Reading Tracks: Improving Literacy of Indigenous Children In Australia

PID 3471 Margaret James - Reading Tracks

Guest: Margaret James  

Presenter: Bron Williams

Margaret James joins Business Radio Talkers.FM to tell us about the Reading Tracks, a series of learn-to-read books she designed for the indigenous children aged 12 years and above. She wrote the books with the hopes of providing fun-filled and engaging stories about the First Australian’s ancient ways of food gathering – tracking and hunting in the central deserts and fishing on the coast.

Margaret James grew up in apartheid South Africa. Living on a farm with Indigenous people influenced her interest and involvement in Indigenous Education in Australia. Margaret is the originator of the Honey Ant Readers Education Program, which has improved the literacy of Indigenous children across Australia. Margaret also developed and produced cards, bingo games, activity books and songs to educate and enhance the skills of non-indigenous students with special needs.


Bronwyn Williams: Good day everybody. It’s Bron Williams here from Business Radio and today I’m talking with Margaret James. Margaret is the director and author of the Honey Ant Readers and she is just about to launch a new series of books called the New Reading Tracks. The Honey Ant Readers are designed for indigenous children and the new reading tracks are going to be launched into middle school because they’re designed for children about 12 years and above. So welcome Margaret.

Margaret James: Thank you.

Bron: Now Margaret, this sounds like an interesting series of books – the Honey Ant Readers. Can you tell me how you started with your work with providing reading materials for indigenous people?

Margaret: I was a lecturer at the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education and I was teaching English as a Second Language and dialects courses and I became interested in why indigenous children across Australia were behind their mainstream peers in print literacy and I decided that it had a lot to do with the fact that we were teaching them to read in a language which they didn’t speak, which is standard Australian English. Many of them speak Aboriginal English at home and also many would speak traditional Aboriginal languages.

Bron: Can I just stop there, could you explain what Aboriginal English is? I’ve never heard that term.

Margaret: Okay. Aboriginal English is the dialect of English or language. I’d like to argue that it’s its own language and that is spoken between Aboriginal people right across Australia. It has differences in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary but the grammatical structure seems to be the same across the country. It’s a very important language because it also carries the culture and there’s a lot that you can say in Aboriginal English that you can’t really say in standard English so it’s a vehicle for the culture in the face of so many Aboriginal language just having been decimated really with colonization. Probably Ian Malcolm who is a professor of linguistics at Edith Cowan University and he’s retired now but he said that 97% of indigenous people would speak Aboriginal language between themselves, code-switching in standard English so people might not be aware of that.

Bron: I see, so does it have elements of English as I would understand it or is it completely different?

Margaret: No, it does and so in its light form you would be able to understand it and you would be hearing it around you all the time probably just unaware of it. In its heavy form which means they have embedded more of their traditional languages in it, it would be very difficult to understand but their commonalities in terms of how it is structured, the sound system and that is based on the the rules of grammar of the Aboriginal traditional languages. It’s a very interesting subject.

Bron: Absolutely fascinating. And as a person who is a wordsmith and who loves language but only speaks one language, English, I’m finding this fascinating about something in my own country that I didn’t know anything about. So you are obviously, from your accent not an Australian. I find that very interesting.

Margaret: Well actually I am an Australian. I’ve been one since 1992.

Bron: You do understand what I’m saying, you were not raised here. Tell me about where you were raised and what, from your own background, led you to be interested in the linguistics in your adopted country.

Margaret: Okay. I was born on a farm in South Africa so I was surrounded by indigenous languages. So my parents were from England and we were first generation born in South Africa,  me and my sisters, and but we started school at a nearby school that was all Africans so in fact I learned my first literacy in a language I didn’t speak. So that I guess left an interest and I went on to be interested in languages and majored in linguistics in my first degree. And I guess there having been surrounded by so many different languages, the music, the culture – it left its mark in me, in my soul I suppose. And so when I came over to live in Australia, I continued studying here and I did a Master of Education in teaching English to speakers of other languages so and then from there I went and worked in Alice Springs or Batchelor Institute with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people training teachers.

Bron: So this is just fascinating. I’m finding this whole process that you’ve gone through to get to where you are now quite amazing. People never cease to fascinate me and I thankful I’ve had this opportunity to talk with you Margaret. Now the Honey Ant Readers, can you tell me what was the process you used as a non-indigenous person who is obviously very linguistically talented, you have an ear for these things but you are not an indigenous person – how did that come about? Because you’ve started to tell me that you were writing them because you noticed that the literacy skills of the indigenous children were not as good as their peers and that was because of the reading material that they were being given?

Margaret: Yeah and it fascinated me because they’re probably the world’s greatest linguists. I mean the children around Alice Springs speak four or five languages, all of them. And they also have amazing visual acuity in other words they’ll see a tiny lizard from miles away and I’ll have to almost fall over it before I can see it. So I thought well they’ve got this visual acuity, they’ve got this amazing linguistic ability, so what is going wrong? And I think the first thing was that we were putting down their languages, we weren’t recognizing and giving respect to their traditional languages or to Aboriginal English and we weren’t giving them books to read that are related to their own lives. Many of these early readers, they are very Anglo-centric or they are American and they’re certainly not talking about the sort of things that these children enjoy doing which is things like digging for honey ants. And so I was actually teaching, I’m a choral conductor as well, and I was teaching them a bit of singing and and some of the adults who I’m still in touch with and who are still involved in my work – I had a relationship with several elders already who I got to know and we had mutual trust and so on. So I was able to speak to them about how they felt about all this and they were very very keen and so they worked very closely with me. They approved every drawing, they approved every book, I never did anything without their permission. In one drawing where we did 20 times to get it right so if they didn’t like something,  I redid it and if they did sometimes the stories they wanted me to use would not have been the sort of stories that I would have chosen but I did use them because I knew that they would relate to the children.

Bron:  So in like what I would consider traditional children’s picture books or young readers, like they start with a picture and then add the text and then as children get older, we increase the size of the text and then the picture only becomes like an addendum, something that you’ve tacked on to add to the language. What I’m hearing, so correct me if I haven’t heard you correctly, what I’m hearing is that you start with the visual, with a picture that is actually telling something and then the language in a sense backs that up or supports that. Is that how the process has been?

Margaret:  Yes, absolutely. And I guess it starts before that, in that for example the Honey Ant Readers are the first several books and so that is an experience that the children have. So they go out and dig for honey ants so when they come back and we give them cards so we start with cards and bingo games and so they see the picture of the honey ant and they match it to another honey ant. While they’re doing that we’re giving them the English vocabulary so that they’re building up their English oral language first. Once we feel that they know all the words that they’re going to encounter in book one, which is seven words, and in reading the teenagers only nine words so in the Honey Ant Readers, seven words. Once we’re sure through the bingo games, the activity books, the card games that they know those words then we give them the book to read. Teachers can use them in any way they choose but when I’m teaching using them, I don’t give them the book until I know they’re going to be successful when they try and read it because that was another aspect that I felt where we were failing these children was that they were learning to be failures because they came to school behind in that they weren’t speaking standard English and their peers were and so they the peers always had the edge. So by giving them confidence so they succeed at reading book one, in book two I actually only use the same words as book one because I thought that will give them an extra boost and then gradually brought in more words. And as you say the illustrations in the beginning, if it said ‘Nana,’ there was just a picture of Nana. If it was honey ant, just the honey and then gradually as the books built up in text, the illustrations also became more complex and then right at the end as you said is just a picture for a chapter.

Bron: So can you talk about this new range that you are launching that are designed for Middle School children?

Margaret: Yes. So when I was out delivering professional development in remote schools on the Honey Ant Readers, it became very obvious to me that there was a need for early readers for teenagers and who were also struggling with reading and the reasons for that are conflicts. And so the teachers were stuck, it was sort of “Well what are we going to do? We’ve got Johnny who’s 15 and we really need early readers but all the early readers we can find are on juvenile so we want him to feel grown-up.” So I addressed that in various ways, one of them was to actually use the students in the process of developing the books. So we went to them right in the beginning and I showed them a whole of different sort of mock-ups that I’d done of different stories and took some books from their school libraries and say “Which of these do you enjoy?” through a variety of things and it became very clear that they like true stories and they loved reading about their traditional lifestyles. So I really brought in cards with different animals, Australian animals on them and we play a card game and they would choose several cards or one card and of something they like to hunt and then they would talk about that. And as soon as they start talking about hunting, they just become so animated, they talk, they laugh, they get excited –  it became so clear. Then when I spoke to the elders, for example Margaret Kemarre Turner and Benedict Stephens, Margie Williams, Daisy Ward, many elders, about what they thought – all of them – what we should write about tracking and hunting and inputted a lot of ideas. So I then went back to the same students with mock-ups of those and also talk to them about recording their experiences of hunting. So we recorded theirs, we went on hunting expeditions and then I sat and wrote the stories and sort of said to the elders and to the students “Is this okay? Am I getting this right? Do you actually put the kangaroo in the hole and cover it with ashes or do you cover it with a piece of tin as some would do?” And then also we involved six middle schoolers as illustrators, I had I think a total of about twelve illustrators but six of them were middle schoolers. By doing that, they became not just them because all of them were editing and proofing and all of them were involved in this process so I was treating them and so was the school and the schools do treat them as adults. And so that helped them to grow and their self-esteem and they found things in the books. They’d say “Margaret you’ve inverted this picture here.” In the TV Islands, for example, a student at boarding school in Alice Springs have told me about going fishing and taking a piece of meat, probably Buffalo, and putting it on his hook and fishing for barramundi. When I go to the TV Islands they said “No, we use fish for bait and then we catch mullets and that mullet is used for bait for the barramundi. And in your picture, you put the picture upside down.” And in with text as well, they’d say “We think it’s better that you say it this way.” And then I would do what they say and so that makes them happy and then the elders oversaw everything. So every single book has been proofread by the elders and they have given me permission to publish.

Bron: That it’s just excellent. So Margaret if people either wanted to access your books or talk with you, find out more, what’s going to be the best way for them to do that?

Margaret: Okay. Well my email address is [email protected] and the new books will not be on there just yet but in a few days they’ll be on tracks and I’m very happy for people to call me on 0412 248 145 and main sort of mother website is

Bron: Excellent. Margaret, that has just been so fascinating being able to learn about something that’s happening in Australia that I had no clue about. So what’s one takeaway that you could leave for our listeners about maybe something you’ve learned, something that’s important to you out of this process?

Margaret: I think probably that reading starts with engagement and if we don’t engage the students, we’re not going to get anywhere and I think to achieve that you’ve absolutely got to leave it to the indigenous community themselves, the elders and the students. It just doesn’t work to come in with your own ideas and trying to impose that on somebody else. I think probably working with people from the ground up. I guess for young people, follow your passion and don’t need anybody to stop you. Don’t turn round and go “I can’t do this because I haven’t got funding.” You can do anything you like and you don’t need funding to get started and nobody will find you until you can prove that you can deliver the goods. I hear that a lot, “Oh I couldn’t do this because of funding.” I didn’t have funding when I started and I only received funding because I was able to say “Well this is what we can do and we can do more of this if we get a bit of help.” So follow your dream.

Bron: Excellent. Thank you so much, this has been wonderful. This is Bron Williams, I’ve been talking with Margaret James from the Honey Ant Readers and her new books the New Reading Tracks and this has been Business Radio

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