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Inclusion key to closing literacy gap

Antony Perry

20 September 2017: The creation of more Indigenous-specific literature would help foster a love of reading in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and lift literacy results, according to University of Canberra Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Anita Heiss.

Speaking at the University’s 2017 Ngunnawal Lecture last night, Dr Heiss said Indigenous children living in remote parts of Australia were paying the price for not having access to books they were interested in.

National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results released last year showed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were lagging behind their non-Indigenous peers.

Only a quarter of Indigenous Year 5 students living in very remote parts of the country were at or above national minimum reading standards, compared to 91 per cent of non-Indigenous children, according to the 2016 results.

The 2017 Closing the Gap report shows there has been no overall improvement in Indigenous literacy (and numeracy) rates since 2008.

Dr Heiss, an award-winning Wiradjuri author, said the gulf was alarming because there was an intrinsic link between being literate and getting the best out of life.

“The key to self-determination is the ability to make life decisions for oneself,” she said. “And to do that in Australia, you must be literate in the English language.

“NAPLAN results released last year show that Indigenous children are sliding further behind their non-Indigenous counterparts, placing them at risk of not having the same opportunities to succeed.”

Dr Heiss believes it is her responsibility as an author to assist in the creation of resources that encourage Aboriginal people to read.

She has been involved in a number of community-focused literacy projects through her role as an ambassador with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

For her latest offering, Apmere Atyenhe Ltyentye Apurte (Our Home Santa Teresa), Dr Heiss collaborated with a group of primary school children to produce a collection of work illustrating their own life experiences.

She said the process built a sense of belonging and ignited the children’s interest in reading, which is an important step in encouraging young people to pick up a book.

“It’s not rocket science – Aboriginal kids need to see themselves on the pages of books if we are to foster an interest in reading, especially in settings where books have not been part of the home environment,” Dr Heiss said.

“What better way to nurture a love of reading while improving literacy than by including children in the process of creating literature.”

Dr Heiss said the project also demonstrated success in community outreach and engagement by bringing children into the creative process of storytelling as well as building their capacity to develop new skills.