Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

A new chapter for children in Timor-Leste

Eight-year-old Dircia (pictured above) loves to read. She is at the top of her Grade 2 class when it comes to reading and writing.

“I am getting better at reading and writing,” Dircia says. “My favourite book is Mountains and Rivers. It’s about mountains and rivers, and animals drinking water. There are elephants, dogs and giraffes.”

If Dircia’s circumstances were different, or if she had been born a generation earlier like her parents, she may not have learnt how to read or write. In Timor-Leste, where Dircia is from, children can spend years in primary school without learning to read.

The latest assessment of reading skills carried out by government consultants found that more than 70% of Timorese students at the end of Grade 1 could not read a single word, and 40% at the end of Grade 2.

With a history marred by war and conflict, limited learning resources such as books, and poorly trained teachers, have contributed to low literacy rates across the country. This, in turn, has led to high rates of grade repetition and drop-outs in primary schools.

Dircia is an exception, but hopefully she will one day become the norm.

Through ChildFund’s literacy project in Manatuto municipality, east of Timor-Leste’s capital Dili, Dircia has not only learnt to read and write, she is soaking up every piece of new information she discovers.

“In Mountains and Rivers, I learnt that Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan,” Dircia says.

ChildFund peer educator and Grade 6 student Luis, 15, has been helping Dircia, 8, who is in Grade 2 to read every week.

For the past year, Dircia has been attending the reading sessions at her school, which ChildFund helps to facilitate twice a week. At the sessions she meets with her peer educator Luis, who is 15 years old and in Grade 6. Together, they read books, sing songs and play games with other children and peer educators.

It’s a fun learning experience that is making a huge difference. During one two-hour session, Luis may help Dircia read up to four books.

“I became a peer educator because I love to help younger children to read,” Luis says. “Since I’ve been Dircia’s peer educator I have seen an improvement in her reading.”

Grade 2 teacher Azinha has also seen Dircia’s literacy skills develop. Before ChildFund’s project began, Dircia was only able to identify letters, Azinha says, but now she can read full sentences and understands grammar.

“I’ve also noticed that Dircia is now understanding the context of stories,” Azinha says. “Dircia is a very good example. She’s very kind and friendly to her classmates and helps them to read. She’s always helping her friend Fabiana to read and write.

“The project has helped a lot in improving children’s literacy. I’ve noticed that children in Grade 2 in my class can already read and write.

“It makes me happy to see my students reading and writing.”

As part of ChildFund’s project, students also have access to more books and are introduced to fun games to help them learn.

“Children had difficulty learning, but games like bingo are making learning more attractive,” Azinha says.

While training young peer educators such as Luis has played a key role in improving literacy levels in children, the involvement of teachers and parents in the project has also been critical.

Dircia’s mother Ikun has been taking the time to read books to Dircia at home. “I want my children to have a better future than me,” she says.

Dircia’s mother Ikun has been making sure her daughter regularly attends the biweekly reading sessions. She has also been taking the time to read books to Dircia at home.

“My daughter loves reading stories,” Ikun says. “She’s improved a lot in her reading. She goes every week to the sessions with her peer educator. She only missed one week because she was sick.”

For Ikun, learning to read and write is part of having a good education, and a having a good education means a better future.

Ikun and her husband both dropped out of school after Grade 6. They sell firewood for a living, raising their four children – who are all under the age of nine – on an income that teeters around US$50 a month.

“It’s not enough to cover all the family needs,” Ikun says. “I can pay school fees, uniforms and utensils for my children though.”

Ikun, the only daughter out of eight children, dropped out of school after her father died and she had to help her mother at home.
“I would have liked to have finished school,” Ikun says.’

“I want my children to finish school and go to university. I want them to be educated and get good jobs in the future. I want my children to have a better future than me.”

Ikun wants Dircia to be a journalist when she is older, but Dircia has other ideas. “I want to be a doctor to help make people better,” she says.

Dircia’s Grade 2 teacher Azinha says ChildFund’s project is improving children’s literacy skills. “I’ve noticed that children in Grade 2 in my class can already read and write,” she says.

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