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
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. …