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How books are transforming children’s lives in PNG

Vanuamai is a small village. Maybe 200 people. It’s in Central Province, Papua New Guinea, about two hours or more from Port Moresby. It should be closer but for the first hour out of Moresby, the Hiritano Highway is rough and deeply pot-holed. You need a 4WD.

Once across the Angabunga River, you can enjoy the well-sealed road through the Doa rubber plantation to Agaivaro. Then take a left-hand turn off the Highway and the narrow track to the village truly tests the capabilities of your vehicle.

Vanuamai Elementary School is on top of the hill – a little removed from the village, with the primary school close by. The school is like dozens of other elementary schools that I have stood in, all around Papua New Guinea.

The walls and roof are a mix of tin sheets and bush materials, an open doorway, open window frames, and a knee-high gap between the bottom of the walls and the earth floor. It’s airy. There are desks too. In most elementary schools, children sit on the floor.

Elementary teachers in PNG have (perhaps) Grade 10-level education, very little training and no resources to teach English which, at best, is their third language (after Tok Ples and Tok Pisin). It is not surprising that most children entering Grade 3 cannot read or write.

These children spend three years in elementary school (Prep, Grades One and Two) and Grade 3 teachers have to ‘start again’ and teach basic literacy skills. But in Vanuamai Elementary School, that is changing. Thanks to ChildFund.

I sat at the back of the Elementary 1 class. The teacher, Mr Francis Oa, smiled and introduced me to his students as ‘the author’ of their books: Mr Ray from Bilum Books. The class sang  ‘Welcome Mr Ray’ in unison. There were about 20 students, a smaller class than most in PNG.

Elementary Schools, especially in urban areas, have enrolments of 60 and 70 and higher (per class) at each Grade level. Sometimes with three and four classes of that size per Grade level.

Mr Oa began his lesson: Term 3 Week 10. A one-hour lesson teaching English. He began with ‘Speaking and listening’. He had written the poem Off to Market on butcher paper:

A typical school in a remote village in Papua New Guinea

We’re off to market

We’re off to market to buy some fresh food,

I love going there, I’m in a good mood.

We fill up our bilums with corn, yams and beans,

We fill up our bilums with fruit, fish and greens.

We have to get home with our heavy load,

So we catch a bus home along the main road.

The teacher read and re-read the poem, with students repeating each line. And, with an eye on the Teacher Guide, he asked questions to test comprehension:

How does the person in the poem feel?

Are they happy or sad?

What does ‘a good mood’ mean?

What words tell you they are happy?

Why did they go to the market?

What did they buy?

Did they walk home?

How do you know?

Next he turned to ‘Reading and comprehension’. The class opened their Student Activity Books, Elementary 1 Book B. He reviewed yesterday’s reading and then focussed on the next page, about plants.

Before reading, Mr Oa asked questions to prepare the students for reading:

What can you see in the first picture?

What does a plant need to help it grow?

Having discussed the pictures, the class read the sentences together. They read in small groups. They read individually. Children took turns. I stood and watched as a student slowly read the line:

“We eat the plants from our garden.”

Not the most arresting sentence in literature, but those words on that page had meaning and relevance for that child. That child in that remote village was getting meaning from print. He was learning to read using a Bilum Books Student Book, supplied by ChildFund.

His teacher conducted the lesson with confidence using the structure and sequence in the Bilum Books Teacher Guide. He followed up by teaching Phonics and Common Words, exactly as directed in the Teacher Guide, followed by some writing.

I thought ‘Wow! It’s working. The books are working. Children here in this village in Papua New Guinea are learning to read. And they’re learning to read using Bilum Books’!

Vanuamai in Central Province is a world away from the ordered streets of Kensington, Adelaide, South Australia – but there is a connection. Five years ago, Irene Sawczak, my wife Sara White and myself set up Bilum Books. Our vision was to produce resources that would enable teachers in PNG to teach their children to read and write.

Literacy rates are improving in PNG thanks to ChildFund supporters

I first visited PNG in 1976. In the intervening years I had worked on many educational publishing projects in the country – but charting a different course, a new independent course, as a 3-person team, was the most frustrating and rewarding publishing venture we had ever embarked on.

We set out to work more closely with local teachers and education officers in the country, to use local illustrators, to store our books in a warehouse in PNG (not offshore), to recognise more acutely that PNG is a country with 800 different languages and, at best, English is language number three – and to provide teacher training.

Literacy levels in PNG are very low, about 64%. The country has no hope of dragging itself up to join the countries classified in the UN Human Development Index as ‘developed’ unless it addresses the low levels of literacy in its schools.

Topographically and economically, Papua New Guinea is a daunting country in which to deliver services of any kind, especially in Health and Education. But there is one specific problem that can be addressed by offering teachers specific training and the right resources to give a structure and a sequence to their teaching, and graded reading and skills practice to their children.

The development of Bilum Books SBC English for Papua New Guinea has taken five intense and exhausting years. Countless trips around Papua New Guinea in search of illustrators, writers and reviewers who fully understand a PNG classroom and grasp the principles of learning English as a second (or third) language.

I stood in that classroom. I could not speak. I almost wept. I had one thought: ‘If children here in Vanuamai can learn to read and write, why can’t every child in the country?’ They can – if we address the specific problem.

I am deeply grateful to ChildFund PNG for selecting Bilum Books. Riding in the back of the 4WD with the dedicated trainers from ChildFund, reflecting on a day seeing Bilum Books in the hands of a committed teacher, watching him teach his children to read – the five-year journey seemed nothing at all.

As a community sponsor, you can make a huge impact by tackling the root causes of child poverty and helping communities become self-sufficient. Sponsor a community in Papua New Guinea today.

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