Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

ABRACADABRA for Magic under Which Conditions? Case Studies of a Web-Based Literacy Intervention in the Northern Territory

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

ABRACADABRA for Magic under Which Conditions? Case Studies of a Web-Based Literacy Intervention in the Northern Territory

Article excerpt

In northern Australia, the capacity of schools to deliver quality early childhood literacy instruction is often less than ideal (see Ladwig & Sarra, 2009, p. 10). The nation-wide challenge of filling teaching positions with suitably qualified teachers is exacerbated in remote areas, where it can be difficult to attract teachers who are appropriately skilled in teaching early years literacy, familiar with early childhood teaching, and experienced in Indigenous contexts (Skilbeck & Connell, 2003). Further, a high rate of teacher turnover, particularly in the most remote, largely Indigenous schools, makes it difficult to build and sustain consistent depths of knowledge about appropriate practice in these contexts (Bourke, Rigby, & Burden, 2000; Gray & Beresford, 2008; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2009).

Compounding the challenge of retaining teacher expertise in northern Australian schools, the academic achievement disparity between Australian students in the north and elsewhere is significant. In 2009, while 93.7% of Year 3 students nationally achieved at or above the national minimum standard in reading, the percentage in the Northern Territory was only 68.5%. For Indigenous students, who make up nearly half of the student population in the Northern Territory (DET, 2011), the achievement difference is even greater, with only 39.9% of Year 3 Indigenous students achieving at or above the national minimum standard in reading (ACARA, 2010). Arguably, with so many students struggling to meet minimum literacy benchmarks, and with no prospect that they will magically 'catch up' later (Juel, 1988), there is a need for early, intensive and evidence-based literacy interventions and pedagogical tools (Wise, da Silva, Webster, & Sanson, 2005).

One such tool is ABRACADABRA (ABRA), a free, web-based teaching resource for early literacy instruction designed to be used with students aged four to eight, which has been shown to enhance foundational literacy, technology and language skills for young children in both Canada and additionally through a trial of its effects in the Northern Territory. (1) Both the Canadian and the Australian studies have clearly established ABRA's capabilities under optimal conditions, where implementation fidelity is closely monitored and key variables are controlled for (Abrami, Savage, Wade, Hipps, & Lopez, 2007; Comaskey, et al., 2009; Savage, et al., 2009; Wolgemuth, Helmer, et al., 2011).

Throughout the Australian work, however, we have also been conscious of the environment in which these trial findings will be received. With political pressure to 'close the gap' (MCEECDYA, 2010) in education outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, with ABRA being available free of charge via the internet, and with few such well-substantiated programs to choose from, the possibility exists that ABRA will be taken up in schools outside of research settings. The question then becomes: how well does a technology such as ABRA, established as efficacious through controlled studies, work in more ordinary practice?

Anticipating this, we undertook case studies of four typical regional and remote schools in northern Australia both to develop an account of how teachers used and adapted the ABRA program in their own settings, and to document how schools tackled the complexities of supporting teachers in new ways of teaching, thus allowing us to consider the likely future of ABRA under more naturalistic implementation conditions. In this paper, we report on the manner in which teachers used ABRA with only minimal support from the research team, and we highlight the different ways in which teachers grapple with remoteness, cultural diversity, and the integration of technology into their literacy teaching. We also discuss the implications of the low level of support provided by the research team as a reflection of the amount of support that schools might ordinarily expect for a literacy program and consider the likely consequences of this kind of training and support for education interventions in high need Australian contexts more generally. …

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