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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Mouton March 1, 2022

Implementation of multilingual mother tongue education in Cambodian public schools for indigenous ethnic minority students

  • Wayne E. Wright ORCID logo EMAIL logo , Sovicheth Boun ORCID logo and Virak Chan ORCID logo
From the journal Educational Linguistics


In this qualitative interpretive policy analysis case study, we examine the Cambodian government’s adoption and expansion of a Multilingual Education (MLE) program for speakers of different indigenous ethnic minority languages across five Northeastern provinces. Data include MLE policy documents and curriculum, observations in MLE schools, and interviews and focus groups with NGO staff, government officials, MLE Core Trainers, local MLE teachers, and school board members. We also analyze the nature of Khmer and indigenous language use and the nature of teaching and learning in the MLE schools and classrooms. Findings reveal significant success in establishing new schools and programs, expanding access to nearly 5,000 indigenous students, but also identify a number of challenges related to the governments’ capacity to further develop and expand MLE, with continual reliance on NGOs for technical and other support. Analyses of classroom observation data provide evidence of fidelity to the MLE model and curriculum, effective teaching and learning, and highly engaged teachers and students.

1 Introduction

Cambodia is a rapidly developing country with a tragic past and resilient people. The country has faced many challenges yet it has made tremendous progress rebuilding its entire education system following a genocide and over a decade of civil war (Ayres 2003). Relative peace beginning in the mid 1990s enabled further development and expansion of education, but many children remained out of school, particularly in rural and remote regions of the country. Cambodia committed to ambitious “Education for All” (EFA) goals following the 2000 World Education Forum in Senegal, and also committed to the United Nations’ (UN) Millennium Development Goals to provide universal access to education. While Cambodia attained net enrollments rates of over 92% by 2008, enrollment lagged at 88% in remote areas (Wright and Boun 2015). Indigenous ethnic minority students living in the remote regions of Cambodia’s Northeastern provinces proved to be hardest to reach, due in large part to language barriers. To address this challenge, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MoEYS) turned to bilingual education in the late 2000s, adopting a model developed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which had proven to be successful for indigenous students (Middleborg 2005).

In this paper, we build on our own prior work on the establishment and expansion (Wright and Boun 2015, 2016) of what is now called the Multilingual Education (MLE) program in Cambodia, in addition to building on the work of a handful of other scholars who have conducted formal evaluations of the program (e.g., Ball and Smith 2019; Benson 2011; Benson and Wong 2017; Chap et al. 2003; Lee et al. 2015). Through a qualitative case study approach, we consider further national policy developments and expansion of the program, and critically examine the implementation of the MLE program at four primary schools in two Northeastern provinces. We address the following research questions:

  1. What have been some of the successes and remaining challenges in the adoption and expansion of MLE in Cambodia?

  2. What is the nature of Khmer and indigenous language use in MLE classrooms?

  3. What is the nature of teaching and learning in MLE classrooms?

2 Literature review

Baker and Wright (2021) acknowledge that bilingual education is a “simplistic label for a complex phenomenon,” but in general refers to educational contexts where “most or all the education is through two languages” (p. 454). Multilingual education (MLE) is often used broadly to refer to instructional settings where two or more languages (or dialects) are used for instruction, and thus encompasses bilingual education. Bilingual programs are often controversial given political ideologies of nationalism and assimilation that may lead policymakers and educators to view the home (mother tongue) languages of indigenous, immigrant, and children-of-immigrant students to be a problem to be overcome, resulting in education only in the dominant societal language (Ruiz 1984). However, there is strong research evidence of the effectiveness of bilingual education in helping language minority students attain proficiency in the majority language and attaining academic success (Baker and Wright 2021). García (2009) argues that in the 21st Century, “bilingual education, in all of is complexities and forms, seems to be the only way to educate the world as it moves forward” (p. 6). UNESCO (2007) has promoted bilingual education as an effective tool for extending education opportunity to linguistic minorities around the world previously excluded from schooling.

Baker and Wright (2021) provide a typology of weak and strong forms of bilingual education. Weak forms typically provide only a few years of instruction in the home language, are designed for quick transition and assimilation into the majority language and culture, and may result in only a limited form of bilingualism. In contrast, strong forms expand across several year of schooling, and aim to help students develop and maintain high levels of bilingualism and bilteracy. A current debate in the field is the extent to which program models should continue the traditional insistence on the strict separation of languages for instruction. Many scholars now argue for programs grounded in a translanguaging pedagogy which enable teachers and students to draw on their entire linguistic repertoire more freely for classroom teaching and learning (García and Wei 2014, 2015; García et al. 2016). Effective language, literacy, and content-area instruction for bilingual learners is also subject to debate. However, research generally supports literacy instruction that provides students with scaffolding and multiple opportunities to engage in reading and writing meaningful texts, the use of appropriately-leveled texts that are culturally relevant and sustaining, child-centered instruction that provides ample opportunities for hands-on activities, small group work and other configurations to maximize opportunities for meaningful interactions, and ongoing monitoring and assessment of student learning with appropriate feedback and interventions as needed (see Wright 2019 for a review).

2.1 Multilingual mother tongue education in Cambodia

The development of multilingual education in Cambodia can be traced back to the efforts of International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC) and UNESCO to implement a bilingual non-formal education (NFE) project in 1997 in two northeastern provinces—Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri (Chap et al. 2003). Prior, most ethnic minority children had never attended school, and almost all females and over 80% of males were illiterate. The goal of the bilingual NFE program was to develop early literacy in both the national language (Khmer) and the mother tongues of indigenous children and adult speakers. Classes, usually offered in the evenings, used a model of instruction that begins in the vernacular and progresses to Khmer, with a culturally relevant curriculum. By 2003, the bilingual NFE initiatives were being implemented in three northeastern provinces—Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri and Stung Treng—focusing on five indigenous languages: Tampuan, Kreung, Brao, Kavet, and Bunong. Linguists associated with the ICC in collaboration with local linguists from the Royal Academy of Cambodia, developed orthographies for the indigenous languages, which were ultimately approved for official use by MoEYS in 2003.

The Cambodian government, driven by ideologies of nationalism and a narrow view of indigenous language and literacy as a temporary bridge to Khmer literacy, insisted that the indigenous languages be written using the Khmer alphabet (Gregerson 2009).

Drawing on the successes of the bilingual NFE project, in 2002, CARE International, with financial support from UNICEF and AusAid, worked with the Ratanakiri Provincial Office of Education (POE) to create a pilot multilingual education program featuring four key components: (a) establishment of community school boards, (b) creation of community schools, (c) development of a multilingual education curriculum, and (d) recruitment, training and support of community teachers (Boun and Wright 2013; CARE 2006, 2008; Nowaczyk 2015). In 2003, the program established six multilingual community primary schools in remote villages in Ratanakiri, covering Kreung and Tampuan languages and enrolling a total of 278 Grade 1 students. The main goal was “to address the needs of disadvantaged ethnic minority groups through the establishment of community schools targeting girls and boys who have never enrolled or who have dropped out of the formal system” and to provide MoEYS “with a model for the delivery of basic education in remote areas of Cambodia to highland minority peoples” (CARE 2006, p. 4). The program adapted the state primary curriculum to the local context incorporating life-skills that draw upon the knowledge and culture of community people.

As shown in Table 1, the multilingual education program is based on an early-exit, transitional model with a gradual decrease in the use of the indigenous language in Grades 1–3 and a simultaneous increase in the use of Khmer as a language of literacy and instruction until it becomes the sole medium of instruction by grade 4 (see Middelborg 2005).

Table 1:

Cambodia’s early-exit transitional MLE model.

Grade level Indigenous language Khmer language
Grade 1 80% 20%
Grade 2 60% 40%
Grade 3 30% 70%
Grades 4–6 100%

Note that this transitional model is a “weak” form of bilingual education (Baker and Jones 1998; Baker and Wright 2021). As with the decision on indigenous language orthographies, ideologies of nationalism upholding Khmer as the national language led the government to resist proposals for a stronger developmental bilingual education model (e.g., through grade 6); the government viewed bilingual education as a temporary and quick “bridge” to the national language and curriculum (Wright and Boun 2016). Despite the limitations of the model, the program proved successful. By early 2006, the six schools enrolled 613 students (44% girls) and were staffed by 37 locally recruited, Indigenous community teachers. Between 2007 and 2009, CARE International collaborated with Mondulkiri and Stung Treng POEs to open MLE schools in Bunong and Kavet, respectively (Benson and Wong 2017).

A significant step in the expansion of multilingual education was its introduction into six state (public) schools in Ratanakiri in 2008, suggesting that “multilingual education was no longer a radical idea, … but one that the government was willing to trial in the mainstream education system” (Nowaczyk 2015, p. 8). In 2009, CARE began a pilot of MLE at the pre-school level by establishing play groups in seven ethnic minority communities. Following CARE’s model and curriculum, in 2011, MoEYS began implementing its own pilot of MLE pre-schools in 20 ethnic communities in five northeastern provinces, with support from UNICEF and technical support from CARE. After a decade of CARE’s work, advocacy and partnerships, CARE community pre-schools and community primary schools were handed over to MoEYS in 2013. Despite the handover, MoEYS felt that education officials in the POEs lacked the capacity to fully implement MLE programs, and requested CARE to continue capacity building for their staff. Thus, CARE’s technical assistance work is ongoing. According to MoEYS (2019), in the 2017–2018 academic year, there were a total of 94 MLE pre-schools and 80 MLE primary schools, enrolling 1,798 and 4,866 students respectively across the five northeastern provinces.

Prior research on Cambodia’s MLE program has primarily focused on the development of orthographies in the indigenous languages and use for non-formal education (Gregerson 2009), the development of the pilot program by CARE (Middleborg 2005; Wright and Boun 2015), the government adoption and expansion of MLE (Benson and Wong 2017; Wong and Benson 2019; Wright and Boun 2016), and formal evaluation studies of government policy and implementation as well as formal achievement of MLE students (Ball and Smith 2019; Benson and Wong 2017; Lee et al. 2015). This study fills a gap by analyzing and reporting more closely the perspective of the national and local stake holders on the successes and remaining challenges of the programs, and by providing an in-depth look at actual classroom language and instructional practices that are largely absent from prior published work. Our proficiency in Khmer (Boun and Chan as native speakers, Wright as a non-native speaker) enabled us to communicate directly with the local political leaders and MLE educators without the need for interpreters. We were also able to directly observe and conduct deep analysis of classroom instruction and interactions—most of which was in Khmer. We believe this article provides one of the most extensive analyses and reporting of the direct words and actions of the local political leaders and MLE educators in Cambodia.

3 Methods

To address our research questions, we conducted a qualitative case study. We draw on a framework of interpretive policy analysis (Yanow 2000), which considers how policies are interpreted and implemented by policy actors through analysis of their words and actions, and the policy artifacts they or others produce (e.g., policy documents, curricular materials, student work, etc.).

The first two authors (Wright and Boun) traveled to Cambodia in summer 2018 to collect data for this study. Wright and Boun conducted formal interviews with two CARE Cambodia staff members at the organization’s Phnom Penh headquarters. The first is an international staff member and long-term program officer who has been actively involved with CARE’s development of MLE in Cambodia since the beginning of the program in 2002. The second is a local Cambodian staff member who had only worked for CARE for about five months as an education technical advisor at the time of the interview. However, she had direct responsibilities connected to the MLE program and had recently visited several of the schools assisting other researchers with an evaluation project (Benson et al. 2018), and thus was quite knowledgeable. She was also a former student and colleague of Wright and Boun at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The second author (Boun) led the collection and initial analyses of MLE-related policy documents.

From July 5–11, 2018, the first author (Wright) traveled to Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri to conduct the school observations; focus groups with MLE teachers, school board members, and Core MLE Trainers; and interviews with provincial education officials. He was accompanied by a Phnom Penh-based Cambodian educator who served as a volunteer research assistant. CARE Cambodia arranged the schedule and provided transportation for the well-over 1,000 km round trip. In Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri local CARE staff members served as gracious hosts with a wealth of experience working with the MLE schools. Our informal conversations with them during our travels and site visits, and the insights they shared as they helped facilitate the focus groups and the interviews were invaluable.

We conducted observations at four MLE primary schools—two in Ratanakiri (Kolap and Pheap) and two in Mondulkiri (Tong and Ravy).[1] We spent at least 3 h at each school, observing as many classrooms as possible, while also conducting the focus groups with the school board and teachers. We took photos and captured 4 h and 23 min of video. More focus was given to observing grades 1–3 where indigenous language instruction takes place, and thus accounts for about 3½ hours of the captured video. We captured video of portions of 34 lessons, including: 14 math, 10 mother tongue, 6 Khmer, and 4 social studies lessons. While time did not allow the capture of full lessons in each classroom, the video clips provided vivid snapshots of typical instruction in each grade level and subject area.

In total, we conducted four formal interviews with CARE staff members and with Provincial Office of Education officials in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, two focus groups with Core MLE Trainers (4–5 in each group), and 5 focus groups with MLE teachers and school committee members (5–12 per group). All interviews and focus groups were audio recorded. Interviews with the two CARE staff members were conducted in English; all other interviews and focus groups were conducted in Khmer. In a few instances a committee member spoke in their indigenous language, with interpretation to Khmer provided by our local CARE staff host or interpreter. The 3rd author (Chan) translated and transcribed all Khmer interview and focus group recordings into English and led the inititial analyses.

Data analyses were guided by the framework outlined by (Richards 2021). All data were imported into NVivo for Mac. We created detailed time-stamped field notes (in English) within NVivo for each classroom video clip, with a focus on the content of the lesson, the interactions between the teacher and the students, the language(s) of instruction, and the specific strategies and techniques used in the lesson. We coded the classroom video field notes and photos using a thematic coding scheme designed to capture grade levels, subjects, language use, and the use of instructional materials. We coded the interview and focus group transcripts using a different thematic coding scheme designed to capture the views and beliefs of the participants, their experiences in MLE, and their descriptions of the successes and remaining challenges for MLE in Cambodia. Following subsequent readings of the data record and reviews of the coding, we created several memos within NVivo to summarize the main points raised in the interviews and focus groups. We also created detailed memos for each lesson observed based on the field notes and coding to create narrative accounts and list our overall thoughts and impressions. Finally, we reviewed our coding and memos to produce a list of conclusions. Additional searches through the data using NVivo’s text search tools were used to further refine our conclusions.

4 Findings

In this section we first address research question #1 on the successes and remaining challenges in the adoption and expansion of MLE in Cambodia by drawing upon our review of relevant policy artifacts and our interviews and focus groups with policy actors.

4.1 Successes

MLE pre-schools and primary schools were handed over to the MoEYS in 2013. Since then, the MLE programs have been expanded to more schools and helped to increase enrollment and reduce dropouts by removing language barriers and making instruction more accessible. As an MLE Core Trainer stated:

The enrollment only started [to increase] when the school introduced the multilingual education program. Now after five or six years, both the multilingual education and the national language education [programs] are running smoothly.

The director of the Mondulkiri POE declared:

Before, a lot of students failed because of the language barrier. Many failed because they didn’t understand; the teacher spoke Khmer and the students spoke ethnic language. It didn’t work, so students quicky dropped out. Thus, this multilingual education is important.

Ball and Smith (2019) note that increased enrolments and regular attendance by Indigenous students in MLE primary schools were cited by stakeholders as the most significant outcome of the MLE program. Expansion of the MLE programs also meant more schools built closer to the ethnic groups; many villages that never had school now have one. The Mondulkiri POE director noted that when he first started in the mid-1990s, there were only nine schools in the entire province, and “now we have 700 primary school teachers and the number of schools has increased to 90,” with 23 being MLE primary schools. As reported by MoEYS (2019), by 2018 there were a total of 94 multilingual pre-schools and 80 multilingual primary schools, enrolling 1,798 and 4,866 students respectively, across the five northeastern provinces.

Our observations of the four MLE schools confirm overall high enrollments and good attendance on the days of our visit, particularly in Grades 1–3 that provide mother tongue instruction (see Table 2). The MLE schools also had relatively high enrollments of girls, thus meeting a particular national education goal. Of the 20 classrooms observed, seven had no absences; eight had three or fewer absences. Kolap School had the highest number of absences in Grade 1 (−21), and Grade 2 (−8), but these classrooms were still overcrowded with over 33 students in attendance. Kolap and Pheap Schools were early MLE schools, thus the higher number of enrolled students in Grade 4–6 could be attributed to the success of the MLE program in grades 1–3. The MLE program is newer at Tong and Ravy Schools, thus the current students in grades 4–6 did not receive mother tongue education in the earlier grades, which may account for the lower enrollments. The Grade 3 teacher at Ravy School had not received bilingual teacher training, and thus only taught in Khmer; this may account for this classroom’s high absence rate (−12).

Table 2:

Enrollment and attendance in observed MLE classrooms.

School Grade 1 Grade 2 Grade 3 Grade 4 Grade 5 Grade 6
Kolap 59/38 (−21)a 42/15 (−8) 26/15 (−2) 31/18 (−?) n/a 15/10 (−?)
Pheap 27/13 (−3) 26/9 (−3) 21/8 (−2) 21/12 (−0) 18/10 (−0) 8/5 (−1)
Tong 23/14 (−0) 16/10 (−0) n/a 13/7 (−1)b n/a n/a
Ravy 15/5 (−0) 14/9 (−0) 21/13 (−12) 13/9 (−2) 8/2 (−0) 4/2 (−1)
  1. aTotal enrollment/girls enrolled (−# of absent). bOfficial count on board was 11/3 (−1), but we counted 13 students, including 7 girls, in the classroom.

Another key success is the recruitment and training of ethnic minority teachers as MLE teachers, something that CARE emphasized as critical due to their extensive and relevant knowledge of the communities in which they work, as well as to their fluency both in their indigenous mother tongue and Khmer (Middelborg 2005). As a Core MLE Trainer in Ratanakiri explained:

At the beginning, there were not many teachers who were ethnic minority. Most of the teachers were young Khmer people and they didn’t know the ethnic language. So when they taught, it was like they were speaking a foreign language. The students didn’t understand and felt sleepy. But now, we have more teachers from the ethnic minority.

The director of the Ratanakiri POE added:

If teachers are all Khmer and they communicate with ethnic children, how could they understand each other? That’s why later on, we use ethnic teachers in the areas with a lot of ethnic people, so it’s easier for them to teach their students.

Wong and Benson (2019) state that an important part of the success of MLE is the engagement of local members in the development and implementation of the MLE policy. In a strategic evaluation report, Frawley (2019) pointed out that “MLE provided an opportunity for the recruitment and training of ethnic minority teachers because of their cultural knowledge and their fluency in L1 and Khmer” (p. 27). The recruitment has resulted in an increase in the number of MLE trained teachers, as well as the number of women employed as MLE teachers.

The MLE programs have also been found to contribute to the maintenance of indigenous cultures and languages. The director of the Mondulkiri POE stated:

Multilingual education helps in their village, their community. For example, some villages didn’t have school, but after we created one, they participated and it helps them maintain their language and culture. It helps them to keep their language, meaning they have both the spoken and the written language.

Despite the “weak” transitional model, the importance of language and culture was reflected in the MLE program. For example, the MLE curriculum and materials consider indigenous perspectives and values, contributing to the maintenance and preservation of traditional cultures and lifestyles (Nowaczyk 2015). Moreover, ethnic minority teachers are able to make connections and references to their community, culture, and traditions, and help indigenous students to maintain their ethnic minority culture and identity (Frawley 2019). Thus, the curriculum and instruction are culturally relevant and sustaining (Paris and Alim 2017).

Finally, an important success is the institutionalization of MLE through policy development. Prior to MoEYS’ take over of MLE schools in 2013, the only policy document to guide the implementation was the Bilingual Education Guidelines (MoEYS 2010). Since 2011, MoEYS, with input from partner agencies, has further developed a number of policy documents including the Education Strategic Plan for 2014–2018, the 2013 Prakas (Proclamation) on Identification of Languages for Khmer National Learners who are Indigenous People, and the 2015–2019 and 2019–2023 Multilingual Education National Action Plans (MENAP). Through these policies, MoEYS has provided itself and its development partners with guidance and frameworks for the planning, budgeting and implementation of the MLE programs, giving MLE a relatively secure position in primary education. These policies reflect MoEYS’ commitment to providing high-quality basic education to ethnic minority children. The vision of the 2019–2023 MENAP is to ensure “all Indigenous people have access to inclusive and equitable quality mother-tongue-based MLE and life-long learning opportunities, to become valuable and productive citizens and contribute to the sustainable, cultural and socio-economic development of the country” (MoEYS 2019, p. 3). The MENAP lays out three main objectives: (a) expand demand for and supply of inclusive, sustainable and equitable quality MLE programs for Indigenous people, especially children; (b) improve access to quality MLE, linking with cultures, traditions and customs of Indigenous people; and (c) promote participation and collaboration between Indigenous communities and relevant stakeholders.

4.2 Challenges

The expansion of MLE creates a need to increase the number of qualified teachers. As reported by Ball and Smith (2019), there is a need to attract ethnic minority language speakers and to retain teachers who have completed MLE training in order to improve quality. However, our findings reveal challenges in recruiting and retaining quality MLE teachers. As noted by a Core MLE Trainer in Ratanakiri:

From the beginning, we ran many multilingual education programs, like 10 or 10 plus. But now we closed down six [programs]. The first one we closed down is Kachagn, which used Kreung language, because there were no teachers, or the teachers’ knowledge was very limited.

Lack of school buildings, financial resources and other curriculum materials were cited as the challenges in MLE implementation. The physical educational infrastructure was still a big challenge with lack of funding. School buildings were leaking, especially during rainy seasons. The classrooms were often overcrowded, lacking sufficient chairs and tables, sometimes leading to children dropping out. An MLE teacher from Kolap commented:

The district reminds us frequently to fix the classrooms. We did, twice a year, but the wall is leaking when the rain comes. … The challenge when we have more students is we lack chairs and tables for them and the room is crowded. This is the problem. When we request to the district, if the number of students is still 59, they don’t allow a split. They only allow [a split] when we get to 60. So, 59 students are too crowded in one room.

As noted above (see Table 2), Grade 1 at Kolap had 59 enrolled students, but even with 21 students absent, four students were still crammed to a desk. If all students showed up, many would have no place to sit.

This and other challenges were acknowledged by the director of the Ratanakiri POE:

The second problem is with the school buildings. Third is with the resources. Fourth is the budget plan for multilingual education is higher than that of the normal schools, but our money is little. It’s a special program, so it needs more money than the normal program.

A Core Trainer in Ratanakiri highlighted the low teacher salary:

Their salary was also very low. It was 120,000 Riel [about $30 USD a month] before. They said if they work for others, they could get from 20,000 to 25,000 Riel [about $5 to $6 USD] per day … so, they resigned from their job, so we only had Khmer teachers and they couldn’t teach the multilingual education.

Frawley (2019) maintains that an insufficient number of MLE teachers, low teacher capacity and inadequate teacher training pose a risk to the quality of the program.

The other main challenge has to do with the academic calendar. Prior to the MoEYS handover, the MLE schools adopted an alternative school calendar to allow for indigenous children to accompany their families to their farms during planting and harvesting seasons. MoEYS, however, insists on the use of the national academic calendar (Benson and Wong 2017). As justified by the director of the Ratanakiri POE:

If we adapted to their schedule, it’s different from the bigger society. So, we have to follow the bigger society. … We try to align it to the public school since it could be difficult to collect data about, for example, monthly or semester results. If we allow customization, our data would definitely be difficult to gather.

Another issue with the alternative calendar was the need for more teachers, textbooks, and classrooms as children need to attend school in the mornings and afternoons. The potential obstacle was a possible negative impact on the retention of teachers who want to work fewer hours over more days during the regular academic schedule, rather than in concentrated periods of intensive teaching. However, the traditional, centralized academic calendar was found to limit inclusion for some students, particularly boys. As reported by Ball and Smith (2019), seasonal demands of family farming, poverty and lack of safety are persistent barriers to enrolment and regular attendance in some communities. They argue that the use of an alternative calendar is an example of an “equity-based approach” (p. 64). Unfortunately, MoEYS prioritized standardization of the academic calendar for the Ministry’s own administrative convenience.

4.3 Language development and use in the MLE classrooms and schools

Research question #2 asks, “What is the nature of Khmer and indigenous language use in MLE classroom?” As noted above, the MLE model adopted by MoEYS from CARE is a “weak” form of bilingual education following a transitional model with indigenous mother tongue and Khmer language instruction in Grades 1–3. Math is expected to be taught in the indigenous language in Grade 1 and in Khmer starting in Grade 2. Social studies is expected to be taught in the indigenous language in Grades 1 and 2 and in Khmer in Grade 3. All instruction in Grades 4–6 is in Khmer, though ideally, with continuing indigenous language support.

The opportunity to receive instruction and develop literacy in the indigenous language during the first three years of schooling is indeed empowering. Nearly everyone we interviewed spoke of the importance of helping indigenous students maintain their languages and cultures, and this ideal is reflected in the MLE policy documents. However, the reality is most instruction by Grade 3 is in Khmer, and these MLE students will receive Khmer-only instruction in grades 4–12. Research in other contexts reveals that with limited opportunities for further mother tongue development after grade 3, most students will shift to dominance in the national language with limited bilingual proficiency by the time they graduate from high school (Baker and Wright 2021). However, during our focus group interviews we learned that two of the MLE teachers were graduates of the MLE program at their schools; this fact was pointed out with a great deal of pride by their former teachers, who now teach alongside them. Thus, it may be that this transitional model is less “weak” in this unique context than it may be in others.

CARE International’s original plan for a 6-year developmental bilingual model was reduced to a 3-year transitional model by the government, and to date MoEYS has resisted calls in prior MLE program evaluations to adopt a stronger MLE model (Benson 2011). While the POE official in Mondulkiri asserted in his interview with us that 3 years is “enough of a bridge,” the POE official at Ratanakiri appeared to be more open to at least a pilot of a stronger 6-year developmental model. Several of the Core MLE Trainers expressed similar support for a stronger model, and the CARE staff expressed some optimism that MoEYS would support a pilot 6-year developmental model in the near future.

The highly structured MLE curriculum features comprehensive teacher guides for each subject and grade level with detailed lesson plans laid out in a clear scope and sequence. CARE also developed high-quality student books in the indigenous languages and in Khmer for use in mother tongue and Khmer language instruction. The teacher training developed by CARE, now carried out in a fast-track training process by the MLE Core Trainers, includes an explicit focus on using the teacher guides and student books to plan and deliver the prescribed lessons.

Our observations and video analysis reveal overall that the MLE teachers closely adhered to the MLE model and the scope and sequence of the curriculum with fidelity, including using the designated language of instruction for each subject at each grade level. The Grade 1–3 bilingual teachers appeared to speak, read, and write their indigenous languages and Khmer with fluency. Likewise, the students did not appear to have any trouble participating in indigenous or Khmer language instruction. The students we observed reading aloud in Khmer or their indigenous language appeared to do so with little difficulty. With only a few exceptions, students spoke in designated language of instruction.

Rigid scope and sequences and scripted lesson plans can be controversial given that they remove teacher autonomy in making instructional decisions based on their own assessments of the linguistic and academic strengths and needs of their students (Wright 2019). Likewise, the strict separation of languages in bilingual programs runs counter to the translanguaging realities of bilingual speakers, and prevents students and teachers from drawing on all of their full linguistic repertoire to support classroom teaching and learning (García and Wei 2014, 2015). While the MLE teachers we observed mainly adhered to the designated language of instruction for each subject, we did notice several Khmer words were spoken during mother tongue language and math instruction, though in most instances these were likely cognates or loan words from Khmer. However, we did observe some clear instances of translanguaging during mother tongue instruction in Grade 1 and math instruction in Grade 2, as will be discussed below. This finding suggests that some teachers are beginning to break from the strict separation of languages and are more freely drawing on both languages to ensure student learning. Nonetheless, we did not observe any instances of translanguaging among the teachers or students in Grades 4–6, where all instruction and all interactions were in Khmer, including in classrooms with indigenous teachers.

4.4 Nature of teaching and learning in the MLE schools and classrooms

In this final section, we consider the quality of the instruction by addressing research question #3, “What is the nature of teaching and learning in MLE classrooms?” It is important to first acknowledge the challenge of teaching in these schools. While the school buildings varied from basic wooden buildings with dirt floors, to more elaborate wooden and concrete structures, the small classrooms in each school had similar challenges. None had electricity. Classroom furnishings were limited to basic wooden desks and benches, a basic wooden teacher table and chair, a chalkboard or whiteboard, and a small storage cabinet. Thin walls carried the noise of one classroom into another; concrete classrooms were particularly loud as sound echoed off the floor and walls. Despite the challenging conditions, the teachers proved to be highly dedicated. Each dressed sharply—women in traditional sarongs and colorful blouses, men in slacks and long-sleeve dress shirts. Most created print rich environments in their classroom with posters, instructional charts, and samples of student work posted on the walls and hanging from the ceiling in both Khmer and the indigenous languages. Teachers’ desks were neatly organized; some brought in tablecloths and flowers to enhance their workspace.

Despite the limited resources, the teachers made best use of what they had. While the lessons were teacher-centered, closely following the teacher guides, we observed a range of good teaching strategies and techniques. We also observed a few teachers who appeared to be taking some license in customizing lessons from the teacher guides. The teachers made heavy use of the chalk/white board, neatly writing the date, the title and number of the lesson, and selected text passages or exercises.

For Grades 1–3, the CARE MLE curriculum provides a number of short, colorful, high-quality, culturally relevant books for student use during mother tongue and Khmer instruction. Cambodia’s standard math, Khmer reading, and social studies textbooks following the national Khmer curriculum are used in grades 4–6, and in 3rd grade for math. While these textbooks were clearly being used in the classrooms, we found that most lessons focused on the chalk/white board at the front of the classroom, where the teachers and students engaged with selections from textbooks copied onto the board. In the sections that follow, we detail the nature of instruction for mother tongue language, Khmer language, math, and social studies.

4.4.1 Mother tongue language

We observed portions of 10 mother tongue language lessons taught in grades 1–3 across the four schools. In each classroom, the lesson centered around a specific indigenous language student book. For at least part of the lesson, the teacher and students each had their own copy of the book to read aloud portions of the text and/or to follow along as the teacher led students through a discussion of one or more of the illustrations. Each book addressed culturally relevant topics and featured color photographs of indigenous people and familiar cultural objects and settings. For example, at Tong School and Ravy School, Grade 1 teachers and students engaged with a book on good hygiene. Photos included indigenous children bathing with a bar of soap and washing clothes with laundry powder by a waterfall. At Pheap School, Grade 1 students engaged with a book on opposites demonstrated through photos such a big and a small traditional basket, a full and an empty tea cup, and an old man and a young boy. Grade 2 students at Tong School engaged with a book about extracting sap from a tree to make a traditional beverage, and students at Kolap School engaged with a book about traditional games. Grade 3 students at Kolap and Pheap Schools had lessons centered around a book on gourds and the various ways indigenous people use them.

In each classroom, teachers wrote key vocabulary from the book and/or copied full passages of text from a page of the book on the chalk/white board, which then became the focus of the reading lesson. Across the schools we observed very little reading by the teachers or the students from the actual books. The teachers used one or more of the following activities and techniques to engage students in reading text on the board:

  1. Teacher or student leads the class in spelling aloud a word written on the board, pointing to and saying aloud one letter/sound at time, then reading the whole word.

  2. Teacher dictates words from the text for students to write and hold up on their individual chalk boards.

  3. Teacher or student tracks each word with a pointer stick, reading aloud alone, or pausing after each word or phrase as the class repeats.

  4. Teacher points to each word on the board with a pointer stick silently as a selected student or whole class reads the text aloud.

  5. Teacher covers or erases a word from the sentence, prompting students to call out and spell the missing word.

  6. Teacher erases a word from a sentence, prompting students to write and hold up the missing word on their individual chalk boards.

  7. Students copy text from the board into their notebooks.

Beyond the reading from the board, we observed a few other strategies, techniques, and activities to support mother tongue language instruction. At Tong School the Grade 1 teacher used a bar of soap to direct students’ attention to the pictures and the word soap in the book and on the board. He led the class through discussions and demonstrations on how to use soap to practice good hygiene. He then had students draw pictures of people practicing good hygiene. At Kolap School the Grade 1 teacher used a chart to review with students the first 10 consonants in Kreung. She then broke the students into small groups as they practiced writing the 10 consonants. This was one of the only instances of group work we observed across the schools. However, the students mostly worked quietly and independently.

4.4.2 Khmer language

We observed portions of 6 Khmer language lessons in Grades 1–3 across three of the schools. In the MLE curriculum, Grade 1 Khmer language lessons are oral only. The Grade 2 Khmer lessons at Pheap and Ravy Schools centered around a Khmer book on modes of transportation including those common in rural areas of Cambodia. Grade 3 students at Kolap School used a book with a story about a young indigenous girl’s trip with her father to Banlung town (capital of Ratanakiri).

Both Grade 2 classrooms focused on reading a selection from the text written on the board, using the same types of strategies and techniques as described above for mother tongue language lessons. The Grade 2 teacher at Ravy School followed up the reading by having students name the various modes of transportation from the book, writing their responses on the whiteboard as the students spelled aloud. He then divided the class into teams for a word recognition game. He would call out a word (e.g., bicycle) and team members would race to be the first to touch the word on the board.

The Grade 3 teacher and students at Kolap School actually did some reading directly from the Khmer book. The teacher would read a word or phrase from the book, then pause for the students to repeat as they followed along in their own copies of the book. She mixed it up a little by having students seated in different rows repeat after her as she read. The Grade 3 class at Ravy School was not (yet) part of the MLE program, and thus used the standard Khmer textbook consisting of several short readings. The teacher and students read a short story copied onto the board about a girl helping her mother sell cucumbers and spices at the local market. Students referred to the passage in their own textbooks to answer the teacher’s comprehension questions.

During the Khmer lessons in Grades 2 and 3, we did not hear any use of the indigenous language by the teacher or students. In contrast, the Grade 1 teachers at Kolap and Pheap Schools engaged in some translanguaging as they taught a basic oral language vocabulary lesson on parts of the face. The teachers each began the lesson in Kreung, pointing to parts of their face as students shouted out the answers. They called on individual students to name all the parts of their face in Kreung. The teachers then shifted to Khmer, teaching the names of the face parts, and engaging students in a total physical response (TPR) activity with commands in Khmer– “Put your hands on your head,” “Point to your eyes,” “Point to your forehead,” etc. After several rounds, the teacher called on a few students to lead the TPR activity. Following the shift to Khmer, we did not hear any further uses of Kreung by the teacher or students. It was clear that some of the Khmer vocabulary was new to the students, and the teachers spent time helping students learn and pronounce the words correctly (e.g., forehead, cheek, eyebrow).

4.4.3 Math

We observed portions of 14 math lesson in Grades 1–6 across the four schools. We did not observe any use of math textbooks in Grades 1–2, while Grades 3–6 used the standard Cambodian grade-level math textbooks (in Khmer). Grade 1 students worked with numerals in the Khmer/Indigenous language script; Grades 2 and higher worked only with Western (Arabic) numerals. In most classrooms, math instruction was traditional and teacher-centered. Teachers used the board to teach and model problem solving, wrote math problems on the board for students to solve, and/or had students come up to solve problems. Most students copied lessons and/or solved problems from the board and/or textbooks in their notebooks. Some teachers had students solve problems on individual chalkboards to hold up for the teacher to quickly check their answers. A few teachers incorporated games, with students competing to see who could be the first to solve a problem on the board.

According to the MLE model, math is to be taught in the indigenous language in Grade 1 and in Khmer in Grades 2 and 3. The three Grade 1 math lessons we observed were taught entirely in Kreung or Bunong and covered concepts such as counting to 70, addition to 9, and greater than/lesser than. The only Khmer words we heard were likely cognates.

In contrast, the three Grade 2 math lessons we observed were taught bilingually, with teachers translanguaging to varying degrees between Khmer and their indigenous languages. At Kolap School, the teacher taught a lesson on calculating the area of a rectangle mainly in Kreung, but used Khmer at times for numbers and for words like length and width (though these may have been loan words). At Tong School, the teacher frequently switched between Bunong and Khmer while teaching a lesson on multiplication, as noted in the following fieldnote:

The teacher has written 10 × 6 on the board. She leads students through the problem step by step, speaking in Khmer. Students respond in unison to the teacher’s questions in Khmer. The teacher asks students, in Khmer, what any number times 0 is? Students answer in unison, “zero” (in Khmer). She continues to go over the problem in Khmer. The teacher then switches to Bunong to review it. She continues in Bunong and gives students a new problem, 10 × 2, and talks them through it step-by-step, translanguaging between Khmer and Bunong, but speaking mostly Bunong.

The students and teacher continued to translanguage throughout the rest of the lesson as the teacher led students through additional problems, as she engaged the students in problem solving races on the board, and as students solved problems on their individual chalkboards. The students appeared to follow the teacher’s language lead, responding in Bunong when asked questions in Bunong, and responding in Khmer when asked questions in Khmer. Nevertheless, the lesson and interactions between the teacher and students were predominantly in Bunong.

At Ravy School, the Grade 2 teacher’s lesson on calculating the area of a rectangle really stood out both in terms of the degree of translanguaging, and in terms of engaging his students in meaningful hands-on learning. Rather than just solve pre-set problems on the board, he brought in a tape measure from home and taught students how to use it to measure the width and length of the white board, his teacher table, and their student desks. The teacher and students naturally engaged in translanguaging as the teacher guided the students through the measuring activities, frequently asking questions, with lots of repetition of the key math vocabulary and numbers in both languages. He did the same as he guided the students to set up and solve the multiplication problems to calculate the area of each object. The amount of Khmer and Bunong appeared to be roughly equal.

In the six math lessons observed in Grades 4–6, all instruction was in Khmer. We did not observe any use of the indigenous language, and the instruction mainly focused on reading and solving problems on the board and/or in the Khmer textbooks.

4.4.4 Social studies

We observed four social studies lessons across three schools in Grades 3, 5 and 6. All instruction was in Khmer, using the standard grade level textbooks. We did not observe any use of indigenous languages by the teacher or students. Grade 3 students at Ravy School copied lyrics from the national anthem off the board and from their textbooks into their own notebooks, and then practiced singing it. Grade 5 students discussed a textbook passage about the instruments in the traditional Khmer Mahaori ensemble. Grade 6 students at Kolap and Pheap Schools read passages and/or discussed the Longvek period in Khmer history.

5 Conclusion

Cambodia’s formal adoption of MLE is just a little more than a decade old, but already the country has made great progress in expanding the program across the Northeastern provinces. Policy development has been strong, but there remain challenges with the transition from CARE to the government in terms of knowledge, expertise, training, support, budget, and commitment and overall capacity to take full ownership of the MLE program. Another challenge is the government’s continued insistence on a “weak” form of bilingual education designed for quick transition to Khmer. Despite these challenges, the overwhelming success of the government’s expansion led to greater educational access for nearly 5,000 indigenous students by 2018. Attendance rates at the observed schools were generally strong.

Close observations of MLE classrooms across four schools serving Kreung speakers in Ratanakiri and Bunong speakers in Mondulkiri revealed dedicated professional teachers who teach with confidence and fidelity to the MLE model’s language allocations and scope and sequence of the prescribed curriculum. We observed some evidence of teachers embracing translanguaging to maximize student comprehension of new concepts. While lessons were mostly teacher-centered, we observed a few positive examples of teachers taking license to experiment with group work and hands-on learning. We found overall that teachers make effective use of the limited resources they have, including finding creative ways to engage students in multiple readings of texts in their books and on the board. Teachers also were effective in monitoring student progress and providing feedback and assistance when needed. Overall, despite the lack of resources and challenges of the physical structures of school buildings, students were highly engaged in each lesson. In short, these MLE schools and classrooms appear to be joyful learning environments.

To the extent that these four schools are representative of other MLE schools throughout the Northeastern provinces, there is clear success in terms of providing effective language, literacy, content-area instruction in the indigenous languages and Khmer. As the expansion continues, programs mature, and teachers gain more experience, there will be a need for continuing professional development to make further instructional improvements, and to help teachers feel empowered to have more autonomy in making their own decisions about instruction and language use. Drawing on research on best practices in language and literacy instruction in bilingual classrooms (García 2009; Garcia and Wei 2014; García et al. 2016; Wright 2019) such improvements could include the following: (a) less focus on reading from the chalk/white board, and more focus on reading directly from books; (b) less call-and-response type interactions and more open discussions to give student opportunities to share their observations, thoughts, and opinions on the topics they read about; (c) more pair and group work and hands-on activities to encourage student interaction and opportunities to use new vocabulary and apply new concepts; (d) less copying from the board and more opportunities for students to produce original writing and stories; (e) more translanguaging pedagogy, especially in grades 4–6 so students may continue to use their indigenous languages for learning; and (f) adoption of a stronger, developmental model of MLE that would enable students to continue to use and further develop their indigenous language and literacy skills in grades 4–6 and beyond.

Corresponding author: Wayne E. Wright, PhD, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA, E-mail:


We express our sincere gratitude to CARE International in Cambodia for their support of this study and for facilitating our visits to the MLE Schools. In particular we thank the various CARE staff members who gave generously of their time to arrange the schedules, meet with us, and to accompany us to each interview and focus group. We also wish to thank our expert driver from CARE who not only knew the unmarked roads to the remote villages and schools, but was also a great source of knowledge and insights from his many years of experience with the organization. Finally, we express our thanks to the MLE officials, trainers, teachers, and community board members for taking their time to meet with us and for sharing their knowledge, experience and passion for MLE education.

  1. Research funding: Travel expenses from the U.S. to Cambodia and transcription and translation costs were supported with funding from the Barbara I. Cook Chair of Literacy and Language Education endowment at Purdue University, awarded to the first author, Wayne E. Wright. Travel by car from Phnom Penh to the research sites in Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri was provided by CARE Cambodia. The funding organizations played no role in the study design; in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the writing of the report; or in the decision to submit the report for publication.

  2. Author contributions: Each author made substantial contributions to the conception and design of the work, the acquisition, analysis, and interpretation of data for the work, contributed to the drafting and revising of the work, and approved this final version. All agree to be accountable for all aspects of this work.

  3. Competing interests: We declare there were no competing interests in the conduct of this study.

  4. Ethical approval: The research related to human use has complied with all the relevant national regulations, institutional policies, and in accordance with the tenets of the Helsinki Declaration, and has been approved by the Institutional Review Board of Salem State University on June 7, 2018 (IRB Registration IRB = IRB00006274; Federal Wide Assurance – FWA00013010), “Multilingual Education in Cambodia: Implementation, Challenges and Future Prospects.”

  5. Informed consent: Informed consent was obtained from all research participants.


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Received: 2022-01-25
Accepted: 2022-02-11
Published Online: 2022-03-01
Published in Print: 2022-06-27

© 2022 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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