Volume:6, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2014

African languages in science literacy as a human right in education
Babaci-Wilhite, Zehlia [about]

KEYWORDS: Local language of instruction, human rights in education, science literacy, Africa.
ABSTRACT: This paper will address how to incorporate global and local learning and sustain African languages in education through a science literacy program in Africa. Further, it will argue that this sustenance of learning in African languages in schooling based in local knowledge ought to be defined as a human right in education. I will frame my argument with the theories that reflect and report on commentary and history compiled from the perspectives of both dominant and non-dominant cultures in Africa. I first examine key assumptions about knowledge that inform mainstream educational research and practice. I then argue for an emphasis on the contextualized dimension of learning as a human right in education. I introduce a new model of learning involving alternative assumptions about the value of local knowledge and local languages in the teaching and learning of science subjects using the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading© model. This will form a new platform for teaching and learning science as a human right.


This article will address how to incorporate mother tongue education through a science literacy model adapted to the African context. Further, it will argue that this sustenance of learning in mother tongue education based in local knowledge ought to be defined as a human right in education. I draw on my own research on teaching science subjects in Africa as well as on a review of research on problems connected with studying science due to decontextualized teaching and learning. The article will give attention to the conjunction of several aspects to improve the quality of learning science literacy in mother tongue education and local curriculum. The introduction of the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading (Seeds/Roots) approach will form a new platform for innovation based on a unique mix of local and global knowledge.

There has been a tendency in academic approaches to science literacy to regard literacy as an end unto itself, ignoring structures that undercut disciplinary learning, comprehension, critical literacy, and strategic reading (Cervetti et al., 2005). Therefore, I will argue along with Cervetti et al. (ibid) that literacy will be better achieved through subjects such as science as developed in the Seeds/Roots program, which can be adapted and made accessible on a larger scale in Africa.

The central theoretical focus in the article is on the explanatory power of theories related to education for self-reliance and pedagogy of non-dominant groups. The theoretical framework I will put forward incorporates the importance of local context within its cultural identity, emphasizing the development of local capacity on local terms. The argument in this article draws heavily on the work of three educational theorists. The first is Julius Nyerere and his theory of self-reliance, developed and applied in Tanzania in the 1970s. Also important to the analysis is Paulo Freire´s theory on formal versus informal educational pedagogy as it has implications for the language used in schooling and in the society. And finally, we use David Pearson´s approach of viewing the role of language and literacy in supporting disciplinary learning, which can be achieved by using literacy skills to think critically and flexibly across many domains of knowledge and inquiry. In line with Pearson, Jacqueline Barber (2005) argues that inquiry is curiosity-driven which involves reading books and requires the use of critical and logical thinking as good readers inquire information gathered from text.

I will conclude with the notion that Human rights in education is intimately connected to the life of people (Babaci-Wilhite, et al., 2012), and their languages should become part of the language of education. In short, language plays a critical role in cognitive learning and in the development of critical thinking and new knowledge (Babaci-Wilhite & Geo-JaJa, 2011; 2014). Drawing on my research in Africa, I will argue that improved teaching and learning as long as it is contextualized in mother tongue education can make a positive contribution to achieve human rights in education.

Rethinking education in Africa

Julius K. Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, with his educational vision insisted on the need for rethinking the relationship between general and formal education, insisting that the basic system of education, which the Tanzanians took over at the time of independence, should be questioned. Education is more than obtaining teachers, engineers, and administrators or as training students in the skills required to earn high salaries in the modern sector of our economy (Nyerere, 1968, p. 267). In accord with Nyerere, I argue that the consequences in developing societies as well as in post-industrialized societies, education must acknowledge culture, which includes language and identity, social, historical and non-material dimensions of life.

In line with the ideas of Freire, Nyerere believed that education should be an integral part of daily life and not separated from it. Education should address both the needs of the local people and the country they are living in. The problem today is that African countries are adopting the standards of the World without the inclusion of local culture in education (Geo-JaJa & Azaiki, 2010; Babaci-Wilhite, 2013b; Okonkwo, 2014). Geo-JaJa argues, in agreement with Nyerere, that colonial education in Africa is not transmitting the values and knowledge of African society from one generation to the next; it involves a deliberate attempt to change those values and to replace traditional knowledge by the knowledge from a different society (Nyerere, 1968; Geo-JaJa, 2013, Babaci-Wilhite, 2013a). If education is conceived of as imparting knowledge about the world, then schooling should be regarded as only one aspect of education, since it does not cover all forms of knowledge.

According to Freire (1970), much of the knowledge that forms the basis for schooling has its origins from another place and another time: “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention” (Freire, 1993, p. 53). However, education is most often equated with schooling (Babaci-Wilhite, 2010).

The language issue in Africa is deeply related to the conceptualization of education and the debate around whether or not education should encompass the local cultural context. Freire (1993) and others scholars such as Martha Qorro (2004); Kwesi-Kwaa Prah (2005); Brock-Utne (2011); Jerome Okonkwo & Ifeoma Obuasi (2014) argue that using a local language as medium of education fosters the broader view of learning which softens the barriers between real life and classroom experience. Pearson´s approach to literacy has relevance for the language debate in Africa. His approach aims to develop student’s potential to use the information one gains from reading and apply it to a new situation or problem (Pearson & al. 2007, Cervetti & al. 2012). The Seeds/Roots model considers knowledge and wider vocabulary both a consequence and a cause of reading comprehension (ibid). Therefore learning through local languages will improve literacy as well as the learning of the science subject.

Science in local languages as a human right in education

Rights in education imply that rights are not ensured unless the education offered is of quality. The UN called for a mainstreaming of human rights to encourage the government’s responsibility to insure the rights-based approach. The rights-based framework includes the principle that every human being is entitled to decent education and gives priority to the intrinsic importance of education, implying that governments need to mobilize the resources to offer quality education (UNICEF, 2003, p. 8). Katarina Tomasevski (2003) advocates that education should prepare learners for participation: “it should teach the young that all human beings – themselves included – have rights” (2003, p. 33).

The Rights-Based Approach had its origins in 1993 when the United Nations (UN) held the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. Robeyns (2006) argues: “the rights-based approach model of education is that, once the government agrees that children should have the rights to be educated, it may see its task as being precisely executing this agreement, and nothing more.” Furthermore, she claims that “well-developed rights-based educational policies will state precisely which rights are guaranteed to whom, and what the government has to do to ensure that rights are not only rhetorical, but also effective” (ibid, p. 77).

Education has the potential to empower if teaching and learning give nourishment and self-respect that in turn bring confidence to teachers and learners. I agree with Robeyns (ibid, p. 77) when she writes that “It will be necessary that the government goes beyond its duties in terms of the rights-based policies, to undertake action to ensure that every child can fully and equally enjoy her rights to education” which implies that teachers are well-trained and teaching material is provided and a good curriculum and pedagogy is developed and not only school buildings and teaching staff.

Education is another tool to increase human rights effectiveness as it increases human capabilities, functions and opportunities in societies. This further leads to the linkage between human rights and development and enables policy makers and developers to incorporate the rights-based approach within the "Common Understanding" of a human rights-based approach, assuring these principles: indivisibility, equality, participation and inclusion (UNDP, 2006, p. 17–18).

Rights are defined as entitlements that belong to all human beings regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic class (Nussbaum, 1998, p. 273). All humans therefore are rights holders, and it is someone’s duty to provide these rights, a government or a system. “Human rights in education” is a powerful notion as it is intimately connected to the social, occupational, political, cultural, religious and artistic life of the people (Babaci-Wilhite & al., 2012; Bostad, 2013). UNESCO’s convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions emphasizes the importance of linguistic diversity (2005). Language as part of culture should be part of what Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) calls language as a human right in the education sector.

The globalization trends for language in education outlined above, in which local curricula are de-contextualized are in contravention of the tenets of the rights-based approach to language in education. This approach is based on the premise that the use of a local curriculum should be regarded as a right in education (Babaci-Wilhite, 2014b).

In an increasingly interdependent global world it is important to facilitate the mastery of foreign languages as well as mastery of a subject matter. An innovation with a unique mix of local and global learning with a value of local knowledge, local languages and local teaching and learning of science subjects can become the bridge which will be discussed in the next section.

Improving science literacy in Africa

I argue that these important issues of improving science learning and enabling rights in education can be addressed by applying the Seeds/Roots model in education curricula to resolve the problems of quality of teaching and learning science associated with poor quality of teachers and inadequate teaching aids and facilities. The aim of Seeds/Roots model is to make sense of the physical world through first- and secondhand experiences while addressing foundational dimensions of literacy. Seeds/Roots has assembled science and literacy experts to study, enact in the form of curriculum, and test the limits and potential of the science-literacy interface answering how can reading, writing, and discourse be used as tools to support inquiry-based science learning and what benefits accrue to reading, writing, and discourse when they are embedded in inquiry-based science as well as what skills and strategies are shared in these subjects. This has the potential to bring the needed outcomes, results and accomplishments that will improve science as well as the process of teaching and learning science. The emphasis will be moved from rote memorization to deep understanding. 

Pearson et al. (2013) argue that in the effort to promote understanding, existing background knowledge matters which refers to Goldenberg (2008) who claims that:

Beginning reading instruction is guided by neither a theory nor a goal of knowledge development. In fact, just the opposite: children are presented with texts—mostly narrative—chosen to reflect their existing background knowledge, the assumption being that they can use that knowledge to comprehend familiar content.

This reflects the current situation in Africa. As argued above, engagement with local language and local knowledge are necessary to facilitate the teaching and learning process. Furthermore, each outcome in the pathway of change is tied to an intervention, revealing the complex web of activity that is required to bring about change (Cervetti & al. 2007; Cervetti & al. 2012). These principles of learning address the connections between early, intermediate, and long-term outcomes and the expectations about how and why the proposed interventions will bring them about (see Cervetti & al. 2007). In short, the Seeds/Roots model aims for deep conceptual understanding, implementation of a program of planning and evaluation, and a commonly cross-disciplinary understanding of the vision of desirable long-term goals and the ways to reach them, as well as what will be used to measure progress along the way.

The Seeds/Roots model requires teachers to be clear on long-term goals, identify measurable indicators of success, and be accomplished through practices known to meet the linguistic needs, such as using graphic representations of abstract concepts (see Cervetti et al. 2008; Pearson & al. 2013). This fundamental concept builds a curriculum that gives emphasis to literacy through “texts, routines for reading, word-level skills, vocabulary, and comprehension instruction.” All these work in the service of obtaining knowledge, skills, and dispositions of inquiry-based science (Cervetti & al., 2008). The implementation of the program takes on learning goals in literacy and science by providing students with explicit instruction, opportunities for practice, and increasing independence in using literacy strategies to make sense of and communicate about the natural world.

The Multi-modal approach central to Seeds/Roots provides students with opportunities to access every essential concept to be learned in a unit through a range of different learning modalities called the Do-it; Talk-it; Read-it; Write-it approach. By doing experiences, it engages students in discussing the essential concepts learned, and it makes it easy to understand them by reading and enabling students to write them (Barber, 2005). These multiple modalities provide opportunities for students to apply, deepen, and extend their knowledge of the learned concepts.

This effective research-based curriculum offers students an explicit focus on disciplinary literacy and in the specialized knowledge and skills involved in reading, writing, and talking about science, sorely needed in Africa. Furthermore, students engage in written and oral discourse with the goal of communicating and negotiating evidence-based explanations, evaluating, and revising explanations based on that evidence (Barber, 2005, Pearson & al., 2010). Recent studies have shown that students exposed to the program made significantly greater gains on measures of science understanding, science vocabulary, and science writing (Cervetti & al., 2012).

Adapting the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading

In Africa, reforms and policies connecting local cultures to education have been neglected. According to Samoff (2007, p. 60), “effective education reform requires agendas and initiatives with strong local roots.” In other words, local knowledge (also referred to as indigenous knowledge) should be included in the curriculum (Odora, 2002; Babaci-Wilhite & Geo-JaJa, 2011; Semali et al, 2012). This knowledge should be conveyed in local languages, which is critical to the preservation and development of local knowledge. The choice of the language of instruction is extremely important not only because of the implications for quality learning, but also because of the intimate ties between language, culture, and identity (Brock-Utne, 2011, 2012; Babaci-Wilhite, 2014a; Okonkwo, 2014).

The Seeds/Roots model links firsthand experiences, discussions, and writing to the ideas and language in informational texts to foster development of core science knowledge and literacy skills (Cervetti & al. 2006, Afflerback et al. 2008). The model would address how reading and writing can be used as tools to support inquiry-based science in Africa, and how to support their implementation in today’s complicated curricular landscape in Africa.

The Seeds/Roots can be a major step in correcting violations of children’s rights in education due to the weak learning environment pointed out above, especially the lack of trained teachers and support materials. This will contribute to a solid curriculum grounded in thorough teacher preparation and quality support materials. An application of the Seeds/Roots model has the potential to be instrumental in realizing science learning that ensures every child’s rights to quality education.


Language is crucial to the learning process inside and outside of schools. Mother tongue instruction is the tool of learning and therefore, what tool could be easier to use than the local language as a language in all forms for education. In this article, I have reviewed the theory relevant to understanding the importance of language and culture in learning as well as the need to encompass both formal and informal learning in Africa where the choices are between globally powerful and local languages. The theory of self-reliance stresses the importance of the curriculum being grounded in the local context and mediated through a local language. Such an approach emphasizes the importance of indigenous concepts, articulated in their natural environment. Education is more than schooling, therefore rethinking in re-teaching is crucial. African languages need to be valued and preserved, and students should be prepared for the world in a language of instruction, which promotes understanding.

The Seeds/Roots model represents an opportunity to apply a well-tested science curriculum to the African teaching of science that has the benefit of considerable empirical testing. In addition, the Seeds/Roots program leads to improved literacy, scientific knowledge, and personal efficacy for students and greater professional efficacy for teachers (Pearson, 2007). The adaptation of the Seeds/Roots model to the local context will provide easy access and contribute to rights in education and to children’s confidence in their community in order to promote social justice and quality learning.


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Babaci-Wilhite, Zehlia, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor, University of California, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A., and University of Oslo, Norway.

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