Indigenous Literacy

In a new CIS report, Kirsten Storry* outlines the low levels of english literacy among Indigenous Australians, especially in remote communities, and suggests some policy reforms. Among her findings:

* Literacy levels among children and adults in remote communities are seriously low. Nationally in 2004, 83% of Aboriginal students and 93% of students overall in Year 3 achieved the literacy benchmark for their year. But Northern Territory data tells us that only 20% of Aboriginal students in remote communities in the Northern Territory achieved the benchmark.

* Addressing these low literacy levels can improve parents’ self-reliance, children’s education and health, and the implementation of government programmes in areas such as health and governance.

* The good news is that the community and private sectors are already involved in literacy in remote Aboriginal communities. What is lacking is readily-available information about these projects and rigorous evaluation.

* Public debate on literacy generally—as well as debate on Aboriginal education—would be enriched by more comprehensive reporting on literacy levels. More comprehensive and disaggregated reporting on literacy levels would allow resources to be more efficiently directed to where they are most needed.

Amen to evaluation and reporting, though it would be nice to have empirical evidence on the extent to which english literacy affects life chances (as distinct from literacy in Indigenous languages, which isn’t mentioned in the report). And if we really want to know what works, why don’t we put up money for some randomised trials?

I’m doing some work this year with a colleague on differences in cognitive abilities of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children at very young ages (3-4). I’ll report back in due course on what we find.

* Disclosure: Kirsten was in my policy economics course last year. I’d have to check, but I’m pretty sure she topped it.

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12 Responses to Indigenous Literacy

  1. Claire says:

    Sorry, html is buggered up in the previous post. The anonymous person is Helen Harper of CDU, and the link to her page is

  2. Kirsten says:

    Hi Andrew, thanks for the comments. You were very quick of the mark this morning!

    I was, of course, waiting for the comment on randomised trials! If St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney goes ahead with its plan for a campus for indigenous children in Redfern, I’m very keen to see them operate a lottery system for entry. It would be a tailor-made randomised trial and I’d definitely be keen to write that up.

    Yes, I did think about whether to discuss indigenous languages and decided against it. If children in remote communities are going to kick the cycle of low educational achievement, poverty, poor health, and unemployment, English literacy is the way that they will do it. I didn’t come across any empirical evidence on the effect of English literacy v indigenous language literacy and I wasn’t in a position to do any field work for this paper. My feeling is that it is important to concentrate on higher expectations and a strong learning ethos. This has proved highly successful in some charter schools in the United States in greatly improving the achievement of African-American and Hispanic children. (Abigail and Stephen Thernstom have a great book on this topic, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.)

    Claire, yes I agree that the literacy benchmarks can be meaningless in many remote communities. I was looking for a way to show that we are too often given a single statistic for Aboriginal children, when this overlooks the gap between urban and remote Aboriginal children. Even among remote communities, literacy levels can vary widely. I know of two communities where no children achieved the Year 3 literacy benchmark.

  3. Claire says:

    There was some unofficial work done through teacher surveys in the mid-late 90s which showed very clearly that the schools with bilingual programs had much better results (this was for older kids, though) – e.g. Lajamanu, Yuendumu and Nhulunbuy CEC. The NT government would not release the relevant data so as far as I know the results were never published. It would be completely unsurprising though, given work elsewhere (e.g. on Spanish in the US). That is, Indigenous literacy is very important in communities where the kids come to school not speaking English because it’s very clear that kids learn literacy better in their first language. The way to improve English literacy at Milingimbi might be to teach Djambarrpuyngu literacy properly, rather than trying to teach English and English literacy at the same time (and, I should point out, literacy in a completely different English dialect).

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    Kirsten, I’ll fully admit to being a broken record on the topic of randomised policy trials. Once we start doing some, I’ll shut up about it.

    Claire, regarding bilingual education, the best quasi-experimental evidence I know of is a paper by Nora Gordon and Caroline Hoxby which found that abolishing bilingual education in California had a slight negative impact on the test scores of limited english proficient kids (and a positive impact on english-speaking kids).

  5. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Bilingual education is an experiment tried and failed in South Africa. Educating aboriginal Australians in their ‘mother’ tongue simply excludes them from the mainstream. English is the way to go. While the road to hell is paved with good intention, neo-apartheid policies should be resisted.

  6. Ben says:

    Integration versus preservation – a difficult choice faced by leaders in this area. Material wealth and job opportunities or cultural integrity and community ties. Perhaps choosing one means relinquishing the other. Wouldn’t like to be the one to choose.

  7. Claire says:

    I have to go to the airport in 15 minutes so there’s no time for me to look up the papers – I’ll post again later. I have a bunch of stuff that measures bilingual programs in terms of competence testing in the two languages (not test scores or indirect variables like income).

    But three things quickly:

    1) It’s not an either/or thing, as Sinclair suggests. Comments like that almost always come from monolingual (English) speakers who think of learning another language as taking away from learning English.

    2) You have to be very careful that what’s called a “bilingual education” program is, in fact, a bilingual program. That’s one of the big problems with a lot of the studies of Spanish bilingual ed in California. They don’t differentiate between immersion and two-way learning, for example.

    3) I don’t think any of my friends at Milingimbi view education in Yolngu Matha as neo-apartheid. Rather, what comes up again and again is a right to learn in the language of the country and the community, in addition to learning English. After all, that’s what they do in Germany, Sweden, etc etc. Ignoring that and treating people just as a problem to be solved to make the statistics look better pretty much guarantees that any initiative will fail.

  8. Sinclair Davidson says:

    ‘Comments like that almost always come from monolingual (English) speakers who think of learning another language as taking away from learning English. ‘

    I am definitely bilingual. Indeed, had I maintained practicing my languages I could have been multi-lingual.

    ‘You have to be very careful that what’s called a “bilingual education” program is, in fact, a bilingual program.’

    Yes, good point.

    ‘After all, that’s what they do in Germany, Sweden, etc etc.’

    Sure, they do. Unlike Aboriginal society, Germany and Sweden are not pre-literate societies. Language there has evolved in a technical and literate society over time. Aboriginal langauge has not. Many concepts that convey meaning in a technical or abstract sense have no aboriginal word or meaning. For example, I recall reading in Time Magazine (would have been late 80s) that many langauges have no word for the term ‘dinosaur’. When asked about this, a South American linguist said that there had been no need for such a word because his civilisation had no knowledge of dinosaurs. Ditto for aboriginal society. Now it’s not clear to me how an education in mathematics, geography, biology, physics and the like can be delieved in a langauge that has had no long term exposure to such concepts and evolved words to facilitate their inclusion in the langauge. For these words to be included a massive program creating words would have to be undertaken – this, of course, does extreme violence to the aboriginal language being updated.

    So while I’m happy to accept people should learn more than one language (indeed, I think this should occur more often), I am not convinced of the merits of ‘bilingual education’, or of education in a language other than english (in Australia).

  9. Claire says:

    First, see for a comment from a linguist who has spent many years in the Northern Territory.

    “Aboriginal language has not.” – there are about 100 different Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia at present, down from 250 at European settlement. Let’s be accurate here.

    English had no word for dinosaur before Richard Owen made one up from a bad Latinate form of a Greek compound in 1841. Not having a word for something is no barrier to creating one (though various diferent ways). English borrowed words for ‘koala’, ‘kangaroo’, ‘bandicoot’, ‘quokka’, etc, when speakers of English came to Australia and had no words to describe the new animals they saw. We had no skyscrapers until about a hundred years ago, and when someone built one and coined a new term. Ten years ago we didn’t have the word google, now its both a noun and a verb. All human languages (Aboriginal languages included) have the facility to invent or borrow new words for new concepts. The idea that these are pre-literate languages and are therefore unsuited to the modern world is completely without foundation. I know of programs for Hebrew, Hawai’ian, and Kaurna which have all produced results (the Hebrew and Hawai’ian ones were for teaching university-level subjects in the language). Both *languages* with no long-tern exposure to such concepts.

    (I was at Milingimbi last year when the YolÅ‹u Matha teachers at Milingimbi, Galiwin’ku and Nhulunbuy had a meeting to work out how to translate the Indigenous language and literacy curriculum framework into YolÅ‹u Matha. They didn’t have problems working out how to translate concepts like “curriculum, student outcome statement, and the like.)

  10. Sinclair Davidson says:

    “All human languages (Aboriginal languages included) have the facility to invent or borrow new words for new concepts.”

    I agree with this point. Yet I think there is a stocks and flows problem. The number of words being added to English each year is small relative to the stock of words. This is not the case in aboriginal languages. If a large percentage of a language consists of ‘imports’ in one year, or two years to what extent is that language maintained. Imagine a native speaker being separated from other native and returning after ten years and finding the language incomprehensible. (Your examples of Hebrew and Hawaiian are not good examples. Each only survives due to massive state intervention).

    “The idea that these are pre-literate languages and are therefore unsuited to the modern world is completely without foundation.”

    What is without foundation? That these languages are pre-literate? That they are unsuited? Or the “therefore”?

    How people choose to communicate is their own business. Those individuals who choose to remove themselves from the mainstream (however defined) should be allowed to do so and encouraged to live their lives as they choose. It is not clear to me that educating children in a language spoken only by several hundred (let’s be generous and say several thousand) other individuals best equips them to participate in a modern economy. At best it creates an underclass of individuals who are unable to fully interact in the market economy with other participants in that economy. The state should enforce education standards in the language spoken in the economy (so in Australia that is English, but it could have been French, if history had been very different, on the aboriginal languages).

    I stand by my comments about neo-Apartheid.

  11. Jane Simpson says:

    I don’t think that South Africa shows conclusively the failure of bilingual education at all – bilingual education was associated with the apartheid policy of segregation into homelands and homeland language schooling, and so got a bad reputation. But there’s some evidence that the monolingual English education which has replaced it has in fact worsened the education levels of children from Xhosa, Zulu and other minority language backgrounds in rural areas. That’s what we were told by an education assessment specialist, Kathleen Heugh, at a fascinating panel discussion on language policy in South Africa at last year’s Foundation for Endangered Languages meeting in Stellenbosch, “Creating outsiders: endangered languages, migration and marginalisation”. Heugh’s work should be available.

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