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Mother-tongue books in Haiti: The power of Kreyòl in learning to read and in reading to learn


This article aims at a deeper understanding of the importance of native languages in education and development, with Haiti as a case study. About half of Haiti’s population is illiterate. Among ten children who enter the first grade, at most one (10%) will graduate from high school; a large proportion will drop out of school at an early age. Language is a factor in such academic failure. Education in Haiti is carried out mostly in French, which is spoken fluently by at most 5% of the population, while the language spoken by 100% of the population, namely Haitian Creole (Kreyòl), is by and large excluded from the school system, in spite of legislation, official curricula, and various efforts from civil society to generalize the classroom use of Kreyòl. This article reports on the results of an intervention to improve early-grade reading and writing in Haiti. It argues that the systematic classroom use of Kreyòl—at all levels, but especially in early grades—promotes academic success. The article also draws implications for policy, to enhance reading and writing in Haiti.

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Correspondence to Michel DeGraff.

Additional information

I thank the All Children Reading initiative and World Vision for funding the project Mother Tongue Books: Learning to Read in Haiti (Principal Investigator: Christine W. Low). Heartfelt thanks to Chris for inviting me to collect and analyze the project’s assessment data that are described in this article. I also thank the National Science Foundation for funding the work that first brought me to work with teachers and students in Matènwa in 2010 (NSF Award # 1049718: and for funding subsequent work on technology-enhanced active learning in Kreyòl with STEM faculty at high schools and universities throughout Haiti (NSF Award # 1248066: I thank my beloved Elena Geretti for her immensely gracious and indispensable help with nearly every aspect of this project; and I thank my amazing son, Nuriel, for his love and support and for patiently bearing with too many absences. Thank you, Nuriel, for understanding that every child in the world deserves an equal opportunity to succeed in school and life, with joy, creativity, and dignity. Of course, this work would have been impossible without the extraordinary team work of the “fanm vanyan”, “gason vanyan”, and “timoun vanyan” (courageous men, women, and pupils) at the Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa (LKM) in La Gonâve, Haiti, and at Friends of Matènwa in Massachusetts, with special thanks to Leslie Cohen for her editorial help on this paper and to Abner Sauveur and Christine Low, co-founders of LKM, for their vision toward quality education for all. I also thank three anonymous reviewers and Jo Anne Kleifgen for extremely helpful comments that have greatly improved the form and content of this article.

Appendix: A proposal for letter names in Kreyòl

Appendix: A proposal for letter names in Kreyòl

Typically, Haitian pupils are taught to memorize the French letter names, which they use even as they learn how to read in Kreyòl. This application of the French letter names to Kreyòl’s official 32-grapheme alphabet as described in Bernard (1980) is problematic in light of the fact that the grapheme-to-phoneme mapping in Kreyòl is substantially different from, and much more regular than, its counterpart in French.

Consider, say, the letter “g”, whose name is pronounced [ ʒe ] in French with the corresponding phoneme / ʒ / occurring in words like orange, though “g” is pronounced / g / at the beginning of a French word such as “garçon”. Now, compare the phonemic characteristics of the same letter “g” in Kreyòl. In Kreyòl, this letter “g”, in the continuous reading of written words, is uniformly pronounced / g / as in gaga. Therefore, applying the French letter name [ ʒe ] to Kreyòl “g” is misleading since it obscures the relationship between the grapheme <g> and its associated phoneme / g /. Indeed, the Kreyòl letter “g”, unlike the French letter “g”, always corresponds to the phoneme / g / and never corresponds to the phoneme / ʒ /.

Similar considerations apply to the letter “c”, whose name is pronounced [se] in French. However, in Kreyòl, the symbol “c” is not even a grapheme in the official alphabet. In Kreyòl, the symbol “c” occurs, as a graph, only in combination with “h” to create the grapheme <ch>, a digraph that corresponds to the phoneme / š /. Therefore, it is misleading to identify the symbol “c” with the letter name [se] since the consonant / s / in [se] never matches the pronunciation of the symbol “c” in Kreyòl—a symbol that is never pronounced alone since, as noted above, it is not a grapheme in the alphabet. In other word, the symbol “c”, unlike in the French alphabet, is not even a stand-alone letter in the Kreyòl alphabet.

The French letter names present a more general disadvantage vis-à-vis the Kreyòl alphabet. Consider the fact that the vowel that accompanies the consonants in the French letter names is either / e / as in “b”, “c”, “d”, etc; / a / as in “h”, “k”; / ɛ / as in “l”, “m”, “n”; / i / as in “j”, “x”; / y / as in “q”. Furthermore, the supporting vowel is pronounced either after the consonant (as in “b”, “c”, “d”, etc.) or before (as in “h”, “l”, “m”, “n”, etc.).

Louis-Charles, Telfort, and DeGraff (2015) have proposed an alternative set of letter names for Kreyòl, consisting of two segments for most of the consonants: the consonant itself followed by the supporting vowel / a / in a consonant+vowel template that is easiest for pronunciation by small children (Jakobson 1960). Such a system is much more regular than the French letter names and more consistent with the transparent phonemic structure of the Kreyòl orthography. Indeed, the Kreyòl orthography exhibits a virtually “transparent” one-to-one relationship between graphemes and phonemes; whereas, French orthography is “opaque”, with a many-to-many relationship between graphemes and phonemes. Research on the advantages of transparent orthographies for developing children’s phonemic awareness (Dehaene et al. 2011) indicates that having the Kreyòl alphabet’s letter names be most transparent will help raise the phonemic awareness of Kreyòl-speaking children. This is a considerable advantage for learning to read in Kreyòl in Haiti. This advantage also helps dyslexic children, who show fewer deficits with transparent orthographies (as in Spanish) than with opaque orthographies (Brunswick, McDougall, and De Mornay Davies 2010; Lallier, Valdois, Lassus-Sangosse, Prado, and Kandel 2014).

Furthermore, because of its phonetic acoustic and stochastic properties, there is a pedagogical virtue in using the vowel /a/ as the supporting vowel for the consonant: among all the vowels in Kreyòl, /a/ is the vowel that makes the consonants most perceptible and most easily pronounceable (Jakobson 1960; also see Krull 1988 on the identification of consonants across different vocalic contexts; I am grateful to Benjamin Storme (graduate student at MIT Linguistics) for sharing with me his own research on this topic, including his calculations, based on Krull 1988, showing that the vowel / a / is the one that, in the neighborhood of consonants, leads to the least errors in the identification of these consonants.). Lastly, the vowel /a/ is the most frequently occurring vowel in Kreyòl (Hebblethwaite 2009), which implies that its use in Kreyòl letter names will make it even easier for children to produce and remember these names and the letter-sound correspondences they illustrate. Such templates for the names of Kreyòl consonants (consonant + / a /) can, thus, serve to enhance Kreyòl-speaking children’s phonemic awareness.

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DeGraff, M. Mother-tongue books in Haiti: The power of Kreyòl in learning to read and in reading to learn. Prospects 46, 435–464 (2016).

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  • Haiti
  • Haitian Creole (Kreyòl)
  • Literacy
  • Instruction in the mother tongue
  • Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA)