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Don’t let politics and popularity drive decision-making

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Amy Lightfoot explains why the British Council has come out against the use of English as a Medium of Instruction in primary schools in low to middle income countries.

Sometimes, decisions around language in education can be fuelled by politics and popularity as opposed to the evidence that shows what is actually best for children’s long term learning and growth.

This can be dangerous in the longer term. Weak educational foundations for individuals may lead to disempowered populations in future and poor economic growth – both political issues in themselves.

Children learn best when taught in a language they understand. Because of this, the growing global trend towards teaching all subjects through English at school could form a barrier to learning for young people, rather than help them.

This in turn can negatively impact on individual, community and national-level growth and development.

This is the basis of the British Council’s position paper on English Medium Instruction (EMI), which argues that teaching all subjects through English at primary school level could create a double learning deficit, hindering both language development and subject knowledge.

In a recent report, a collaboration between the Education Development Trust, the British Council and The Open University, we explored the principles and practices that impact on the quality of teaching and learning in the EMI classroom.

Overall, the research team found that teaching in an unfamiliar language (ie. English) can limit the opportunities for pupils to communicate – hindering both linguistic development and productive discussion and engagement with the subject.

In addition to exploring evidence previously gathered on the subject, researchers observed lessons in multilingual schools in Ghana and India teaching through English medium.

While the lesson observers praised the enthusiasm of teachers who often work in challenging environments, they noted low levels of English ability among teachers in India in particular, and low levels of English proficiency among learners in both countries.

Teachers’ skills in helping learners to develop their own proficiency were low, raising questions about how much of the curriculum pupils were able to access.

Teachers, pupils, parents and officials in both countries appreciated the importance of English as a means to better jobs. It also provides a common language across different regions of their countries and is often seen as a symbol of status and prestige.

However, it is clear that an early switch to English medium, as opposed to strengthening the teaching of English as a subject, can be problematic in countries where English is not a dominant language.

Children need to build up a solid foundation in home language literacy in order to effectively develop as learners, before any transition to a less familiar medium of instruction. Furthermore, teachers and parents must be actively involved in the process.

This requires support from school leadership, home-school links, teachers’ professional development, curricula, textbooks and assessment systems.

The British Council position and the research evidence suggest a need to develop language in education policies to take advantage of multilingual contexts, with teachers celebrating the linguistic diversity within their classrooms.

These language policies also need to be closely tied to broader educational programming such as curriculum development, teacher education (pre-service and in-service) and assessment.

By drawing on learners’ existing linguistic skills as a crucial stepping stone towards proficiency in other languages, teachers can avoid letting the pursuit of English proficiency eclipse children’s development in other subject areas and literacy in their dominant language.

The broad benefits of English aptitude to a country’s economy and society are well-known, but attempting too much too early is likely to be detrimental in the longer term.

To view the British Council’s position paper, go to: http://bit.ly/2nphI4X

Amy Lightfoot has worked in the field of English language education for 18 years, including nine in South Asia. She leads on the academic strategy and quality assurance of British Council teacher education projects in India.