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Teaching English in Indigenous ESL Classrooms in Remote Parts of Australia

Teaching English in Indigenous ESL Classrooms in Remote Parts of Australia | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Whilst the focus of this essay is on the teaching of English to indigenous students in remote parts of Australia where English is in all likelihood, not the first language, all situations are relevant in which the local; indigenous population forms a significant part of the local community. For instance, the writer teaches at a secondary school in south-east Queensland, in a town where some 10% of students are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. This is less than an hour’s drive from the state capital, Brisbane, to the north-east, and a similar distance from Australia’s sixth-largest city, Gold Coast, so is not remote, as so many towns, stations, and settlements in Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory, as well as Queensland, are. However, in the writer’s experience, the considerations discussed herein, are certainly worth taking into account in the teaching of these students.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Bryan D. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

This has been an unexpected benefit gained from completing this ITTT online TEFL/TESOL course, originally intended to prepare the writer for overseas opportunities – not in his home country!

Australian Population

The Indigenous peoples of Australia have descended from the approximate 250 tribes - the Aboriginal tribes of mainland Australia, and the tribes from the islands of the Torres Strait off the north-east coast of the mainland – existing at the time of European settlement in 1788, despite Britain’s view that this was terra nullius, loosely meaning “empty land”. As it became clear that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders would not (conveniently) die out primarily through colonial brutality and European diseases, the education of the Indigenous population has been predicated on policies of assimilation, often to the detriment of social relationships, as in the case of children removed from aboriginal communities to be raised as “white” children, so having the best chance of fitting into an ever-increasingly British society.

Fortunately, the overt brutality has ostensibly disappeared; however, a significant gap in most social measures continues to exist, a continuing situation of shame in this country, Australia. The gaps are most obvious in health, housing, employment, the management of social ills such as domestic violence and alcoholism – and, of course, education. In noting the gaps, it is only fair to recognize the massive amount of effort and economic assistance being devoted to these gaps. I have been pleased to study in detail the work of just two-state/territory organizations, viz., the Western Australia Department of Education, and the Northern Territory Department of Education & Training.

australian koala

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English as a Second Language in Australia

The advice from our Indigenous mentors is to “remember that English is a foreign language … for many aboriginal children, English is their second, third or fourth language”. Therefore the technique for communication, in remote areas particularly, is to explain things in more than one way, and more than once, for, in aboriginal culture, knowledge was passed on through repetitive storytelling. (1)

A teacher’s professional sensitivities may be disturbed here. We can accept that it would apply to Indigenous students in remote areas, and we can also be cognizant of the possible need for our students embedded in “normal” classes where they may be in the minority. But perhaps it may equally apply bin any classroom where there are diverse cultures?

Certainly, it is established that the teaching of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander students requires sensitivity for their special needs, and a knowledge of their cultural protocols, in relating curriculum content to real life, and, where it is relevant, to work around the limitations of their parents. In terms of specific teaching techniques, we are advised to avoid direct eye contact, as it is considered rude; to note that they are less likely to answer questions, as the culture relies on the telling of the stories, and they don’t like to be the center of attention; to give tasks that are hands-on rather rely on speaking up; to rely on visual cues rather than reading directly; to recognize that they will withdraw when faced with difficult situations, at the risk of feeling shame; and to note that hearing difficulties may result from ear infections. More positively, the teacher is encouraged to avoid any expectation of underperformance, and to set high expectations for that will lead to high outcomes; to relate examples to the environment and the community, and to aim to give the student a greater sense of autonomy.

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In considering the teaching of English grammar to Indigenous students, “an understanding of the grammar of a language is a necessary part of developing written and oral language proficiency. Grammar is concerned with all the parts of a text and the relationship between them … that is, grammar works at a whole text, sentence and word level. These go to make up our grammatical rules.” (2)

However, the ‘rules’ of one language may not apply to another language. The language of a culture, and therefore its grammar, is derived from culturally accepted norms or values. “The languages of different cultures may have quite different ways of making meaning inherent within them.” And, “when speakers of one language begin to speak a second language, they have to learn these different structures.” So, the challenge for teachers in remote areas can be put simply:

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Teaching Experience

“For teachers working in schools where Indigenous learners make up the largest percentage of the learner population, and where these learners speak languages other than English, a major task of the teacher is to teach the learners how to communicate effectively in Standard Australian English (SAE). As SAE is the language of the majority culture in Australia, people who are not proficient may be disadvantaged.”

How best to achieve this? Western Australia’s Aboriginal Literacy Strategy, coming out of the policy on “English as an Additional Language or Dialect for Aboriginal Students”, specifies Key Program Features, which, inter alia, include: an unrelenting focus on quality English language and literacy instruction – “students are provided with opportunities to develop a sense of control of SAE through the active use of, and reflection about, Home Language and Standard Australian English in a wide range of communicative activities; consistency and sustainability – “established routines, activities, patterns of classroom organization and instructional strategies that are known to support effective additional language/dialect and literacy learning … (and) all stakeholders (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff, community, students) involved and informed, accepting and supportive of the learning program, and valuing and broadening students’ linguistic and cultural repertoire. (3)

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It is worthwhile focusing on this feature of the Strategy, as, in the opinion of the writer, it provides the criteria for success. It provides that: students’ Home Language and culture are recognized, valued and used in the learning of Standard Australian English; students are treated as individuals with their backgrounds, needs, and interests; students have opportunities to demonstrate and build on their own linguistic and cultural knowledge; tasks and activities and linguistically and culturally appropriate with opportunities to hear language that is comprehensible to students, moving from the known to the unknown; opportunities are provided to focus on, talk about, purposefully practice and reflect on Standard Australian English forms, skills, strategies and conceptualizations across a range of contexts; a two-way approach to teaching and learning is embedded at, whole-school and class levels, with an on-going hands-on collaboration with Aboriginal people; there is a deliberate focus on valuing Aboriginal English and on teaching the various aspects of SAE, and there are high, but realistic expectations for all learners, ensuring that there is rigor in all literacy sessions.

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This essay, in exploring the relevance of TESOL training to the teaching of English as a second language in remote parts of Australia to indigenous students, has in the mind of the writer, confirmed the hypotheses that it not only is relevant, but necessary. The albeit restricted research sources, from state authorities to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory groups, in their strategies and recommendations, support this conclusion.

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