The academic achievements of primary school students in developing countries are generally low. Malawi is not an exception. Among the 15 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa taking the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ) standardized assessments, 6th graders in Malawi scored near the bottom in both reading and mathematics.
The language of instruction policy could impose learning barriers. In Malawi, the medium of instruction for the first four years of primary education is Chichewa - a most widely spoken local language. From the fifth grade onward, English becomes the language of instruction. Such transition is common in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 49 countries we reviewed, 26 countries do not use their local languages at all in primary education, and only Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania exclusively use their local languages over the entire period of primary education.
The use of English in primary school can be seen as a pathway to globalization and economic development. However, this language policy may impose learning barriers to children who do not have fluency in English. In fact, UNICEF advocates the importance of mother tongue education and recommends it to African countries (UNICEF, 2016). Existing research indicates that teaching in the mother tongue increases attendance and reduce dropouts (Laitin et al., 2017; Ramachandran, 2017). In addition, it could improve parental engagements in children’s learning experience. For example, parents can help their children’s school works more effectively because they can understand the language.
Notwithstanding the importance of the language of instruction on education outcomes, causal evidence is rare. To provide rigorous evidence on mother tongue education, we implement a randomized controlled trial in collaboration with Africa Future Foundation (AFF), an international NGO, in the context of a summer learning camp in rural Malawi.
Specifically, we evaluate the impacts of learning in mother tongue (Chichewa) against that in English in 31 primary schools in Malawi. Out of the 4950 primary school students who just completed the 4th and 5th grades, we randomly recruited 854 for a 7-week-long summer learning camp. The learning camp was sponsored and operated by the AFF, our local collaborating NGO.
The curriculum of the learning camp was 5th grade-level math and social studies. The lessons were conducted by local, regular primary school teachers. Hence, the 4th grade participants were given a chance to study the 5th grade material early and the 5th grade participants were given a chance to review what they learned in the past year.
In addition, to isolate the impact of the language of instruction among the summer school participants, we randomized the language of instruction. 419 students were taught in English and 435 were taught in Chichewa.
Through this study, we aim to understand whether and how much extending the local language stream to more advanced grades could be an effective policy to improve primary school students’ educational achievements. To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first randomized controlled trial to estimate the impact of the language of instruction on children’s learning outcomes in developing countries where teaching is still conducted in the former colonizer’s language.
In addition, we contribute to the literature by providing evidence of the impacts of the summer learning camp on education outcomes. Most of the primary school children in rural Malawi do not receive any educational experiences at all during the summer break. As a result, this break period is a critical time window that can improve academic outcomes by providing seamless education services to primary school children in rural areas.