Improving learning for mother language speakers on Sumba Island, Indonesia

For an estimated 221 million school aged children around the world who are without access to schooling in their mother tongue language, the challenge of delivering linguistically and culturally inclusive education could not be more important.

In Indonesia, one of the most linguistically diverse nations in the world, the constitution mandates Bahasa Indonesia as the sole language of instruction in formal education – a decision driven by national unity and identity. Although the constitution does allow for local languages to be used in a supplementary sense during the early grades, few teachers are trained in appropriate teaching methodologies for second language acquisition. Furthermore, many local languages in Indonesia do not have a standardised alphabet or existing learning materials. Developing these takes significant time and effort.

The Australian Government funded Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (INOVASI) program is working to address this issue. Selected pilots in West Nusa Tenggara and East Nusa Tenggara focus on multi lingual instruction and supporting children to transition from using mother language to Bahasa Indonesia as the primary mode of classroom instruction.

Learnings from Bima

Planning for INOVASI’s first mother language pilot commenced in August 2017 in Bima, a remote district of West Nusa Tenggara. Learning from the pre-pilot phase, which we reflected on here, a full pilot got underway in 2018. From the pool of teaching strategies tested in the pre-pilot, the ‘language bridge’ method emerged as most effective with partner teachers. This sees the gradual process of language transition, first using local language as the language of classroom instruction, and then gradually introducing Indonesian. After this, Indonesian is used during all lessons, usually by Grade 3. Supplementary strategies in Bima have included reading corners, classroom wall dictionaries to improve vocabulary, and in general, teachers working together to reflect on their progress. Teachers are also now working through foundational literacy modules, to strengthen core skills.


Improving literacy and learning for native language speakers in East and Southwest Sumba

In Sumba, a remote island in Eastern Indonesia, INOVASI is also experimenting with differing approaches to the issue of local language use in early grade classrooms. All four Sumba districts scored well below the national test average in reading, mathematics and science, and all districts face issues of remoteness, low teaching competency, and high prevalence of local languages in homes and communities. There is much to learn about what does and doesn’t work, keeping local context in mind.

Kodi (pronounced ‘kod-hi’ by native speakers) is actively used by 20,000 speakers across Indonesia’s Southwest Sumba district. It is the second largest ethnic language in Southwest Sumba after Wewewa.

Since late 2018, INOVASI has partnered with the Summer Institute of Languages (Suluh Insan Lestari – SIL) to pilot their Bloom book approach to support mother-tongue literacy learning and the orthographic development of the Kodi language. While language transition remains a core focus – given national language requirements – there is a strong element of native language preservation.

SIL’s innovative Bloom software eases the process of bookmaking so that more people can participate – users can create an original text or select a template, called a “shell book,” and insert culturally appropriate pictures and local translations of text.

Training for Southwest Sumba education facilitators and teachers is in full swing, helping to enhance facilitators’ basic understanding of learning in early grades and a mother tongue multi lingual approach, and develop creative reading materials in the Kodi language.

Consensus has already been reached around a Kodi language alphabet, at a recent workshop attended by 16 native Kodi speakers, a Kodi language specialist, observers, district education office representatives, teachers and principals. Moving forward, levelled children’s reading books will be developed in Kodi, to foster a love of reading and provide an essential stepping stone for students. If they can master reading in their local language, then transitioning to reading in Bahasa will be an easier process. School-based reading corners will also help to rally community support for reading.


The agreed-upon Kodi alphabet. On the left is the alphabet written in letters to show what letters sound like; this is suitable for readers in general. On the right is the original letter symbol, for linguistic purposes.

Petrus Lambe, Program Manager of SIL’s Southwest Sumba branch, described why it is important for children to learn the basics of reading in their first language, before transitioning.

“Creative reading in Kodi Language can be a bridge for skilling children in Indonesian. Mastery of mother tongue is very important because by mastering the practical concepts in their first language, only 20% of the original effort is needed to master the concepts in the national language.”

In East Sumba, where mother tongue prevalence is equally as strong, a slightly different approach to language transition is being used. INOVASI’s recent baseline study found that 72 per cent of children in East Sumba use a mother tongue, the most common being Kambera (27%) and Bugis (21%).

Working with the Sulinama foundation, INOVASI is training teachers in mother-tongue-based early-grade reading and writing with child-friendly and levelled books. Local facilitators mentor teachers in partner schools, demonstrating the appropriate use of mother tongue and Bahasa Indonesia as an instructional language according to the needs of the children.

Early in the pilot, teachers faced many issues with the strong prevalence of local mother tongue. Ill-equipped with effective strategies and knowledge, they often mixed both mother tongue and Bahasa Indonesia when teaching, an unhelpful strategy for students.

At one remote primary school, SD Wunga, classroom teaching has now improved with the use of better lesson study planning and a transitional teaching model that supports the acquisition of Bahasa Indonesian. This is similar to the Bima experience. In implementing this approach, teachers arrange their lesson study plans together in advance, selecting a ‘model teacher’ each week to implement the plan, with other teachers sitting in to observe and watch. At the close of the lesson, they reflect together, discussing improvements and challenges to work on.

“Students are more comfortable when teachers speak mother tongue language in the classroom using the 50:50 strategy – using full mother tongue in the first 35 minutes and using Bahasa Indonesia in the next 35 minutes,” explained Andika Dewantara, an INOVASI district facilitator in East Sumba.

“There are interesting lessons from the process of learning in grade two. Now, students experience the learning, there is more intensive interaction and good communication between the teacher and student,” said Naomi Padjadja, an early grade teacher at SD Wunga.

As both the Bima and Sumba pilots continue in 2019, we will certainly see more and more of what does and doesn’t work to help improve language transition and literacy learning outcomes for Indonesian children in the classroom.

Improving learning for mother language speakers on Sumba Island, Indonesia