Shelley Knowles l Palladium - Aug 04 2023
It Takes a Village: Learning to Read in Remote Indonesia

It is mid-morning, hot and humid. 44-year-old Merlin, a member of the local Dayak tribe, sits on the floor of a small, timber room in the remote town of Malinau, in North Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.

Merlin opens a picture book and purses her lips. “T-o-p-”, she says, struggling with the final letter. Her index finger traces the word “Topi” – hat – and as she recognises it, she smiles with pride. During the 1980’s, Merlin’s childhood in North Kalimantan was marred by inter-tribal violence, but today the area is renowned for its shrimps, harvested from the saltwater river Sesayap, and edible bird nests.

Every day as a small child, Merlin walked five kilometres through dense forests to get to school. During floods, she built makeshift wooden paths to cross the river. But when the violence intensified, Merlin’s school days ended abruptly – she was just seven years old. “We were told not to go outside because it was too dangerous, and people were slashing each other’s heads off. My siblings, friends and I were all forced to stay at home. I learned how to make intricate handcrafts; skills that had been passed down from my ancestors, but I longed to be back in the classroom.”

For decades, Merlin struggled with everyday tasks. “I was invited to meetings and asked to write down my address, but I could only write my name.”

Every Wednesday, at a School and Community Reading Park (TBM) in Tana Tidung, Merlin has been learning to read alongside other adults. And on Thursdays and Fridays, children who need extra support are learning to read too. Fifty million children attend primary and secondary schools in Indonesia, but an alarming 24% of Indonesia’s school children in grade 3 – nearly one in five children – are unable to read words according to a 2020 baseline study by INOVASI.

INOVASI (Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children’ program) is a partnership program between the governments of Australia and Indonesia which identifies and supports changes in educational practices, systems, and policies that can significantly accelerate student learning outcomes in literacy, numeracy, and 21st-century skills.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Education and local governments, INOVASI has helped to increase provision of books, and presented critical data to influence policy makers.

In 2022, Nadiem Makarim, Indonesia's Minister of Education and Culture, met with INOVASI, key Ministry of Education officials, and stakeholders from the non-government sector to brainstorm solutions on making children’s books more available, particularly in remote areas. Subsequently, the ministry’s language development agency (Badan Pengembangan dan Pembinaan Bahasa) provided more than 12 million books for 7,609 disadvantaged primary schools in 81 districts in remote regions, including in North Kalimantan. With more books, there are now more opportunities for children and adults just like Merlin to discover the joy of reading. INOVASI has also partnered with Community Reading Parks, facilitating workshops to highlight the benefits of using big books and trained volunteers on teaching through books.

In just one year under the leadership of Vamelia Ibrahim, Head of the Empowerment and Family Welfare Movement Team (PKK), 38 Community Reading Parks were established in every village in Tana Tidung to accelerate learning recovery.

“I never thought we would be able to achieve something so remarkable,” says Ibrahim proudly. “Sometimes children can’t come to the TBM because they have to follow their parents to the field. There is no one at home to look after them. In remote areas, if children aren’t coming, we organise for the children to get picked up. Unlike in big cities, human resources here are limited.”

Although 85% of children surveyed by INOVASI in 2020 said they loved to read, many children haven’t been able to access books that reflect the world around them. But that’s starting to change. In North Kalimantan, children and adult learners are now reaching for stories of jungles, fishing, and cassava plants and INOVASI has been working with the Indonesian government and non-government partners to transform children’s books.

The more exposure children get to books, the more interest they will have in reading for themselves, says Supriyatno, Head of the Center of Books, in Indonesia’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology.

“Many children in remote areas have never seen trains before, so they can’t relate to them in books. It’s so important that the learning context for children is carefully considered,” says Supriyatno. The ministry has held workshops, asking children to rank picture books in order of interest. “Their selection surprised us and demonstrated that adults aren’t always right! Children liked strong characters in books, and those in early grades particularly liked compelling visuals.”

It’s an exciting time for children’s book authors as there are now more opportunities for Indonesian authors to write and receive training and support from the Ministry. INOVASI recently partnered with the ministry to bring Australian writers and illustrators to Indonesia and worked with creatives and industry stakeholders to develop quality reading books.

Boosting students’ access to and interest in books is improving student literacy levels, too. Final assessment results from an INOVASI study on early literacy in seven pilot elementary schools in North Kalimantan found that a combination of teacher training, a strengthened reading culture, and special services for struggling readers accelerated basic literacy competencies from three to two years.

Back at the School and Community Reading Park, Merlin picks up a pencil and carefully copies words she is learning to read into a notebook. “I am so grateful for the support of my teacher, the Community Reading Park, and the government. All my children have attended school and my youngest daughter now comes to the learning centre too,” she says proudly.

After all, it takes a village to raise a child, and a village to raise great readers.

INOVASI’s program will end in December 2023. For more information, read 'Creating a More Inclusive Classroom for Students with Disabilities in Indonesia' or contact