Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Storytelling as a Foundation to Literacy Development for Aboriginal Children: Culturally and Developmentally Appropriate Practices

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Storytelling as a Foundation to Literacy Development for Aboriginal Children: Culturally and Developmentally Appropriate Practices

Article excerpt

There is substantial evidence that Aboriginal youth face serious challenges in schooling, in general, and in literacy development, specifically. Thus, it is essential to design early literacy programmes that engage Aboriginal children and produce positive outcomes. In this article, the authors propose that such programmes include oral storytelling by teachers and students because it is a precursor to reading and writing across cultures and a traditional Aboriginal teaching tool. Moreover, storytelling fits with Aboriginal epistemology-the nature of their knowledge, its foundations, scope, and validity. The authors begin by reviewing a representative sample of the research that has examined the outcomes of early literacy instruction with Aboriginal children. Next, the authors describe Aboriginal epistemology, highlighting the role of the oral tradition. Finally, the authors describe an ongoing study aimed at supporting early literacy development through a developmentally and culturally appropriate oral storytelling instruction programme.

Keywords: Aboriginal literacy, culturally insensitive instruction, storytelling

Chief Barry Ahenakew quoted the wisdom of the Elders when he stated, "Education is our buffalo. It is our new means of survival" (Christensen, 2000, p. xi). Unfortunately, the current state of affairs amongst Aboriginal people does not reflect this compelling and insightful utterance. According to the 2001 Canadian census, only 41% of members of status Indian bands completed high school compared to 69% for all adult Canadians. The percentage of First Nations people with less than a grade-nine education is double that of other Canadians. Many reasons for these levels of performance have been identified, including poverty, health issues, language challenges, cultural factors, and limited literacy education (First Nations Education Steering Committee and First Nations Schools Association, 2001; George, 1998; National Aboriginal Design Committee, 2002).

In this article, we make a case for the importance of oral narrative in Aboriginal children's (i.e., First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) literacy instruction. In particular, we argue that oral narrative or storytelling fits with Aboriginal epistemology-the nature of their knowledge, its foundations, scope, and validity. Moreover, storytelling is a traditional Aboriginal teaching tool and, as such, is familiar and culturally relevant to the children. We begin by reviewing a representative sample of the research that has examined the outcomes of early literacy instruction with Aboriginal children, documenting successes and challenges. Next, we describe Aboriginal epistemology, highlighting the role of the oral tradition. Because of the paucity of empirical peer reviewed studies conducted within Aboriginal contexts, we next turn to research conducted in non-Aboriginal contexts, arguing for its relevance on the bases of narrative's universality as a meaning-making tool. Finally, we link this latter corpus into Aboriginal narrative thought by describing a current, ongoing study aimed at supporting early literacy development through a developmentally and culturally appropriate oral storytelling instruction programme.

Literacy Development in Aboriginal Contexts

Early Literacy Learning

The challenges Aboriginal children face in their early literacy learning cannot be viewed as residing within the child. When seeking the barriers to literacy learning, we must look beyond language development, background knowledge, and phonemic awareness. These competencies are, of course, central to literacy development, but for Aboriginal children, as for many children living in poverty, they are only part of the puzzle. Critical to supporting literacy is understanding that Aboriginal learners face challenges due to the intergenerational effects of residential schools and schools' historic failure to acknowledge and reflect Aboriginal identity (Ing, 2002). …

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