Tracking Literacy Development in an Aboriginal Community: Summary of a Research Project

Article excerpt

Introduction

While literacy research in minority communities is common in other countries, research concerning urban/rural town Aboriginal people in Australia is sparse. Studies in the early 1980s by Harris (1984), Gray (1985) and later by Walton (1986) and Malin (1990) made significant contributions but did not examine literacy skills comprehensively. Not only is there little knowledge concerning literacy development and Aboriginal people in a cross-cultural sense, there is almost no research describing Aboriginal children's emergent literacy skills. The literacy studies which have been conducted tend to have looked principally at the learning styles, socio-linguistic issues and literacy skills of traditionally oriented Aboriginal people living in remote areas of Australia (Harris & Malin, 1994; Walton, 1986). What is clear, however, is that Aboriginal children are less likely to become literate than other groups in Australian society (DEETYA, 1997; DEET, 1995).

Theory and research suggest that early literacy experience has far-reaching effects on literacy competence in middle childhood and in adulthood (Altwerger, Edelsky & Flores, 1987). Sulzby (1994: p. 278) defines emergent literacy as `those reading and writing behaviours and concepts that develop into conventional literacy'. Children begin to make sense of the print which is a part of their everyday environment, employing this literacy knowledge to construct their world and engage with adults in meaningful literacy events such as storyreading and verbal interaction (Hall, 1987). Emergent literacy is a continuous process of learning increasingly complex literacy knowledge in early childhood. Knowledge of the purposes and functions of written language also depends on the quality and quantity of children's emergent literacy learning (Teale & Sulzby, 1989). The interaction between this early literacy experience and schools' performance as literacy facilitators should thus provide a clearer picture of the complex nature of literacy processes.

Evidence of literate growth shown in children who cannot yet read and write has been the subject of considerable research activity in a number of specific areas: environmental print (Goodman, 1986; Sulzby & Teale, 1991; Goodman & Goodman, 1979; Hall, 1987; and others); the alphabetic principle and decoding (Byrne, 1997; Goswami & Bryant, 1990; Tunmer, Herriman & Nesdale, 1988; Adams, 1994; Stanovich, Cunningham & Kramer, 1984; to name a few); storyreading (Harste, Woodward & Burke, 1984; Evans, 1994; Ruddell & Ruddell, 1994; Mason & Au, 1990; and many others); and home culture (Sulzby & Teale, 1991; Sulzby & Zecker, 1991; Heath, 1983; Taylor, 1983; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988; Au, 1993, McKay, 1993; Gee, 1989; Michaels, 1991; Dunn, 1991; Chakravarti, 1990; and many others).

These areas of research revealed the following information.

1. The kinds of literacy experiences which occur between 0 and 5 years are important for later success at school.

2. Early evidence of phonemic awareness is important in becoming literate and important for literacy competence at school in later childhood.

3. Storyreading in very early childhood is related to early phonemic awareness and early literacy competence.

4. Home culture does not, in itself, prevent children from becoming literate since children become literate with comparative ease all over the world in different cultures and also in minority cultures.

Thus the literature clearly indicates that it is the social effect of being in a cultural minority which can affect the development of literacy competence. Furthermore, children from minority cultures (whose early literacy experiences are not conventional white middle-class ones) for whom schools cannot provide appropriate literacy teaching have more difficulty becoming literate.

The purpose of the study

The purpose of the research project reported here was to determine the early literacy competence that a group (N = 18) of pre-school Aboriginal children developed in a specific period of time over a range of specified literacy skills (both high-level and low-level) determined from the literature. …