Re-Mapping Global Education: Considering Language Structure for Hausa Reading Instruction

The Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) annual conference, holding in Mexico City from March 25–29, focuses on the theme “Re-Mapping Global Education: South-North Dialogue.” As part of its participation in this conference, FHI 360 is exploring how to re-map conversations around literacy in international development. In the panel presentation, “Adapting Reading Instruction to Context: Re-thinking reading research according to language structure and cultural norms,” held on Wednesday, March 28, panelists from FHI 360, Research Triangle International (RTI) and Room to Read will explore how the conversation around literacy instruction should be broadened to account for language features and teaching norms from the Global South as well as the Global North.

In recent years, findings from the U.S. National Reading Panel have dramatically shaped international development programming in literacy, including the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA). But while the National Reading Panel has provided invaluable information for English reading, there is a danger of overlooking the unique features of non-English languages. Share (2008) emphasizes that English is an “outlier” orthography, rife with inconsistent spellings and inadequate letter-sound representations. For example, there are only 5 written vowels to represent the roughly 15 vowel sounds of American English. Evidence shows that children can learn to read about three times faster in transparent orthographies, where there is a one-to-one correspondence between letter and sound (Seymour, Aro & Erskine, 2003; Frith, Wimmer & Landerl, 1998).

Another important consideration for reading instruction is grain size, meaning the level at which an orthography can be broken down (Ziegler & Goswami, 2005). For example, when children are learning to read, they can break text down into words, syllables, or letters. The best way for children to break down text may vary by language, however. Some African languages, such as the Eritrean language Saho, have a relatively simple syllabic structure, and many teachers are accustomed to teaching syllable sets such as “ka ki ko ku ke” rather than teaching each consonant and vowel in isolation. Asfaha, Kurvers and Kroon (2007) found that teaching syllabically in Saho actually resulted in much higher reading outcomes at the end of grade 1 than teaching individual letter combinations in Kunuma (a similarly structured language spoken in Eritrea).

In the Reading and Numeracy Activity (RANA), FHI 360 is exploring innovative strategies around local language literacy education. RANA is a three-year pilot project on Hausa language early grade reading and numeracy, and is part of UNICEF’s Girls Education Project Phase 3 (GEP3) with funding support from the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID). RANA is implemented in collaboration with the governments of Katsina and Zamfara states and aims to improve literacy and numeracy for girls and boys in primary grades 1–3.

Through RANA, FHI 360 has sought to incorporate both international best practices as well as local language traditions. For example, FHI 360 uses local songs, proverbs and tongue twisters as avenues for teaching concepts of print, phonemic awareness, and fluency. At the same time, FHI 360 has grappled the extent to which English reading instruction is suitable for Hausa. For example, many teachers in Nigeria are accustomed to teaching in syllable sets (such as ma mi mo mu me) rather than letter sounds. That is because the language structure of Hausa, particularly for simple texts, has a relatively consistent vowel-consonant pattern. For example, the sentence “Mama na miya” can be easily divided into simple, two-letter syllables: Ma-ma na mi-ya. Meanwhile, the English translation, “Mom makes soup,” consists of one syllable words with unpredictable letter patterns, thus necessitating that children decode letter by letter.

To accommodate both the Hausa language structure and traditional methods of teaching, in 2017 RANA launched a set of revised materials for Primary 2. These materials emphasize syllable sets and syllabic decoding, as well as writing and fluency exercises. While it is too soon to tell whether these materials have resulted in greater student learning outcomes, FHI 360 hopes to incorporate these revised materials into future rigorous research, thus building the international community’s knowledge base about teaching reading around the world.