Shelley Knowles l Palladium - Aug 28 2023
One Book at a Time: Supporting Children's Literacy in Remote Indonesia

Thick jungle covers close to 80% of Malinau and lush green banana trees surround homes made from meranti wood, in one of the most remote regions of Indonesia.

‘Aku Sayang Hutanku’ – I love the forest – reads a small sign nailed to an Angsana tree, the leaves overhead providing shade for children reading at SDN 002 Malinau Barat school. Although teacher Paulina Melkisidik regularly reads to her students outside, today there are squeals of excitement from inside the classroom as she reaches for her phone.

Moments later, the students are transfixed, reading a story which Melkisidik has projected onto the wall. “When I first turned on the projector, students screamed ‘Are we watching a movie?!’ They had never seen anything like it before,” says Melkisidik. “INOVASI trained me how to use the projector, connect it to the mobile phone and access the stories on Let’s Read.”

INOVASI (Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children’ program) is a partnership program between the governments of Australia and Indonesia which seeks to identify and support changes in educational practices, systems, and policies that can significantly accelerate student learning outcomes in literacy, numeracy, and 21st-century skills. In 2019, INOVASI found that 60% of grade 4 students in North Kalimantan faced challenges in reading.

Poor reading skills can have tragic consequences for children’s futures, leading to increased dropout rates, adverse health outcomes and lower earning potential. To enhance literacy skills among teachers and students, INOVASI introduced the ‘Let's Read’ digital books program. Only 17% of available books were storybooks, prompting the Let's Read program to add Digital Libraries, offering a digital storybook app to stimulate children’s interest in reading.

Melkisidik acknowledges the importance of both digital and hard copy books to support children’s literacy and comprehension skills. Having read the digital book Kucing Kubis – Cat Cube – with her students, she shows them how to draw 2D and 3D shapes. Recognising that some of the shapes were too advanced, she then adapted the lesson to their abilities.

Differentiated learning is at the heart of the new curriculum (Kurikulum Merdeka), which INOVASI is helping to implement in Indonesia. Children’s learning needs to be adjusted to the initial level of their ability and is determined through initial diagnostic assessment says Anindito Aditomo, the head of The Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology’s education standards, curriculum, and assessment centre. “The learning material and pace are tailored to provide an appropriate level of challenge: not too easy (repeating what students already know), yet not excessively beyond the students’ initial abilities. The principle is simple, yet it certainly demands thoughtful consideration and creativity (for successful) application in the classroom.”

Melkisidik agrees. “We’re working collaboratively to find solutions for children and sharing our teaching experiences,” she says, noticing positive improvements in children’s learning by adopting different methods of teaching based on assessments.

Evidence from INOVASI has been key to understanding student learning outcomes. Indonesian education has suffered from persistently low learning outcomes, for the past 20 years remaining at the bottom of PISA rankings (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment). To shed more light on this phenomenon and identify potential solutions, INOVASI initiated The Learning Gap Study in partnership with the Indonesian Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology. The four-part series revealed the detrimental impact of the pandemic on children’s learning, assessing 18,370 students from Grades 1–3 on literacy and numeracy learning proficiencies, benchmarking against national and global standards.

"Poor reading skills can have tragic consequences for children’s futures, leading to increased dropout rates, adverse health outcomes and lower earning potential."

The study found that nearly half of Grade 3 students had not mastered the minimum literacy skills, and two out of three Grade 3 students did not meet the minimum numeracy skills. Students in rural areas, students with disabilities, students who speak local languages, and males were most disadvantaged, and although on average, girls outperformed boys in the classroom, girls experienced higher learning loss during the pandemic.

A Localised Approach to Literacy

‘Bhinneka Tunggal IKA’ – Although we are different, we are one. Regent of Malinau District, Wempi W Mawa, points to these powerful words inscribed behind him and says that different strategies are needed to implement Kurikulum Merdeka across the country.

“If young people can’t determine their futures, they get frustrated. We must provide youth with a quality education so they can help strengthen Malinau,” says Mawa. “During the pandemic, education was especially difficult, but thanks to INOVASI, our teachers were trained on the adaptive curriculum. The education reforms are a change of mindset, a new paradigm which will improve everyone’s lives.”

INOVASI’s Recover stronger: Learning Gap Study assessed 4,103 elementary school students, 360 teachers in 69 schools across seven districts, and compared data on student learning outcomes for 2020, 2021 and 2022. Data showed that one year after the COVID-19 pandemic, students’ learning progress from Grade 1 to Grade 2 was five to six months slower than prior to the pandemic, and four out of five Grade 1 students did not meet the expected standards for numeracy.

But the study also revealed encouraging signs of learning recovery two years post-pandemic. Learning recovery doubled for children whose teachers used an adaptive and child-centred curriculum as it emphasised the foundational skills of literacy, numeracy, and character skills which are vital for children’s progression in learning.

Bpk Dumberbril, Head of Malinau’s District Education Office, says teachers used to be restricted, but now they have more flexibility and creativity. “Because the Kurikulum Merdeka is adaptive, we can provide experiences for our children which are tailored to their needs. In Malinau, we want children to learn outside the classroom in nature, while also learning new technologies in the classroom.”

At Melkisidik’s school, reading corners are popular under the shade of Angsana trees and repurposed materials generate less waste. On the walls of her classroom, plastic milk bottles are repurposed to hold picture books and bamboo poles are transformed into shelves in the reading corner.

As the school day winds to a close, and the last student skips away Melkisidik carefully puts away the projector. “Even when there are technical challenges, the children are happy to wait. It is more than I ever imagined!” While there are positive signs of learning recovery and the curriculum offers hope for combatting learning loss, learning is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels. But she’s determined to help her students fulfil their dreams, one story book at a time.

For more, read 'It Takes a Village: Learning to Read in Remote Indonesia' or contact