Skilling Aboriginal Parents in Home Literacy Practices Susan Hanson

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Skilling Aboriginal Parents in Home Literacy Practices

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 WA delivers a state-wide family literacy program called ‘Better Beginnings’. The program began in 2004 and has evolved to provide literacy information and support for families from age 0 to 9 years.

This paper will provide information on the Better Beginnings Aboriginal Family Literacy program and describe the concept of home literacy practices as being developed through the program.
A lack of functional text-based literacy skills places Aboriginal people on a trajectory of disadvantage. This disadvantage affects every facet of people’s lives, from employment opportunities, housing, engagement with wider society, through to engagement with the educational, health and judicial systems.
Numerous research findings have demonstrated a ‘strong relationship between poor language, literacy and numeracy and continuing disadvantage throughout adulthood.’1
Professor Nakata, the Chair of Australian Indigenous Education, suggests that Indigenous children learn in school at a cultural interface where they navigate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge. He suggests that cultural interface is a particularly rugged place to be where Aboriginal children, ‘…need higher order language and thinking skills to navigate through the complex spaces in which the contemporary Indigenous knowledge, cultures and everyday world of practices now sits.’2 Professor Nakata further suggests that, ‘Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively for many, the more remote or traditional their backgrounds, the higher order their language, thinking and analytical skills need to be…’3
The benefits of functional literacy are well understood and widely documented. They include the opening up of economic opportunities, the reduction of social isolation and exclusion, reductions in negative health, educational and judicial contact, increased quality of life, social engagement and consequentially an increase in life expectancy as all these positive factors come into play. One of the benefits of improved literacy skill levels includes reduction in racial persecution, vilification and discrimination and promotion of equality as people become knowledgeable of and actively engaged in the processes that protect their rights.
Research has shown clear evidence, ‘… that parents with higher basic skills have children who perform better in tests of literacy and numeracy... Improve (improving) parents’ basic skills could have a large intergenerational impact.’4
Recent research by the University of Nevada has also shown that, ‘… the overriding predictor of a child's educational success is the number of books at home.’ Research has yet to be done on the number of books found in remote and isolated Aboriginal family homes. However, extensive contact with remote and isolated Aboriginal families over a 30 year period informs me that it is usual for there to be very few books in the home, with many homes containing no books at all.
Programs which prioritise family learning, ‘…not only helps the most disadvantaged adults deal with other problems in their lives but also has a positive intergenerational impact on the literacy and numeracy of their children.’5
Based on research findings such as these, the Better Beginnings Aboriginal program was instigated in 2009 aimed at providing explicit information and resources for Aboriginal parents about improving their children’s literacy attainment outcomes through understanding and using effective home literacy practices.
Functional Literacy Definition
When we talk about the word ‘literacy’ it’s important to define the phrase. The level of literacy I am talking about here is ‘functional literacy’.
Functional literacy is a level of reading and writing that enables an individual to function in a complex society. In Australian society, to be functionally literate includes the ability to read, understand and use newspapers, computers, magazines, books, brochures, signs, posters, government forms, tax laws, emails, sms, letters, bus timetables and the thousands of other forms of text based material that are part of Australian society.
Research in England indicates that, ‘…one in four 11-year-olds cannot read or write properly and that one in five leaves secondary school still unable to read with confidence.’6 Kral, on a study into Western Australian Aboriginal Ngaanyatjarra adult literacy levels in 2004, found that only one in three Ngaanyatjarra people possessed a functional level of literacy.7 I have yet to come across accurate figures for a national situation with regards to Aboriginal literacy levels but do not hesitate to suggest that the English figures are very conservative in comparison and probably closer to Kral’s findings.
The Social Role of Literacy
Literacy is taken for granted in the Western society. Its pervasive nature permeates all aspects of western life and culture and this masks its complexity. Literacy and Western culture are inextricably and intuitively entwined; one can not exist without the other.
Over many thousands of years, numerous cultural practices and institutions have been established based on the premise of a functionally literate population and conversely to promote very high levels of literacy within the community. Consider institutions such as schools, the judicial system, health sector, libraries, universities, government bureaucracy and the role literacy plays in their operations.
High level literacy is greatly valued in Western cultures and is directly linked to status, income and prestige.
Literacy pervades all aspects of Western social lives. Consider letter writing, emails, sms, Facebook, newspapers, books, magazines, shopping mall signs, road signs, street directories, invitations and acceptance cards and one can begin to understand the intrinsic role literacy plays in the social life of a Westerner.
Meanwhile anthropologists suggest that literacy acquisition is recognised as a ‘…social and cultural process within the dynamic of social change…’8 This concept of literacy as a cultural change tool has massive implications for non-text literate cultures such as Australian Aboriginal cultures. The acquisition of literacy can genuinely be viewed as an act of bringing about radical social change. This change may not necessarily be welcomed by Aboriginal cultures hanging on to the last vestiges of their cultures in an ever changing world.
Text based literacy did not exist prior to European settlement. Aboriginal people have entered a world where text literacy is a new social construct. To someone viewing the role of literacy from outside the Western culture, it must appear totally pervasive and confusing.
Inge Kral suggests that, ‘In the remote Aboriginal world there is deep uncertainty about what education and literacy is actually for.’9
As a matter of consequence, the social uses, practices and understandings necessary to embed literacy within Aboriginal society do not exist. Kral further explains the Aboriginal learning logic thus; ‘The focus on educating children rather than adults has been antithetical to traditional (Aboriginal) learning processes.’10 It is easy to see that the roles and functions of literacy, including the cultural logic pertaining to its learning, are embedded in Western cultural logic through child education practices. Kral points out Aboriginal learning practices are socially and culturally bound and they, ‘…happen in the adult domain where the cultural logic is that learning is passed on, from senior to junior, and continues throughout adult life.’
The family becomes the vehicle for enculturalisation of the child into the social roles and functions of literacy as a critical means for communication in the Western world. Parents read books to children, look for information in magazines, discuss the knowledge books contain, talk about words, sentences, stories, read newspapers and share the information they contain, read television guides to find a child’s favourite show, read and write notes and letters, give cards with carefully chosen words on special occasions, write and read poetry, debate the meaning of words, inscribe books, write shopping lists, refer to bills stuck to the fridge and perform one thousand other literacy based tasks each day in the home all under the watchful eye of the child.
These practices are referred to as ‘home literacy practices’. They are the deeply embedded cultural practices used to teach children about literacy.
These home literacy practices do not necessarily exist in the homes of people for whom text-based literacy and its social practices does not play an important social and cultural role.
Nor would they exist in the homes of people for whom the acquisition of text-based literacy is seen as a process enforcing cultural change. For some Aboriginal cultures under threat, embracing literacy is to instigate social change, further destabilising Aboriginal society.
Little research has been undertaken on how literacy takes root in non text-literate societies. The spread of text-based literacy through the world is very recent. Many non-text based societies, such as those of the Aboriginal Australian, are still grappling with understanding the function and role of literacy and have yet to achieve that understanding let alone the high literacy levels enabling the wider body of people to function equally in Western society. Inge Kral states that, ‘…literacy cannot be understood independently of the social, cultural, political and historical forces and traditions that shape it, nor can it be analysed in isolation from the social practices that surround it and the ideological systems in which it is embedded.’11
That understanding presents a chicken and egg dilemma for those concerned with Aboriginal literacy acquisition - engagement with the social functions of literacy can only be fully realised when a person is literate and yet, the same person can only become literate when positioned within the society where the role of literacy is implicitly developed and understood. For Aboriginal people situated outside western culture and practices, how can the literacy door be opened?
Aboriginal Children and Literacy: The Key to Unlocking the Literacy Door
The question is: where should resources be focussed to achieve the best outcomes for Aboriginal people? Should extra effort be put into literacy learning on entry to primary school? Should the focus be on developing parent’s literacy skill levels? Should the focus be on pre school age children? Perhaps on teenage children who would have engaged with some of the social uses of literacy and it’s functions and may be motivated to become functionally literate?
Research by the University of England points to the fact that literate adults give their children the best chance of attaining high functional literacy. Thus at first glance it appears the focus should be on improving adult literacy levels. In the Aboriginal context this also appears to be the point where adults have recognised the role of literacy and have developed a range of social understandings that would facilitate literacy attainment. This may go some way to resolve the chicken and egg dilemma.
However, recent neuro-scientific research conducted by the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood and Development and Youth Affairs clearly identifies that, ‘Early experiences either enhance or diminish innate potential, laying either a strong or a fragile platform of brain development on which further development and learning of the person, the body and the mind is built. The longer children spend in adverse environments, the more pervasive and resistant to recovery are the effects.’12 This research points to the fact that the platform of brain development has occurred by age three. The neuro-scientists identify that, ‘The first three years are the period of the most rapid growth (of human brain development).’ ‘…the impact of early experience has a greater influence than heredity on development.’13
In other words, research shows that not only is brain development critical to any future literacy success but that a lack of brain development can actually create a resistance to future learning, by age 3.
The findings of this research clearly point to the critical period in a child’s neurological development from birth to three years of age by which a foundation of enhanced or diminished innate potential has been laid. Previous efforts at improving Aboriginal children’s literacy outcomes have often focussed on school-based literacy strategies as the best method of addressing low literacy attainment. Frequently parents and teachers alike view the literacy learning process as beginning at school. The neurological research shows that by the time a child reaches school, the possibility of literacy achievement or failure may already be established. Rather than the start of a literacy journey, entry into school may actually be at the end of it.
These findings have huge implications for schools and the types of literacy programs taught. One implication is that rather than commence literacy learning, some children already require intense literacy intervention from the very onset of school entry. However, based on the findings of this research, by the time a child is 5 years of age the success of this literacy intervention may also have been predetermined by the home environment and the degree to which the child has developed resistance to recovery.
Logically, it can be surmised that Aboriginal children from backgrounds where there is a poverty of home literacy practices are pre-set for literacy failure from the very start of their literacy learning journey at the age of five years. This conclusion is distressing to the extreme.
What to do: Engaging Aboriginal Families in Home Literacy Practices
Compelling evidence points to the fact that from birth to age 5, home learning environments that are rich in quality parent-child experiences, complex language, reading and responsiveness are critical to the success of literacy attainment.14 The fact that many Aboriginal families are not engaged with the Western literate culture and the need for early positive and rich experiences that impact on the child’s brain development, combined with the paucity of explicit information available for Aboriginal parents about what they can and should do to provide their children with the best possible literacy outcomes, has led to the development of an Aboriginal focussed Better Beginnings Home Literacy program.
Research conducted by the University of Nevada looked at over 20 000 children in 27 countries over 20 years and concluded that, ‘As few as 20 books (in the home) make a huge difference, while a child brought up in a household with more than 500 books is likely to spend on average three years longer in education than a child from a bookless home, after controlling for other factors. "The key to social mobility is not social class or race, it's not wealth, it's not even parental educational levels: it's books," says Rosen.’15
The Better Beginnings program focuses on explicitly and directly educating parents about the home literacy practices critical to the success of their children’s literacy attainment. It explicitly teaches the culture of home literacy practices. It provides resources as well as information about these practices. It provides hard copy and electronic books for the home of remote and isolated Aboriginal families. It provides remote and isolated families with the key to unlock the literacy door.
Neuroscientists identified that, ‘Parenting practices such as reading to children, using complex language, responsiveness and warmth in interactions are all associated with better developmental outcomes. A number of studies conclude that parenting is the primary influence on children’s development.’16
The State Library WA Better Beginnings Aboriginal 4 to 5 year old program sustains engagement with Aboriginal parents over a two year period. A pack of resources including two hard copy books and a ‘virtual library’ DVD of stories being read is sent to each family every three months. These resources provide parents not only with the material resources to use with their children, but with multiple opportunities to enhance warm interaction between parents and children as well as educating parents, and indeed the whole family, about critical home literacy practices that vastly improve their children’s life quality and expectation.
The Better Beginnings Program
The Better Beginnings program promotes two main home literacy practices messages:

  • Read to your children, every day.

  • Use your local library as a family resource.

These messages encompass the development of home literacy practices through the medium of books. Parental interaction with the child through story reading will develop a wide range of early literacy skills and knowledge.

Remote Aboriginal families with little access to a local library are being supported by additional material added to the green bag and through contact for each family over a two year period with the State Library. The BB Aboriginal program adds to the bag:

  • An additional 2 hard copy gift books

  • An alphabet poster

  • An English sounds poster

  • A DVD of stories being read which is a ‘virtual library’

  • A t-shirt promoting the ‘read to me’ message

  • A pamphlet ‘Deadly books for little kids’ with Aboriginal themed story books

  • Rhyme Time DVD and book.

Aboriginal family contact with the State Library will be over a two year period. These families will receive an additional 2 hard copy story books and another DVD of 10 stories every three months, to help build a home library and to help compensate for the lack of a local library.

The next four years will indicate whether the State Library WA’s program will have the necessary impact needed to assist Aboriginal families to change the trajectory of literacy failure. The message of reading to children can only work when reinforced by all agencies and all people at every level. It can only work when schools open their libraries to family use, community councils develop community based libraries, stores start stocking books for sale and most of all, when families understand how critical reading to children really is and engage in home literacy practices that throw the literacy door wide open.

Contact Details
Sue Hanson


Tel: 0448 917 437

State Library of Western Australia

25 Francis St, PERTH 6000

1 ‘Engaging Homeless People, Black and Minority Ethnic and other priority Groups in skills for Life’ Research report Institute of Education, University of London 2010

2 ‘Pathways for Indigenous Education in the Australian Curriculum Framework’ Professor Martin Nakata, 2011 soon to be published paper.

3 ibid

4 ‘Engaging Homeless People, Black and Minority Ethnic and other priority Groups in skills for Life’ Research report Institute of Education, University of London 2010

‘Prisons must by law have libraries- so why don’t schools?’ Susannah Herbert, London Evening Standard 6th June 2011

5 ‘Engaging Homeless People, Black and Minority Ethnic and other priority Groups in skills for Life’ Research report Institute of Education, University of London 2010

6 ‘Prisons must by law have libraries- so why don’t schools?’ Susannah Herbert, London Evening Standard 6th June 2011

7 ‘Writing Words-Right Way!: Literacy and social practice in the Ngaanyatjarra world’ Inge Birgita Kral, March 2007

8 ibid

9 ibid

10 ibid

11 ibid

12 Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development Story: A National project conducted on behalf of the Ministerial Council for education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs.’ Education Service Australia 2010

13 ibid

14 ibid

15 ‘Prisons must by law have libraries- so why don’t schools?’ Susannah Herbert, London Evening Standard 6th June 2011

16 Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development Story: A National project conducted on behalf of the Ministerial Council for education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs.’ Education Service Australia 2010

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