Like many other children in the rural villages of Oudomxay Province, Lao PDR, the children have grown up in a village without early childhood development services and no access to pre-primary class before they enroll in first grade. Day one of the school year is likely to be the first time these native Khmu speakers have ever had to learn in Lao, the official language of instruction across the country. This lack of language skills is a contributing factor to high rates of dropout and repetition in the early years of primary school in rural communities.
The Lao Educational Access, Research and Networking (LEARN) program funded by Dubai Cares and implemented in partnership between Plan International in Lao PDR, Save the Children International in Lao PDR, and the Lao Ministry of Education and Sports, is helping new learners overcome these challenges through its Lao language short course. Taught for the first four weeks of the school year in September, this school readiness course includes teacher training and provision of materials such as teacher and student workbooks, riddle and song books, and story books. Program staff work together with District Education and Sports Bureau (DESB) counterparts to conduct tablet-based monitoring and support visits as the teachers are rolling out the new teaching approaches and materials and throughout the school year.
In her second week of the new school year, five year old Nang Bee is smiling and clapping as her teacher leads his grade 1 class in a song designed to help children learn the words for parts of the body in Lao language. Following the song she and her classmates point to their eyes, nose, mouth and ears to reinforce learning the new vocabulary words. The teacher then uses a traditional story to link the words with pictures to build children’s awareness of print and love of books. Finally, he engages his students in a game to assess their learning on the spot: He says the name of one body part but points to another, and the children must identify his trick and point to the part he actually named.
Nang Bee’s teacher, Mr. Thong Phet, grew up in Chom Phou himself and knows first-hand how challenging learning can be in an unfamiliar language. He explained, “Last week, I had to explain in Khmu when children didn’t grasp what I was saying in Lao. After two weeks of teaching the short course I can already see improvements in their Lao language skills.” This year is Thong Phet’s first experience teaching grade 1 - previously he had taught higher primary school grades - and he appreciated the short course’s emphasis on interactive approaches suited to young learners.
Nang Bee’s village — called “Chom Phou” or “Mountain Top” a community consisting of 26 families living in traditional stilt houses in a tight grouping along a dirt road. The primary school in this small village is multi-grade, with Mr. Thong Phet acting as the head teacher and class teacher for a combined grade 1 and grade 5 classroom, while one other teacher covers grades 2, 3 and 4. In total, 17 students are enrolled in this school, with 4 girls and 13 boys. When asked about the difference in enrollment between boys and girls, Thong Phet told us that the small population in the village often makes enrollment numbers unbalanced from year to year, and that there were no out of school girls in the earlier grades but girl dropouts do begin to happen in the upper grades of primary school.
Similar to many households in the area, Nang Bee’s family makes its living through rice farming and occasional paid labor on nearby Chinese plantations. Nang Bee’s father, Serb, explained why he enrolled his daughter in first grade at Chom Phou primary school this year even though she was slightly younger than the age cutoff of five years, eight months in September: “Parents around here don’t have a high level of education. We want Nang Bee to be more educated than we are and to find a job in the government.”
Serb could already see the changes in Nang Bee after her first two weeks of school, observing her singing the songs from class and beginning to learn how to write. These new skills obtained by this program should help put Nang Bee on the path to success in Lao language for the rest of grade 1 and beyond.