Frequently Asked Questions

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What is the Indigenous Literacy Foundation?

The Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) is a national charity that aims to address some of the disadvantage experienced by children in remote Indigenous communities, whose standards of reading and writing are generally years behind those of other Australian children. ILF provides specially-chosen, new books to more than 250 remote communities around Australia. ILF provides practical ways that readers, writers, publishers and booksellers can help close the literacy gap in Australia and share the love of reading and writing.


 

How did it start?

In 2004 Suzy Wilson, from Riverbend Books in Brisbane, heard about the low literacy levels of Indigenous children in remote communities. She found it hard to believe that many children didn’t get to see a book until they first went to school. She started a fundraising campaign called the Riverbend Readers Challenge, and the project evolved. 


 

Who runs the programs?

ILF employs an Indigenous Program Manager together with a Program Co-ordinator who liaise with and travel out to selected remote communities. Debra Dank, a teacher based in Darwin, was the first Foundation's first Program Manager. Debra grew up on a remote community in the Barkly Tablelands in Northern Territory and, with over 20 years teaching experience, worked as the Literacy Development Facilitator at The Fred Hollows Foundation, establishing many connections with remote Indigenous communities throughout Australia, before joining ILF. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation worked in partnership with The Fred Hollows Foundation from 2006 to 2010. Tina Raye joined ILF in 2013 and is the current Indigenous Program Manager. 


 

How is it funded?

ILF is a national charity and does not receive any government or major corporate funding. It raises all its funds through donations which come from schools, libraries, individuals, businesses, a small number of grants and through the efforts of its volunteers. In addition, it receives 'in kind' support from the Australian Book Industry, including the Australian Booksellers Association, the Australian Publishers Association and the Australian Society of Authors as well as readers and writers. You can help too. See the How to Help page for full details.


 

How are the books chosen?

Indigenous teachers who have taught in remote communities together with early childhood literature specialists donate their expertise in choosing the books. The Indigenous Literacy Program Manager liaises with remote communities to find out which books would be most appropriate and useful for early learning and at primary school level.

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What are the specific programs?

  1. Book Supply delivers free, culturally appropriate and useful books to schools and individual kids in more than 250 remote communities.
  2. Book Buzz is a gift of specially-chosen new board books for early childhood in a drawstring bag for preschoolers and very young kids. (On request, these are also translated into local languages.) The books are to take home and read with older brothers and sisters or with someone in the family, if possible, or to bring to preschool or school. Book Buzz is also designed to get kids used to books, to the idea of looking at and reading them; otherwise they may not see a book before they go to school.
  3. Community Literacy Projects are specifically ILF funded literacy projects that remote communities have identified that they would like to see in print. Recent projects have included No Way Yirrikipay!Bangs 2 Jurrukuk, Growing up in Nyirppi, The Honey Ant Readers (Books 1-3) in six languages, How Does Your Garden Grow? and Mystery at Manyallaluk.

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Why isn’t the Government teaching Indigenous kids literacy skills, and providing books? 

State and Territory education departments do provide primary schools with small libraries in remote areas, but there are very special challenges and disadvantages which create obstacles to children’s learning and access to books (particularly in the home and particularly before kids are old enough for preschool or school).

ILF is not a lobby group, although it supports the development of properly funded education in remote areas. The project exists independently of any government, political party or activist group.

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Why do these kids need special help?

They suffer unique disadvantages. The sorts of disadvantage the Indigenous Literacy Foundation seeks to address include:

Language difficulties

  • When these kids get to school, they come knowing perhaps three or four Indigenous dialects or languages, plus what’s known as Kriol, a kind of Indigenous-flavoured English.

    So then they arrive at pre-school and find that all the teachers speak a strange form of English and all the books are in English.

    To imagine ourselves in the place of these kids, imagine that as a preschooler, you spoke English, Yiddish and a dialect of Botswana with all your family and friends, but at school everything is taught in Norwegian, and all the textbooks are in Norwegian, and everything you write down has to be in Norwegian as well. And not only that, but all the books and all the ideas about how to live life are about Norwegian fisherman on the moon – everything about the lives of the people in the books and on the satellite TV you’ve seen is nothing like you’ve ever experienced.

Cultural assumptions

  • Many people who hear 'Kriol', or 'Aboriginal English' spoken assume it is the only language of Indigenous people, and it’s often wrongly assumed to be 'pidgin English'. A further assumption is then made that this is 'simple' and that Indigenous people have very limited knowledge of, or ability in language. In fact, most Indigenous children in remote areas know three or four complex languages, and it’s these they’ve grown up with, not the English we know.

    Further misunderstandings are common. While we might simply see a bunch of kids of similar ages in a community, each child has grown up with assigned special names and relationship groupings, responsibilities, totems, and obligations. An oblivious teacher can put schoolchildren into reading or conversation groups that contradict strict relationship rules, causing a culturally forbidden 'wrong way' problem.

    The long pause between asking a question and getting an answer can add to the wrong idea that an Indigenous person can’t understand or is 'slow'. In fact, a kid asked a question by an English speaking teacher in a remote school, has to listen to the question, perhaps containing some unfamiliar words, then mentally translate it into Indigenous English, then into one of his or her local languages, perhaps pausing to 'grab' an extra word or two from a dialect, or another language, formulate the answer, and then translate that back into 'Aboriginal' or 'school English' to answer the teacher.

    The question 'Who is your grandfather?' could get a confused glance not because the child doesn’t know or understand the question, but because there are so many different kinds of grandfathers and words for grandfather, taking into account a rich linguistic heritage with lots of prefixes, matrilineal and patrilineal sides of the family and other kinship obligations and skin-name considerations.

Special problems at remote schools

  • Although the classrooms have aides, usually aunties, mums or grannies of some of the children in the classroom, the teachers are usually non-Indigenous, from a long way away, without any local languages, who stay very short times. The turn-over rate of teachers in remote communities can be astonishingly high – some teachers only stay for a few weeks, or a few months. (On one ILF visit to a school, there were seven teachers, five of whom had been there only two weeks.)

    While some teachers in remote communities are remarkably dedicated and skilled, the lack of continuity is a constant problem. Some kids have a new teacher each term, or even several per term. This makes it very hard, even impossible, for parents and teachers to develop an understanding, for parents to feel their concerns will be heard and acted on, or for teachers to know children well individually and thus understand their learning needs.

    Indigenous literacy and education specialists have noted these problems. Similarly, our former Literacy Program Manager in Darwin, Debra Dank, reported these and other related problems observed in her 25 years' experience of remote learning and teaching in Indigenous schools in Queensland, the Northern Territory and elsewhere. Relevant issues include school attendance rates, perceptions that literacy is not important as there are few job opportunities or other ways to use the knowledge, lack of availability of books at home, lack of culturally appropriate books in school libraries or relevant curriculum and a lack of role models in communities for higher education or literacy skills.

Mistrust

  • ILF programs are co-ordinated with communities who have had many unfortunate experiences with 'outsiders'. It, therefore, takes time to built relationships with people in such communities. One way to do this is by establishing relationships with 'Local Ambassadors', who are community members who can advocate the project within their own area. Our Cultural Ambassador Debra Dank reports that it can take some time to get the message across that there are people from a long way away who care about the kids in communities, who want to help, who have asked the community how best to do that and who are providing books and other materials for kids with no strings attached, asking nothing in return. That is, there is no 'catch'.

    One of the aims of the project is to encourage community and individual 'ownership' – of books, of ideas, of what is available to read. ILF wants to foster trust, and new ways of educating kids and giving them the opportunity to feel the love and joy books can bring.

Health problems

  • Particular health disadvantages in some Indigenous communities have contributed to widespread hearing loss among kids. (The Darwin Menzies School of Health Research says only one in five kids in a remote community has normal hearing, a WA Department of Education and Training study in 2006 found that more than 70 per cent of students in remote communities had middle ear infections that cause permanent hearing loss). Lack of nutrition can have significant effects on the brain development and learning abilities. The health situation and outcomes for remote Aboriginal and Islander communities is the worst in Australia. Most children live in overcrowded and substandard homes. It’s universally common for these children to have relatives, including parents, who die in their 40s and 50s.

Isolation problems

  • Kids in these communities can be 'cut off' from the outside world by long distances, being up to 10 or more hours drive from the nearest regional town and then becoming literally isolated by floods during many months of the year. They cannot go to bookshops or libraries in regional centres.

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Why do you want money donations? Does the ILF accept second-hand books?

No. These kids, like all kids, deserve at least a handful of their own new books. And also because we are not set up logistically to collect, evaluate, and transport used books. ILF is currently run largely by volunteer work and donations, and so our programs are tailored to what we can do well. It’s very important for the books to be chosen by early childhood literacy specialists, and also that they are culturally appropriate for the communities to which they are supplied.

Books can be rejected for unexpected or unknown reasons. Some children’s books may be about an Indigenous custom, or display artwork that is alien to other communities, or a book could unwittingly violate cultural ideas of proper behaviour, or even be about a fictitious child who has the same name as a person in the community who has passed away –a name that should not be spoken. All of these complex and important considerations have to be taken into account.

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How do communities respond to the ILF?

Positively.

On a field trip to the Northern Territory for the project in 2009, committee members, staff, ambassadors (many Australian authors) and others in the book industry saw how enthusiastic and committed the project staff are, how they are welcomed into remote schools in communities in the Katherine area, Barunga, Manyallaluk and Wugular.

They saw how bright and enthusiastic the kids are about reading, writing and illustrating their own stories as they participated in workshops with the ambassador authors. They saw the libraries set up for kids, and were able to add to them by handing over books and literacy aids, as well as the Book Buzz packs for the littlies, to keep for their very own.

There are different ways of measuring the value of the project, and accounting for 'results'. Evaluation of the programs, the interest of the kids, and analysis of the needs and requests of communities and liaising with remote schools is ongoing.

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Second Hand Books

The books that the Indigenous Literacy Foundation sends to each remote Indigenous community are carefully chosen by the Indigenous Literacy Program Manager in consultation with members of the communities we work with, teachers who have worked in remote Australia and book industry experts. For this reason we are not able to accept donations of second hand or even new books. Also, as we are a small team and don't have the time to sort through or organise the distribution of extra books outside of our warehouse system.

However, we would be very grateful to receive any donations from the sale of your second hand books, and that money will go towards providing books, which address the specific needs of the different communities.

 

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