On a bright morning in Chiang Mai, enthusiastic I Am UNICEF volunteers gathered at the Linguistics Institute of Payap University for a special project of partnership between UNICEF and The Foundation for Applied Linguistics. With a shared mission in mind to support better learning, more than 30 I Am UNCEF volunteers came together to help sew storybooks specifically designed for ethnic minority children who are living in remote areas, particularly in Mae Hong Son province.
Mae Hong Son is one of the provinces in Thailand where education hasn't reached all, causing a learning gap. Despite extensive government investment in education, Mae Hong Sorn ranked as the lowest province in Thailand in total years of schooling, with an average of 6.37 years according to the Human Achievement Index report in 2021 (On average, people in Mae Hong Son Province only complete their primary education up to grade 6). The prevalence of under-resourced schools in remote area compounds the issue, with many children entering school without proficiency in Thai language and struggling to catch up with their peers. From Closing the learning gap in Mae Hong Son publication in 2021, only 45.1 per cent of Mae Hong Son’s 3 to 4-year-olds are developmentally on track for literacy and numeracy, compared to 83.9 per cent of children in Bangkok, and only 40.7 per cent complete upper secondary school.
The language gap is a major contributing factor to the persistent learning gap in Mae Hong Son. “Language barriers have a direct impact on reading skills and can contribute to disengagement from the education system due to a lack of understanding on lessons for many children," Wanna Tienmee, Director of the Foundation of Applied Linguistics told UNICEF. "This lack of comprehension extends particularly to ethnic groups whose native language is not Thai. The key to learning a language is not only about spelling or pronunciation, but also the ability to illustrate and define the meanings of the language. These skills are crucial for children to continue developing in a sophisticated manner and unlock their fullest potential.”
UNICEF has partnered with The Foundation for Applied Linguistic and Ministry of Education to close the learning gap for ethnic minority children in Mae Hong Son province through the implementation of Mother tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) program. “This extension builds upon UNICEF's ongoing initiative to enhance the educational opportunities for children who live in remote areas, such as Mae Hong Son," said Rubkwan Tharmmapornphilas, Education Officer at UNICEF Thailand." Through this collaboration, UNICEF and The Foundation for Applied Linguistic are working together to ensure that every child, regardless of their ethnic background, has equal access to education and opportunities for academic success.”
To bridge this gap, Oranee "Dey" Jariyapotngam, the Language Specialist at the Foundation for Applied Linguistics told us that storybooks are therefore designed as learning materials for MTB-MLE by picking day-to-day and simple things in everyday life to help children learn Thai, using their mother tongue as a foundation.
One example of a story is called 'Grandpa and Grandchild.' This story portrays the daily life of two family members and highlights their roles in supporting each other as a family. By reading this story, children can enhance their speaking, reading, and writing skills while simultaneously learning their mother tongue and the Thai language. They can then apply these skills and knowledge in their day-to-day interactions and school lessons. Moreover, Thai schools can overcome the issue of understaffing caused by a lack of staff able to speak in minority languages by utilizing Thai teachers in combination with these learning materials, Dey told us.
Today's mission for I Am UNICEF volunteers was to assemble plastic sheets and printed pages, sewing them together to create a large storybook. They were guided step-by-step by the Foundation For Applied Linguistic staff, who serve as mentors. This approach ensures that the storybooks are durable and last long for young children, even after repeated use.
As part of an ethnic minority group, Thipsuda "Kongsa" Audomthammasak, an I Am UNICEF volunteer felt very happy that learning materials like storybooks could be more accessible for younger children in remote community. “When I was younger, newspapers were the only source of media that I read, even without fully understanding what they were about. Nevertheless, I made so much effort to read them.” She firmly believes that the provision of learning resources in mother-tongue languages could provide significant potential and possibilities for children's education in remote communities like herself.
“I am incredibly grateful to have been part of the team," said Wanida "Nampueng" Ngokngam, another I Am UNICEF volunteer. "It was a truly fulfilling experience to see how our collective efforts can be a part of improving education access to those we aimed to reach. Being able to connect with volunteers who share similar beliefs has consistently been a source of inspiration for me. It serves as a reminder that we are not alone in making a positive impact."
The volunteer-produced storybooks will have a wide reach, as they are planned to be distributed in a total of 27 classrooms across all 4 districts in Mae Hong Sorn province. The impact of their efforts is set to benefit as many as 669 individuals within the province, ensuring that children who live far away will still have access to the joy and educational benefits of the storybooks.