Literacy project in three Pacific islands showing signs of success

16 February 2017

Anna Roumanu (Cooks Islands Co-ordinator) talking about key findings in the Cook Islands at a symposium earlier in the month.
Anna Roumanu (Cooks Islands Co-ordinator) talking about key findings in the Cook Islands at a symposium earlier in the month.

The Pacific Literacy and School Leadership Project is a project which aims to improve literacy learning and language development in young children across three Pacific Island countries – Cook Islands, Solomon Islands and Tonga.


The three year project was launched in late 2014 in response to concerns raised by the Ministries of Education in Tonga, Cook Islands and Solomon Islands regarding children’s literacy outcomes and is funded by the New Zealand Aid Programme with a budget of $6 million. It is delivered in a partnership between the University of South Pacific’s (USP) Institute of Education (IOE) and the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work — in particular the Woolf Fisher Research Centre (WFRC), the Research Unit in Pacific and International Education (RUPIE), and the Centre for Educational Leadership (UACEL) – all based at the Epsom Campus in Auckland.

Now entering its third year, the programme has worked with 200 teachers and school leaders across 10 islands, impacting over 6000 students. Working in partnership with the participating schools, the project has focused on enhancing teachers and school leaders understandings’ of their students literacy learning and the way in which their teaching and leadership practice impacts on learning, by collecting and jointly making sense of school-level data on student learning and teacher practice. Building from this, the programme has provided tailored professional development for teachers and school leaders, to build their capabilities in literacy instruction, formative assessment practice, and instructional leadership so they can sustain ongoing literacy improvement beyond the life of the project.  

Earlier this month RUPIE in partnership with the University of Auckland’s New Zealand Pacific Research Institute hosted a symposium to share the story of the programme to date and key learnings.

Theoretical underpinnings - context and collaboration

Rebecca Spratt, the PLSLP manager, noted that the project is unique in the way that it is focused on education at the ground level and focuses on context and collaboration.

“PLSLP represents a positive shift in the approach to education aid in the Pacific. It is an example of NZ MFAT and the University of Auckland learning from the less successful initiatives of the past. It’s focused on education at the ground level – at the school level.

“In the past, funding has gone into strengthening the Ministries, but we are getting down to the school level and using that as the starting point of how we can improve our education processes.

“Our project is practice focused – what are the processes of teaching and learning as opposed to books and infrastructure which has been a focus in the past.

“The real strength of the project has been about context – what is actually happening on the ground. To learn about these things it’s about relationship building and talking to actual teachers in schools to find out about the challenges they face on a daily basis – where in the past there has been a top-down approach where these issues and solutions have been defined for them.”

Coordinators of each three of the Pacific Islands also shared there reflections on the impact of PLSLP in their contexts so far:

Solomon Islands key learnings

Hellen Marau (Solomon Islands Co-ordinator) noted that at the beginning of the project the classroom walls were bare, floors were often just dirt, and there was very little furniture or learning resources inside the classrooms. Teachers were not carrying out formative assessment for identifying students’ learning strengths and weaknesses to inform teaching. Teachers and school leaders had very few opportunities for professional development and parents and school communities were not very engaged in supporting student learning at school.

Now, two years in, communities are more engaged in supporting their children’s learning; classrooms are literacy rich – full of teacher made resources and students written work; some children are now reading and writing even without their teachers, teachers are collecting and using student data to improve their practice and teachers are participating in professional development.

Cook Islands key learnings

Anna Roumanu (Cooks Islands Co-ordinator) stated the most notable successes in the Cook Islands have been the development of a “Think Talk Write” framework, to support the teaching of, and formative assessment for, students oral language development and writing capabilities. Prior to PLSLP’s work in this area, there was no framework for the teaching of writing in the early grades. The framework has been developed in in Cook Islands’ Māori and in English and all participating schools are now actively using the framework to inform their teaching. Through the project three new wordless texts have been developed aimed at supporting students independent thinking and oral language development, and three non-fiction texts for years 1-3 in 6 dialects of Cook Islands Maori.

Tonga key learnings

Heti Veikune (Tonga Co-ordinator) further highlighted the success of the project design using the metaphor of the Tonga tradition of weavers weaving a mat together. “I like to think of this work we’re doing as us bringing strands from many different places to weave one mat.”



Anna Kellet

Media Relations Adviser