Literacy Learning for Indigenous Students: Setting a Research Agenda

Article excerpt

Introduction

Literacy for Aboriginal learners has been a significant part of the education agenda in Australia, particularly since the implementation of the first mandatory Aboriginal Education Policy in Australia by the New South Wales Government in 1982. Despite considerable expenditure and research programs, there have been minimal improvements in literacy learning outcomes for Aboriginal learners (Masters & Forster 1997, Freebody et al 1995). We recognise that Australia's Indigenous communities comprise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. However, the focus for our research has been centred on Aboriginal students and communities in outer regional locations.

The key focus for our research has been to explore the role of cultural subtleties in communication including aspects of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures, and the mismatches in meaning that frequently occur in cultural contact or intercultural situations. These intercultural interactions impact on Aboriginal learners in ways that inhibit their access to equitable education outcomes. This is one of the key motivations behind our partnership of one Aboriginal and one non-Aboriginal researcher working together in the area of Standard Australian English (SAE) literacy for young Aboriginal learners. The partnership enables our mutual interests in Aboriginal Education and Literacy, and our strong beliefs that data analysis can be strengthened when both cultural perspectives are embedded in the interpretation of data, to be put into practice.

The first part of our paper presents a brief overview of our research, national research projects and Aboriginal Education policy and statements. This overview will put the type of research and its aims and applications in context, providing a background for the subsequent sections of our discussion.

Researching Aboriginal education

As mentioned earlier our research has been located in outer regional areas and schools where, typically, Aboriginal students comprise a minority classroom group. Our research projects include:

Simpson & Clancy Research projects

Nanima research project. Nanima is Wiradjuri language meaning `something that is lost'. Wiradjuri people are Aboriginal Australians who have lived and live in areas of southern and western New South Wales. This project investigated the context of the pedagogical literacy relationships conducive to successful literacy acquisition by young Aboriginal learners. The focus was on the coping strategies and behaviours of Aboriginal learners in classroom situations (Simpson 1998).

Baiyai (Wiradjuri language meaning `meeting place of two parties') researchers observed Aboriginal students in classroom contexts, focusing on interactions that might otherwise pass unnoticed in busy classrooms. These were analysed and interpreted in a way that enabled the research group to construct a picture of classroom exchanges that were causing difficulties for Aboriginal students and their teacher (Munns, Simpson & Clancy 1999, Munns, Simpson, Connelly, & Townsend 1999).

Narang Guudha (Wiradjuri language meaning `little child') research explores why young Aboriginal learners, in urban/rural town settings (now referred to as inner and outer regional settings) are the ones who are at greatest risk of not achieving adequate literacy skills. This is despite their enthusiasm and readiness to begin formal education similar to any other group of children (Simpson & Clancy 2001a, 2001b). Part of the Narang Guudha project considers the six elements of The National Indigenous English Literacy & Numeracy Strategy 2000-2004 (Commonwealth of Australia, 1999).

Clearly, our research is embedded in the broader Australian context and as such is informed by a range of national research projects (government initiated and funded) and Aboriginal Education Policies in the area of literacy learning for Indigenous students. …