The ‘Literacy in Fiji’ Project: Young Children’s Participation and Education in their Literacy Lives

Prof Pauline Harris, Dr Anne Glover, Dr Elspeth McInnes, Dr Jenni Carter, Ms Alexandra Diamond,
Dr Nicole Anae and Ms Bec Neill

A troubling disconnect
On the matter of children’s literacy education, there continues to be a troubling disconnect between children’s rights to participation and education, and literacy education policy and practice. In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child affirmed children’s rights among others that:

  • Literacy Project‘States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. (Article 12)’1
  • ‘States Parties recognise the right of the child to education … and States Parties shall promote and encourage international cooperation in matters relating to education, in particular with a view to contributing to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world and facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge and modern teaching methods. In this regard, particular account shall be taken of the needs of developing countries. (Article 28)’2.

Literacy education clearly pertains to these two sets of child rights – a matter affecting children’s present and future lives, germane to their wellbeing and life chances.  There is close synergy between Articles 12 and 28, in the sense that children have the right to participate in educational decisions and education can enhance children’s capabilities for participation. As educators, we share the obligation of us all whose States are party to this Convention to ensure these rights are protected and upheld in our own States and consequently throughout the world.

Yet literacy education is a matter in which children’s voices are kept quite silent in Australia and around the world (Harris 2011) – a concern shared by our Fiji colleagues, such as Toganivlau (2008, p. 33) who wrote that the continued silence of children’s voices in policies and programs seeking to enhance their wellbeing and education makes it difficult to understand what children ‘actually know and understand, rather than assume what they do not know.’

Such silence constrains children’s rights as both global and local citizens – and weakens or denies their participation and education. As our colleague at Fiji National University, Ufemia Camaitoga (2008), has argued, the future progress of early childhood education in the Pacific relies upon the voice, visibility and valuing of children and those who advocate on their behalf, including children’s families, caregivers, educators and members of their communities. Moreover, not all communities in Fiji have access to early childhood services, and to preschools in particular. Thus children’s education in these early years is a somewhat uneven affair, as are implications for children’s transition to school.

The ‘Literacy in Fiji’ Project
It is in this children’s rights context that we are conducting our ‘Literacy in Fiji’ Project. The Project is funded by an Australian Development Research Awards Scheme (ADRAS) grant awarded by the former AusAID (now incorporated in the Australian Department for Foreign Affairs & Trading)3. 

This Project is investigating and developing a community approach to fostering preschool children’s literacy in their vernacular language and English, in urban, rural and remote communities that do not have access to early childhood education and care services. Our focus is on building and sustaining local community capacity beyond the life of the Project.

The Project is being conducted by a team of researchers in the School of Education at the University of South Australia:

  • Prof Pauline Harris, Lead Researcher with expertise in early years literacy, children’s voice and participation, Freirean approaches to dialogic encounters, and ethnographic research approaches
  • Dr Anne Glover, as a consultant to the Project on the basis of her early childhood research and engagement in developing countries
  • Dr Elspeth McInnes, with expertise in sociological study of children and families
  • Dr Jenni Carter, with expertise in literacy studies
  • Alexandra Diamond, with expertise in the requirements, processes and importance of brain development from conception through early childhood, and is undertaking a PhD as part of this Project
  • Dr Nicole Anae, with expertise in literature and literary studies
  • Bec Neill as Research Assistant with expertise in qualitative research approaches, systems thinking and practice, and community engagement including indigenous communities.

We are also engaging with key agencies and organisations through the Project’s External Advisory Group.

A sociocultural perspective of literacy
As we progress this work in collaboration with our partners and communities, a socioculturally inclusive perspective of literacy is required – a model of literacy that recognises multiple language and knowledge systems across diverse communities, which together provide myriad pathways of being and becoming literate.  Literacy (or as some would say, ‘literacy/ies’) takes various forms and serves various functions that take on particular significance relevant to context.

In accord with such a perspective, we are using a sociocultural framework of literacy that:

  • Defines literacy as social practice situated in people’s day-to-day lives, recognising the social, economic, educational, cultural and political significance of literacy for an individual’s wellbeing and life chances in a literate society
  • Acknowledges the contexts of situation and culture that shape how children are and become literate
  • Recognises text in its various modes, including written, spoken, visual and multimodal texts
  • Comprehensively maps four key groups of literacy practices that distinguish literacy from other forms of social practice.
    (Harris et al 2006; Harris 2009)

These four groups of literacy practices are:

  1. Meaning making practices, comprising capabilities related to understanding, interpreting and constructing meaning in texts.
  2. Text-using practices, consisting of capabilities for recognising, using and producing texts to fulfil particular social purposes.
  3. Decoding and encoding practices, comprising capabilities related to recognising, cracking and replicating the codes of texts.
  4. Text analyst practices, consisting of capabilities for critically interrogating and reflecting upon texts.
    (Luke & Freebody, 1990)

Taken together, these literacy practices are necessary to, but not each on their own sufficient for, effectively functioning in local and global literate societies (Luke & Freebody, 1990). This holistic approach deeply resonates with current perspectives on Pacific curricula.

Connecting with early childhood education strategies in the Pacific
Our use of a sociocultural approach to literacy aligns with and supports key early childhood education and care (ECEC) strategies in the Pacific that are grounded in local cultures and languages (Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat 2009). Contemporary approaches call for holistic ways of knowing, doing, being and living together (Puamau, 2005) and education environments that reflect children’s lived experiences and their community and family settings (Puamau & Pene 2008; Toganivalu 2008).

Our ‘Literacy in Fiji’ Project is contributing to these ECEC strategies in the Pacific by working in situ with children and their families and communities with no access to formal early childhood education services. In so doing, we are seeking to understand and build upon children’s, families’ and communities’ expertise and aspirations. We are enacting children’s right to participate in this work by engaging with them and their families in dialogic encounters in and about their worlds (Freire 1983; Harris & Manatakis, 2013). In these encounters, community-based mentors are to play a critical role in providing cultural mediation and linguistic translations.

Project outcomes
Locally and nationally, key outcomes of this Project include the development of culturally and linguistically inclusive community-based approaches that foster children’s preschool literacy learning, enhance their transition to school and strengthen their literacy outcomes.

Further afield, our Project approach is important to multilingual nations with diverse cultural communities. Thus another key outcome is developing a community engagement process that can be implemented in contexts outside Fiji, across the Pacific region and in other countries and communities (including Australian communities) that struggle to provide universal access to formal early childhood education services.

Relationship is key
To achieve these outcomes, we continue to be engaged in the Establishment Phase of our Project. We are taking the necessary time and care to develop sustainable relationships of collaboration and co-operation on the strength of shared understandings and aspirations – so that together we continue to work effectively across borders to realise children’s education and participation rights in their current and future lives.

• An AusAID ADRAS Grant for 2013-15 supports the Project discussed in this paper.
• Bec Neill’s literature review helped to inform this paper.

Areas of study and research

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