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One Hour a Day: Family Literacy in Timor-Leste

Woman holding toddler and reading a book with a boy.
Rince and her 9-year-old son, Jimmy, participated in a family literacy program in Biqueli, Atauro Island. Now, they spend time each day together reading and visit the school library at least once a week.

In Biqueli Primary School on Atauro Island, Timor-Leste, the books that line the shelves are not gathering dust. Instead, the school library is a place of near-constant activity, even during school holidays. Since Biqueli’s school participated in an innovative family literacy program last year, many parents and children visit the library once or twice a week to read together.

The family literacy project was piloted at the school in 2010 and 2011 as part of a comprehensive program that included working with local parents and teachers to repair the school roof, distribute library books and establish an after-school reading club. The project used interactive exercises such as drawing, storytelling, games and competitions to demonstrate to parents and children the value of learning together.

Over 11 months, parents met twice a week with ChildFund-trained facilitators to participate in activities based on local traditions and designed to impart basic literacy and numeracy skills. For many of the parents, it was the first time since leaving primary school that they had had a chance to continue their educations. Josefa, a mother of two, is one of 31 parents who completed the family literacy curriculum. “The program helped us to help our children at home with reading and writing,” she says.

Although literacy levels in Timor-Leste are gradually improving, less than 70 percent of adults in Biqueli are literate (2010 census). When parents have little education, they are often unable to assist with homework and may not appreciate the value of continued education. This can undermine their children’s learning. Rince, a 25-year-old mother whose education ended with primary school, admits, “Before [the literacy project], I didn’t know what was in the children’s books. Now, I can read them.”

As a housewife, I have lots of work, but I still set aside one hour to help the children,” she says. “The program made me realize that I need to give my time to teach the children every day.

— Rince

Since participating in the project, Rince, mother to 9-year-old Jimmy and 3-year-old Jintara, has incorporated learning into her family’s daily routines. She spends about an hour after school each day with Jimmy, teaching him reading and math. “As a housewife, I have lots of work, but I still set aside one hour to help the children,” she says. “The program made me realize that I need to give my time to teach the children every day.”

Rince adds that she and her husband have already noticed the improvement in Jimmy’s learning. “There has been a difference since I started teaching him,” she says. “My husband also realized the change. If he has time, he teaches Jimmy, but if he is busy, I teach him.” Rince plans to do the same for Jintara when she starts school. The family’s weekly visits to the library have clearly caught the toddler’s interest — she flips eagerly through any book within her reach.

According to School Director Lorenco da Costa, the pilot project was successful in creating a culture of learning in Biqueli village. “Around 90 percent of parents in Biqueli know the basics of reading and writing,” he says. “But they are all interested to learn more and teach their children. Now we have electricity at night as well, so even more children are learning to read and write. Before, some children couldn’t read and write at all. After one year of their parents participating in the program, those children can read and write.”

Many families in Biqueli now have an established daily routine of learning together and plan for their children’s continued education at high school and university. Despite her own limited education, Rince is determined to see Jimmy and Jintara succeed. “I want my children to grow up and have a better life and find better work than their father has,” she says. Until then, Rince intends to continue the family’s routine — one hour, every day.

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