Africa Language and Literacy

A Landscape Review of Language and Literacy Research in African Contexts

Author: Espen Stranger-Johannessen, University of British Columbia
Editors: Dr. Bonny Norton and Dr. Marlene Asselin, University of British Columbia
Report commissioned by CODE, July 2017

Executive Summary

This report addresses key issues based on recent research on language and literacy in the African context, including teacher education, and outlines key findings and recommendations for research and practice based on the review of the literature. The dramatic increase in enrollment of students in the last few decades has led to greater demand for teachers and attention to quality of education, as expressed in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 and later in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, number 4) in 2015. Quality education is also a priority in the Global Affairs Canada’s new policy on international assistance. Twenty-first-century skills, such as active learning, problem-solving, critical thinking, independent thinking, and information and communication technology (ICT) skills, are key to quality education. Although these skills are often mentioned in the policy documents, there is need for more research on how these can be implemented in practice.

The report is divided into Part I and Part II. Part I reviews focal areas of research and is based on academic articles and reports. Part II presents case studies of policies and teacher education, with a focus on 21st century skills, from six countries associated with CODE’s work in Africa: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania. These case studies provide insight into the key issues discussed in Part I of the report.

Part I: Focal Areas of Research

1. Stages of Education

The increase in primary school enrolment leads to greater demand for secondary education, and retention and quality are increasingly important issues for educators and policy makers. Vulnerable children are in particular need of support, both through regular schooling and targeted programs that ensure that all children have equal access to a caring learning environment. The recommendations for research are:

  • Research how early childhood education (ECE) can be based on African realities and practices. In developing ECE research and practice, care should be taken to consider the differences between Western ECE and childrearing practices, which may not always be relevant or suitable in an African context. Research should uncover how African realities, practices, and local knowledge can be taken into account as this field develops.
  • Research how to increase support for vulnerable children. Children with disabilities, HIV/AIDS, orphans, and other vulnerable children are in need of particular attention within a school setting. Research should inquire into how literacy and other interventions can be as inclusive as possible and support vulnerable children, such as by integrating counseling, community involvement, and classroom practices into literacy development initiatives.

2. Language of Instruction

Language is a contentious issue education in Africa, where the colonial languages of English, French, and Portuguese are often seen as competing with African languages. Research clearly supports teaching in local African languages, but this is only partly the policy in most countries. The recommendations for research are:

  • Research how to implement language planning and literacy instruction in tandem. Many teachers struggle to teach in a language in which they have little reading and writing experience. Teaching in these languages, then, requires concerted efforts of both language planning and language-specific literacy instruction, and research is needed to explore how to develop languages and teach literacy in these languages at the same time. This includes researching how to teach features specific to a language, such as tones, digraphs, and blends, and how to develop specialized vocabulary used in textbooks.
  • Research how to promote mother tongue-based multilingual education. Research should investigate and document how to expand the use of local languages to upper primary, which currently only takes place in a few countries. There is the need for a much better understanding of what is required to do this on a larger scale, including what corpus planning efforts are required. Focus should be on practical, structural, and administrative aspects, not just learning outcomes.

3. Literacy Materials and Publishing

Print literacy materials, such as textbooks and storybooks, are key to helping students develop high levels of literacy. Yet there are often few textbooks and storybooks in African schools, particularly in African languages. Increasing the number of books available to students is important, but teachers’ use of textbooks and storybooks in the classroom is also key, as making books available does not necessarily mean they will be utilized effectively. The publishing industry faces challenges from low demand and import of books from abroad. The recommendations for research are:

  • Research how to support teachers in using textbooks and storybooks. Providing storybooks or textbooks does not always mean that these are read or used in effective ways. Research should explore and guide the effective use of literacy materials in ways that are conducive to learning. Building on existing practices, such as shared choral reading, and retelling stories, are starting points that research should investigate further.
  • Research how textbooks and storybooks can promote gender equality. The recent literature on African textbooks describes a tendency for textbooks to promote gender equality, but sometimes at odds with traditional gender norms. More research is required to learn how gender equality can be promoted while reflecting contemporary African societies, such as through the development or adaption of textbooks and storybooks, and reception studies of these new materials.

4. ICT and Digital Resources

ICT is often seen as a promising contribution to education in Africa and elsewhere, but there are high costs and technical and implementation challenges associated with introducing digital devices to schools. ICT is more than devices for end-users, however. Open educational resources are important for sharing and creating materials, particularly in African languages. The recommendations for research are:

  • Research the development and use of openly licensed books and other resources. Although openly licensed children’s stories are increasingly available online, there is little knowledge about how these stories can best be made accessible to students. Research is needed to shed light on digital and print modes of delivery, and how this can be implemented. Teachers’ use of stories could be explored through action research, where teachers and researchers work together to learn how Open Educational Resources (OERs) can best be used in the particular context teachers are working in.

5. Teaching and Teacher Education

Teacher education programs are expanding rapidly across Africa to meet the demand for teachers caused by the growth in enrollment. The quality of teacher education is often raised as a concern, and newly qualified teachers require more support. Learner-centered teaching is frequently promoted, although there is a lack of clarity regarding what this entails in the African context. The use of scripted lessons is often introduced through development programs, but research on their effectiveness compared to other interventions is needed. The recommendations for research are:

  • Research how to improve early literacy instruction, particularly in the mother tongue, in teacher education programs. How to teach early literacy in teacher colleges is in need of greater attention, as this was identified as one of the key issues in the literature. Research on improving early literacy instruction in teacher education programs would help strengthen this crucial and foundational aspect of education. There is particular need to pay attention to teaching literacy in the mother tongue, which is relatively new in some countries. Research can contribute to our understanding of how the use of literacy materials can be integrated into early literacy instruction.
  • Research how literacy initiatives can take existing teaching practices into consideration. Learner-centered teaching is one of the most pervasive pedagogical ideas and promoted in many African curricula, but also hotly contested. Research should examine how learner-centered literacy initiatives can be best implemented in an African context. Such research can help clarify how principles of learner-centered education can contribute to higher levels of student engagement within African school settings.

Part II: Case Studies

Part II of this report includes case studies of six focal countries, particularly with respect to language and literacy policies and teacher education. This part is based on policy documents and curricula from the Anglophone countries in which CODE operates – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania, with particular attention to 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, independent thinking, and ICT. The recommendations for research based on the findings from the case studies are:

  • Research how to strengthen connections between theory and practice in teacher education programs. Research should investigate how teacher candidates can develop pedagogical content knowledge and bridge theory, policy, and practice. Possible avenues for this include action research where tutors and student candidates model principles and elements of teaching, such as word recognition or anticipating story development. Video might be used in documenting and disseminating such enhanced practices that have been developed and tried out through research.
  • Research the implementation of policies on teacher education. Research is needed to investigate how policies on teacher education are translated into practice, and how the realization of the goals put forth in policies can best be fulfilled. many policies mention 21st century skills, but very few outline how these can be integrated into teacher education programs. Research that specifically addresses this issue would contribute to making these policies more relevant and help achieve their aim of higher quality education.


The full 127-page report is available to download as a PDF


CODE’s ‘Context Matters’ Research Grant

Establishing an African Research Agenda in Language and Literacy
Application deadline: May 21, 2018

Call for Submissions

The full 127-page report is available to download as a PDF