Better Beginnings Plus (BB+) for Indigenous Children Susan Hanson

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Better Beginnings Plus (BB+) for Indigenous Children

Susan Hanson
Dip. Teach, Graduate Dip Linguistics
Education Officer: Aboriginal Program

Better Beginnings Family Literacy Program

State Library of Western Australia

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The State Library of Western Australia commenced the Better Beginnings Family Literacy Program in 2005. The program was highly successful with more than 70 000 bags of early literacy resources distributed state wide to parents of children in the 0-3 age bracket. The main aim of the program was for parents to develop a strong understanding of the role they play in reading to their children, as a literacy development strategy.

Following on from the success of this program, a call was made by parents for follow up support for children aged 4-5 years. These children’s early literacy development requirements differ significantly from the 0-3 age range. In 2009, the State Library responded by commencing the Better Beginnings Plus (BB+) Family Literacy Program.
BB+ is in a pilot stage in 2010; however, funding had already been achieved to carry the statewide program through the next four years.
The messages behind the BB+ program are:
1. Read to your children everyday

2. Use your local library to access reading material

3. Engage your children with the local library.
The BB+ team became aware that these messages were difficult for families who were unable to access a library or who lived in remote locations where there wasn’t a library. Most of these families were living in remote Aboriginal communities or small country towns where limited use of a library, if one existed at all, was the situation. The BB+ team therefore engaged a consultant specializing in literacy attainment and Indigenous communications to advise them how to address the lack of library facilities, and to make the message more relevant.
This brief background paper was developed by the consultant to inform the BB+ team not only about the issues of lack of library access, but about current limitations and restraints for Aboriginal children and families with regards to literacy achievement. Recommendations were made for the BB+ Indigenous pilot program, based on this information, and on what could be achieved through the BB+ program’s mandate.
The decisions was made to deliver the same messages to all families, regardless of cultural background, but to provide additional resources for use in the home to those families with no, or limited access to libraries. The message of ‘read to your child every day’ is universally important, regardless of cultural background.

Background Information for BB+ Indigenous
1. Background of English Language
English is a largely composite language consisting of between 300 and 400 words originating from several dialects collectively referred to as ‘Old English’ with the borrowing and subsequent lexicalisation of a great number of words from other languages. Estimates of the extent of borrowing of other words suggest that 15% of these words originate from Latin, 41% from French with possibly as little as 33% being native English.
English is a highly dynamic language and new words are constantly in creation and subsequently rapidly in wide spread use. Words borrowed from other languages often retain their original spelling, despite their adoption and pronunciation using the English phonemic system. For example, cappuccino (Italian), Caesar (Latin) and chauffer (French).

  1. English Literacy System

Learning to read in English is harder than in any other European language.’ Professor Philip Seymour of Dundee University in Weekend Australian, article Sept. 2001

The English literacy system comprises of roughly 75% regular patterns and 25% irregular patterns. Around 78 printed alphabetical (lower case and upper case) and sundry other symbols (such as $, @ and &) are used in English literacy. Cursive writing introduces at least another 52 letters (lower and uppercase).
The reason for the irregularity found in English is due to the period of time that has passed since it was first codified (first written as a code) and the very dynamic nature of the language itself. The language was codified around the time of Chaucer in order for his works to be printed and distributed. The printing press was first invented around this time. Prior to this coding, the spelling of words and grammatical patterning was fluid. The invention of the printing press meant the English code was ‘set’ and the spelling system widely made available to the population.
At the time of coding, words were spelt as they were pronounced. Since that time, the pronunciation of words has continued to evolve as the semantic and syntactic systems of the language have continued to grow and change. A ‘Great Vowel Shift’ during the industrial period resulted in many changes to the ways vowels are pronounced. It is estimated that 25-30% of the words used in the English language today no longer resemble the way they are pronounced for example, knight, women, Monday and ought.
The spelling of many words differs significantly from the regular phonology of the language. The spelling of words often diverges significantly from the way they are spoken in discourse as well. For example, the word ‘can’t’ when spoken in a sentence is often shortened to can’ with the dropping of the final ‘t’, the word ‘getting’ when used in discourse is often shortened to ge’in.
The English alphabet of 26 letters originates from Latin with changes made to the alphabet by the Greeks, and is used to represent a large number of phonemes. Direct letter to phoneme correspondence exists and a large number of double and triple letter combinations are used to represent a number of other phonemes. Each consonant represents two phonemes- commonly referred to as the ‘sound’ and the ‘name’. For example, compare the use of the letter ‘i’ in ‘icecream’ (name) compared to its use in ‘ink’ (sound).

The number of phonemes in the English language depends of the dialect of English being spoken. Commonly, Standard Australian English (SAE) is considered to have 22 diphthongs (eg: oo, ae, ie), 20 digraphs (eg: th, ur, ch) and 10 single vowels sounds- being 5 short vowels (a-bat, e-egg, i-hit, o-hot, u-bun) and 5 long vowels sounds (a-cake, e-pete, i-kite, o-hose, u-flute). However, consider the difference between some New Zealand pronunciations of vowels and SAE pronunciation, e.g. ‘fish and chips’.

Received Pronunciation is the standard form of English referred to as the Queen’s English and this dialect consists of 12 monohthongs (single vowel sounds), 8 diphthongs (double vowels) and 2 tripthongs (triple vowel sounds such as ‘beau’ and ‘beautiful’).
General American English dialect has 13 monohthongs and only 3 diphthongs.
Some written vowels and consonants in Standard Australian English disappear when the word is pronounced such as, chocolate, pronounced as ‘choc-lit’, and million pronounced as ‘mi-yon’.
The consequence of the irregular English language spelling system means that children not only need to learn the grapho-phonemic link between the alphabet and the two phonemes it represents, but the large number of digraphs, diphthongs and tripthongs used in the spelling system, their patterns of use, as well as the large number of words which don’t follow regular spelling patterns.
While this is a long winded explanation, it is important to keep these English spelling, reading and writing complexities in mind when considering the issues Indigenous children have becoming literate, when they speak a second English dialect or an Indigenous language.

  1. Skills Critical to Early Literacy Development

Successful literacy attainment relies on a large suite of skills developing in the early childhood years. The skills essential for literacy attainment include, but are not limited to, the following.

    1. Phonemic awareness

A child’s level of phonemic awareness on entering school is widely held to be the strongest single determinant of the success that she or he will experience in learning to read- or conversely, the likelihood that she or he will fail.’ Adams, Foorman, Lundberg and Beeler 1998: page 2
Deficits in phonemic awareness often form the beginnings of a compounding literacy based problem for a child’. Dianna Rigg, ‘The Phonemic Awareness Hurdle’
Rigg identifies 9 levels of phonemic development.

  1. Knowledge of rhyme

  2. Word awareness

  3. Recognition and production of rhyme

  4. Recognition and production of syllables

  5. Recognition and production of initial sounds

  6. Recognition and production of final sounds

  7. Blending

  8. Phonemic segmentation

  9. Phonemic manipulation

This Author considers another level of phonemic development is critical to this process:

  1. Recognition and production of word medial vowels.

    1. Visual discrimination

Highly developed skills in two-dimensional visual discrimination are essential in order for a child to discriminate between and retain a cognitive recognition of the letters of the alphabet.

    1. Auditory discrimination

Highly developed auditory discrimination skills are required for a child to hear, process and reproduce letters, words, tones, intonation and a whole range of discourse strategies such as sighs, clicks of the tongue, indrawn breath and so on.

    1. Semantic and syntactic skills

It is possible that some innate linguistic principles exist in all children. However, most children acquire the phonological (sounds), morphological (word structures), semantic (word meanings), syntactic (grammar) and discourse systems of their language through contact with others in early childhood.

The end result of semantic and syntactic development is the intuitive use of a vocabulary, grammar and all manner of sociolinguistic processing skills. The process of acquiring a language, in itself, leads to cognitive development (intellectual/intelligence), which then in turn leads to an increase in language acquisition, which then feeds further cognitive development and so on.
The developmental order of language acquisition is fairly uniform across all languages. For example, regardless of language, by the time a child has acquired around 50 words, a fairly regular patterns of pronunciation is adopted. Universally, vowels are acquired before consonants, consonant-vowel (e.g. ma, pa, ba) shaped words are acquired before consonant-vowel-consonant words (e.g. mum, dad, hat) and so on.
Similarly, semantic and syntactic systems are acquired in a fairly regular manner across languages. For example, affixes (e.g. mis-, un-, pre-) are initially absent, regular inflections are acquired before irregular, one word utterances occur between ages 12-18 months, and so on.
Models such as ‘The Iceberg Model’ by Ian Malcolm can explain the observable and the non-observable language characteristics and features. This model is:
Observable features (tip of the iceberg)
Stress and intonation

Sounds (phonology)

Words (morphology)

Sentences (syntax)

Text forms and structures (genres)

Meaning (semantics)

Non-Observable features (below the water line)
Meaning (semantics)

The way language is used (pragmatics)




Cultural uses of language

For children from an ESL or ESD background, the observable features of a language may be learnt however, the unobservable features cause a problem and hinder true language acquisition and use, unless explicitly taught and experienced.
Use of books can be understood to fit in the ‘cultural use of language’ level of this model. The understandings of books are deeply embedded in the European cultural understanding.

    1. Grapho-phonemic connections

In order for a child to learn to read, the skill of linking the phoneme (sound) and the grapheme (written letter) together must be learnt and become intuitive, ie: a skill that becomes innate and occurs unconsciously.

The process of developing the grapho-phonemic connection draws on a multitude of prior knowledge and skills. For example, a child must have well developed auditory and visual discrimination skills, well developed phonemic segmentation and production skills, and the ability to remember and cognitively process letter patterns in different texts.
Laboratory research indicates that the most critical factor beneath fluent word reading is the ability to recognize letters, spelling patterns, and whole words effortlessly, automatically and visually. The central goals of all reading instruction- comprehension- depend critically upon this ability.’ Adams 1990:54
Grapho-phonemic processing is:

  1. The ability to form, store and access orthographic representations.

  2. The memory patterns for specific visual and spelling patterns.

  3. Rapid recognition of sight words.

    1. Speech production

Children’s speech production capabilities are dependant on the amount of language input experienced. The more children hear and are involved in language, the more they understand and can reproduce.

Speech production lags behind cognitive understanding and aural abilities. Multiple opportunities are needed for experimentation with sounds, words, sentences, grammar, a wide variety of discourse, listening and thinking aloud during early years of development.
Children develop skills in talking types, listening types and non-verbal communication types.

    1. Literature and book perceptions

Children need to engage with literature and develop an understanding of the use of, types and ways to access a wide variety of books and literature devises. Children develop an understanding of books, develop an enjoyment of their use, learn to use them to locate information, learn to use them to stimulate ideas, learn how to handle, care for and store them, follow the story page by page- front to back, and learn to listen and use reading-like behaviors.

    1. Literacy

Children need to develop an understanding and interest in print. A vast amount of socio cultural understandings are entailed in this development.

    1. Cognitive development

Cognitive development studies in the early literacy field suggest that most of the ‘critical periods for brain development are over or are waning by the age of six years.’ Dianna Rigg Preventing Literacy Failure page 7.

The cognitive development and functions which appear to be critical for literacy attainment include:

  1. binocular vision

  2. emotional control

  3. habitual ways of responding

  4. peer social skills

  5. language

  6. symbols

  7. relative quantity.

Gardner recognizes that humans utilize at least eight forms of cognition. These are:

  1. visual/spatial

  2. logical/mathematical

  3. verbal/linguistic

  4. musical/rhythmic

  5. bodily/kinesthetic

  6. interpersonal/social

  7. intrapersonal/introspective

  8. naturalist

    1. Cross patterning and linguistic neural development

The brain consists of two hemispheres. Some communication between the brain hemispheres is innate, however many more connections must be made through activity. The development of neural development through cross-patterning activities is essential and has been shown to be a significant factor in literacy attainment.

Neural Development

Neural development can be classed as occurring in two ways: 

1.       Activity-independent i.e.: hard-wired development

2.       Activity-dependent i.e.: neural development as a result of activity.

Language learning is considered to be partly an intuitive process, to around age 12 years. Activity-independent neural development has ensured the brain is ready and available for language input from birth. It’s like a new computer- the hard ware is installed and ready for the words and images to be placed in it and for the user to start linking programs together. This language input (soft ware) is the activity-dependent part of neural development.

Neural activity will, in turn, formulate synapses as well as synapses plasticity, which in turn is responsible for refinement of neural circuits. One development leads to another, and back again.

Neural mechanisms in the brain control the comprehension, production and acquisition of language. Neural mechanisms do the same for literacy.

Research has proven a clear link between the development of neural structures and the development of language and literacy structures. 

Cross Patterning 

Effective neural development is dependent on the two sides or hemispheres of the brain communicating with each other. These neural connections are activity-dependent. That is, these neural connections and subsequent synapses pathways will only develop with activity.

Research has shown that the two sides of the brain develop the ability to connect with each other, and develop the neural connecters needed for this connectiveness, when both sides are used together. These activities are referred to as ‘cross patterning’. In young children, movements which engage both sides of the brain in controlling the limbs are critical for this neural development. Pushing arms and legs up and down like riding a bike, crying and waving the arms around, crawling, pulling up and standing, taking baby steps, walking, running, skipping, hopping side to side, jumping over and side to side, are all examples of physical skills which developing the essential neural cross patterns required for the two sides of the brain to communicate effectively.

    1. Literacy metalanguage

The development of a metalanguage about literacy is essential for children to start literacy learning with the words and phrases to express themselves and be engaged in and with the literacy process. These words, phrases and understandings include, but are not limited to:

    1. sound

    2. letter

    3. word

    4. story

    5. book

    6. page

    7. write

    8. read

    9. paper etc

  1. Issues Affecting Indigenous Early Literacy Achievement

A number of very significant factors affect many Indigenous children’s success in literacy attainment. Children may be affected by one or more of these factors. Each factor, in itself, requires a suite of early intervention strategies to be employed to address the effect the issue has on literacy attainment. Children affected by two, three or more of these issues are seriously at risk of failure not only to develop literacy skills but to engage with the educational process.

This paper takes a brief look at each issue and the effect it has on early literacy engagement and attainment.

    1. English as a Second Language or Dialect

2nd Language acquisition 

One of the features of a person acquiring a second language is a ‘silent period’ when the language is first encountered. It’s during this period that the child acquires the sounds (phonemes) of the target language. The child listens and may continue to listen for some weeks or even months before attempting to use the target language.

For many Aboriginal children whose first language is an Indigenous language or dialect, this silent period will occur when they first attend school and hear Standard Australian English (SAE) being spoken.

The unfortunate mistiming of this silent period is compounded by the fact that these children will most probably also miss out on essential engagement with the school environment, learning processes and cognitive development critical to successful literacy attainment. 

Characteristics of a second language learner are:

1.       Silent period: where learner is absorbing the target language. Possible ‘language shock’ as the learner actively rejects the target language. Implications for the learner rejecting the school and learning environment as a consequence.

2.       Body language: reliance on body language to express themselves and ‘read’ others. Chances of miscommunication between cultures due to differing understandings of body language are highly likely.

3.       Social skills: Child possesses limited social skills in target language’s culture (i.e. SAE).

4.       Passive: Child may spend a lot of time watching and limit participation.

5.       Misinterpret: misunderstandings and misinterpretations of body language and reasons for communication are highly likely.

6.       First Language: Child seeks out opportunities to use first language, whenever possible.

7.       Mood: Child may be aggressive, unhappy with, severely challenged by or ill disposed towards target language and consequently the learning environment. 

A child who speaks an Aboriginal language with little SAE will almost universally have cognitive skills far in advance of the skills they exhibit in SAE competency. The chance these children will be under-developed cognitively at an extremely critical period in their development, is high. The children’s oral competency in L1 will almost universally be in advance of their language receptive and productive skills in SAE. Often far in advance. Opportunities to continue cognitive development are critical in early childhood years, regardless of the acquisition of a second language.

    1. Otitus Media

The rate of otitus media occurrence in Aboriginal children is very high. For some children, these ear problems are chronic and will remain a health issues throughout their childhood.

Chronic ear issues leads to loss of hearing and subsequent speech production. Close work with a speech pathologist will assist in overcoming these issues, however, the vast majority of Indigenous children will not have access to this type of speech intervention. By age 4, most children with otitus media hearing loss will have developed strategies to compensate for hearing loss that will hinder their ability to achieve at school and subsequently to attain literacy.
Some of the aids in learning useful for these children are:

      1. maximizing visual clues

      2. maintaining routines

      3. using observation as a learning activity

      4. making learning fun

      5. real life activities

      6. using observation and imitation rather than verbal instruction

      7. practicing a new skill until fluent.

Some of the specific issues in literacy attainment for these children are:

  1. reduction in hearing

  2. reduction in sharpness of hearing

  3. selective attention

  4. reduced recall

  5. reduced comprehension

  6. poor phoneme discrimination eg: inability to distinguish between voiced and unvoiced phonemes t-d, b-p, k-g.

  7. delayed speech development

  8. limited and inappropriate use of information

  9. delayed acquisition of language concepts

  10. delayed development of vocabulary

  11. inability to hear fricative sounds such as s, f, v, and th, ch.

  12. Limited understanding of conversational rules

  13. Avoidance of socialization due to limited hearing

  14. Limited range of communication functions

  15. Delayed development of sound/syllable segmentation

  16. Delayed development of phonological blending

  17. Less awareness of listener’s needs.

  18. Less awareness of self-monitoring

  19. Irritability and general disinterest in learning.

    1. Neglect or abuse

    2. Failure to thrive: nutrition matters

    3. Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

    4. Alternate literacy home backgrounds/ Lack of access to written language and books

Aboriginal children may come from a home where print based literacy may not be prioritized or is absent from the home environment and home value system. This value may be absent due to cultural background differences or because of parents own negative experiences of literacy or experience of the education system. However, many children possess alternative literacy skills such as reading the environment and reading people. These alternative literacy systems should be capitalized on, where possible, to develop an understanding of print based literacy.

Children may lack text interaction in all forms and lack role models in the home who read and are seen to read.

    1. Isolation: Remoteness on communities or within a town or regional centre.

    2. Multi- generational welfare dependence or low income.

  1. Conclusions

Good early intervention strategies should be supported by rigorous research and well thought out methods. This paper has briefly outlined the early childhood skills critical to successful literacy development and the issues affecting the success of early literacy development for Indigenous children.

Good early intervention strategies are also preventative, that is, they predict and anticipate literacy problems and prevent them from happening in the first place.
By understanding the issues which may affect Indigenous children from achieving the best possible start to literacy attainment, an early intervention strategy must predict and counteract these limitations and affects.

  1. Recommendations

Many studies have pinpointed the most successful early intervention strategies for Indigenous children. These can be grouped into:

  1. Early and sustained engagement with the written text.

  2. Early and sustained engagement with verbal language and stories.

  3. Early and sustained phonemic, vocabulary and syntactic development.

  4. Addressing child and maternal ill health.

Given the limitations and constraints facing many Indigenous families attempting to access texts for use in the home, ways need to be developed to enable the families to still engage their children with text, and to sustain that engagement.

Engagement with SAE is critical to enable the child to enter school with a well developed phonemic inventory and a developing vocabulary, semantic and syntactic systems.
Encouraging continued development of mother tongue language development is implicit for a multitude of reasons including continuation of the child’s cognitive development.
Providing 40-50 books per year per family to engage children with books and SAE would be very cost prohibitive. The recommendation is that the use of cheap and easily distributed electronic book resources be developed and distributed to Indigenous families.
That these resources are developed as preventative tools with very specific content and skill development targets.

  1. DVD: use is made of DVD facilities to provide electronic access to 40 books per year for these families in a sustained manner, of 4 DVDs per year of 10 books each.

  1. Modelling DVD: Development of a script and image of an Indigenous person in a library providing tips to parents and information on their role in child literacy development. Include this segment on all DVDs developed.

  1. Catch phrases: catch phrases such as ‘have you read a book today’, ‘Read to me, I love it’ or ‘have you read to me today’ should be included on material such as t-shirts and hats to accompany the DVD and bring attention to the material.

  1. Better Beginnings: Material provided under the Better Beginnings program also is provided to these families.

Suggested procedure for working with discrete Aboriginal communities. 

Most Indigenous communities are incorporated and a Board of Directors manages the information, visits and programs initiated in the community. The procedure for contacting these communities is: 

1.       Contact with the community to go to the Board addressed to the Chairperson.

2.       The Board to be briefed on the proposed project in writing.

3.       Request made to attend a Board meeting to brief the members, if necessary.

4.       A written response needs to be obtained from the Board in order to have the project accepted.

5.       Updates with Board should be made fairly regularly, in writing.

6.       Visits to the community must be requested and approved in writing.

7.       Many communities require visitors to sign-in a visitor’s book when arriving in the community.

8.       Usually on-going liaison and contact then happens through a community Co-ordinator or Manager, rather than the Board or Chairperson.

9. Remote Communities Schools- some remote communities have a DET school onsite, others have a Catholic, Independent or Aboriginal Independent Community School. Most of the independent schools are a separately incorporated body and have a board. These boards need to be consulted in addition to the community board.
Susan Hanson

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