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At Home in the Classroom

By integrating mother-tongue language instruction in primary schools, teachers are building a stronger foundation for young students in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In early 2016, Christian, an eight-year-old in first grade, was struggling to understand his teacher. He was speaking French, a language Christian didn’t use at home. Like most of his peers, he only spoke Kiswahili, a language used throughout the southeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

“Last year, I could not participate actively in the class activities as I did not understand my teacher’s instructions,” explained Christian. “As we speak Kiswahili at home, it was very difficult for me to learn everything in French, a language that was totally new to me.”

In many countries throughout Africa, a student’s first language — otherwise known as their mother tongue — is often not the official language of instruction. In the DRC, most citizens have grown up speaking one or more of the local languages, such as Lingala, Kikongo, Ciluba, or Kiswahili. However, after gaining independence in 1960, the country instituted French as the official language of instruction. Teachers were trained to teach and speak French in the classroom, and were often discouraged from instructing in local languages. Many times, necessary teaching materials in mother-tongue languages did not even exist. Compounding all of these issues is the fact that many teachers themselves learned French as a second language, making it harder to teach students.

Today, between the language students know and the one teachers use in the classroom, many students have difficulty keeping up with the day-to-day lessons. This rift can cause students to fail early on and potentially drop out of school.

To address this issue, the ACCELERE! 1 project, funded by USAID and the U.K. Department for International Development, is working with students, teachers, school administrators, government partners, and community members to improve the quality of and access to primary education. ACCELERE! 1 supports the DRC National Education Strategy to promote reading instruction in the most common local languages.

The strategy strives to help students master fundamental reading skills as early as Grade 2. As a part of this strategy, project staff are developing reading and teaching materials in local languages throughout eight provinces. ACCELERE! 1 has already distributed first-grade reading materials in Kiswahili to more than 5,000 students in 540 schools in the southeastern provinces of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba.

Equally important to distributing materials in local languages, the project also trains teachers to teach in these languages. Throughout 2016, teachers, school administrators, community members, consultants, and other stakeholders attended training sessions on best practices for teaching in Kiswahili and French.

In January and February 2016, more than 2,000 teachers and school directors took courses on the first trimester of the Kiswahili reading and oral French program. Participants attended sessions in a number of cities, including Lubumbashi, Likasi, Sakania, Kipushi, Kambove, and Lubudie. By the end of these training sessions, a team of local teachers had finalized the second edition of Grade 1 teaching materials.More than 80 people attended the next training session held in March, including local community members, ministry inspectors, and pedagogic advisors. Participants left the training session with learning guides and classroom observation tools. Following that, a July training course covered the effective use of the first-grade Kiswahili reading materials and oral French materials for Grades 1 and 2.

As Chief of Party Sergio Ramirez-Mena explained, “Through [the project’s] hands-on training support throughout the school year, teachers not only learn the key elements of teaching and learning in mother-tongue languages, but are coached onsite on how to better teach reading using the children’s mother language effectively in the classroom.”

These training courses have since improved the quality of reading instruction in the first grade. As more teachers embrace the Kiswahili reading program, students are more eager and responsive in the classroom. Within just three months of learning Kiswahili, students are mastering the alphabet and developing a solid foundation for reading and writing.

“Thanks to the training and books from the project, the students in my class have already learned to read and write certain words in Kiswahili!” said Mr. Nono, one of the teachers who attended the training sessions.

The intervention’s impact has even spread beyond the classroom. Previously, students had little access to reading materials in their mother tongue. Now they can use these materials at home as well as school.

“They are truly our books,” one student happily shared. “We’ll bring them home at the end of every day and then back to school so that we can learn to read the alphabet.”

With the early success of efforts to integrate Kiswahili into schools, project staff are now turning to create teaching and learning materials for other common mother-tongue languages, including Ciluba and Lingala.

Today, Christian feels more at home in the classroom.

“I am very happy that in my school we learn in Kiswahili,” he reflected. “My parents are very proud of me because now I can read and write. My teacher appreciates my contribution as I participate in classroom debates and discussions.”

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