Skip To Content

Athabasca University

READ: The Adult Literacy and Literature Magazine

The mission-based journal, READ: The Adult Literacy and Literature Magazine, produced by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, provides the most consistent examination of literacy issues in the colonial era.

Anne Cates, a frequent contributor to READ, asked in a January 1975 article, "Why Teach First in the Vernaculars?" Her answer was that literacy is easier to obtain when the language of literacy is the same as that in which the student "verbalizes all reality" (2). If books speak to the student in his own language, then the value of literacy is solidly embedded in his mind. Cates added that, as experience in Viet Nam's Highlander Education Project had demonstrated, the school drop-out rate (a persistent problem in PNG) had been greatly reduced because of vernacular literacy.

In that same issue of READ, C. Collins provided a manual for teaching the vernacular, in an article entitled "Teaching the Vernaculars -- In Government Schools." The page graphics for this article, as for many others, indicate that the SIL saw itself as pushing back against the government’s decision to use English as a language of instruction. The title, "Teaching the Vernacular," is in boldface, capitals, and centred. "In Government Schools" is in smaller typeface, capitals, unbolded, and centred below the first part of the title. The introduction immediately below the sub-title carries this disclaimer:

This is not to be confused with Vernacular Education, but rather a step only in that direction. Those that have already learnt what reading and writing is, need only a few hours instruction to switch them to the vernacular languages which they speak -- in this case Kamano-Kafe. (Collins 42)   

In fact, the article provided step-by-step instructions for teachers who wished to subvert the national education system's policy on English language instruction, by expanding the use of vernaculars in the classroom. There was even a section on how to involve parents and community members in this subterfuge.

From its inception in 1966, READ has provided an engrossing diary of the concerted attempts by SIL members in their fight for literacy. What is clear from the journal is that the editors see the literacy campaign, in part, as the sort of programme the government should have adopted, but hadn't. In a special issue of READ, 2 (1976), "Providing Literature for New Literates," the editor says:

In most developing countries one aspect of development is a national literature which is written not just for the people but by the people of that developing country. The opportunity to write for one's own people should not be the privilege of an educated elite [my emphasis] only. (7)

It is quite clear from this editorial and from the magazine as a whole that READ sees itself as an advocate for all people in PNG, an organ of true democracy through mass literacy. In setting itself up in opposition to the lack of government literacy programmes and to the burgeoning elite writers of UPNG, READ became part of an alternate literary system, organized by church agencies.

SIL members also used READ as a vehicle for information-sharing among themselves. Many articles discuss how to set up and maintain the roles of a literary system. A list of titles from the retrospective Special Issue, 2 (1976), gives a clear indication of the scope of these concerns:

  • What is a new Reader
  • How to Write for Inexperienced Readers
  • First Writers Training at Nobonob
  • Who Shall Write for New Guineans
  • Writers and Readers for Papua New Guinea
  • Indigenous Writers in the Making
  • Purposes and Problems in Producing Periodicals
  • Training National Editors
  • A Book Market for New Guineans

READ contributors were also concerned with matters of creating a written style in languages where writing had never before existed (Editorial 11.3 [1976]: 65; Ray Johnston 1976, 66-70).

But more than any other problem, contributors puzzled over how to keep the newly-literate reading. In a perceptive article from 1974, Helen Marten reviewed attempts that had been made by SIL members to produce materials interesting enough to keep literates literate. Her observations were that "helpful" literature like How to Grow Good Coffee and the natural history books like Animals of the Bible were "not bad" for a beginning, but needed to be supplemented with books written by indigenous people on subjects that interested them. She recommended change agents closely observe islanders to see what kind of story, subject matter, illustrations, etc. they reacted to best. Kovave, the PNG literary journal established by Ulli Beier, and the Literature Bureau's New Guinea Writing, were specially mentioned as good examples of indigenous writing.

Marten was careful to note that literature "for new literates should include some fiction so that they don't think that everything in print is true" (113). For fiction sources she suggested folklore, unless it might be equated with Scripture or even come into conflict with it. Other dangers of using folklore might be that it contained content that natives themselves considered immoral (i.e. stories they might tell orally but would not like to see in print); competitions between villages over the "true" version of a given story; copyright problems over previously translated and published versions of the stories. Marten also felt that "failure" stories should be included since "life is not all success."

In sum, her article demonstrates a keen awareness of the issues involved in producing reading material for people of other cultures. Furthermore, it demonstrates an active willingness to search beyond the ideology of the Christian church for resource material for her purposes. But the material absorbed into the mission system must, at the same time, be filtered through that ideology.

Helen Marten makes a habit of posing uncomfortable questions. In a 1969 READ article entitled "Literacy for Those Who Don't Want It," she asked: "Do you have any ideas of how to get people to do what they don't seem to want to do?" (14): that is, read. She reported that members of the Yessan-Mayo tribe to whom she had been trying to introduce literacy classes for five years, just weren't interested. After only 30-50 years of contact with Europeans, these 900 people living in 7 villages much as they had always lived, just didn't see the point. Marten's question went unanswered.

SIL maintains a site on which it has been digitizing articles from READ that have been published since 1980. On this site you will also find a number of articles on the history of literacy policy in PNG and on SIL's current practices with respect to developing indigenous literatures.

Updated October 13 2016 by Library Services