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UWI Notebook - Researchers: bilingual education yields better results

Published:Sunday | June 27, 2010 | 12:00 AM

What language(s) should be used for instruction of Creole-speaking children in the Caribbean? This has been a subject of debate among educators and ministries of education in the region since the 1970s. This has been triggered by the continuing problems with literacy in English among school children within the Commonwealth Caribbean.

The Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) within the Department of Language, Linguistics & Philosophy at the University of the West Indies, Mona, spearheaded by Dr Karen Carpenter, developed the Bilingual Education Project (BEP) as a contribution to this debate. BEP sought to provide empirical evidence to policymakers in Jamaica as to the best way to proceed on language education policy. It sought to test, in a real primary-school situation, the potential positive effects of using a Creole language, in this case Jamaican, alongside English as formal languages of instruction and literacy.

The BEP was designed as a way of testing the position taken in the official Language Education Policy of the Jamaican Ministry of Education and Culture. According to that policy, even though the use of both languages as subjects and in literacy and oral instruction was ideal, it was not actually possible in the Jamaican context. The project sought to test this by designing and implementing precisely such a project. The goal was to show how that which was said to be ideal could be turned into reality.

The Ministry of Education and Culture, after careful consideration, gave its approval for the project to proceed. The BEP was implemented in 2004 in three publicly funded primary schools. It tracked over a four-year period, a group of students who were taught in full bilingual programme, i.e. taught literacy and language arts in both languages, and content subjects in both languages. The BEP came to a close in July 2008, with the BEP children who had entered the programme in 2004 at Grade One, completing Grade Four. Participation in the project was voluntary. This was true of the schools, participating teachers who received special training, as well as the parents of the pupils involved.


Among the promises made by the BEP were that:

  • the BEP would produce an increase in Language Arts skill levels in English among pupils within the project relative to those in traditional modes of instruction;
  • the BEP would produce an increase in absolute literacy levels of pupils in the project, as shown by their literacy in their native language, Jamaican, as compared with non-project pupils for whom English was the only language of literacy;
  • the BEP children would show higher levels of competence in content subjects such as Mathematics, Science and Social Studies, since they were receiving instruction for this, not only in English, but also in their native language, Jamaican.

At the end of the third year of the project in 2007, a comparison was made of the Grade Three diagnostic Literacy Test results of the project children and those taught by the traditional method in the same school. At that stage, the project children had already developed a level of literacy in English which was slightly higher than that of those who had not been in the programme.

Based on the experiences of other such projects internationally, the projection was that this improvement should have taken place by the fourth year. In 2008, the same cohort of children took the National Grade Four Literacy Test. A preliminary analysis suggests that again, the performance of the project children in English literacy skills is better than those who were taught in the traditional manner.

Expert international reviewers listed and conducted the biennial review required as part of the project design. The overall results of the research are clear. An approach to the language-education issue in Jamaica which is innovative can indeed bring improved results in English Language literacy. The old approach sought to get rid of, or at least ignore, the children's native language, Jamaican. An approach which treated both languages equally has proved to produce better results. The fully bilingual approach, as is shown the world over, produces improved language communication and literacy skills across the board, not only in the native language but also in the second language - in this case, English.

The BEP and the research surrounding it, have made another contribution. It has designed a model for the implementation of bilingual education in Jamaica. Elements of this model include (i) teaching a standing writing system for Jamaican; and (ii) the training of teachers, via a training manual and process, to present good models of English to their pupils by keeping the two languages apart.

The BEP research is not only relevant to Jamaica but countries such as Belize and Guyana. It is being viewed with interest by linguists and language educators across the Caribbean.