11 Oct 2013

Literacy levels among young students targetted in Papua New Guinea

11:58 am on 11 October 2013

A former education secretary in Papua New Guinea, Dr Joseph Pagelio, says efforts are being made to turn the country into a reading nation.

He says PNG faces a reading crisis with the bulk of children at elementary school, which they attend from six years of age until they are eight, are unable to read and write.

Dr Pagelio, who is now a consultant, says the problem has become particularly acute with the government decreeing at the beginning of this year that English would be the language of instruction.

He told Don Wiseman that in the past instruction was in the local vernacular, or Tok Pisin, and it was these that were spoken in the homes.

JOSEPH PAGELIO: So there are a lot of children who are not able to read and write. What we want to do is focus the government's attention to address this. And the way to address it would be to introduce the phonics programme, so we are introducing this Jolly Phonics programme in a couple of our schools in Port Moresby to see if phonics can help to reverse the trend, so that our children can learn to read and write. So we are seeing some very good progress with the trial of the Jolly Phonics programme in two of our schools in Port Moresby and now the Secretary for Education is keen to roll it out in the National Capital District next year to over 60 schools involving 600 teachers.

DON WISEMAN: You're using Jolly Phonics now, so in the past there's been, what, no reading programme?

JP: Yes, that is the problem. In the past there's not been any phonics programme at all. And I think we have been using an out-of-date method of teaching read and writing. That is the problem. When we adopted the English syllabus, we adopted also the core method of teaching reading. And that old method of teaching reading is probably not appropriate for Papua New Guinea.

DW: What was wrong with it?

JP: It is called the 'whole language approach' or the 'whole word approach', whereby, for example, in a classroom a teacher would introduce a word and students would be expected to memorise the sound of letters, so it's all based on memorising. And memorisation is not an appropriate technique for Papua New Guinea or people are using English as a second language. That has been the problem.

DW: What sort of access do families have to books?

JP: We have a culture where books is not part of our lives, unlike the Western world where books are part of their lives. We don't have that kind of thing - hardly any books at all in the majority of our homes. Maybe a few educated people buy books for their children, but not the majority. So what we need to do is create a situation in our schools where books can be made available for our children so that they go to school, attend to their phonics lessons, and then they can be given some silent reading time in the schools to read their books.

DW: How long do you think it would take to turn around the situation?

JP: It's a massive challenge for all of us. We have over 10,000 elementary schools and it's going to be a big challenge for all of us. I think within the next 5 to 10 years we will reverse the trend. Our aim is to make Papua New Guinea become a reading nation.