In September 2019, the Ministry of Education and Sports in Lao PDR, with the support of the Australian Government and the European Union through
BEQUAL, started to pilot a Spoken Lao program for Grade 1 students who start school with no or very little understanding of Lao language. Students have one additional hour of instruction of spoken Lao per day to support and reinforce the content of the regular daily two hours of Lao literacy instruction. 40 primary schools in the provinces of Phongsaly, Bolikhamxay, Khammouane and Salavan pilot the new program, while a further 40 primary schools with similar characteristics serve as a comparison base.
Between 27th October and 16th November, sixteen enumerators from the Research Institute of Educational Sciences (RIES) traveled to the target districts to administer a specially designed “Early Grade Lao Language Assessment” (EGLA) test to Grade 1 children in the treatment and control schools across the four provinces. This baseline assessment is designed to understand children’s level of Lao language competency at the start of the new spoken Lao lessons and establish later if the new Spoken Lao program
is effective. The enumerators were drawn mainly from RIES Lao Language
Mrs. Phonesiri OUTHAVANH, head of the Lao Language team at RIES, participated actively in the development of the spoken Lao program. She is also the leader of the Khammouane – Bolikhamxay enumerator team and explains that “the biggest challenge encountered was the language barrier with the students. It was very difficult for the enumerators to communicate with the children and explain the test to them. The understanding of Lao language is extremely low in these remote communities; those children had just started school and understand only their ethnic language. This is why this pilot project is so important. If those children can’t communicate in Lao, how can they follow the teacher’s instructions? How can they learn? They will have difficulty even in mathematics if they are not able to
The teams experienced firsthand the challenges of teaching in remote rural schools, often having to travel by motorbike on muddy roads and by boat to cross rivers, and to adjust their travel schedule to the weather conditions. Some remote schools could not be visited in a day, and teams were hosted overnight by the head of the village.
The EGLA test was recorded using tablets, a technology innovation for RIES, which enabled efficient data collection and reduced the amount of documents and stationery the teams had to travel with.
Children EGLA’s scores in treatment and control schools will be compared through a second round of testing in April 2020. This will provide evidence, if the extra spoken Lao lessons in treatment schools have helped children develop Lao language skills faster. If the pilot produces positive results, a wider scale introduction of the approach will be considered as part of RIES’ ongoing effort to boost Lao Language learning outcomes through improved teaching and learning materials and new learning approaches.