Disrupting Assumptions About Vernacular Education in Papua New Guinea

Eileen Honan

For a printer-ready version of this article, click here.


During 1999 and 2000, the author was employed by the Papua New Guinea Department of Education. Part of her duties at the Papua New Guinea Education Institute was to deliver in-service professional development programs to teachers who were implementing the country’s new curriculum. A focus of this curriculum is the use of two languages in early education; it also responds to the notion of the “bridging years” when children in Papua New Guinea develop skills and knowledge in two cultures and two languages. In this article, the author casts a critical gaze on the implications of developing literacy technologies for oral languages in Papua New Guinea. She uses examples drawn from the in-service course she developed for practicing teachers, as well as referring to theoretical understandings of the importance of literacy practices being learned in social and cultural contexts.

  Related Postings from the Archives

Education Reform | Policy Assumptions | English Literacies | Schooled Literacy Practices | Disrupting the Equation |  Questions for the Future | References

Papua New Guinea and Education Reform

In many industrialized nations, reform and changes in education policies and programs are taken for granted. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the recent changes to the education system have been so unusual and significant that “Education Reform” is commonly used as a proper noun in National Department of Education (NDOE) documents. While its impetus can be traced to 1974, it has only been in the last four to five years that the impact of the structural reform has been felt by individual schools and the communities they serve. (See National Department of Education, 2000, for a detailed explanation of the reform process. For general information about PNG, see PNGBUAI.com or Papua New Guinea Online.)

One significant aspect of the education reform in PNG is the focus on the use of vernacular languages in elementary and primary schools. As noted by the PNG education minister, John Waiko, “Papua New Guinea may be the only country in the world that has declared vernacular language as the means of not only reading and writing but also as the major factor for cultural bonding. This is a unique starting point in our reengineering of education” (quoted in Vulum, 2000).

Also unique in this context is that there are over 850 languages used in contemporary Papua New Guinea. Elementary schools in the country cater to children from the age of six to eight (in preparatory class through grade 2). They are generally established within local communities with the assistance and cooperation of local community members. The elementary curriculum is based on local knowledge and cultural practices. The language used in the elementary schools is the vernacular language of the particular community in which the school is located (known as tok ples) or Tok Pisin (the PNG lingua franca) -- or even English, if that is the language most commonly used by the community (as is the case in Port Moresby, the national capital).

Table 1 provides an overview of the nine years of basic education that are the focus of education reform in PNG. The structural reform has been based on the understanding that most of the population will only participate in this basic education, with limited numbers selected to undertake further education in secondary schools.

Table 1
The Nine Years of Basic Education in Papua New Guinea

School Grade/Age Levels Language(s) Characteristics
Elementary Preparatory, grade 1, grade 2 (children aged 6 to 8 years) Vernacular · Located in small communities
· Teachers selected by communities (must be grade 10 graduates, have knowledge of local language and community culture
Primary (lower) Grades 3 to 5 (children aged 9 to 11 years) Vernacular and English · Grade 3 teachers known as “bridging” teachers who must use both languages in their classrooms
Primary (upper) Grades 6 to 8 (children aged 12 to 14 years) English · While use of vernacular languages is still encouraged, the emphasis is on English as the language of instruction

In 1999 and 2000, I worked at the Papua New Guinea Education Institute (PNGEI) and became involved in a systemic effort to provide in-service professional development for grade 3 teachers (“bridging teachers”) working with children who had graduated from elementary school. This in-service course tried to do many things: to teach primary school teachers about bilingual education, to help them make sense of new curriculum documents, and to help them cope with children who come into their classrooms with different cultural, linguistic, and schooling backgrounds. These differences can be complex. The incoming grade 3 class in one large primary school in a provincial capital, for example, draws from four different elementary schools:

photo of school held under church

School held under local church
exterior of school

Well-equipped school near Port Moresby
exterior of school

Village school in Central Province

Back to menu

Policy Assumptions

Certain assumptions have been made in the policy documents that have been written about the introduction of vernacular education into Papua New Guinean schools. It is taken for granted that the choice of a language of instruction in the elementary schools is easily made, that community participation and cooperation is willingly given, and that children’s transition from elementary to primary schools is effortless.

In the case of the choice of language used in elementary schools, the assumption that this will be easily decided is predicated on the idea that in any one community, all people use the same first language. This may have been true in most of the country 25 years ago, and though it is certainly still true in many isolated areas of PNG, it is no longer the case in many communities. Marriages between people from different community groups are now common, transfers to different parts of the country by government departments and large commercial companies are taken for granted, and movement around the country is now made easier by the availability of various means of transport (airplanes, buses, trucks, motor-powered canoes and boats).

The use of vernacular oral language. The assumption within the policy documents that is the particular concern of this article is the idea that school-based development of literacy skills in vernacular languages will be relatively simple for children. As mentioned previously, there are approximately 850 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea. The majority of these languages do not have literacy technologies associated with them; they have been used in oral modes only. Historically, missionaries and church groups have developed orthographies in communities, so if there are written examples of a particular language, they are to be found in bibles, prayer books, and so on. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have worked with communities to develop literacy programs (e.g., Stringer & Faraclas, 1987), and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) has played a major role in assisting communities to develop orthographies (through their bible translation programs, literacy programs and tok ples elementary schools programs).

The absence of literacy technologies in oral language communities in PNG does not mean there is no importance placed on the use of language. For example, in the province of Enga, those who argue well are esteemed for their use of language. There is a definite structure and pattern to the methods and forms of oral arguments used by Engans. With the development of vernacular literacies through the school system, it will be interesting to see if the esteem for those who argue well orally will be transferred to those who can produce good written arguments in Engan.

The place and purpose of vernacular literacies. If the education reform process is successful in its focus on vernacular education, then the number of vernacular languages with literacy technologies will increase rapidly. Elementary teachers are working with communities to develop orthographies so that classroom materials can be written in the vernacular language. (The abilities of these teachers to construct these classroom materials is, of course, another unquestioned assumption. It is obviously impossible for the National Department of Education to provide classroom materials in 850 languages.) Children will read and write in this language for their three years of elementary school and then continue to develop their vernacular oral and written skills throughout primary school. This means that by the end of grade 8, students should have quite sophisticated knowledge and skills in using vernacular literacies.

The questions here are as follows:

An example of the complexity of attempting to answer these questions is drawn from experiences at a literacy conference organized by the Summer Institute of Linguistics. During a workshop, a small group of participants explored the different cultural ways of knowing about land, land ownership, and land boundaries (Honan, Jesudason, & Ruruk, 2001). For many Papua New Guineans, knowledge of their ownership of land is handed down through the generations in the form of stories related to particular aspects of that land -- for example, a story about a seed dropping out of a man’s bilum, which was the beginning of a large red gum tree that now stands as a boundary marker of a group’s land. Many Papua New Guineans are worried that the movement of people away from their villages to urban centers will interfere with the telling of these stories. The workshop participants developed a possible written alternative. One of the Papua New Guineans drew a “cultural map,” a visual representation of a piece of land, with traditional perspectives drawn into it (the sago tree of one important story drawn larger than the creek nearby, for example). The map included text boxes, in which the vernacular story of each item was written. The idea was that this cultural map could then stand alongside, and equally, to a western map of the same area produced by the government Lands Department.

The taken-for-granted way of thinking about literacy practices in schools was evident in the discussion that developed around the cultural maps during the SIL conference. The development of such maps depends on the telling of stories that are secret -- and, to many, sacred. If these cultural maps are commandeered by teachers and schools, they will become school literacy practices, only done in schools, and as simplistic and useless as basal readers. They will also not be authentic literacy practices; quite simply, older people will not tell younger people these important stories if they are to be used in school lessons. As one Papua New Guinean member of the conference said, “We will only tell the stories we have already told anthropologists.”

Back to menu

The Place and Purpose of English Literacies

If literacy is a social practice, then we should take for granted that we will see people “doing literacy” all around us in everyday life. In real life, people learn about

As an example, take learning to drive a car. Even in PNG, this is a social practice that is becoming more common, especially in urban dwellers’ daily lives. When we learn to drive a car, we learn

I encouraged teachers in my in-service course to view schooling as an integrated learning process, like learning to drive a car. Children learn about language and literacy practices and subject content involved in a particular theme. For example, the post office is a site of many social and literacy practices in many parts of PNG. There is no roadside delivery or pickup of mail, so post boxes are heavily used. But the post office is not merely a place for mailing letters. It is also the place to make phone calls, send faxes, and send and receive money orders, all practices that are very familiar to many Papua New Guineans -- much more familiar to them than the standard writing and receiving of letters. This is one example of the ways in which those in PNG have leapfrogged many historical literacy practices and embraced modern technologies. In a sample integrated theme used during the course, teachers learned about the literacy practices that occur in a post office -- taking a lead from the concentrated language encounters approach developed in Australian Aboriginal communities (Gray, 1985). In the bilingual classroom, children can practice making telephone calls in the vernacular language to family and friends, writing personal letters in the vernacular, and learning how to ask for stamps and phone change in English.

In the global context of a postindustrial world governed and informed through English, there would seem to be political, economic, and social advantages for Papua New Guineans who know how to use this language. Children should be taught the features and structures of different generic categories. Such explicitness will allow them greater control of their use of English in the future. The ways in which some multinational companies have taken control of various natural resources in the country indicates what can happen when communities lack control over English. In the course, I often used the example of logging companies signing agreements with landowners so the tropical rainforests of the country can be removed and sold to make disposable chopsticks for global use. Landowners have often signed over their rights to the land for a relatively small amount of money, money that vanishes after a rush of spending on the western goods so highly valued in PNG. All Papua New Guineans must know how the English of global capitalism works, how to interpret the laws, how to evaluate written offers critically, and how to decode the written arguments such companies use.

Back to menu

The Development of Vernacular Literacies as “Schooled” Literacy Practices

Heath (1983) argues that literacy practices engaged in by children in schools are often far removed from those present in their social and cultural contexts. There is a danger that this lesson will be ignored in the development of vernacular literacy education in PNG. At the moment, what is missing from the push for vernacular language and literacy development is the relationship between the languages and the literacies. If vernacular literacies are those literacy practices that are traditional, indigenous, and tied to the “diverse cultural processes of communities” (Camitta, quoted in Herbert & Robinson, 1999, p. 263), then how do vernacular languages, which are traditionally and indigenously oral, get used in vernacular literacy practices that have been introduced through institutions such as schools?

Knobel (1999) has drawn together a set of “generally recognized assumptions” that current literacy theorists make use of when writing about literacy as social practice. These include

These assumptions provide a foundation for this article’s approach to literacy as social practice. I have worked to make these meaningful for practicing classroom teachers in PNG. The list is especially significant when considering the development of literacy in PNG. What is of most importance is the relationship between the languages of PNG and the literacies that are being taught in schools (see Herbert & Robinson, 1999, for a similar discussion on schools, literacy, and language in northern Ghana). Papua New Guinea is unique in its approach to vernacular literacy education, in that all 850 languages, which are mostly oral languages, are “official languages” in the context of elementary education. The question that arises here is what happens to these oral languages when they become school literacy practices. I agree that, “any attempt to consider the range or extent of literacy skills ultimately hinges on the uses and values of these skills in society” (Cook-Gumperz, 1986, p. 4). However, what is happening now in PNG is that children are learning literacy skills at school that have never before been used in their societies.

Back to menu

Disrupting the Literacy and Empowerment Equation

The view that reading and writing are a key to success is itself a construct within a particular historical and social context. It ignores the operations of power in nonliterate societies. Most of the work surrounding societies that do not have reading and writing practices construct these societies as preliterate -- which, in turn, constructs the communities as precivilized, in need of having literacy done to them so they can become more like us. (See Faraclas, 1997, for further discussion of the supposed importance of print literacy in Papua New Guinean literacy programs.)

My own assumptions about the purposes and value of literacy teaching and learning have been disrupted and challenged because of my experiences teaching about literacy to primary school teachers in PNG. The value and importance of literacy in Papua New Guinea is not unchallenged. Arguments in this context are not about the kinds of literacy taught, but the purposes and reasons for teaching literacy at all. Fundamental to these arguments is the disruption of the western binary of literate-illiterate, where the former is the ascendant, the indicator of true power as an individual and as a society. During my years in PNG, I found myself arguing about the importance of “empowerment through literacy” with people whose lives are in the process of being destroyed by literate societies. I found myself clinging to the romantic ideal that is inherent in the binary of literate-illiterate -- that is, that learning to read and write will save these people. (See Honan, 2001, for further discussion of these issues.)

An example of the essential romantic nature of such ideals can be found in recent reports that provide a postscript to my earlier description of traditional landowners being duped by international logging companies. In 2001, a media report in Australia described landowners being brutally beaten by men employed by such logging companies. The beatings were a result of the landowners refusing to sign agreements for use of their traditional land. The reason landowners were refusing was because they had learned enough English to understand the nature of the contracts. The question I was left with was, “How has learning English ‘empowered’ these landowners?”

Back to menu

Questions for the future in PNG primary schools

If we assume that most people learn to be literate so they can take part in literacy practices that are occurring in their communities, then what do we do when the literacy practices have not yet developed? What will happen in these PNG communities in 20 years, when most people have had a basic education using their own tok ples? How will their skills and knowledge be used? For what purposes will tok ples be written down? What social practices will change or arise with the development of tok ples literacy practices?

I have no answers to these questions. Literacy practices will develop in unexpected ways as social practices change. Only Papua New Guineans who engage in these social and literacy practices can find possible answers. These answers will, of course, lead to further questions about the relationships between literacy and social practices in Papua New Guinean societies.

Back to menu


Cook-Gumperz, J. (1986). Introduction. In J. Cook-Gumperz (Ed.), The social construction of literacy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Faraclas, N. (1997). Critical literacy and control in the new world order. In S. Muspratt, A. Luke, & P. Freebody (Eds.), Constructing critical literacies: Teaching and learning textual practice. St. Leonards, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Gray, B. (1985). Teaching oral language. In M. Christie (Ed.), Aboriginal perspectives on experience and learning: The role of language in Aboriginal education. Geelong, Australia: Deakin University Press.

Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Herbert, P., & Robinson, C. (1999). Another language, another literacy? Evidence from Africa. Written Language and Literacy, 2(2), 247-266.

Honan, E. (2001). (Im)plausibilities: A rhizo-textual analysis of the Queensland English Syllabus. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.

Honan, E., Jesudason, D., & Ruruk, C. (2001). Literacies, logging, and land boundaries: A discussion group report. READ: Promoting Literacy and Literature, 36(1), 30-34.

Knobel, M. (1999). Everyday literacies. Students, discourse and social practice. New York: Peter Lang.

National Department of Education, Education Reform Facilitating and Monitoring Unit. (2000). The state of education in Papua New Guinea. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea: Author.

Stringer, M.D., & Faraclas, N.G. (1987). Working together for literacy.Wewak, Papua New Guinea: Christian Books Melanesia.

Vulum, S. (2000, February). Shaping the future through reforms: Papua New Guinea takes lead in vernacular education. Post Courier Magazine.

About the Author

Eileen Honan is a lecturer in language and literacy education at Deakin University (School of Social and Cultural Studies in Education, Faculty of Education, Melbourne, Australia). She was a primary school teacher for nine years, and has worked with teachers in both Australia and Papua New Guinea to improve literacy teaching and learning. Her research interests include the development of teachers' theoretical understandings of their own teaching practices, the use of new literacies in new technological environments, and the development of alternative approaches to educational research and methodologies. Contact her by e-mail at ehonan@deakin.edu.au.

Back to top

This article is based on a presentation at the July 2002 conference of the Australian Teacher Educators' Association, copyright Eileen Honan. For a printer-ready version, click here.

Citation: Honan, E. (2002/2003, December/January). Disrupting assumptions about vernacular education in Papua New Guinea. Reading Online, 6(5). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/international/inter_index.asp?HREF=honan/index.html

Reading Online, www.readingonline.org ISSN 1096-1232
Posted December 2002