Adult literacy in multilingual Timor-Leste: First results of a study

Type Working Paper - New research on Timor-Leste
Title Adult literacy in multilingual Timor-Leste: First results of a study
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2012
Page numbers 349-354
URL Conf 2011/chp_51.pdf
Although the majority of people without any schooling are living in developing countries, the bulk of
studies on literacy acquisition is carried out with children in Western countries (Wagner 2004). Not
much is known yet about the ways in which learning and teaching processes might differ for adults and
children. Most studies on beginning reading and writing point to the importance of letter knowledge and
phonological awareness (Adams 1990; Byrne 1998; Kurvers and Van der Zouw 1990) and adult first
time readers seem to pass through more or less the same phases as children when learning to read and
write (Kurvers and Van der Zouw 1990; Kurvers 2007; Kurvers and Ketelaars 2011). Most of the
studies on adult literacy dealt with adults learning to read in a second language in a migration context.
Success in beginning reading in those contexts was found to be related to proficiency in the second
language, to the use of the first language as an instructional aid and to contextualising literacy learning
into the needs and daily practices of the adult learners (Condelli, Wrigley et al. 2003; Kurvers,
Stockmann and Van de Craats 2010). Besides, beginning readers and spellers in a second language
experienced more problems with phonemes that did not exist in their first language (Kurvers and Van
der Zouw 1990; Kurvers and Ketelaars 2011). The well-known impact of educational background on
adult language learning was also revealed in adult literacy studies: students that had been attending
primary school were more successful in reading and writing. The concept of critical age, often
discussed in second language learning, has also been subject of dispute on adult first time readers.
Although no clear evidence can be found about a critical age, several studies found significant
differences between younger and older students learning to read in a second language (Condelli et al.
2003; Kurvers, Stockmann and Van de Craats 2010; Boon 2011a; Boon 2011b).
This article describes a study carried out in adult literacy education in Timor-Leste between
June 2009 and June 2011. The study is part of the project “Adult literacy acquisition and use in
multilingual Timor-Leste”
that combines this study’s results with the results of in-depth case studies of
adult literacy education in practice. Many adults in Timor-Leste are currently learning to read and write
in literacy programmes delivered by the government, NGOs and other organizations. Research carried
out in Timor-Leste provides valuable information about the larger context in which this learning is
taking place. Hajek (2000) and Taylor-Leech (2009) described the languages and literacy situation in
Timor-Leste. Population census outcomes (DNE 2006a-b) shed light on the country’s adult literacy
rates of just below 55%. Cabral and Martin-Jones’s (2008) account of the ways in which literacy was
embedded in the East Timorese struggle against the Indonesian invasion and subsequent occupation is
relevant to understand ideas and approaches in literacy education today. Boughton and Durnan (2007)
described the multiplicity of adult education programmes and providers in Timor-Leste; Taylor-Leech
(2009) described literacy projects and lessons learned in recent years; Boughton (2010) listed
achievements in adult and popular education since 2002; Boon (2011a, 2011b) investigated participant
characteristics and the development of some aspects of literacy ability in current literacy programmes.
The purpose of this study was to investigate some of the background and contextual variables
mentioned before, focusing mainly on the learners that did not attend adult literacy classes before. The
main research questions in this contribution deal with their literacy abilities after three to four months of
literacy course attendance, and more specifically whether there is an impact of previous education, age
and knowledge of Tetun: Is there a difference in task scores after three to four months of literacy course attendance between (a) people with and without prior education? (b) younger and older participants?
and (c) Tetun and non-Tetun speakers?

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