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Fostering early literacy in PNG

Dan Cloney reports on an evaluation of literacy programs being delivered to vulnerable children in Papua New Guinea.

Buk bilong Pikinini (BbP), meaning ‘books for children’, is an independent not-for-profit organisation that aims to foster a life-long love of reading and learning, increase literary rates and empower vulnerable children in Papua New Guinea. BbP does this through the establishment and restoration of libraries, and by delivering English language literacy programs. BbP’s early childhood literacy program is funded entirely by donors and is provided at zero cost to families.

Since 2012, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has invested in BbP through three grants totalling approximately AUD920 000. In 2018, the Department commissioned the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to evaluate the quality of the design of BbP’s literacy programs and their likelihood of success given the delivery context.

PNG presents a challenging delivery context as there is no entitlement to preschool education, and the PNG government is in the process of establishing the country’s first early childhood standards and quality monitoring framework. Today, unless families can afford to pay a private provider, there is little chance a child will access an early childhood program before arriving in school.

Overall the evaluation found that the BbP programs are likely to have a positive effect on the learning and development of children in PNG. The programs target a very vulnerable sub-population who are unlikely to access other programs because they are either simply unavailable or charge fees that present an insurmountable barrier to entry for these families. For this reason, relative to no educational input, the BbP programs are providing a service likely to have a positive effect.

While the design of the BbP programs is consistent with good practice and well aligned with PNG education policy requirements, there are opportunities to improve the programs and to increase the value added by participating.

ACER’s evaluation identified that the focus of the BbP programs could be broadened to be more holistic and foster emotional and cognitive skills that are important precursors to literacy. This is key to the sustainability of the programs because it is likely that BbP will be required to meet the forthcoming early childhood standards being developed by the PNG government.

The evaluation recommended that BbP expand provision of its early childhood literacy program to target four-year-old children as well as five-year-olds, and increase the duration of the program to align with international evidence that suggests children benefit most when they are exposed to at least 450 hours of program per year. Further, educators should be supported to effectively differentiate their practice to ensure children receive individualised interventions.

While the emotional support and organisation of the early childhood program are excellent, ACER’s evaluation identified an opportunity to focus on improving the instructional support. Specifically, it was recommended that BbP focus on pedagogical strategies that support play-based learning, the use of feedback loops and the modelling of higher-order language.

The early childhood literacy program includes a diagnostic assessment of speaking and listening, phonics, pre-reading and pre-writing, conducted during the first term of enrolment, and two subsequent assessments across the year. ACER’s evaluation found that growth over time cannot be accurately measured because there are no common items between the assessments and the assessments have not been psychometrically validated or an empirical link established.

Overall, the evaluation found that BbP has put in place a well-documented program in a context where there is no established early childhood education and care sector and only an emerging policy and regulatory framework. Without BbP many of PNG’s most vulnerable children are at severe risk of school failure as they transition into a school system that has English as its language of instruction and tends to have overcrowded elementary school classrooms and underqualified elementary school teachers.

ACER’s evaluation concludes that BbP provides a program that is essential to the growth and development of PNG, and identifies significant scope to use BbP as a model program for the provision of pre-primary education as it is expanded in the country. ■

Read the full report:
Buk bilong Pikinini Literacy Program Evaluation 2018, by Dan Cloney and Prue Anderson, Australian Council for Educational Research (2018).

RD

About the author

Dr Dan Cloney is a Research Fellow in ACER's Teaching, Learning and Leadership research program.

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