Literacy and Children's Books in the
South Pacific Region
Barbara Moore
It is often claimed that the literacy rate is high in Fiji and many of the
other islands of the South Pacific Region. In this discussion it will be
suggested that the situation is not such a happy one and that many
children are failing to learn to read in English or in their mother tongue.
However, the provision of good books for children — the best of
children's literature in English and books about the children's own lives
in the children's own languages — could do a great deal to change the
Before considering literacy levels and literacy issues it should be
remembered that for hundreds of years the people of the South Pacific
lived satisfying and satisfactory lives without being able to read and
write. Knowledge and wisdom were handed down from generation to
generation through a strong oral tradition that is still an important part
of island life. Traditional storytelling, traditional folklore and traditional
values will continue to play a role but the ability to read and write is
equally important today.
There are many definitions of literacy. In Britain an illiterate person is
said to have a reading level of less than 7 years, and a semi-literate has a
level of greater than 7 but less than 9 years. In the United States, the
Office of Education suggests that a Grade 4 level, (a 10 year old level), is
the minimum level of literacy (Clay, 1980). If children have not reached a
10 year old level before leaving school they can become 'exliterate'
because the reading material available for them in the community will be
too difficult and they will not receive the practice required to sustain
literacy (Clay, 1979).
It is difficult to find a satisfactory definition because it depends on the
purpose of literacy. Some children may master the visual side of reading
but fail to understand what they reading. Are they literate? Some children
learn to read but fail to continue reading when they leave school. At
times, everyone can have difficulties comprehending print if they try to
read text about a subject they are ignorant of or text that is written in an
unfamiliar or complex style.

Literacy was introduced to the islands of the South Pacific by the
missionaries who converted people to Christianity and taught them to
read the Bible. The missionaries learnt the language of the country and
translated the Bible into the vernacular languages. Mission schools were
the beginning of formal education.
Today most children in the region have the opportunity to attend school
and in countries where there are no schools in remote areas, attempts are
being made to build and staff schools. Most children are taught in the
mother tongue during their first years at school and begin to read and
write in the mother tongue. English is taught as a second language with
the South Pacific Commission Tate English Programme providing
material for oral drills and for reading practice.
The claims made for high literacy rates are based on the supposition that
children who have been at school for four years will be literate because
they have been taught how to read. In Fiji for instance the 1966 census
figures showed that two thirds of the population were literate on the basis
of four years at school.
A survey of what is actually happening in schools was carried out in Fiji
in 1979. It was found that 25% of the Class 6 pupils tested were unable to
read a simple passage in English. This is a high failure rate. The survey
also showed that schools with libraries and books had better results and
this was used as the basis for the Fiji Book Flood Project (Elley and
Mangubhai, 1981).
The failure in English reading would not be of such concern if children
were reading and writing well in their mother tongue. No equivalent
testing has taken place in the vernacular languages but comments from
teachers and experience in schools suggests that many children are failing
to learn to read in either language.
In every education system there are children who find reading difficult.
There may be neurological factors in severe cases; 2% is the figure quoted
in an English study. There may be health problems such as hearing or
sight deficiencies that are undetected. There may be emotional or social
problems that cause tension and anxiety and prevent learning from
taking place. There may be educational factors such as large classes,
frequent changes of teaching staff and programmes that do not allow for
individual differences.

Reading is a complex process that can easily go wrong in the early stages
even when there are good methods and good books. Children may
become confused about the reading process and if help is not given this
confusion will be practised and failure will result (Clay, 1979).
If problems arise in circumstances where the programme provides a wide
variety of books and other reading/writing experiences one can expect a
higher failure rate where resources are limited and the programme is a
narrow one. Preventing reading failure is more effective than remedial
programmes at a later stage of school life, but prevention is only
successful if the classroom programme is a sound one. A variety of books
at every level and a variety of experiences with books and writing will
ensure that children have the chance to learn. Early intervention can help
those who become confused and enable them to return to the normal
class programme.
At this stage in the South Pacific Region however, it is only possible to
change reading programmes gradually. Teachers need to know more
about the reading process and how children learn so that they can see the
need to move away from teaching isolated letters, sounds, and words to a
programme that is text orientated (Reading in Junior Classes, 1985). In
the meantime however a great deal can be done by providing good books
at every level and ensuring that they are used effectively.
Learning to read depends on the oral language that has been developed
before a child comes to school (Wells, 1981). This comes about through
all the normal, natural interactions between children and their families,
through talking, through stories, songs, rhymes and games. Babies also
need books (Dorothy Butler, 1980).
Pre-school education is growing in importance with informal groups and
organised groups in villages and towns providing children with
opportunities to play together, and to be well prepared for school. Telling
stories, reading to children and encouraging children to explore books
for themselves provides the best pre-school experience possible.
The early reading programme at primary school is the basis for all future
progress at school. Children learn through hearing the teacher read to
them, by sharing books with the teacher and by reading books for
themselves. Literacy develops most successfully when children have
books and lessons in their first language but the books need to be

worthwhile and not just reading material to be recited over and over.
Real books with a story to them, written in natural language rather than
in a contrived form will help children read thoughtfully, seeking meaning
from text, and solving problems for themselves (Clay, 1985).
Where literacy is developed in a second language or when children are
also learning to read in a second language there is the same need for good
books. The Fiji Book Flood Project showed the significant difference
storybooks make when children are learning English. In this experiment
Class 5 and 6 children in rural schools had a wide range of books to use
for silent reading or for shared reading with the teacher. In another
experiment in urban Suva schools it was found that children's listening
comprehension and reading improved when books were read to them
each day (Ricketts, 1982). This means that a reading programme can be
improved without too much expense. A small collection of good children's
literature, read to the class each day can bring about progress.
Suitable books in English are not difficult to find when funds are
available, but books are needed in the children's own languages and
about their own lives. The main need is for books for early reading as this
will do more than anything else to prevent illiteracy.
Some efforts have been made to meet this need. Seminars and workshops
have been sponsored by the UNESCO Regional Office for Education in
Asia and the Pacific since 1983; many discussions have taken place and
many reports have been written about the problems of providing
textbooks and reading material for schools. Workshops have been held in
Fiji, Western Samoa and Tonga. Teachers and writers have produced
scripts and have learnt about editing, ways of trialling books with
children and ways of using books effectively.
In many countries teachers have been making Handmade Books that can
be used immediately with children for they realise that publishing is
fraught with difficulties and delays. Handmade books have been made in
many Pacific languages. For example, at a workshop on the island of
Tanna, Vanuatu, Class 1 teachers made books in Lenekel, Whitesands,
Futunese, Bislama, English and French. In Fiji books have been made in
Urdu, Hindi, Fijian, Chinese and English. These books plus books in the
Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, and Tongan languages, and in all other
languages of the South Pacific could be the basis for literature for Pacific

The Institute of Education's Primary Reading Project developed from
the Fiji Book Flood Project and from the work carried out in Niue to find
better ways of teaching English (De'Ath, 1980). Work in the USP Region
has involved advising on ways of improving reading and language
programmes in English and/or Vernacular and on ways of producing
books. The New Zealand Ready to Read project has provided an
excellent model for developing books for early reading as the principles
apply to every language and give writers the freedom to be natural and
It has been possible to publish several of the titles prepared at the
UNESCO Children's Book Production Workshops and a great deal has
been learnt through this experience. Help has been given by Margaret
Mooney, Michael Keith and Lois Thompson of New Zealand School
Publications on writing, editing and publishing. Peter Ridder of NZCER,
Clare Bowes and Terence Taylor of School Publications have helped with
illustration and design. Teachers and educational officers have been
encouraged through this experience and are eager to do more.
A book production project to continue the work already started would be
a timely development. There are teachers who write well for children,
storytellers whose lore could become literature, artists who can capture
the atmosphere of their own country and many children who need these
books. A project that could provide the particular help needed by a
country, whether it is with design or with the supervision of printing, or
with the whole process from writing to printing would ensure that
children have the books they need and that they will learn to read happily
and well.
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