• Prime Minister Kevin Rudd high fives Fiona, after officially opening the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence in Sydney (2010). (AAP)Source: AAP
Indigenous literacy rates significantly lower compared to those non-Indigenous people. We need to address this, but maybe comparing like-for-like isn't the best way to assess something far more complicated?
Natalie Cromb

6 Sep 2017 - 11:19 AM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2017 - 11:19 AM

Indigenous Literacy Day highlights the disadvantages and challenges faced by Indigenous people in remote communities. The day also encourages fundraising for literacy programs, some of which are bilingual, where donated books can be translated into Indigenous languages.

The Indigenous Literacy Foundation, formerly Indigenous Literacy Project, is a key driver of Indigenous Literacy Day (#ILD2017), hosting events like the ‘Great Book Swap’ throughout Australia with many partners.

The Foundation not only takes action over lagging Indigenous literacy rates, but raises awareness and pushes for policies that target improvement in this area. At present only a quarter of Indigenous children in very remote areas are at or above national minimum reading standards, compared to 91 per cent for non-Indigenous students.

The literacy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children is worryingly significant, with 78.7 per cent of Indigenous children reaching minimum literacy standard, compared with 95.6 per cent of non-Indigenous children. This figure becomes more marked in rural and remote communities – particularly in the Northern Territory where only 42.5 per cent of Indigenous children reach the minimum national literacy standards, and this reduces to less than a quarter in the Territory's remote communities.


The problem with attendance-based measurements and Government reporting

These statistics, of course, is on the Government's radar. However, the policies implemented so far by officials are predominantly attendance-based and subsequently fail to address the fundamental differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.

This then comes under a homogenous approach which follows pedagogical and epistemological methods to education that are largely devoid of Indigenous content – either historical, linguistic or cultural. Mainstream education in Australia rarely speaks to the cultures and identities of Indigenous people and as such, educating Indigenous children is highly likely to end in failure (as statistics reveal) because it is exclusionary. It demonstrates that the literacy gap has been acknowledged, but not truly addressed.

Mainstream education in Australia rarely speaks to the cultures and identities of Indigenous people and as such, educating Indigenous children is highly likely to end in failure (as statistics reveal) because it is exclusionary.

The literacy of Indigenous children, particularly in remote communities, need Indigenous input and policy formation so that the essential elements of identity can be included. This provides an inclusionary educational experience. Measures such as bilingual learning, for example, have proven successful in communities - even those where it has been instituted at a grassroots level. Classrooms that teach Indigenous content and history that is objective and factually correct, are also fundamental, as well as ensuring they are conducted in a setting which understands and respect Indigenous culture and the way each community operates.

The way we view and measure literacy also needs to be addressed, particularly in circumstances where oral literacy is a strength of Indigenous children, but English reading and writing under the current pedagogy highlights gaps. This isn't to suggest that Indigenous children should go without English literacy skills in Australia, but to harness their already established literacy abilities when teaching and to also recognise the value of literacy in other forms.     

Indigenous literacy is a critical element of ensuring that Indigenous people are not only able to participate in the current educational system and post-education employment, but to flourish and have opportunities in the everyday. The current denial of Indigenous people from fair participation and inclusion in the curriculum will only perpetuate failing literacy targets. This is why the work of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation - an organisation who assists communities to elevate the literacy of their children - is so critical.

Indigenous Literacy Day is on 6 September. For information about the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, go here 

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