Literacy Learning: What Works for Young Indigenous Students? Lessons from the Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study for Indigenous Students

Article excerpt

Introduction

Defining literacy

Effective approaches to literacy learning at school depend on reliable, well considered and articulated visions of literacy and its benefits for students. These approaches are also connected with a range of contextual, cultural and pedagogical factors that combine to influence learning. Current understandings and definitions of literacy are influenced by context and purpose. The literature reflects that there is no one definition of literacy, and that separate definitions are usually the product of different situations and perspectives. According to Freebody (2007):

   Definitions of literacy are complex, not only because they aim to
   describe a complex set of practices, but also because they are, to
   some significant extent, context-driven. They are tailored to
   particular features of the script of a language, and the
   educational, institutional and cultural contexts in which they need
   to be put to work. Definitions of literacy practices are both
   expressions of social and cultural histories and projections of
   preferred futures. (p. 6)

Over time, definitions of literacy have expanded from a narrow focus on functional literacy, characterised as acquiring reading and writing skills that allowed participation in literacy activities associated with an individual's culture or group (Baker & Street, 1994) to a broader focus on multiple literacies that are diverse, multi-dimensional and learned in different ways (Lonsdale & McCurry, 2004; Snyder, 2008). The definition of literacy in Australia's Language and Literacy Policy (Department of Employment Education and Training, 1991, p. 9) was comprehensive, and has been used extensively:

   Literacy is the ability to read and use written information and to
   write appropriately, in a range of contexts. It is used to develop
   knowledge and understanding, to achieve personal growth and to
   function effectively in our society. Literacy also includes the
   recognition of numbers and basic mathematical signs and symbols
   within text.

      Literacy involves the integration of speaking, listening and
   critical thinking with reading and writing. Effective literacy is
   intrinsically purposeful, flexible and dynamic and continues to
   develop throughout an individual's life time.

This broad view of literacy includes other language skills, such as speaking and listening, as well as computer literacy and critical thinking, and emphasises the ability to derive meaning from text (De Lemos, 2002). A narrow view of literacy focuses exclusively on the ability to read and write and does not acknowledge the way in which literacy development is embedded in a social and cultural context (De Lemos, 2002). A narrow focus on literacy might view traditional Indigenous cultures as pre-literate (see for instance Johns & Centre, 2006). In contrast, a broad definition of literacy is particularly important for Indigenous students because it encompasses the language and literacy practices of Indigenous culture that are traditionally oral and visual (Freebody, 2007; Tripcony, 2000).

Context for the study

Most children develop literacy and numeracy skills throughout primary schooling allowing them to transition successfully to secondary school and to fully access post-school opportunities. For some children, however, the development of literacy and numeracy is more problematic; Indigenous students are overrepresented in this group. On nationally agreed benchmarks for literacy and numeracy, fewer Indigenous students meet agreed standards compared with non-Indigenous students (see for instance, De Bortoli & Cresswell, 2004; De Bortoli & Thomson, 2009; Rothman, 2002; Rothman & McMillan, 2003).

The reasons for Indigenous educational disadvantage are complex, entrenched, and require concerted and sustained efforts to address. The six Closing the Gap targets set explicit deadlines for making substantial improvements in education and employment outcomes for Indigenous people, including halving the gap in achievement for Indigenous students in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018. In this context, the Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study for Indigenous Students (ILLANS) is important in documenting the academic achievement of a group of Indigenous Australian students over the whole course of their primary education. At the same time, in developing this study there was recognition that supplementing academic achievement data with additional measures on student background and attitudes, would help to develop a more complete picture of the primary school experiences of Indigenous students.

Methods

Participating schools

ILLANS sought to monitor the growth in literacy and numeracy achievement of a group of Indigenous students from school commencement until Year 6. Schools that participated in ILLANS were selected based on nominations from state education departments of schools which exemplified good practice in the education of Indigenous students. Overall, each state and territory of Australia was represented, by schools located in metropolitan, regional and remote areas (as shown in Table 1). Comparisons were made between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students completing the same assessments and surveys as a means of drawing conclusions about the school experiences of this group of Indigenous students. It is important however, to also acknowledge the diverse backgrounds and experiences of students in this study who identified as Indigenous.

Participating students

The research was conducted in two phases. In the first phase, undertaken from 2000-2002, 152 Indigenous students from 13 schools across Australia, completed literacy and numeracy assessments that were designed for another Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) project: The Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study (LLANS). Students who participated in the LLANS study provided a comparison group for Indigenous students who participated in the first phase of the ILLANS study. Unexpected attrition of students between the first and second phase of ILLANS necessitated additional recruitment to the sample. Thus, for the second phase of ILLANS, an additional 14 schools were recruited, joining 11 of the 13 original schools. Non-Indigenous students from the same schools participated in the second phase of the study as they were deemed to be a more appropriate comparison group than the main LLANS sample. Across Years 3-6, 287 Indigenous students completed one or more assessments in literacy or numeracy.

Measures

The main emphasis each year for students was the completion of literacy and numeracy assessments adapted from the LLANS study. Students who participated during the second phase of ILLANs undertook literacy assessments which were administered in a whole-class setting. The Developmental Assessment Resource for Teachers (DART) literacy assessments (Foster, Mendelovits & Masters, 1994) were used for the literacy component of the survey. Due to time and cost restraints, only the reading component of the DART was used to assess students' literacy skills. The reading component of the DART assesses students' ability to make meaning from a variety of written text types. Students are provided with a full colour set of stimulus material in magazine form and an accompanying question and answer booklet. Table 2 shows the maximum numbers of literacy assessments completed by students in Years 3-6. Achievement on both the literacy and numeracy assessments for each year of ILLANS were modelled using Rasch techniques to place students' performances and the difficulty of items on the same interval scale (Stephanou, Meiers, & Forster, 2000).

Underlying the approach of the ILLANS study was recognition that the development of literacy and numeracy skills is fostered by a range of factors-both those that are intrinsic to the child and those that are characteristic of the child's broader environment (e.g., their school and family). Thus, in addition to standard assessments of literacy and numeracy conducted annually from Years 3-6, a range of other data, both qualitative and quantitative were collected. A number of informants provided these data, including individual students, their teachers, Australian Indigenous Education Officers (AIEOs) and school principals. Teachers also assessed participating students' achievement (as achieved, developing or not achieved) in specific areas of literacy at the beginning of Year 3, as well as assessing their overall achievement against their peers and against the curriculum. A five-item measure of student attentiveness (Rowe & Rowe, 1999) was completed by teachers during each year. Students also completed questionnaires during the final year of the study that focused on their attitudes towards reading, their perception of their schools' climate, and their evaluation of their own personal achievement in learning. Background variables to the study provided by principals, teachers and AIEOs included data on student absenteeism, the main language spoken by students at home, the percentage of Indigenous students attending the school and parental occupation.

Site visits were undertaken annually during the first phase of the project to each of the 13 participating schools. The approach to case studies changed in the second phase of the project as individual visits were no longer possible because of the expanded number of schools and students. Preliminary analyses of student achievement data collected in 2004 provided a basis for selecting five case study schools to visit during 2005. Choice of schools was motivated by a desire to visit schools with quite different patterns of literacy and numeracy achievement among their Indigenous students. The purpose of visits to schools was to gain further insight into how these schools operated their literacy and numeracy learning programs and to explore the different approaches they used to support the learning of Indigenous students. Major areas of discussion during these visits included culturally inclusive curricula, teachers' professional learning, and partnerships between home and school.

Selected findings from Years 3-6

Patterns of achievement

Indigenous students continued to improve their literacy and numeracy skills over the last four years of primary school at a similar rate to their non-Indigenous peers; however, the gap in average achievement between Indigenous students and their non-Indigenous peers evident at the start of Year 3 remained until the end of primary school (see Table 3). There was, however, enormous variability in literacy (and numeracy) achievement within as well as between groups. Although the average achievement for Indigenous students overall was lower compared with non-Indigenous students, many Indigenous students achieved highly in literacy and numeracy relative to their peers. Moderate associations between literacy and numeracy achievement were evident at each year of the study, indicating that students who achieved highly in literacy also tended to achieve highly in numeracy. Substantial between-school variation in achievement was also evident. It was clear that in some schools in the study, Indigenous students were performing as well as or better than their non-Indigenous peers. In other cases, the gap in achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students paralleled the overall pattern, with Indigenous students recording lower average achievement than non-Indigenous students at the same school.

Patterns of teacher ratings, both at a global level and for the development of specific literacy and numeracy skills tended to reflect the overall trend of the student achievement data. Teachers rated fewer Indigenous students as having developed specific literacy and numeracy skills compared with their non-Indigenous peers, and tended to provide lower ratings of the achievement of their Indigenous students against their peers and the curriculum. On five elements of attentiveness (concentration, curiosity, perseverance, attention span and purposefulness) teachers also tended to provide lower ratings to Indigenous compared with non-Indigenous students.

Students' attitudes towards reading

In the final year of the study, students completed a survey on their attitudes to reading by rating 14 items on a scale from 1 =Strongly Disagree to 4 = Strongly Agree. For ease of interpretation, Table 4 reports Agree and Strongly Agree responses combined as percentage agreement, as well as mean ratings. Responses of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students were very similar across most items. Compared with non-Indigenous students, Indigenous students were more likely to agree that they read only if they had to, and to agree that they read only to get the information they needed. These results are comparable with those found in the PISA study (De Bortoli & Cresswell, 2004). Non-Indigenous students were more likely to agree that they often read in bed compared with Indigenous students. Apart from the higher proportion of Indigenous students who did not spend any time each day reading, the amount of time spent reading was very similar for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Indigenous students tend to have fewer books in the home than non-Indigenous students, but they borrow books from the library as often as non-Indigenous students.

Student engagement with reading has been shown to be significantly related to their achievement for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students (De Bortoli & Cresswell, 2004; Kirsch, 2002). An overall measure of reading engagement was created by summing agreement responses (for positively worded items) and disagreement responses (for negatively worded items) for the 14 reading attitudes items. Correlations were computed for the association between student attitudes towards reading and achievement in literacy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Similarly to PISA, engagement with reading was positively associated with achievement for non-Indigenous students. In this study, however, the association for Indigenous students was significant only for the final literacy assessment and was substantially smaller than the association for non-Indigenous students.

Learning accomplishments and school climate

Almost all students provided very positive self-evaluations of their learning accomplishments. Student responses to the eight items assessing sense of personal learning achievement demonstrated that all students felt proud to be a student, found learning fun, liked going to school and learning, and felt they were a good student. Non-Indigenous students were more likely than Indigenous students to agree that they worked hard at school and to agree that they knew how to cope with their school work.

Overall, the students surveyed evaluated their schools' climate positively. The school climate survey included questions about the relevance of the learning that students experienced, and the extent to which they felt their families were welcomed and their culture valued. Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike rated their school climate positively and their schools' learning environment highly. In particular, students felt that their families were welcomed in the school and their culture was valued. They regarded the things that they learned as important, worthwhile learning and interesting.

Factors related to achievement

Multiple regression analyses were conducted to explore the relationship between student achievement in literacy and numeracy in the final year of the study and selected school and student-level factors. School climate emerged as an important predictor of student achievement in both literacy and numeracy with students who provided favourable ratings of their school's climate recording higher achievement. Of the student-level factors, attentiveness, language spoken at home, absenteeism and parental occupation were associated with both literacy and numeracy achievement. Students rated as more attentive by their teachers tended to record higher literacy and numeracy achievement, while students who spoke Standard Australian English at home also tended to achieve more highly in literacy than students who spoke other languages at home (including an Indigenous language). Higher levels of student absenteeism were associated with lower achievement in literacy and numeracy, whereas students whose parents were in professional occupations tended to achieve more highly in literacy and numeracy.

Challenges

Undertaking the ILLANS project highlighted some significant challenges associated with conducting longitudinal research generally, and with Indigenous students specifically. The commitment of schools to the research meant that 10 of the original schools remained in the project throughout the study (a period of seven years). Fourteen schools that joined the project in the second phase supported the research for the final four years of the project. The commitment of school personnel to the project was instrumental in achieving the goals of the project. The enormous mobility of the sample, particularly between Years 2 and 3, when many students moved schools and left the study, made it extremely difficult to track children across all of the assessments. As a result, and in conjunction with absenteeism during assessments, many students missed one or more assessments, and very few completed all assessments across the entire study. Comparisons between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students completing the same measures provided an estimate of the achievement and attitudes of Indigenous students in this study; acknowledged diversity in the experiences of students who identify as Indigenous should be recognised in interpreting the findings of the study.

Conclusions

The ILLANS project followed Indigenous children from their first year of school in 2000 through to the end of primary schooling in 2006 when the students had reached the point of transition to secondary school. The first phase of ILLANS compared the achievement and growth of Indigenous students in the early years of school with the main LLANS group. The findings summarised in this paper followed Indigenous students through the final four years of primary schooling and compared their performance in literacy and numeracy with a sample of non-Indigenous students drawn from the same schools.

In conjunction, both phases of ILLANS illustrate a gap in achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students for both literacy and numeracy that widens over the course of schooling. Yet the data also clearly showed enormous variability both within and between the groups. Many Indigenous children succeed at school and are achieving as well as, or better than, non-Indigenous students at the same schools. In the context of a focus on the educational underachievement of Indigenous students, it is important to acknowledge the finding that many Indigenous students are succeeding at school and achieving well in developing literacy and numeracy skills. Furthermore, between-school variation in achievement for students demonstrates the large impact of schools in encouraging the achievement of Indigenous students. All students in this study evaluated their school's climate positively and held positive attitudes towards learning. It was also apparent that Indigenous students in this study held very similar attitudes towards reading as their non-Indigenous peers. In these respects, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in this study were similar.

The ILLANS study has made some progress in describing the development of literacy and numeracy skills over the course of primary schooling and in exploring those factors that support Indigenous students to achieve highly in literacy and numeracy. An ongoing focus on supporting the literacy and numeracy development of Indigenous students should include future longitudinal research to determine the impact of efforts to close the gap in educational achievement for Indigenous students.

References

Baker, D., & Street, B. (1994). Literacy and numeracy concepts and definitions. International Encyclopedia of Education (pp. 3453-3459). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

De Bortoli, L., & Cresswell, J. (2004). Australia's Indigenous students in PISA 2000: Results from an international study. Camberwell: ACER.

De Bortoli, L., & Thomson, S. (2009). The achievement of Australia's Indigenous students in PISA 2000-2006. Camberwell: ACER.

De Lemos, M. (2002). Closing the gap between research and practice: Foundations for the acquisition of literacy. Camberwell: ACER.

Department of Employment, Education and Training. (1991). Australia's Language: the Australian Language and Literacy Policy. Retrieved 25 February, 2011, from http://www.voced.edu.au/docs/landmarks/TD_ERD_87_64.pdf

Forster, M., Mendelovits, J., & Masters, G.N. (1994). Developmental Assessment Resource for Teachers (DART English). Camberwell: ACER.

Freebody, P. (2007). Literacy education in school. Camberwell: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Frigo, T., Corrigan, M., Adams, I., Hughes, P., Stephens, M., & Woods, D. (2003). Supporting English literacy and numeracy learning for Indigenous students in the early years. ACER Research Monograph 57. Camberwell: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Johns, G., & Centre, M. R. (2006). Aboriginal education: Remote schools and the real economy. Canberra: Menzies Research Centre.

Kirsch, I. (2002). Reading for change: Performance and engagement across countries: Results from PISA 2000. Paris: OECD.

Lonsdale, M., & McCurry, D. (2004). Literacy in the new millennium: National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Adelaide.

Purdie, N., Reid, K., Frigo, T., Stone, A., & Kleinhenz, E. (2011). Literacy and numeracy learning: Lessons from the Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study for Indigenous Students. ACER Research Monograph 65. Camberwell: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Rothman, S. (2002). Achievement in literacy and numeracy by Australian 14-year-olds, 1975-1998. LSAY Research Report 29. Camberwell: ACER.

Rothman, S., & McMillan, J. (2003). Influences on achievement in literacy and numeracy. LSAY Research Report 36. Camberwell: ACER.

Rowe, K., & Rowe, K. (1999). Investigating the relationship between students' attentive-inattentive behaviors in the classroom and their literacy progress. International Journal of Educational Research, 31(1-2), 1-137.

Snyder, I. (2008). The literacy wars: Why teaching children to read and write is a battleground in Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin Academic.

Stephanou, A., Meiers, M., & Forster, M. (2000). Constructing scales for reporting growth in numeracy: the ACER Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study. Paper presented at the Improving numeracy learning: Research conference 2000 proceedings: ACER (pp. 38-41). Camberwell, Vic: Australian Council for Educational Research.

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Nola Purdie, Kate Reid, Sarah Buckley | Australian Council for Educational Research

Notes

(1) This paper is based closely on a conference paper published in the proceedings of the Australian Council for Educational Research Conference 2011-Indigenous Education: Pathways to Success and on the complete report of the findings of the second phase of ILLANS (see Purdie, N., Reid, K., Frigo, T., Stone, A. & Kleinhenz, E. [2011]. Literacy and numeracy learning: Lessons from the Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study for Indigenous Students. ACER Research Monograph 65. Camberwell: Australian Council for Educational Research)

(2) In this paper and in the monograph on which is it based, the term 'Indigenous' refers to people who are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent. We acknowledge the distinctiveness of each student's cultural group. Overall, our intent has been to use language that accords respect and dignity to Australia's first people.

Table 1. Number and location of schools participating in ILLANS
2000-2006

                                  Phase 1 schools

State/Territory          Metro   Regional   Remote    Very
                                                     remote
ACT                        1

Queensland                          1

NSW                        1

Northern Territory                  2         2      l (a)

South Australia            1                           1

Tasmania                   1

Victoria                            1

Western Australia        1 (a)

                                   Phase 2 schools

State/Territory          Metro   Regional   Remote    Very
                                                     remote
ACT                        1

Queensland                 1        2

NSW                        2        2

Northern Territory                  2         2

South Australia            6                           1

Tasmania                   1

Victoria                            2

Western Australia          2                  1

(a) Phase 1 only

Table 2. Maximum numbers of literacy assessments completed by individual
students, 2003-2006

Number of literacy    Indigenous    Non-Indigenous    Total students
assessments            students        students
completed

1                         70             150               220
2                         78             152               230
3                         67             199               266
4                         72             179               251
Total                    287             680               967

Table 3. Means, standard deviations, and medians for English
literacy achievement for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students
(2003-2006)

                   Survey 6     Survey 7      Survey 8      Survey 9
                     2003         2004          2005          2006
Mean (SD)

Indigenous        83.2 (16.8)  88.5 (14.1)  96.0 (13.3)   98.3 (15.5)
Non-Indigenous    94.6 (12.7)  97.4 (14.2)  102.5 (12.7)  108.6 (13.9)

Median

Indigenous           83.8         89.6          97.0          99.0
Non-Indigenous       95.2         97.6         103.0         109.0

Number

Indigenous            220          192          175           128
Non-Indigenous        490          530          396           351

Table 4. Percentage agreement and mean responses for attitudes
towards reading for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students (2006)

                                         Indigenous

                                         (n = 123)

How much do you disagree or                  %           Mean
agree with these statements              Agreement       (SD)
about reading?

I read only if I have to                     63       2.7 (0.87)

Reading is one of my favourite               37       2.2 (1.00)
hobbies

I like talking about books with              46       2.4 (0.97)
other people

I find it hard to finish books               33       2.2 (0.87)

I feel happy if I receive a book as          70       2.8 (0.91)
a present

For me, reading is a waste of time           26       2.0 (0.95)

I enjoy going to a bookstore or a            61       2.7 (1.01)
library

I read about my favourite                    79       3.0 (0.81)
activities/hobbies

I enjoy reading magazines more               73       3.1 (0.97)
than books

I read only to get information that          57       2.7 (0.92)
I need

I cannot sit still and read for more         37       2.2 (0.98)
than a few minutes

I often read in bed                          41       2.2 (1.04)

I ask my friends to recommend                41       2.3 (0.89)
books they enjoyed

I sometimes receive books as gifts           66       2.7 (0.95)

                                         Non-Indigenous

                                         (n = 342)

How much do you disagree or                  %          Mean
agree with these statements              Agreement      (SD)
about reading?

I read only if I have to                    39       2.3 (0.91)

Reading is one of my favourite              43       2.3 (0.99)
hobbies

I like talking about books with             42       2.4 (0.91)
other people

I find it hard to finish books              26       2.0 (0.91)

I feel happy if I receive a book as         70       2.8 (0.90)
a present

For me, reading is a waste of time          17       1.8 (0.86)

I enjoy going to a bookstore or a           64       2.8 (0.99)
library

I read about my favourite                   73       3.0 (0.87)
activities/hobbies

I enjoy reading magazines more              67       2.9 (1.00)
than books

I read only to get information that         36       2.3 (0.95)
I need

I cannot sit still and read for more        27       2.0 (1.02)
than a few minutes

I often read in bed                         64       2.7 (1.06)

I ask my friends to recommend               41       2.3 (0.95)
books they enjoyed

I sometimes receive books as gifts          66       2.7 (0.95)

                                           Total

                                         (n = 465)

How much do you disagree or                  %           Mean
agree with these statements              Agreement       (SD)
about reading?

I read only if I have to                     46       2.4 (0.92)

Reading is one of my favourite               42       2.3 (1.00)
hobbies

I like talking about books with              43       2.4 (0.92)
other people

I find it hard to finish books               28       2.1 (0.90)

I feel happy if I receive a book as          70       2.8 (0.90)
a present

For me, reading is a waste of time           19       1.8 (0.89)

I enjoy going to a bookstore or a            63       2.7 (0.99)
library

I read about my favourite                    75       3.0 (0.85)
activities/hobbies

I enjoy reading magazines more               69       3.0 (1.00)
than books

I read only to get information that          41       2.4 (0.96)
I need

I cannot sit still and read for more         30       2.0 (1.00)
than a few minutes

I often read in bed                          58       2.6 (1.08)

I ask my friends to recommend                41       2.3 (0.93)
books they enjoyed

I sometimes receive books as gifts           66       2.7 (0.95)

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