Investigating bilingual literacy: Evidence from Malawi and Zambia


This paper describes research that took place in primary schools in two developing countries which operate contrasting policies, Malawi and Zambia. In Malawi the policy is to teach through the medium of a major local language, Chichewa, for the first 4 years, with English as a subject; in Zambia on the other hand, the policy is to teach everything through the medium of English from the beginning of year 1, with a local language taught as a subject. Although this report deals with Malawi and Zambia, the findings may be relevant to the teaching and assessment of reading in many comparable developing countries, where the teaching of literacy to large numbers of children in difficult circumstances is an educational necessity, and where primary schooling is, for the great majority, the only formal education and hence the chief avenue to the acquisition of reading.

This paper first describes the methods and classroom approaches to reading in Malawi and Zambia, then reports on reading tests carried out at years 3, 4, 5 and 6 in both English and the respective local languages (Chichewa in Malawi, Nyanja in Zambia) in rural and urban schools. In addition a sample of pupils of differing English reading proficiencies were interviewed, and participated in individual reading investigations. The findings confirm misgivings, expressed, for example, in the 1992 Zambian Ministry report Focus on Learning that for the majority of pupils in primary schools levels of reading in English are inadequate for learning to take place. The report closes with some suggestions as to how improvements might be brought about, while noting that the effect of the suggestions will necessarily be limited by factors outside the classroom, and in particular by the economic conditions of teachers and of pupils' families.

This paper is a synthesis of Educational Papers 4 and 5.


Educational Paper No. 24, DFID, London, UK, ISBN 1 86192 041 5, 99 pp.

Investigating bilingual literacy: Evidence from Malawi and Zambia

Published 1 January 1998