Helping Indigenous children learn to read

Learning to read in the language you speak has obvious cognitive advantages. But it also has emotional benefits and boosts self esteem.

We know that in many cases the Indigenous children of Central Australia arrive at school from a totally different environment.. they are not used to sitting at a desk, having a routine or being confined to an indoor classroom.

They are then welcomed by a teacher who asks questions in Standard Australian English (SAE) …in their language and culture they do not do this.

Then they are presented with squiggles on a page which they are told represent sounds – strange sounds in words they haven’t spoken before.

Ask an SAE speaker to say “gaan gou groot word” or “rondwarrel” with the correct Afrikaans/Dutch guttural /g/ and rolled /r/ and they cannot. The same applies to these Indigenous children. Many of them come from language groups which share only 7 or 8 of the 24 SAE consonant sounds for example.

They learn to fail very quickly. They are also told (across Australia) all too frequently that the language they speak (loosely referred to as Aboriginal English – AE) is ‘bad English’.

It is not. AE is as much a language as SAE is.. it is as much a dialect of English as SAE is.

Once the children’s language receives recognition, is treated with dignity and respect, is recognised as expressing their culture as much as my SAE does – once their books are written in the language they speak, using themes they can relate to, and illustrated with pictures which make sense in terms of their knowledge and experience of life – as long as they are treated gently and with love and enthusiasm – there is no reason why they shouldn’t learn to read, despite their disadvantaged backgrounds in too many cases.

The Honey Ant Reader books, released in February 2010, are currently in several schools and are being used with great excitement by the Indigenous students, adults, community and teachers.