Linguistic diversity characterises many countries with large literacy needs. Meeting these needs will require a multilingual approach based on learning initial literacy in the learner’s mother tongue, with other languages used subsequently. This paper identifies five major challenges in implementing multilingual programmes, and traces the international policy developments over the 15 years of the EFA period. Four case studies – Mexico, Morocco, Papua New Guinea and Senegal – illustrate a range of policies, showing differing approaches and levels of commitment in providing literacy acquisition based on the mother tongue. The paper concludes with six policy orientations to guide action as part of the post- 2015 agenda.