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Reading Acquisition in Young Aboriginal Children
Written by:
Patrick D. Walton, Ph.D. and Gloria Ramirez, Ph.D., School of Education, Thompson Rivers University
Published online:
2012-04-09 22:18:47
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Aboriginal (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) education has a long and tumultuous history in Canada, stemming from decades of colonialism and residential schooling. Residential schooling policies included mandatory graduation ages and were intended to destroy Aboriginal culture and languages. This resulted in widespread social and psychological upheaval in Aboriginal communities (Battiste, 2000). Children, placed in residential schools from the age of 5, were forbidden to speak their Aboriginal language and were required to speak English only and to stop communicating with their siblings (Battiste, 2005). Residential schooling resulted in many Aboriginal parents not seeing value in providing print-based materials in the home and feeling intimidated by schools and teachers (Ball, Bernhardt, & Deby, 2006). In 2003, the BC Ministry of Education (reported in Bell et al., 2004) found that between 40% and 50% of Aboriginal students failed to meet the requirements of literacy tests conducted in Grades 4, 7, and 10. Not surprisingly, school success is more closely linked to competence in one of Canada’s official languages (English or French) than to proficiency in an Aboriginal language. Schools have only recently begun to respond to Aboriginal communities and reflect Aboriginal culture in the curricula and teaching methods (McDonald, 2012). Teaching Aboriginal children to read in English has implications that go beyond the cognitive processes of acquiring meaning from text, as there are extensive cultural differences between Aboriginal peoples and the predominant population of Canada (Walton, Canaday, & Dixon, 2010).
Some key educational goals recently identified by several Aboriginal communities, which are especially relevant to reading acquisition, are knowledge of Aboriginal culture, particularly Aboriginal language, and high levels of competence in reading in English and mathematics (More, 1984; Napoleon, 1988; School District No. 73, 2010). The Aboriginal communities want their children to know their own culture, speak an Aboriginal language, and also learn the required skills to succeed in the non-Aboriginal world.
We speak about two worldviews, the Aboriginal and Western knowledges and ways of knowing. These two worldviews have also been described as “two-eyed seeing” by Elder Albert Marshall (Eskasoni Mi’kmaq First Nation). The phrase refers to seeing the Aboriginal view with one eye, the Western view with the other, and weaving back and forth between the perspectives (Barrett, 2008). If education (in this case, literacy in English) is to be used as a tool to build strong Aboriginal communities and be the “new buffalo,” then it is essential for the teaching to be culturally appropriate and to not repeat the failures of the residential schools. The basic concept is that “new buffalo” is access to education, which partially replaces the buffalo that previously provided essential needs for many Aboriginal peoples (Stonechild, 2006).
Culturally appropriate literacy practices and resources
The importance of developing culturally-based Aboriginal curricula was emphasized by several researchers (e.g., Battiste, 2005; Bell et al., 2004), the Aboriginal community (George, 1974) and recent reviews of Aboriginal learning (Canadian Council on Learning, 2007, 2009). Although there are different practices of teaching and learning, in traditional Aboriginal communities, elders were customarily the primary teachers who integrated knowledge as they taught young children.
It has been documented that about half of off-reserve First Nations children currently participate in traditional activities such as singing, drum dancing, traditional ceremonies, fishing, hunting, and camping (Statistics Canada, 2006). These Aboriginal cultural practices could potentially be incorporated into Aboriginal literacy curricula to make the teaching culturally appropriate. 
Culturally appropriate practices in school curricula should also include the teaching of Aboriginal languages and literacy. This approach would be culturally and cognitively advantageous, given that there are underlying cognitive skills that support reading development across two or more languages (Cummins, 1979, 2000).  In fact, crosslingusitic transfer of several reading-related skills have been confirmed in studies across a variety of languages (e.g., Comeau, Cormier, Grandmaison, & Lacroix, 1999 for French and English; Ramírez, Chen-Bumgardner, Geva, & Kiefer, 2010 for Spanish and English; Saiegh-Hadadd & Geva, 2008 for Arabic and English). 
Reading research with Aboriginal children
Decades of systematic research in early reading development clearly identified several key areas of reading development: phonological and phonemic awareness (the ability to recognize and manipulate speech sounds), word decoding and word recognition, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; The Partnership for Reading, 2006).  A weakness in one or more of these areas can disrupt the normal acquisition of reading skills and can later prevent optimal performance in academic tasks across all the content areas (The Partnership for Reading, 2006). That is, children who experience difficulty learning to read early in their formal schooling tend to have reading problems in later grades (Stanovich, 1986). Reading difficulties have also been shown to negatively affect motivation to read (Oka & Paris, 1986) and self-esteem (Reading Rockets, 2012). Reading skills rely on a strong foundation of oral language development (Scarborough, 2001). There is extensive correlational and experimental evidence that oral language and phonological awareness are key to success in learning to read in English (e.g., Reynolds, Wheldalla, & Madelainea, 2011). This finding has been corroborated in all other languages studied (e.g., Demont & Gombert, 1996) and holds even when age, language ability, IQ, social class, and memory are controlled (Wagner & Torgesen, 1987).    For these reasons, identifying the most effective methods for teaching reading to Aboriginal children may have the strongest long-term results when directed at the beginning steps to reading.

The current consistent findings on the robust relationship between phonological awareness and beginning reading were not available to reading researchers prior to the 1990s, and perhaps for this reason, the early research on reading with Aboriginal children did not incorporate phonological awareness. Although evidence is still scarce, this relationship has also been observed in more recent studies with Aboriginal children (e.g., Walton, Thorneloe, Bowden, & Angus, 2001).   

A combination of teaching methods, including the implementation of a systematic phonics program, frequent and varied exposure to high frequency sight words, and rich exposure to good literature, have been recommended (Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network, 2009; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008) for effective instruction of word decoding and word recognition. These recommendations emerged from studies conducted primarily with mainstream populations (for list of studies, see National Early Literacy Panel, 2008 and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). It is important to know whether these approaches benefit Aboriginal children as well. Of the research on beginning reading with First Nations children that was conducted prior to the 1990s, one experimental study found no differences between the teaching methods examined (Bryant, 1986). Taschow (1980) compared Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal elementary-aged children and found no difference on written skills and higher scores on oral responses for the non-Aboriginal children. On the other hand, more recent research suggests that some methods are more effective for Aboriginal children than others.  A three-year longitudinal study of students in Grades 1 to 3, which examined the effect of a prescriptive and intensive phonics-based reading program compared to a more balanced program, found the latter more beneficial to Aboriginal children, while even negative effects of the former were observed (Phillips, Norris, & Steffler, 2007).
A thorough examination of ten schools across Canada (of which seven were elementary schools and one pre-Kindergarten) with moderate to high concentration of Aboriginal students (see Bell et al., 2004, for a complete report), yielded several common factors that characterize success rates in early literacy instruction. These factors include:  
Current research on reading acquisition with young Aboriginal children
There are few recently published research projects that specifically examine reading acquisition with young Aboriginal children. Those that have been published are reviewed below.

Timmons and O’Donoghue (2006) developed a 10-week family literacy program in collaboration with three Mi'kmaq families in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia for children from Grades 1 to 7. The program consisted of a series of 10 modules that were delivered to parents for 1.5 hours each week and included instruction on how the parents could help their children learn to read. The modules included Reading in and Around Your Home, and the main strategies employed were predicting, decoding, paired reading, readers’ theatre, repeated reading, literature circles, and retelling. The Aboriginal communities were asked to identify important teaching strategies, and the process of using oral histories and storytelling to help children remember their oral tradition was included in the program. Timmons and O’Donoghue found consistent gains in word reading, reading comprehension, and listening comprehension. This was evidence that a reading program designed with and delivered by Aboriginal parents can be effective in advancing literacy with Aboriginal children.
Francis and Reyhner (2002), in their book entitled Language and Literacy Teaching for Indigenous Education: A Bilingual Approach, emphasized the importance of creating and sharing stories as part of literacy-related teaching. They argued that incorporating oral storytelling and oral forms into the school-based literacy program would break down discontinuities between the community and the classroom. McKeough et al. (2008) adapted their Story Thinking language and literacy program with the involvement of an Aboriginal advisory committee and incorporated Aboriginal written stories. Preliminary results indicate progress in storytelling and they are currently examining the effects on literacy.
A reading program based on small cooperative group games to teach specific phonological and rime-based reading skills (i.e., based on short words that rhyme such as cat and rat) was developed by Walton et al. (2001). The language and reading games were developed to foster peer support, sharing, and mentoring in small groups, teaching methods consistent with many traditional Aboriginal cultures. The games were taught to the children by a teacher who had children take turns playing the games and helping each other. The games taught rhyming, phoneme identity, letter-sound correspondence and word reading. The program was used with Heiltsuk and Shuswap (Secwepemc) Aboriginal Kindergarten and Grade 1 children attending Aboriginal-operated schools on two reserves in British Columbia. The children in both schools made significant gains on the prereading skills and word reading compared to the control group where children were read stories.
The teaching in Walton et al. (2001) also included the use of brief jingles to teach the rhyming words. The jingles appeared to be an effective strategy to help the Aboriginal children to learn to read. It was found that children appeared to learn new words more easily and remember the words for longer periods of time when jingles were used to teach reading words that rhymed. A song-based reading curriculum was created and tested by Walton et al. (2010) with Aboriginal Kindergarten children. The children attended two schools located in low socio-economic areas of a medium-sized city in the interior of British Columbia, Canada. Aboriginal musicians, including the award winning Fara Palmer, created and recorded 12 original children's songs, added body movements to accompany the songs, and piloted the songs with Aboriginal Kindergarten children. The results indicated that learning key prereading skills and reading was enhanced for young Aboriginal children when songs and movement were part of the reading program. The classroom observations showed that children appeared to enjoy the singing and movement activities, and they could be heard singing the songs as jingles as they left the classroom. The key implication of the research was that teachers should be encouraged to use songs and movement to teach Aboriginal children in the first steps of reading.
Aboriginal reading programs
There have been several recent curriculum projects in Canada that were developed with the intent of implementing culturally appropriate Aboriginal literacy programs. Although the programs are viewed positively, little evidence is currently available to examine the effects of these programs on reading. As Aboriginal educators have noted, there is a need for research to evaluate the effects of community-based programs to support Aboriginal children’s development (Canada Council on Learning, 2007). Below is a list of recently developed Aboriginal literacy programs:
  1. Reaching the rainbow: Aboriginal literacy in Canada. By Priscilla George. Yorkton, SK: Parkland Regional College, 1998. An information kit to serve as a starting point when planning to set up an Aboriginal literacy program or adding Aboriginal literacy to existing programs.
  2. Sinew and sage: Aboriginal literacy workbooks 1, 2 & 3.By Melanie Ferris. Owen Sound, ON: Ningwakwe Learning Press, 2009. These three workbooks offer exercises to help learn literacy skills while focusing on themes of Aboriginal culture.
  3. The story of the seven fires. By Sally Gaikezheyongai.  Owen Sound, ON: Ningwakwe Learning Press, 2002. This video is an edited version of the Seven Fires story as told to a live audience. The manual contains extra materials and suggestions for learning activities.
  4. Unipkausivut, Building language and literacy skills through oral history(Online resource). By Nunavut Literacy Council, 2004.  Available at http://www.nunavutliteracy.ca/english/resource/unipkausivut/unip.pdf.  Primarily a resource for educators, Unipkausivut also contains many insights from various people, including Elders, on the importance of: storytelling and culture, language and literacy, and building language and literacy skills. 
  5. Culture-based curriculum: A framework.Compiled and written by Ken Hill. East Owen Sound, ON: Ontario Native Literacy Coalition, 2001. Also available online at http://www.nald.ca/library/learning/onlc/cover.htm. The purpose of the manual is to assist Aboriginal literacy practitioners in the design and development of their own educational systems that are holistic, culture-based and community-based. 
Stories of successful reading performance of Aboriginal students highlight that learning expectations are met or exceeded when effective instructional approaches, alongside culturally relevant literacy education, are provided. Most effective Aboriginal schools also have programs that actively involve parents. To illustrate:
          An examination of the FSA reading scores showed that Alert Bay Elementary School had excellent results. Seventy percent of the school                 
          population is Aboriginal, and in 2000, 78% of Grade 4 students met or exceeded expectations in reading, while in 2001 and 2002, 100% met or
          exceeded expectations. (Bell et al., 2004, p. 47)
The recent spur of reading programs which have been developed for Aboriginal children is promising; yet, research is needed to examine their effectiveness. Also, it is worth noting that we could not find any existing research on the development of writing among Aboriginal children. More research in this area is clearly needed. Another area for future research is the examination of bilingual and biliteracy development in Canadian Aboriginal children.
We conclude with words from Chief Dan George, a highly respected chief from British Columbia:
           Like the thunderbird of old, I shall rise again out of the sea; I shall grab the instruments of the white man's success, his education, his skills. 
           With these new tools I shall build my race into the proudest segments of your society. (George, 1974, p. 92)

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