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Timorese teachers are pioneering a new Tetun literacy horizon

Angelina da Silva Exposto teaches a book written and illustrated by local Timorese writers and artists. Photo: Dony Belo, courtesy of MMT

Hundreds of Timorese children across the country spent this year’s International Literacy Day cheerfully bouncing from one storybook to another. 

“I want to educate the kids, teach them to participate actively in the education,” said Angelina da Silva Exposto leading a group of students between an alphabet song and a writing game. “I encourage my kids to access school and learn so they can be successful in the future.” 

Exposto is a 36-year-old teacher at Nunutali Primary School in Ermera, two hours south of Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital. By actively engaging students in learning activities, she hopes that her young learners will strengthen their confidence to continue their literacy journey. 

With only 68% of the Timorese population being able to read and write in 2018, Timor-Leste has long been the Southeast Asian country with the lowest literacy rate. But the government and local and international NGOs are ambitiously working to change this.

Meanwhile, some 130 km away Exposto’s classroom, on the country’s northern coast, nine-year-old *Paula is poring over a small yellow tablet. 

Former Timor Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao (centre) autographs a book in Dili in 2015. The Timorese politician is also a well-known poet. Photo: Valentino de Sousa/AFP

Her tablet is not only a piece of modern technology. But as books are a portal to the imaginary lives of others, her tablet is an expansive digital library that connects her to the world. The books collected on her tablet are entirely in Tetun, Timor-Leste’s official language, and are available offline. Local authors and artists wrote and illustrated the stories so they could be culturally and linguistically appropriate for young Timorese readers.

Digital libraries are just some of the hundreds of innovative learning platforms that mark this year’s International Literacy Day under the theme ‘“Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces.’” The UNESCO selection of this theme was not accidental. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of young students have ended up studying from home, presenting particular challenges for those in rural areas without internet access. Thanks to a continuous joint effort of teachers, local institutions, and the Timorese government, students in remote villages have been able to carry on with their literacy journey. 

Exposto, a modern hero to her students, is one of these teachers paving the way to higher literacy rates in the country where young people like Paula are now given the life-changing gift of literacy.

Angelina da Silva Exposto is a modern hero to her students, working towards raising literacy rates amongst the younger generations. Photo: Dony Belo, courtesy of MMT

Organisations such as ChildSafe Australia, Mary MacKillop Today, and The Asia Foundation are just some of several local and international literacy programme providers in Timor-Leste. These institutions have been closely working with local communities in creating offline digital libraries in Timor-Leste and across Asia-Pacific, including Laos, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia.

Tablets containing offline digital libraries are important especially for children and teachers in rural areas who have limited access to printed books. So far, at least 6,000 tablets have been distributed to young students across the country since 2020.

“The idea of a digital library came up in 2017 when we noticed that it was challenging for local schools in rural areas to access books, and it was also quite unaffordable,” said Cheryl Chin, Education Advisor at ChildFund Australia. “We then decided to digitise some of our books written and illustrated by locals,”  

In rural schools, books are often damaged by humidity and other weather conditions. But these small digital tablets are a modern and durable alternative. Built with child-protection features, and able to charge quickly, teachers report that the tablets are a game changer. 

“Public users [parents, caregivers, educational institutions] can also access the book collection by downloading the Library For All app and…the content,” Chin said.

ChildFund Australia has digitised around 160 books in Timor-Leste to date. While the vast majority were originally written in Tetun, “international story books were translated and adjusted by locals to make them more relatable to Timorese children, their cultural environment and their reality,” Chin explained.

New literacy training programs were offered to both parents and teachers in late 2021. The programs, from the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport and UNICEF, focused on improving access to education for children during the pandemic and the parents’ abilities to support their children to effectively study and learn at home. 

Former President of Portugal Anibal Cavaco Silva (centre) and his First Lady Maria Cavaco Silva (left) walk with by East Timor’s then Education Minister Bendito Freitas (right) upon their arrival at Dili airport for a visit in 2014. Portuguese and Tetun, the current official languages, pose challenges to teachers who studied under the Indonesian occupation. Photo: Valentino de Souza/AFP

Literacy training

Teachers and parents in Timor-Leste now have better access to mobile learning programs, parent training, and health literacy projects. But digital libraries can only be an effective tool if children can read. 

“By focusing on training educators in teaching literacy, the students can be the indirect beneficiaries of such efforts,” said Agnes Brites Maya, Programs Manager at Mary MacKillop Today Timor-Leste. 

“We also encourage students with disabilities to learn and study. Through teacher training and tailored storybooks, we aim at ensuring inclusive education for all,” Brites Maya added. 

The Australia-based non-profit organisation established the forefather of today’s Tetun literacy teacher training program, known as MMT-LTT. So far, 626 teachers have received a certificate for undergoing the multiple-step participatory training introduced in 2019.

The new teaching methodology, which consists of 25% teaching and 75% student-centred activities, aims at strengthening students’ participation during class and encouraging active learning.

“Although the MMT-LTT targets teachers, parents also receive support and literacy classes to ensure that children are fully supported in their education journey,” Brites Maya stressed.

Alcino dos Santos Martins, another teacher at Nunutali Primary School and Exposto’s colleague, is among the teachers who joined the celebrations for International Literacy Day in Ermera on 8 September. 

Teacher Alcino dos Santos Martins believes understanding of the Tetun language is critical to the literacy learning process. Photo: Dony Belo, courtesy of MMT

Both students and teachers have found new interactive teaching methods particularly beneficial, according to Martins. Teachers especially, have gained a better understanding of the Tetun language and improved their Tetun reading and writing skills by teaching with songs, games, and competitive matches. 

He regards his students as family and believes that literacy does not end with the alphabet. 

“I want my family (my kids) to know Tetun better so that once they come to school, they already know how to apply the language in the literacy learning process,” he said. 

Parents play a crucial role in their children’s education, according to Brites Maya. Close cooperation between teachers and parents is essential to ensure that children keep learning after official school hours. 

With this objective in mind, the MMT-LTT has been supporting parents of young children not only by providing educational resources, such as tablets with offline digital libraries, but also by encouraging parents to join literacy classes. 

Colonisation and a gap in skill

One of the most daunting issues that Timor-Leste has faced on its path to literacy is the skill gap in teacher training. As one of the youngest countries in the world, Timor-Leste is still recovering from centuries of colonisation, first from Portugal, and later from Indonesia. 

Since the Portuguese invasion of Timor-Leste in the early 16th century, Timorese people have been forced to learn Portuguese, and later Indonesian as their official languages, leaving a great part of the rural population illiterate due to limited access to mainstream education programs.

Following the restoration of democracy in Portugal in 1974, Timor-Leste gained the right to self-determination and local liberation movements grew stronger, leading to the country’s first unilateral declaration of independence one year later. A new wave of violence flared to resist Indonesia’s invasion. The attempt was unsuccessful. Timor-Leste was then an Indonesian province until 1998 the use of Portuguese was forbidden and Tetun was discouraged.

According to Chin, teachers who completed their studies under the Indonesian occupation still find it challenging to handle Portuguese and Tetun, the current official languages.

“The reality of the challenges related to having two official languages, one of which from the colonial time, is that there is still a gap in terms of teacher capacity,” she said. “They often found it challenging to teach in higher grades when it comes to Portuguese.”

Since the country’s independence two decades ago, schools still required students to submit their reports or thesis in Indonesian, Brites Maya said. But this started to change in 2010 when schools began to accept only Tetun and Portuguese. Since then, the country has been slowly but steadily moving towards the use of Tetun as the first and only language.

After the country’s 1999 referendum, four out of five teachers fled. This left Timor-Leste’s education in the hands of unqualified educators, according to a 20-year strategic plan drafted in 2011 by the Ministry of Education.

Drafted in cooperation with local organisations and NGOs, the plan aims to renovate the country’s education system by 2030 and ensure access to education for all children. Today, only official government reports or legal documents are written in Portuguese, while the entire education system runs in Tetun.

Looking towards the coming years, Timorese teachers are spearheading a new future, one where all children will learn to read. 

“I hope that soon the only official language will be Tetun,” said Brites Maya. “That way everybody could access basic literacy classes and learn faster because that is our language.”

*Paula’s last name has been withheld for child privacy rights.

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