05 November 2015

Addressing the importance of Indigenous literacy to Australia's long-term future

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The Closing the Gap Report in 2015 showed some alarming statistics in relation to literacy rates of Indigenous children in remote areas of Australia. With attendance as low as 14 per cent in very remote areas the need to address Indigenous literacy is something Australia as a nation cannot ignore.
In the OECD’s latest program for International Student Assessment (PISA), research showed an approximate 2.5 year gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous literacy rates in Australia.

The consequences of illiteracy are lifelong. Lack of work opportunities, limited ability to understand information, lower opportunity for quality jobs and low income being just a handful of the impacts limited literacy skills have on the population.

From a purely economic point of view, the higher than number of a population with limited literacy skills, the slower long-term growth of GDP occurs. Without the necessary skills in literacy, people are left without the skills and tools to achieve their goals, nor can they be fully involved on an equal basis with their peers in social or political discourse.

“Instilling a love of learning in young people is one of the most important things we can do as educators,” NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Leslie Williams said recently.

“In NSW, we are working to encourage a life-long love of learning, starting in the early years before school. As a former teacher, I know the difference that a passion for reading can make to a child’s success at school and I have seen the critical role parents play in fostering an interest in books.”

The NSW Government has taken steps to increase the number of Indigenous children having access to preschool and has seen a 15 per cent increase since 2011. Between 2009 and 2012 there was a 2.3 per cent reduction in the number of Indigenous children being assessed as developmentally vulnerable, while in the same period there was a 26 per cent increase in Kindergarten to Year 2 enrolments of Indigenous students.

“On an average day,” the Minister said “85 per cent of Indigenous students in NSW attend school. This is an impressive achievement and one that is often underestimated by commentators.”

Addressing literacy in the Indigenous community needs to be handled with a level of cultural sensitivity, and the importance of Indigenous languages and cultures and the impact they have on Indigenous identity cannot be ignored.

Children begin to absorb and learn from the day they are born. The emergent literacy phase of a child’s development begins at birth and continues through the early learning years of preschool. By seeing and interacting with books and magazine in the home, children learn skills that are important to their future literacy.

Bed time reading is another key ingredient towards instilling a lifelong love of reading in children. A recent study by Havard University showed children learn more when bed time stories are read to them by their fathers.

"The impact is huge, particularly if dads start reading to kids under the age of two. Reading is seen as a female activity and kids seem to be more tuned in when their dad reads to them – it’s special,” said Dr Elizabeth Duursma who conducted the research.

“Dads were more likely to say something like, ‘Oh look, a ladder. Do you remember when I had that ladder in my truck?’” Dr Duursma said.

“That is great for children’s language development because they have to use their brains more. It’s more cognitively challenging.”

The role both educators and parents play in increasing a child’s literacy skills is an investment in the child’s future. With only 34.9 per cent of Indigenous students in very remote areas meeting or exceeding the National Minimum Standards for Year 7 reading, there is a long way to go if we are to truly close the gap in Indigenous literacy. 

Mike Cullen has recently returned to Akolade after a period as the conference producer for one of Australia's leading economic think tanks. Mike began working in the conference industry in 2007 after looking for a career change from the high pressured world of inbound customer service. Mike has worked for some of the most well known conference and media companies in the B2B space and in his spare time is working on his first novel in a planned Epic Fantasy trilogy.

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