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On Ockham's Razor (24/1/2010) a psychologist, Margot Prior, talks about the need to do something about Indigenous children's literacy. There's some good stuff in it - the need for more Indigenous teachers, for partnerships between schools and communities, for teachers to be sensitive to the differences between non-standard English and Standard English (note that this is NOT limited to Indigenous children - there are plenty of other children in Australia who don't speak Standard English as a home language).

Prior's overall solution?

If preschool education at a minimum of 15 hours per week was universally available, and every child had at least a year of programs which focused on enhancing language and pre-literacy skills, provided by committed preschool teachers, many more children would begin school well prepared for reading and writing.

I expect politicians will welcome this solution. Why should we treat it with caution?
First, for Prior "language" = "English". But her talk shows some basic misunderstandings of languages and how children learn languages and reading and writing. The distinction between speaking a traditional language and speaking a non-standard variety of English are treated as if they presented the same difficulties for children attempting to learn standard English. They present rather different challenges - the methods of teaching English as a second language have to be different from those of teaching English as a second dialect.

As worrying are remarks such as the following:

Learning is a struggle for many children since they are inadequately equipped when they begin school, to tackle reading. Without a strong scaffolding of knowledge of sounds, letters, words, and meanings in language, children struggle to cope with this new and strange task; they fall behind, see themselves as failing, and become discouraged and often resistant to the whole literacy enterprise.

There's a persistent confusion in the talk between readiness to learn to read and readiness to learn to read in English. The Indigenous children may be quite adequately equipped to learn to read IN THEIR HOME LANGUAGE. The problem is that their teachers are not adequately equipped to teach children who don't speak Standard English.

And then there's a misunderstanding about what constitutes normal language behaviour

Indigenous children often have a very mixed bag of 'home' languages to contend with. It may be partly traditional, and is often alongside or mixed with, a form of Creole English, 'Koori English' is one example, but there are many variations. 'Code switching', that is, using a mix of both traditional and English words in the same conversation, plus use of several languages or dialects is likely, especially in regional and remote areas. When parents mix languages this makes it difficult for some children to learn and to differentiate two codes, and can be a persisting disadvantage for reading. This is not a problem specific to Australian indigenous people and languages, think of Spanglish in the United States.

What's the evidence that code-switching harms children? It's a normal part of language behaviour in multilingual societies. In fact the flexibility and metalinguistic awareness that comes from using more than one language/dialect/register is probably something to be valued. Code-switching between French, Latin, German... has at some periods been valued in English literature and scientific writing. Once it was a sign of an educated person. But code-switching among the under-classes.... hey.. In fact the language acquisition evidence suggest that children learn to differentiate codes very early - before school. Certainly, our work in the ACLA project shows pre-school Indigenous children shifting register to an approximation of standard English as they imitate white doctors and rent-collectors. What's needed is a better understanding of the sociolinguistic situation - why do children choose not to speak Standard English?

And then Prior says:

It's unpopular and politically sensitive to talk about indigenous language skills, and the place of English alongside traditional language. But it is fundamental in learning to read and write. No-one would argue against efforts to maintain the languages of traditional peoples. But if we want to help children to succeed in reading we must equip them with sufficient standard English language skills which are essential for all children to master reading.

This view is unpopular among linguists because it is just plain WRONG. Yes, Indigenous children need to learn standard English if they want to enjoy the rights, physical health and material comforts of the average Australian. But that doesn't need to come at the cost of devaluing their traditional languages. Children CAN learn to read and write in a language other than English, and they CAN transfer those skills to learning to read and write in another language. Just what many Australians do when they learn a foreign language at school. And just what kids in bilingual biliteracy schools do - Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

The devaluing of home languages (and therefore of home ways of living) that Prior's remark implies [she does try to compensate for this elsewhere in the talk] is, I guess, one partial answer to the question of why children don't choose to put effort in learning Standard English.

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