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A primary school teacher in the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea (PNG) noticed a big change in his young students in late 2017. They “read and read and read,” he recalls with a smile. Moreover, daily attendance rose significantly. “They came to school every day.”
What caused the transformation? The teacher credits Talking Books digital technology, introduced in his remote village to enhance students’ formal education by using the local language. It’s the initiative of a three-partner consortium—SIL PNG, and Australian organizations Save the Children and Callan Services—serving PNG’s Dept. of Education.
The partners have digitized the government’s Grade 1 and 2 curriculum reading materials, including traditional tales and animal stories, into a Talking Book format for mobile phones, explains Koen den Hartogh. He is head of the seven-person Education for Life team that focuses on the project for SIL PNG.
Den Hartogh says that for minority language speakers in PNG, the technology means they can hold a library in the palm of their hands to read and hear books spoken in their own languages, whether at school or at home. So far, 750 books have been produced (82 titles, some of which have been translated into more than 25 languages) as part of a 30-school pilot program.
The coming of smartphone technology allows for new ways of language learning, stresses den Hartogh, who serves as a language software consultant with SIL.
“The fact that teachers and parents can have access to more than 80 book titles for free and that these books are accessible in their language, as well as English, is a big thing. The children can read and listen to the books in their own language first, and then they know what the story is about.
“Then they make the big jump to the version in English (the national language), with one advantage: the book isn't so unfamiliar anymore.”
Books have also been made available in PNG sign language, an objective of partner Callan Services, which specializes in inclusive education at 19 centers in the Pacific nation.
Balinda Souse, the organization’s program coordinator, says the Talking Books are crucial for teachers of the Deaf who have always struggled with a lack of materials.“We have no resources to teach with. I have to make everything myself,” she explained in a PNG national TV documentary.
“These Talking Books in Sign language are so great.”
Cell phone ownership and use is growing quickly in PNG, where a device can be bought for $90 USD. Like elsewhere in the world, the cellphone isn’t just a phone, says den Hartogh, it’s a still camera, a video camera, a clock and device to play computer games. Sharing mobile phone content via Bluetooth or SHAREit is common in PNG, so many simply rely on friends for the latest apps. Talking Books, which run on the SIL-developed Bloom reader, are being spread from one person to another in the same way.
“The big problem of distribution has been solved because anyone . . . can take these books home and go back to his village, or to his island, and share them with as many people as he can.”
In classroom settings, Talking Books content is displayed with video projectors. Lack of electricity in remote villages isn’t a barrier because special Teacher Presenter kits have been distributed to the 30 schools. Funded by the Australian government, each kit includes an Android phone, a hand-sized LED projector and Bluetooth speaker.This is powered by a solar battery (developed by JAARS, SIL’s technical partner) that is charged via a 100-watt solar panel.
“Fortunately,’ say den Hartogh, “there’s enough sun in Papua New Guinea that the projector will indeed run for the whole day.”
In a country where 840 languages are spoken, the Talking Books partners share a big vision, says den Hartogh. “We would love to see the books translated into all the languages that SIL has worked with, and is working.”
In addition, he hopes to see more new titles, improved illustrations, interactive books, and more teachers trained in using the technology.
Petra Totome, an Education for Life team member excited to create something to help her country, is eager for more Papua New Guineans to know about Talking Books.
“The big thing right now is that we have these great tools for kids in the lower primary level to use, and the big hope . . . is for people to be aware of this,” she said in a PNG TV documentary. “There is a great resource out there for students, to help them read and learn and actually understand stories.”