Protecting Multilingual Education During The Pandemic
Across Cambodia, specialist multilingual teachers are taking on a new challenge - adjusting to COVID-19.
November, Ratanakiri, Cambodia - In her six years working as a teacher, 26-year-old Reap Song has overcome many challenges. One of the biggest until 2020 was adapting the Cambodian national curriculum into different languages for the indigenous children she teaches in her school in Pa’or Kekchong, Ratanakiri province. As a result, she has learned how to adjust her teaching to different understandings and circumstances - but the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic truly put this to the test.
Ms Reap has successfully taught children aged 6-12 using the multilingual program for several years, but in March 2020 had to again rethink her approach, as schools across the country closed due to the spread of COVID-19. Ms Reap - like thousands of teachers across Cambodia - had to adapt to a distance teaching approach for the first time.
Fortunately, there was support. Since the beginning of the pandemic, UNICEF has worked with the Government and partners to find ways to allow children and adolescents to continue learning at home. Distance learning materials and videos were created and distributed across Cambodia, and technical and operational support was provided, including study materials and training for teachers. For students speaking indigenous languages, specialist materials and content were produced, with generous funding from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). These included multilingual teaching programmes broadcast through radio, a valuable medium available even in the most remote areas.
“A distance learning approach requires a lot of physical follow-up visits to children’s homes as well as encouraging parents to make sure their children put aside the time to join the distance learning programmes on the radio,” Ms Reap said. A lack of resources for both children and teachers has increased the difficulties. “It has been a massive challenge to reach all students, even when I spend three evenings each week to visit them. Also, each student faces different difficulties, some are doing okay with their reading but not well with mathematics and vice-versa.”
Students also found the situation challenging. Rocham Yhang, a nine-year-old boy from Reap’s class, said, “I had to help my parents with chores and harvesting resin during the daytime and had only a few hours in the evenings to study. I missed my class a lot, and being with my friends even more.”
Kvas Em, an eight-year-old girl in Ms Reap’s class was very appreciative of the fact that she could learn in her native Tumpoun language, at home with support from her teacher. “I love the songs in the radio programmes the most, because they use rhyme in our language to teach us about the national Khmer language,” she explained. “The songs are very beautiful but also help us to remember what we were learning before COVID-19 happened. I would like to get more study materials like this in the future, it helps us learn by ourselves.”
Ms Reap explained that monitoring and supporting each student’s progress has been one of the biggest challenges during the pandemic, but the specially designed content for multilingual students made things easier. By the end of December 2020, about 3,110 students in Ratanakiri had received learning materials such as books, pencils, pens and worksheets for studying alongside the radio program. “The teachers at my school, including me, designed a weekly schedule with activities and objectives and made adjustments as we saw how each student was doing,” Reap explained.
“Livelihoods have really been harmed by COVID-19,” Reap concluded. “Families are struggling to survive, and sometimes this means that children are helping with the income. We need to make sure that parents remember that learning is as important as income and that parents are motivated to support their children in these new learning arrangements.”
UNICEF pledges to work with the Government and all education partners to support teachers like Ms Reap as they strive to keep all children’s educational dreams alive.
About Multilingual Education Program:
Reap has been one of the frontline teachers implementing Cambodia’s Multilingual Education Action Plan (MEAP) since its launch in 2015. This action plan was designed by the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport, with UNICEF’s support, to provide a curriculum-based multilingual education to indigenous girls and boys, starting in pre-school and continuing through the first three years of primary school. The multilingual education is targeted at five indigenous ethnic minority groups, Bunong, Kavet, Kreung, Tampuan, and Brao, in the North-Eastern provinces of Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Kratie, Preah Vihear, and Stung Treng.
This Plan is the first time a Government in South East Asia has committed itself to an education strategy which embraces indigenous languages to increase educational availability for all. It is one of the Government’s strategic development priorities and is supported by extensive international research evidence proving the positive contribution that multilingual education can make to children’s participation in education and society.