When I first learned about Language Learning from the Familiar to the Formal (L2F2), a Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) innovation, which utilizes the local language to help learners acquire literacy skills in the formal language, I had reservations.
I questioned the use of the local language for teaching literacy. I wondered if it would hinder the learners’ progress and if teachers, head teachers, parents, and children would accept this approach. I also asked about its effectiveness. These doubts persisted even as we implemented the Pamoja Tusome program.
To understand my reservations, let’s go back to the beginning. In Kenya, the government language policy states that a child’s first language, either the Mother Tongue (MT) or the language commonly spoken in the school’s catchment area (usually Kiswahili), should be used as the Language of Instruction (LOI) in lower primary education until grade three. The policy also states that English and Kiswahili should be taught as subjects in lower primary, and English should be used as the LOI from grade four onwards. This means that in lower primary, children can be taught in English, Kiswahili, or any of the local languages. Many parents, regardless of their residence or social status, prefer their children to be taught in English or Kiswahili, believing that the local languages offer little benefit to their children.
I grew up in an informal urban settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, where my parents emphasized that the only way to improve our lives was through hard work and academic excellence. I took this message seriously. Speaking our local language was considered a sign of backwardness, and communicating in flawless English was seen as the fastest and surest path to social mobility. Speaking our local language was heavily discouraged and could result in severe punishment and ridicule, especially at school. It was common for students to wear a piece of wood with words like ‘fool’ or ‘last place’ written on them as punishment for speaking their local language. This shaped my perception of my local language and deterred me from using it in school.
Fast forward to 2022, when I encountered the L2F2 methodology in schools supported by Grassroots Nest for Innovations and Change (GRIC). In seven schools in Kajiado County, Kenya, we supported learners who were significantly behind in acquiring foundational literacy skills by using their local language, Maa, to strengthen their English language proficiency. I vividly remember my first field visit to one of the schools implementing the L2F2 methodology, with all my initial questions and reservations still fresh in my mind. As soon as the class began, I was pleasantly surprised. The learners were more engaged, interacting comfortably with each other and their teachers. Learning became enjoyable, a stark contrast to other classes. At first, I thought this might be because of an exceptional teacher or an isolated case. But when I visited different schools, I witnessed the same experience. Learners eagerly rushed from their regular classes to the TaRL classes. Whenever questions were asked, all hands shot up, showing their enthusiasm to participate, regardless of whether their answers were right or wrong. As someone who believes in evidence-based interventions, I slowly began to embrace the methodology, with the caveat of waiting to see the results.
When we conducted the midline survey, a trend emerged. Learners in schools implementing the L2F2 methodology performed better than those in schools using the English-only TaRL methodology. When we conducted the endline survey in November 2022, it was evident that schools implementing the L2F2 methodology outperformed the English-only TaRL schools at the individual school level and overall. This was a turning point for me. I delved into an extensive literature review, which consistently supported the idea that when learners are introduced to a second language, such as English, through their local language, they grasp it more quickly and retain it better.
Starting with the familiar language and gradually transitioning to the unfamiliar language is the most effective approach to teaching children literacy. I have witnessed it firsthand and even begun practicing the same with my children, despite raising them in an urban environment. We have set aside specific days for me to teach them their mother tongue. I wholeheartedly agree with renowned Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who argues that one’s mother tongue is the most powerful tool for capturing experiences, celebrating humanity, and asserting one’s place in the world.
Samwel Mwayi is the Monitoring Evaluation and Learning lead at Grassroots nest for Innovations and Change (GRiC).