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Some thoughts on the literacy issues in Indigenous contexts

Martin Nakata
Martin Nakata is a Torres Strait Islander and Professor and Director of Indigenous academic programs at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology Sydney. He has written extensively on a range of Indigenous education issues. The following is an abridged and edited version of a 7000 word paper originally published by Languages Australia, and which also appeared in The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education Volume 31, 2003.

Curriculum Leadership Vol.2 Issue 20, 2004.

The agenda in Indigenous education in this country today is a cultural one. Historical neglect, lack of resources, and the general conditions of the lives of Indigenous people, which result in poverty, poor nutrition, hearing loss etc, must continue to be addressed. But when it comes to curriculum and learning, our problems are definitely schematised and understood in cultural terms.

The organising principle of this schema is our 'difference' - interpreted as cultural and linguistic difference. This interpretation gives rise to a tension between upholding and maintaining cultural difference and identity on the one hand, and producing equal outcomes on the other.

The current policy agenda in Australia has been shaped by the discourses of human rights and anthropological knowledge. As the United Nations emerged, Australia found that it could not be a signatory to human rights charters when it was severely restricting the freedom of its Indigenous people and discriminating against them in all areas of life.

Meanwhile anthropological knowledge - the ongoing, seemingly never-ending 'science' of describing and explaining Indigenous people - has described and explained our difference in terms of culture. Once, they explained us as primitive and from a lower culture (Nakata, 1998) but in a climate that championed human rights and equality, anthropological knowledge came to explain us as having unique and distinctive cultures and identities - worth preserving and maintaining - not inferior, just different.

Policy and reform under the cultural agenda have brought new resources, better programs, professional development, cultural awareness and sensitivity, more local input, and improved outcomes. In more remote areas this has resulted in the recognition and inclusion of the Indigenous context in Indigenous classrooms. In schools where Indigenous students are a smaller proportion of the student population, policies of inclusion and support are evident. These achievements should not be devalued. But, despite this, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students continues.

The impact of the anthropological model

The most damaging, negative element in this agenda is that the anthropological model has conceptualised our learning difficulties as the product of 'cultural difference'. It has over-emphasised the role of these differences in the learning process.

This schema stands to provide a convenient explanation of student failure that exonerates teacher practice. For instance, it is commonly heard in educational circles today that 'Indigenous children do not have certain mathematical concepts'. I have heard it said also that Torres Strait children cannot learn the concepts of measurement because they do not exist in their own language and culture: 'teaching big and small is easy, but the refinements of that such as tall/short; thick/thin; wide/narrow; near/far and the comparatives big/bigger/biggest etc. are difficult and they just do not seem to get it'.

But the fact is Torres Strait children do have those concepts but they express them quite differently. When a five year old puffs up his shoulders and says, 'he's big this kind way', he means tall. When a child says 'I go...I go, go...I go, go, go'. He means, 'I went a very long way'. The difficulty lies not in the concept but the language that expresses it. This is the difficulty of teaching mathematics to any child. The student moves on and fails problem solving at a higher level because he can not untangle the mathematical language of the problem. And we all sit around thinking they fail because of a mismatch between two sets of cultural understandings and values - that no amount of teaching and effort seems to overcome.

We fail our students if we do not ensure that they develop the necessary skills for success in non-Indigenous contexts. And we insult the intelligence of our children if we think that they cannot learn to distinguish what behaviours are appropriate to what contexts, and cannot learn to switch between them.

Literacy and the role of good pedagogy

Nowhere has the anthropological model been more damaging than in the language issue. English literacy and understanding the world beyond our communities, beyond our local and cultural context, is as critically important for our future survival as understanding our traditional pathways. Yet many effective teachers feel constrained and guilty if they focus on English literacies and neglect cultural factors. As a result they lose confidence in themselves.

And yet good teachers can produce good results using, or even despite, any program, if they fully understand the goals and processes of literacy learning and the children they teach. This is because they adapt and innovate all the time, adjusting things to the individual differences of their students and the context as circumstances require.

In a review of literacy issues in the Aboriginal context, Batten, Frigo, Hughes and McNamara (1998) conducted a number of case studies in schools that were considered to be responding successfully to their Aboriginal and Islander students. What they discovered was that these teachers were effective literacy teachers for all students. Effective teachers operated with sensitivity to cultural difference, but with less knowledge of the content of that difference than one might expect.

But the isolation of the classroom, and the sheer workload, limit and inhibit teachers' opportunities for circulating, sharing, and accessing this experiential knowledge, which is not circulated or documented in any systematic way. This is particularly so in remote areas, where teachers are transitory and take their hard-earned knowledge with them when they leave. Teachers often feel that they are under pressure to change and abandon programs and strategies that they have worked up and adapted at the cost of enormous personal energy and commitment.

Effective teachers have to be given time, and have to be drawn on to contribute to this process. Effective teachers are, not surprisingly to me, the most sensitive teachers. They are in my eyes also the most vulnerable: many have their views overlooked in the politics of schools, many move on to study, or to other sectors. These teachers need more support and validation for what they do.

Systematising good teaching practice

A good place to start is surveying on an ongoing basis, not a one-off basis, the questions that teachers cannot answer on their own, the doubts that they have about what will work and what won't work. For instance, teachers in the Torres Strait and elsewhere are now moving away from the immersion model of language and hailing the need for more explicit teaching of phonics, structures, and grammars. But what are the pitfalls? Older teachers will remember that structured phonics and grammars have been done in times past, and their weakness was that reading for meaning was neglected and rote learning was largely a meaningless activity. Children need to be immersed in print and exposed to it, but the lesson that has been learnt from whole language learning everywhere is that immersion is not enough.

What is the difference between meaningless rote-learning and effective repetition and practice that will lead to mastery of skills? What does that look like in classroom practice? Old teachers may know, but what of younger teachers who have not been through the full circle of all these shifts? There are hundreds of such questions that worry teachers, and yet other teachers may know some of the answers. Teachers need to proceed systematically and confidently to trial, track, and share their strategies.

Beyond the discourse of 'difference'

We need an alternative to the anthropological standpoint on 'difference'. To a large extent the discourse of difference is just an updated version of the discourse of inferiority, and it perpetuates our marginalisation. But I have criticised it as well because it does not adequately represent how we have experienced our position at the interface of converging historical trajectories. Yet we cannot submerge the anthropological standpoint of difference without providing a standpoint that will uphold us as a group as having a unique and distinct culture, as having our own history, our own traditional knowledges, our own identity.

In establishing an Indigenous standpoint we uphold, indeed strengthen, identity through understanding our position in relation to the outside world. We gain and retain a sense of ourselves through understanding our traditional relationships and our own history, as well as through understanding our relationship with the outside world.

Instead of being preoccupied with our 'differences', we can shift to understanding how the knowledges of the outside world work to position us in particular ways and in a particular relation (Nakata, 1997). In our recent history, this has been an extremely demeaning relationship and we have already achieved much to re-establish a more equal relation with non-Indigenous peoples.

This article is reprinted with permission of CAE Press (incorporating the former Language Australia Publications). The full paper was published as: Martin Nakata, (2002) Some Thoughts on the Literacy Issues in Indigenous Contexts, Melbourne: Language Australia.


Batten, M., Frigo, T., Hughes, P., & McNamara, N. (1998). Enhancing the English literacy skills in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students: A review of the literature and case studies in primary schools. Melbourne: ACER.
Nakata, M. (1997). The Cultural interface: An exploration of the intersection of Western knowledge systems and Torres Strait Islander positions and experiences. Unpublished doctoral thesis. James Cook University, Townsville.
Nakata, M. (1998). 'Anthropological texts and Indigenous standpoints'. Journal of Aboriginal Studies, 2, 3-12.



Subject Headings

Aboriginal peoples
Aboriginal students
Education policy
Educational sociology
English language teaching
Language and languages