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Literacy In Papua New Guinea


Papua New Guinea has 860 languages belonging to two main language groups. One-third of the languages are related, belonging to the Austronesian language family group. The other languages, many of which are unrelated, belong to the Non-Austronesian language family group. Very small speech communities have languages spoken by about 15 percent of the country's population.

There are three major languages of wider communication: Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu and English. Tok Pisin is spoken more in the northern half of the country and, increasingly, in the southern half around Port Moresby. The Papuan side of the country speaks Hiri Motu.These two languages are used in the social domain, while English is used in schools and the official communication domain.

The PNG constitution states that everyone has the right to literacy in a vernacular, a national lingua franca (Tok Pisin or Hiri Motu), and English. Everyone should be literate in any language he or she uses. The constitution does not specify how to do this, other than encourage government departments and NGO's to be active in literacy. Until 1989, the government made no serious effort to make the general populace literate in the languages of Papua New Guinea.

In 1989, the national government addressed the need and demand for vernacular literacy. It created the language and Literacy Section within the Curriculum Development Division of the Department of Education. The policy developed states that: "we recommend the development of education programs to ensure that children, out-of-school youth, and adults become literate in Tokples, transfer their skills to Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, or English, and maintain and expand their literacy skills in these languages".

From 1992 to 2002 the number of schools increased by 175%, enrolments doubled and the number of teachers increased by 75%, reflecting largely the expansion of elementary education. In 2004 the literacy rate for 15-24 year old men was estimated to be 64% and 59% for women.

However, an estimated 680,000 children aged 6-14 remain out of school. In 2009 AusAID estimated the gross primary enrolment rate to be 72% and less than 50% in some provinces and districts. The net enrolment rate was seen to be less than 30% in some cases. These are considered some of the poorest sets of enrolment indicators worldwide. 

However, according to a new survey conducted in five provinces of PNG from 2006-2011, by the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education(ASPBAE), the overall situation is indeed much worse than anticipated. The three key common findings of the surveys, conducted in New Ireland Province, National Capital District, Chimbu Province, Sandaun Province and Gulf Province, are that the literacy rates are very low (less than 5% in some cases), and that there is a true crisis in school education quality as well as a significant gender disparity.

Indeed, the report states that "More than 70% of respondents in all five provinces self-declared confidence in their ability to read and write in a national language. However, actual literacy rates in four of the five provinces were less than 15%, while in New Ireland Province the literacy rate was 25%. The most commonly cited reason for not attending or completing primary or secondary school was school fees. Cost factors, poor access and parental expectations to help at home or to work are other frequently listed barriers to completing primary and secondary school. The proportion of non-literate females is higher compared to males across all five surveyed provinces by at least 10 percentage points. In Chimbu Province, the non-literate rate for females was 40,9% is almost double the male non-literate rate of 21,3%."

(Please see Research Papers for a link to the  PNG Education Experience Survey and Literacy Assessment - A Report on 5 Provinces, prepared by ASPBAE).

The pictures above and below are from rural schools in Madang and Milne Bay in PNG. These schools are very "well-equipped" by PNG standards as many of the parents are able work for a resort close by. The resort has provided the school with books and other learning materials.

Not enough has been written on literacy in Papua New Guinea and in the Pacific in general. The tremendous challenges faced by the populations in this part of the world to become literate would merit more research in this field.

Here are some links to articles which provide good insight into the situation in PNG. We will keep adding articles.

If you happen to come across a good article on literacy please email it to Anne-Sophie at the Canberra office at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Literacy in an Emergent Society: Papua New Guinea, by Naihuwo Ahai, SIL International 2004. 



Improving the provision of basic education to the poor in Papua New Guinea, a case study by AusAID, May 2009. 



PNG Education Experience Survey and Literacy Assessment, A Report on Five Provinces; New Ireland, NCD, Chimbu, Saundaun and Gulf Provinces, a survey carried out by the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education, 2011.



Addressing Localised Student Absenteeism and School Withdrawal, An Action Research Strategy, September 2010, The National Reseach Institute, by Patricia Paraide, Longamel Kippel, Arnold Kukari, James Agigo & Kaminiel Irima.



Writing the Wrongs, International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy, based on research funded by the education for all global monitoring report 2006 and UNESCO November 2005.  




Here is an excellent paper on chronic poverty and PNG

Chronic Poverty Research Centre, Background Paper for the Chronic Poverty Report 2008-2009, Chronic Poverty in PNG, by Diana Cammark. 



BbP donates books to remote highlands community


Written by Isabel Michell, AYAD Volunteer Education and Community Development Officer, BbP Goroka


In early March 2014, Buk bilong Pikinini donated over 150 books to the Wandakia community in the Marawaka Region, Eastern Highlands Province.

Wandakia is an area located approximately 200km south east of Goroka in mountainous terrain between the Gema and Marawaka airstrips, and is only accessible by light aircraft or by foot. However, since it is a PGK350 one-way flight from Goroka and a 2-day walk from Okapa, visitors are rare. At 1500m above sea-level, Wandakia is a subsistence farming community and consists of nine Lutheran congregations with a total population of roughly 2000 people. 

On Friday 7th March, Mrs Cynthia and Rev Rudolf Lies, both of the Melanesian Institute, flew to the Gema airstrip and hiked through steep, muddy terrain to reach the Wandakia community. 

On behalf of BbP, Cynthia and Rudolf gave a total of 164 books to the Wandakia Sunday School teachers to distribute amongst their congregations. Cynthia delivered a training session designed by Australian volunteer Isabel Michell to teach the community members how to care for their new books. The names of the nine recipient congregations are Jekerikori, Ororingo, Kosinapo, Pinzu, Anzi, Siko, Niripipo, Kisa, and Niri. 

The Wandakia community has very little access to services – at the nearby Gema airstrip, there is a small health post that is occasionally manned by an Aid Post Orderly; a small shop that is occasionally stocked with expensive goods flown in from Goroka; and a small primary school that was opened by Care International in 2013. Unfortunately, the 500 children in the Wandakia community are not able to use this school, and the nine Lutheran Sunday Schools represent the only formal education available to them. 

Literacy is estimated to be about 5% in the Wandakia community. Only the Sunday School teachers, community leaders and the few people who have travelled to Goroka or beyond have any level of literacy. Prior to receiving the BbP books, the Wandakia community had no access to books. 

The Sunday School teachers will look after the BbP donated books, and hope to use them as resources for teaching the children in their congregations how to read and write. 

On Monday 10th March at the conclusion of the trip, the Wandakia community leaders presented Cynthia and Rudolf with beautiful locally crafted items such as spears, necklaces and natural fibre bilums in appreciation for their visit and donations.  

Buk bilong Pikinini would like to sincerely thank Cynthia and Rudolf Lies for their generosity in transporting the BbP donated books and delivering training to the Wandakia community. 

The Wandakia book donation represents a small outreach program in which BbP has been able to give hundreds of vulnerable children in a remote PNG community access to books and the opportunity to improve their literacy. 



This is how Mrs. Olive Vakaloloma Baloiloi, currently a PhD Student at Monash University, describes growing up on a remote island in PNG and her challenges of becoming literate. Mrs. Baloiloi is a Lecturer in Language and Communication for Development at the PNG University of Technology.




My reflection of early school years

By Olive Vakaloloma Baloiloi. PhD student. Monash University.


"I remember doing Prep at Bwagaoia T School on Misima Island in 1967. On, my first day at school, I spilt glue on my teacher’s skirt (Mrs Sineina Sabbath) while doing cut and paste during art class. I felt so bad that I ran away from school. Mrs Sabbath was a special and a very close friend of my mother. Mrs Sabbath made time to walk home and encouraged me to go back to school and she helped me learn to read books. Some of the early books were about Raka and Ranu, the policeman in Port Moresby and other children’s reading books from Australia given to the school through the leadership of an Australian, Mr Perham who was the Headmaster.


In grade one Miss Olive Elijah was my teacher and she helped me learn to write. I remember, she used to tell us to raise our forefingers in the air and practice writing the shape of the 26 letters of the alphabet, often repeating three or four times until everyone gets it right in the air, then we would write it in our English exercise books. Letters became words then phrases leading to sentences and paragraphs. Miss Elijah shouted at me a few times for not writing the letters properly in the air. She would scream out so loud “Olive, do it again” that everyone in class would stare at me but thinking back 45 years ago from now, I appreciated all that she taught me in grade one.


The early years of schooling that I remembered well of my love for reading books, was in grade two. Mr Edward Broome was my teacher and he would make me take books home every week to read. After dinner every night while my older step sisters, Letma, Noka and Mary were in the kitchen doing the dishes and cleaning up, I would sit in the corner, out of sight from my mother and read my book. One evening she caught me reading and not helping my sisters and said to me, “Stop sitting like a sinebada reading. One day when you get married your husband will be cleaning the kitchen while you will be like the sinebada and reading a book”. Sinebada depicts white lady or dimdim (white) lady at that time in the early 1970s. That comment from my mother had an impact. Mr Broome whom we call Bubu (grandfather) visited my mother one day and told her that my reading of books had dropped but he was still happy with my progress in school. Mother’s comment had an impact on me and she was concerned of my role as a young Sudest girl who must learn the kitchen work well beside school. Mother Agnes Molly Paulisbo still made every effort to make me attend school and work hard to get good grades. She made sure I learnt house work but at the same time work hard in school. The early school influences of literacy in reading and writing has made me who I am today.


‘Research on children’s reading has a long and rich history about how children learn to read’ in most developed nations (Wigfield 2010). Most research on reading has always been on the cognitive aspects of reading. Wigfield (2010) stated views by theorists that the significant “implication for reading on individual’s engagement for reading will be greatly facilitated when they are intrinsically motivated to read and find personal meaning in the reading that they do” (Wigfield 2010, p. 13). Reading facilitates awareness of social activities that people are engaged in and gives hope to experience the world of literates just as Siago Sui* described. Literacy in terms of reading (understanding) and writing opens up opportunities to improve an individual’s undeveloped abilities (Freire 1985).


PNG people do practice certain social and everyday literacies within their own space and environment (Barton and Hamilton 1998; Street 2001; Blommaert 2008). Although, these types of literacies are not within the standard rules and norms of reading and writing, at least they make use of the literacy activities that works for them (Kulick and Stroud 1990a). There are everyday literacy practices of reading and writing that PNG people but do with limited resources. Majority of children and adults in rural communities or even in some urban areas do not have access to reading books and they are the unprivileged. So, Buk Bilong Pikinini is not just concerned about the low literacy level in PNG but acting it out in reality by giving the children a good START with books. Buk bilong Pikinini is giving the opportunity for readers to be engaged in reading and be motivated to find personal meanings in the reading that they do just as Siago Sui had discovered (Wigfield 2010)."


* Mrs. Baloiloi is referring to a 25 old student called Siago Sui who has been attending literacy sessions at Buk bilong Pikinini's Lawes Road library. Please see media clippings for the full story about Siagi Sui. 


References and Sources:

Literacy in an Emergent Society: Papua New Guinea by Naihuwo Ahai, SIL International 2004.

Improving the provision of basic education services to the poor in Papua New Guinea, A Case Study by AusAID, Office of Development Effectiveness, May 2009. 



Opinion piece by James Tanis, former President of Bougainville




I am not an expert on education; therefore I cannot offer any words about the philosophical aspects of the discipline. Even though I am a school dropout, I never gave up hope that one day I would return to school again. If I ever I found that chance, however long I had to wait and whatever it would take me to sacrifice,  I would one day be back in the classroom, hold  a pen and write on paper and complete my schooling. That has been my resolve for 25 years. After 25 years of waiting and hoping I am now a student again. I am currently studying International Affairs in the Graduate Studies, School of International Relations, College of Asia Pacific Studies (GSIA), located at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. I present my beliefs based on the encounters that I had during the difficult times of the Bougainville conflict.  I learnt that education was everything one would wish to have.

Wars Cannot Destroy

In a war, when you lose your friends, lose property, get stripped naked and robbed of everything, the only property you will be left will be what is safely hidden in your brain. When you are under surprise attack in the mist of confusion, you can lose your children, and the only child you will be left will be what is hidden in your head.  After a war, either in defeat or victory, you will be disarmed; but the only weapon that will not be taken away from you is whatever you are armed with in the mind.  The only property, the friend and the weapon that will withstand all the destruction and the carnage of a war, is your education and knowledge. If you are educated you will be preserved and sustained under all of life’s circumstances.  Education is everything a person must strive to have, to transit from war to peace, and then from peace to national restoration.

The Cornerstone for Nation Building

I joined the Bougainville war to fight, so to protect our resources, our gold and silver so that we could become an independent nation. It took me many long hard years to face the reality that you don’t build nations by destroying your people. Nation building is more than just raising guerrilla armies, raising flags, writing constitutions and making declarations. Nations are founded on people who are not only rich in natural resources but rich in education.  A nation that is founded on gold and silver will last as long as the ore lasts under the ground. But a nation founded on human resources and a rigorous education program will survive.  A nation’s progress goes only as far as how far its citizens are educated. Education sustains peace. Education progresses the nation. Education is everything a nation must possess. 

The Vision

Therefore I have a vision to advocate for education. To be the voice to students to do their best and achieve their best; to be the voice to parents to make education the first priority in the family; to be the voice to demand those in possession of arms to replace their guns with pens and papers; to be the voice to tell landowners to negotiate for educational  scholarships instead of cash payouts as compensation; to be the voice to the political leaders to allocate the highest budget to education; to be the voice to remind all to reserve some resources now and leave some to our own children so that they will harvest when they acquire the technology, to be the voice to Donors to advocate that education must form the highest portion of aid to Papua New Guinea (Bougainville) and to  advocate for all groups that contribute to education and knowledge. 

 As Nelson Mandela proclaimed:  “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”?


Letter from the Highlands of PNG

29th of February 2012 

Buk bilong Pikinini receives requests for libraries and books on a daily basis. Here is a heartbreaking example: 


Dear Buk bilong Pikinini

I am from Eastern Highlands, Henganofi District. My village is Yugusa, inside Kompri Valley.

I have carried out educational awareness in my village 2 weeks ago and saw that the literacy rate is very low. Most of the school-age kids do not know how to read, write good English,or even speak one. Even adults too..those who finish high school.

It is my desire to build a village library, where kids, youths, & even adults can spend some of their time reading, and getting to know what is happening around them (in the country and abroad).

I have instructed some youths back in the village to build a small house, made from bush materials. They are currently in the process.

Therefore currently I am sending out letters, and emails to those interested groups to come to my aid and assist me with books. I saw you email address, and decided to write to you. And also if you can be able to assist me on how I can make this village-library concept become successful in my area, please do so.

The population in our village is growing, number of students leaving school & coming back home is increasing, drug, & alcohol is taking control of the minds of most of the kids....I see the future is not good, therefore I would like to start somewhere and assist before its too late.

I therefore seek your assistance in either books, or advice that will assist me help the new generation in my village.


Regards Robin Kipefa


Pictures of village life in Papua New Guinea 












Buk bilong Pikinini

Charity Association number:  5-33-85
Primary Business Address in Papua New Guinea:
Buk bilong Pikinini 
PO. BOX 5791 
Boroko, Capital National District
Papua New Guinea 
Telephone:  + 675 340 8827 
Fax:             + 675 323 3559
Email:          This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Business Address in Australia:
Buk bilong Pikinini
Anne-Sophie Hermann 
C/- PNG High Commission
39-41 Forster Crescent
Yarralumla 2600, ACT
Telephone: +61(0) 2 6120 1801 and 2 6373 3322
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Creating children's libraries in Papua New Guinea

Buk bilong Pikinini (books for children) is an independent not-for-profit organisation based in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, which aims to establish children's libraries and foster a love of reading and learning. In PNG there are few functioning libraries outside the school system and most children do not have access to books at all.
The purpose of Buk bilong Pikinini is to focus on early childhood learning as a key to literacy. Only half of school-age children go to school and the literacy rate in PNG is well under the 50% officially claimed - in some areas as low as 5%. We aim to bring the books to the children via the creation of small Buk bilong Pikinini libraries in community based localities such as near settlements, clinics and market places. We collect books from private individuals and publishing houses and seek to obtain funding for our libraries through various fundraising efforts as well as through corporate sponsorships.
Buk bilong Pikinini was established in 2007 and has so far set up seventeen children's libraries across PNG with many more to come. Buk bilong Pikinini libraries do not only function as normal libraries - we employ trained teacher-librarians who implement a comprehensive Early Childhood Development and Literacy Programme as well as an Awareness Programme targeting important health and societal issues.
You can visit all of our libraries by going to the Libraries category in the drop down menu and also see our programmes and special events. Please support us in our effort to make vulnerable PNG children happy readers!


Buk bilong Pikinini was founded in March 2007 by Anne-Sophie Hermann (right) and Anna Mukerjee (left). Anne-Sophie Hermann is now based in Canberra and manages the Buk bilong Pikinini Canberra Office. The Papua New Guinea High Commission has generously provided her with an office - see Contact us for details. 





Buk bilong Pikinini is proud to have Christine Anu as one of our patrons. Christine visited Papua New Guinea in March 2009 where she toured the Buk bilong Pikinini library at Port Moresby General Hospital, performed in the grounds of the Australian High Commision and assisted with fund raising efforts.



Buk bilong Pikinini has been very fortunate to have had the support of the Papua New Guinea High Commissioner to Australia His Excellency Charles Lepani for a number of years. H.E. Charles Lepani has now accepted to become a patron for Buk bilong Pikinini.


About Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea, is a country in Oceania, occupying the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and numerous offshore islands (the western portion of the island is a part of the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua). It is located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, in a region defined since the early 19th century as Melanesia. The capital is Port Moresby.

Read more: About Papua New Guinea