19 August 2015

School providing enjoyable learning in mother tongue of local children

Left to right, Siti Aishah Hama, Nihanifa, Muhamad Ikram, Makolifi Abu, Mahdi Ali – first and second grade pupils at Ban Lada School, Pattani Province
By Hugh Delaney

On a recent visit to Pattani Province in the South of Thailand, I paid a visit to a small but remarkable school which is transforming the way in which children are learning. I am quite new to Thailand myself, having arrived in June this year to work with UNICEF on its education programme and I am still learning about the education system and how schools operate in the country. This visit to Ban Lada School and the teachers, parents and children I met and spoke to provided me with a better understanding of what schools and local education authorities are doing to overcome challenges to providing quality education for all children.

Siti Aishah Hama, Nihanifa, Muhamad Ikram, Makolifi Abu and Mahdi Ali are five young children studying in grades 1 and 2 and are part of the Patani Malay speaking community of the South of Thailand, a language spoken by all students in Ban Lada School. In 2012 the school began introducing instruction in the mother tongue of the children, from Kindergarten classes, as a way of laying the foundation of literacy and learning and engaging the children more closely in class activities.

Discussions between school staff and parents
Facilitating early learning in children’s own language has been embraced by students and their parents alike. “My children are more outgoing now and more confident, and are already speaking Thai very well and have learned to read quite easily”, Doroming, a father of two children in the school, told me with visible pride both in his children and the school. A local leader also told me that while he had misunderstood the approach at the beginning, he has come to think very positively about it as he sees how the children are blossoming and managing to learn in their own language and develop strong literacy skills in Thai at the same time.

In the first year of Kindergarten, the mother tongue is used exclusively in the first semester, with Thai language introduced progressively from the second semester, firstly through oral approaches to learning vocabulary and meaning. From the second year, Thai language learning is strengthened through song and speaking. The programme currently runs to grade 2 but is expanded by one grade each year and as Thai language literacy is developed over the course of lower primary, the approach progressively phases out mother tongue instruction.

I was impressed by the dedication of the teachers (local Patani Malay speakers) to change their approaches in the classrooms to facilitate language learning through more active and child focused techniques. The school Director, Wanna Udomsasdee, told me that they had received training provided by UNICEF and Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of ASIA, Mahidol University and that the school had received teaching and learning materials which has helped her teachers adapt to the new approach. 

She is also adamant about the positive change for children. “In the first week of term, the younger children used to cry a lot and they found entering a classroom where they didn’t understand anything very difficult. Now they are more comfortable coming to school and a more positive interaction between teachers and children has been created which is helping children to learn”, she told me. “The new approach is addressing the challenge of literacy and younger children are learning how to speak and write in Thai more easily with a foundation in their own language”, she added.

Kindergarten class
As I interacted with the younger children I was impressed by the fact that they were not at all intimidated or even distracted by my presence, and were rather comfortable expressing themselves and what they liked about their school. Siti Aishah Hama said that she liked drawing while Nihanifa prefers to study Thai language. Muhamad Ikram on the other hand enjoys the toys and games which help him to learn and Makolifi Abu has taken to writing, as he is already in second grade. Mahdi Ali, pictured far right, just enjoys playing with other children he told me, and likes that the teacher helps them with Art. I took note that most of the things these youngsters liked were linked to the creative side of learning and self-expression and the enjoyment which can be found in school.

First Grade
Ben Lada School is one of 15 schools in the South of Thailand which has introduced mother tongue education with the support of UNICEF, working closely with the Ministry of Education and Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of ASIA, Mahidol University. The programme was developed to respond to the academic under-achievement in the South, where the majority of children speak Patani Malay as their first language. Working with communities, local leaders, educators and parents to develop and implement a curriculum in the local Patani Malay language, the programme has also provided teacher training and instructional material to schools.

The approach is also very student centred, and ensures that all children have an opportunity to participate, with the teachers trained on assessing if each children is following and understanding. The programme has already demonstrated an improvement in learning outcomes at the pilot schools, and these results are being documented so that other schools can learn from the approach.

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