The language used to teach children in low- and middle-income countries has become an urgent issue. There is massive pressure on countries to become stronger in international languages such as English to compete in the global economy. Poor families are often desperate for their children to have English-medium education and access the opportunities they see going to others.

New nations such as South Sudan have adopted English as the main language of teaching in schools, to build links with English-speaking countries. In Rwanda and Kenya, teaching starts in children’s first languages and changes to English when they are eight or nine. This often prompts teachers to start teaching in English from the beginning of school, with the logic that the more exposure children get to English the better.

Unfortunately, this push for international language isn’t working for those most in need of the economic opportunities it brings. In many countries a large proportion of children’s school dropout rates and poor performance is caused by their inability to understand the English used in class. Teachers don’t have good English themselves, which stops them using interactive teaching approaches. A lack of textbooks worsens the problem.

In response, donors have increased their investment in international-language education. In Bangladesh, DfID, the British government’s aid agency, has been improving the English skills of teachers. The US government is supporting distribution of French-language books for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and upgrades of teachers’ English in Pakistan. These efforts would be understandable, if it weren’t for the evidence showing they will fail unless entirely different teaching approaches are used. Read more.