of instruction is fully adhered to by the schools.
“A lot of teachers don’t even understand the policy, and they feel that teaching in local language does not have as many benefits as English,” says Swadchet Sankey, Unicef’s early childhood education specialist.
Sankey points out that the ideal approach is to teach children in their home language in the early years and introduce a second language when they have become literate in their first language. “Code-switching is not bad,” says Sankey “But the ideal practice is to focus on one language and immerse them in that early years – and that language should be their first language.”
Although the national policy was formulated more than three decades ago, Nigeria has not developed appropriate structures and systems to implement it. The major challenges are the failure to produce teaching materials in local languages and train specialised teachers for mother tongue instruction.
To be fair, there are serious obstacles to achieving the goal of native-language instruction for all children. Nigeria has about 400 languages, and some education experts have argued that mother tongue instruction would be difficult to achieve since the orthography (spelling) of most of the minority languages are not developed. But instructional materials are not even available for preschool and lower primary school children in the three dominant native languages – Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba – which are recognised as national languages by the constitution.
The failure to use mother tongue to teach pupils in the early years of their education has contributed to the high number of children who can read neither in English nor their local language when they finish primary school.
According to 2015 Nigeria Education Data Survey, only 44 percent of public primary school students can read in English or of the three national languages. In private schools, the percentage of those who can read is 74. Comprehension is also abysmally low in public primary schools at 22 percent while it is 47 percent in private schools.
Emem Opashi, Director of the Sage School, Abuja, and an early childhood education specialist, argues for a flexible policy. Children, she says, should be taught in whatever language they understand.
“If you think the children have a good command of English, you can use that; otherwise, you can use their mother tongue and then gradually introduce English,” says Opashi.
“I think the policy should be dynamic, considering the fact that we have many indigenous languages. I think we should have a mixture of both the mother tongue and English,” she adds. “But one major hindrance is that we don’t have adequate materials to teach in the local languages.”
STRONG EVIDENCE BACKS MOTHER TONGUE INSTRUCTION
Research findings have consistently shown that for children to learn a second language, it is crucial for them to have a solid foundation in their first language. Starting instruction in English in the early years when it is not their home language does not give the children a head start in education.
The famous ‘Ife Six-Year Primary Project’, a research in the 1970s led by Babatunde Fafunwa, former Minister of Education, demonstrated the effectiveness of using mother tongue as a medium of instruction.
Researchers designed a primary school curriculum for children in their native tongue, Yoruba, and taught them English as a separate subject. Then they tracked these students’ performance compared to other Yoruba-speaking children who were taught all subjects in English throughout the six years of primary school. As part of the research, primary school teachers were specially trained in the use of mother tongue for instruction.
The research showed that the pupils who were taught in Yoruba were performing better in all subjects, including English, at the end of primary school education than pupils who were taught in English from the outset.
Following the research, educational experts recommended adopting the mother tongue or language of the immediate environment as the medium of instruction throughout the six years of primary education.
Nigeria eventually adopted the policy that children in preschool and lower primary school should be taught in their mother tongue or the language of the immediate environment and switch to English from Primary 4.
Most African countries where English is the official language have similar policies. But, like Nigeria, they also lack both instructional materials in local languages and teachers who are proficient in mother-tongue instruction.
In Uganda, a reading programme, funded by USAID and implemented by RTI International, has led to the development of instructional materials in 12 languages and facilitated a dramatic increase in literacy among children in lower primary school. Early assessment of the reading programme showed that more Primary 4 learners in programme schools were reading more than 40 words per minute in the local language and more than 60 words per minute in English than in control schools.
“We know that children who read better in local language also read better in English,” Rachel Jordan, a staff of RTI International, told the ICIR in Kampala. “We have seen it as a result of progress in our intervention.”
A study in 2013 by Stellenbosch University in South Africa showed that children who were taught in their home language during the first three years of primary school performed better in the English test in Grades 4, 5 and 6 than children who were exposed to English as the language of instruction in Grades 1, 2 and 3. The research controlled for quality of the school and students’ background.
Angelina Kioko, a Professor of English and Linguistics at United States International University, Nairobi, Kenya, argues in an article that using the mother tongue in early education leads to a better understanding of the curriculum content and to a more positive attitude towards school.
“When learners start school in a language that is still new to them, it leads to a teacher-centered approach and reinforces passiveness and silence in classrooms,” says Kioko. “This in turn suppresses young learners’ potential and liberty to express them freely. It dulls the enthusiasm of young minds, inhibits their creativity, and makes the learning experience unpleasant. All this is bound to have a negative effect on learning outcomes.”
Teaching students in their home languages promotes a smooth transition between home and school, Kioko continues.
“It means learners get more involved in the learning process, and speeds up the development of basic literacy skills. It also enables more flexibility, innovation and creativity in teacher preparation,” she says.
“Using learners’ home language is also more likely to get the support of the general community in the teaching/learning process and creates an emotional stability that translates to cognitive stability. In short, it leads to a better educational outcome.”
Ironically, despite these advantages to using mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the early years of children’s education, some parents want their children to be taught in English. They see it as the language of business and heightened opportunities.
The ability to speak English well is seen in Nigeria as a sign that a person is educated, and parents erroneously believe that their children will benefit more academically and socially if they are taught in English. To meet parents’ expectations, schools commonly ban students from speaking their local language in classes.
“Some parents will even tell you that they send their children to school to learn English, not the language they are speaking at home,” says Ikenna Ugwu, an Abuja-based teacher.
Despite its failure to implement the policy on using local languages as medium of instruction in the early years, the Federal Government continues to promote that as an ideal.
Last year, the ministers of science and technology and education inaugurated an inter-ministerial committee on the teaching of mathematics and science in local languages. The government argues that teaching mathematics and science subjects in indigenous languages at primary and secondary school levels will help students better understand and appreciate the subjects.
But it seems far from certain that the Federal Government, which has not been able to develop instructional materials in local languages for preschool and lower primary school pupils, where they are considered especially important, can get secondary schools to teach mathematics and science in local languages. Hence, the disconnect between policy and practice appears likely to continue.