Protecting Indigenous languages as vibrant, literate cultures

Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that:

Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalise, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures.”

Often there is a strong focus on preserving the oral nature of traditional, Indigenous languages, and - yet - there is a tendency to overlook the equivalent urgency to protect, capture and foster literacy and literature in the languages of some of the world's oldest cultures.

Today, I am writing with a call to action from The Literacy Bug community. The organisation for which I work - the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation - is one of ten finalists in the Google Impact Challenge. Whilst all ten finalists receive much-needed funding to carry forward their projects, four of the finalist are awarded a grand prize of $750,000 each. One of the grand prize winners is selected via a public vote, which is where you can assist.

I am asking like-minded individuals to vote for the ALNF's Living First Language project. It doesn't matter where you are in the world. If you share a passion for linguistic diversity, literacy and social justice, then please cast your vote in the Google Impact Challenge. Visit the following link to vote: I also ask you to circulate the link to relevant friends and colleagues, whether via email, Facebook, Twitter or other social media.

I have been fortunate to have had significant experience working in and with Indigenous communities in Australia in the areas of Indigenous language and literacy. I regularly hear elders speak of the profound significance that Indigenous languages play in culture, identity, well-being and spirituality. Equally, elders want their children and grandchildren to be literate in their traditional language(s) and English.  As an organisation, the ALNF is committed to Twin Language literacy learning when working in remote Australian communities, and we feel that the Google Impact Challenge grant will provide the means to complete development of a flexible, digital platform that Speaker Groups can use to record, collate, develop, teach and share their languages.

Unfortunately, Australian Indigenous languages are in peril. The 2014 National Indigenous Languages Survey reports that all Australian traditional languages are at risk of declining or in a state of decline. National Geographic notes that traditional languages in Australia are declining at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world. The impact is not merely around language, though. There are known positive impacts on educational, employment, health, and mental health outcomes in communities where language status is strong. In addition, the ALNF is well aware that strong early language and literacy learning in one’s Mother Tongue provides a pivotal bridge for formal (English) literacy in school, which is why the ALNF has developed paper-based and digital resources in collaboration with Speaker Groups, which they use to teach their children to read and write in local Indigenous language(s). 

The Google Impact Challenge grand prize will enable the ALNF to find accessible ways to incorporate emerging technologies - such as natural language processing and machine learning - to enhance the resources that have already been developed as well as the tools that we can only dream of. Ultimately, Speaker Group communities deserve access to innovative, accessible tools, which allow them to read, write, record, develop, teach and share their languages as living, literate languages within local communities and beyond. It is a challenge that the ALNF is willing to accept.

I hope you don't mind this direct call to action. It is rare for me to allow my personal/professional self to show itself in The Literacy Bug. That said, I think it is important to do so in this case. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like further information, have any questions or have great ideas to support the campaign.

And ... please don't forget to vote:

A story that cuts right to the heart of the Opportunity to Learn issue

I have mentioned it before and it is a concept that I will return to again and again; the issue of equality in opportunity to learn. Today, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting on a short story I once wrote that relates directly to the main topic: considering whether all learners have equal opportunity to learn and succeed.

Photo by Ahlapot/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Ahlapot/iStock / Getty Images

You won’t have a chance to read the actual story. It is stored somewhere so safe that the best minds are yet to uncover it. You must instead rely upon my synopsis. As far as the setting, the story takes place in inner city San Diego in the late 1990s. It is a low socio-economic community with issues common to the time: drugs, gangs, racial tensions and the working poor. I was teaching at a high school in the community when I wrote the story.

The story itself is an appropriation of “Eveline” by James Joyce. In Joyce’s tale, the main character - Eveline - is a young woman who is sitting forlornly in front of a dilapidated house in a crowded street in Dublin. Her mother has passed away, and she left behind a baby girl, Eveline’s sister. Eveline’s brothers have moved out of home, her father is a drunkard, and she is now responsible for raising her baby sister whilst working part-time and avoiding her father’s abuse. Her opportunities are fairly limited by poverty, circumstance and the expectations placed on a woman of the times (early 1900s).

In the story, Eveline is approached by a “fellow” who confesses his love for her, and promises to take her away from this misery and start a new life overseas. We might expect her to rush towards this door of apparent freedom, but she doesn’t. At the critical moment where she is to board a ship bound for the New World, she stands frozen on the docks and she watches the fellow leave her behind. We don’t know if she stays due to a promise she made to her mother - "to hold the house together" - or her fear that she would face another type of servitude as a wife in a foreign land. Eveline’s opportunities are severely limited by complex factors, which serve to paralyse her. 

In my appropriation - “Jinicia Sings the Blues” - my main character - Jinicia - is a young African American women - aged 18 or so - leaning on a railing outside her house, watching her younger brother deftly navigate a local game of street soccer. Inside the house, Jinicia’s baby sister is asleep. Her dedicated father is at work, and he works three jobs just to pay the bills. Her mother left the family with another man. And her older brother was shot dead in a gangland dispute a couple years ago. Meanwhile, Jinicia watches her younger, talented brother with a mixture of pride, envy and pity. He is good at school, good at sport and is a born leader. She wants him to dribble the ball down the block and out of the neighbourhood and never look back. She is afraid that the community will eventually swallow him up in some minimum wage job or worse, and that the dream of a scholarship to college will be left unrealised. Jinicia is a clever young woman who wavers between hope and fear, and can’t help battle a deep cynicism. The story ends as she walks back into the house to cradle her waking sister, who she also looks upon with both love and trepidation.

At one stage, I entertained the thought of extending the story. I thought of introducing a character from the other side of the tracks, or across the bridge in the wealthy peninsular community of Coronado. I imagined Jinicia reflecting on the differences in the two worlds. She wouldn’t be able to stop herself from thinking, “would my older brother still be alive if we could have bailed him out of his trouble? would I even worry about my younger brother if our circumstances were different?”

I think the story cuts right to the heart of the Opportunity to Learn issue. Whilst the story might not be about literacy, it engages with an issue raised by Donaldo Macedo, “reading specialists … who have made technical advancement in the field of reading … [must] make linkages between their self-contained technical reading methods and the social and political realities that generate unacceptably high failure reading rates among certain groups of students.” (Macedo, 2001, pg xiii) 

If the components of reading development are known (National Reading Panel and others), why is it that success rates are directly linked to differences in socio-economic factors and not to differences in cognitive functioning or personal motivation? (Chiu, McBride-Chang & Lin, 2012) We need to know, “the sociological processes which control the way the developing child relates himself to his environment. It requires an understanding of how certain areas of experience are differentiated, made specific and stabilised … What seems to be needed is the development of a theory of social learning which would indicate what in the environment is available for learning, the conditions of learning, the constraints on subsequent learning, and the major reinforcing process.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg. 55)

As stated by James Paul Gee, “caring about [students’] rights means caring … about the trajectories of learners as they develop … as part of communities of practice, engaged in mind, body, and culture, and not just as repositories of skills, facts, and information.” (2008, pg 105) We must be ever diligent on issues of equity, both in enhancing opportunities and respecting diversity. We must be conscious of the socioeconomic, motivational and neurocognitive factors that are brought to bear on learning. We must be mindful of the impacts of poverty, discrimination and instability. The conditions for success are multifaceted, long and intricate.



Bernstein, B. (1964). Elaborated and Restricted Codes: Their Social Origins and Some Consequences. American Anthropologist, 66(6_PART2), 55–69.

Chiu, M. M., McBride-Chang, C., & Lin, D. (2012). Ecological, psychological, and cognitive components of reading difficulties: testing the component model of reading in fourth graders across 38 countries. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(5), 391–405.

Gee, J. P. (2008). A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel, & L. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76 – 108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macedo, D. (2001). Foreword. In P. Freire (Ed.), Pedagogy of freedom: ethics, democracy and civic courage (pp. xi – xxxii). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

We should all agree that everyone deserves a high quality education

We all seem to agree that everyone deserves a high quality education; however, I anticipate that there would some disagreement as to what a quality education might consist of.

To be educated is to be equipped with certain knowledge, skills and attributes to navigate/shape/explore/question/participate in one's world, whatever that world is or will be.

Education involves doing, imagining, connecting, collaborating, understanding, accomplishing, discovering, becoming and more.

For a child in a refugee camp or - worse - a detention camp, he or she may become proficient in the skills that are taught within the confines of a cramped classroom or in the shade of a tree, but is this child receiving an education? Is the child discovering the mysteries of physics, the art of the humanities, the conundrums of civic society, the collected wisdom and more. Whilst I do not want to devalue the valiant efforts of educators in the camps (something with which I am all too familiar), I dream of greater opportunities for this child, wherever his or her path may lead.

What does an education mean to you? How is an education denied a life denied?

Ensuring Equity in Opportunity to Learn

The following are elements that contribute to equality in the opportunity to learn. In an equitable system, all students would have access to:

  • Engaged time;
  • Quality teaching, resources and environments;
  • Safe environments which students are free from harm and discrimination and that their basic needs are met;
  • The material, cultural and economic means to achieve;
  • Opportunities to practice and to extend practices;
  • High expectations that are shared between the school and the home contexts;
  • Suitable collaboration between the home and school contexts as well as with the broader community context;
  • Schools and communities which are sensitive to the linguistic and cultural diversity of the student population, particularly when a minority of learners come to classrooms with a home language that is not used as the language of instruction;
  • Instruction which is suitable to the learners’ stages of development, and learners have been given strategic skills that help them engage in the current and subsequent stages of learning;
  • Learning environment which facilitate high challenge/high support instruction so that diverse students can make suitable and competitive progress;
  • Special accommodations that have been made to meet the specific learning needs of all students;
  • Content which is engaging, relevant, purposeful and that will build on prior knowledge and that will be consistent with current ways of knowing and be applicable to everyday problem-solving.
  • An education that responds to individual affinities/talents so learners are able to capitalise on these interests and learning trajectories;
  • Effective support in managing transitions between schooling/learning contexts;.
  • Every opportunity to achieve, so that children's resilience is being developed and their motivation is fostered;
  • Institutions and society that seek to minimise and mitigate the impacts of social and economic disadvantage; and
  • People and institutions who keep “a finger on the pulse” of all students at all times. Progress is monitored, opportunities are made available, and extra support is facilitated, where required.

Four Essays on the Elements of a Balanced Literacy Program

The following four "essays" each tackle the same question: "how do we foster a comprehensive and rich literacy program?" Whilst the essays risk repetition (starting with their descriptions below), they each represent a renewed attempt the explore the same very vexed question. Of the four essays, the essay A Teacher for All Seasons and All Places goes the furthest by taking into account the impact of literacy in the home environment and also speaking about factors that can increase equity in opportunity to learn.

Like previous essays, the following first appeared as Journal entries, but now find themselves revised and updated. (The first - Managing a Balanced Approach to Literacy - first appear in November 2013.) You will find that each reflects the same division of perspectives on language & literacy highlighted in the page titled, Why Wittgenstein? Why not a general site about literacy? Please explore, enjoy and share your thoughts!

Two New Essays: On Literacy & On Practices

This entry comes with a sense of accomplishment. We are pleased to share two (new) essays that reflect important principles from Wittgenstein On Learning. As with many of the essays, both essays initially appeared in the Journal and have been revised and updated for the Essays Section. One essay appeared fairly recently in the Journal (3 July) and it is titled A Framework For Considering Literacy Instruction. The essay seeks to provide a framework for comprehensive and balanced literacy instruction which reflects the developmental stages of literacy and the multifaceted nature of language development.

The other essay is a more expansive attempt to cover its topic. It first appeared as a five-part series starting in January and it now exists as a unified essay that comes in at over 7,000 words (which - in hindsight - is not very much). It focuses on our practices and it is entitled Why Do We Do What We Do?.  Taken together both essays reflect upon two principles that underpin the themes on this site: how we come to see (read) in particular ways and how we come to act (practice) with others within a community. Please explore and enjoy!

The Mission of Wittgenstein On Learning


The cognitive revolution (exemplified by such work as the work of Noam Chomsky) has exerted a great influence in the fields of linguistics and education. Whilst there is little doubt that this work has contributed significantly to our technical understanding of cognition, language and learning, it has also produced unintended negative consequences by encouraging models of learning that appear overly mechanical, acultural and linear. In contrast, a return to the themes of Wittgenstein re-engages a picture of language and learning within context which is highly dynamic, reiterative, dialectical, interpersonal and ontological.


The mission of this site is to utilise the Wittgenstein's philosophy as a catalyst to promote rigorous investigations of teaching, literacy, acculturation and psycho-social development. Key pillars of Wittgenstein's teachings - analytical thought and enactivism - urge us to examine how and why we come to learn what we learn by urging us to critically reflect on the very conditions and expectations of learning. This critical practice should call all educators, citizens and political leaders to be comprehensive in framing learning events which are sensitive to the diversity of socio-cultural practices and diligent in promoting equity in learning opportunities for all. 


  • To use Wittgenstein's concept of aspect seeing as a platform to explain how one's perceptual skills (e.g. literacy), knowledge (e.g. historical appreciation), practices (e.g. mechanical skills) and beliefs (e.g. democratic ideals) develop over time in stages through repeated practice, enabling opportunities and guidance from those who are more experienced; 
  • To ask us all to be mindful and respectful of the experiences, rituals, practices, cultural artefacts and "learning moments" that give shape to the ways we live, see, act, react and believe by showing how all learning and language has its form, content, purpose, context and history, all of which may not necessarily be apparent to the acculturated learner or the outsider; and
  • To understand what it means to ensure equity in the opportunity for all to learn whilst respecting the cultural, social and economic pluralism exhibited within and across local, national and historical boundaries.


In short, nothing a priori. There are no universals. All is learned. That which is learned becomes the foundation for later learning. Any cultural similarities in learning practices are due to similarities in human needs that are present across time and space. Our learning comes to serve as the framework to our perceiving, interpreting and acting, which will evolve, alter direction, fragment, decay, leap, etc. Therefore, the trajectory for learning is neither determined nor automatic. At the same time, the trajectory of learning is not arbitrary. The trajectory is conditioned through context, practice and the will, and this conditioning is far from simple and rarely pure.

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Book Tip: The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind

by Jeanne Chall, Vicki Jacobs, and Luke Baldwin

Recently, I wrote about this book in a journal entry titled A Teacher for All Seasons where I indicated that a literacy teacher must be clear, structured and evidence-based as well as expansive, engaging and creative.  Even though by contemporary standards the title - why poor children fall behind - may appear blunt, the authors' observations about the challenges of coordinating a balanced pedagogy are pertinent today. For this reason, I am including it as a recommended read.

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The Utimate Goal Is Education

 We often ask, how is it that a Grade 3 student is unable to read? How can we allow this?

“Every child, scrawling his first letters on his slate and attempting to read for the first time, in so doing, enters an artificial and most complicated world.”  (Hermann Hesse, Quoted by Wolf, 2008, p 79)

The ultimate goal is education, and we should never underestimate the practical, emotional and deliberative factors which must all align for deep discovery to take place. We must continue to ask the following questions:

  • Is there effective teaching? Are there effective spaces for teaching and learning?
  • Is there a commitment of key stakeholders?
  • What are the opportunities and motivations for practice and application?
  • What presents themselves as barriers to education and how do we minimise these barriers?

For quality education to become a reality, there must be coherent & developmental instruction; passionate & visionary teachers, peers and/or caregivers; quality materials, resources & practices; and a respect for the learners' cultures, experiences and pathways. The learner must be "a biologically and socially adept human being ... susceptible to training ... [with] fundamental trust [in] the authority of the teacher ... [engaged in] socio-linguistic interaction ... transmissible ... through enculturation" (Moyal-Sharrock, 2010, pg 6 - 7). We must work to create joint attention in which all participants share a sense of mutual accomplishment within enabling structures.

As mentioned previously, equity in opportunity to learn requires that the learner has:

  1. Substantial amount of engaged time on task which is not disrupted by teacher and student absenteeism;
  2. Access to quality teaching, resources and environments;
  3. A coalition of support including teachers, parents, community members and peers;
  4. Safe and secure environments free from discrimination and abundant in high educational expectations;
  5. Respect for the funds of knowledge that the learners bring to the learning environments and their cultural way of knowing. This includes a respect for the cultural, social and economic space and the way of knowing particular to it and its occupants, even in an era of globalisation, nationalism and standardisation;
  6. Structuring structures that structure structure, which refers to the aggregate effect of supportive environments, financial capital, social relationships and the employment/educational marketplace;
  7. Resilience, grit, agency and purpose demonstrated by learners as well as from their teachers and their caregivers; and 
  8. Substantial opportunities to practice with key opportunities to turn such practice into sustained existence (e.g. jobs, clubs, etc).

However, we must also engage with the antithesis of this ideal. If we supposedly know the essentials for achieving equity in opportunity to learn, why is it that we allow the achievement gap to widen? Do we put this down to lingustic differences, cultural differences, discrimination, inadequate or negligent teaching, or disagreement over the rationales for schooling? (Au, 1998) Are “disadvantaged” learners in environments that encourages complacency, a lack of self-efficacy or a lack of rigour? Are there inadequate learning materials, limited learning opportunities, and ineffective feedback? Are learners in a world full of risks, harms and threats? Do we know the assets that students bring to the learning and are we prepared to provide the opportunities for transformative education?

Therefore, a FOCUS ON LEARNING involves the most deliberate activities, since we know that any learning is only fragile unless reinforced and integrated into further stages of learning. The child (or emerging learner) is not faced with the prospect of developing such complex skills from the get go. There is a progressive, temporal dimension to this learning where the child is supported by others to develop foundational skills which lead into competency which lead to mastery which lead to further disciplinary practice. Meanwhile, the learner is surrounded by others (family, a community, peers, a culture) who exerts their own practices, knowledge, values and ways of navigating the spoken and written word.

What I do encourage is diligence and vision, empathy and expertise, instruction and reflection because "the child's understanding is not achieved in an instance or a flash, but requires multifarious repetition in multifarious context." (Moyal-Sharrock, 2010, pg 6). Learning also requires closure (or reinforcements). "Wittgenstein means to call to mind ... the intimacy with which seeing [and learning] is bound up with our embodiment, expectations, natural reactions, forms of life, and facts about our natural and social worlds.” (Affeldt, 2010, p. 276) 

The teacher must be able to recognise this and take into account a range of factors when assessing the suitability of the goals for instruction, of the instructional materials, of the instructional methods, of classroom/instructional management, of community and parental engagement, of the role of home language and multilingualism, and of the forms of the assessment to be used (Au, 1998). A teacher's expertise should be both technical and socio-cultural. As Macedo (2001) suggests, “reading specialists ... who have made technical advancement in the field of reading ... [must] make linkages between their self-contained technical reading methods and the social and political realities that generate unacceptably high failure reading rates among certain groups of students.” (pg xiii)


Affeldt, S. G. (2010). On the difficulty of seeing aspects and the “therapeutic” reading of Wittgenstein. In W. Day & V. J. Krebs (Eds.), Seeing Wittgenstein anew (pp. 268 – 288). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Au, K. (1998). Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research, 30(2), 297–319. doi:10.1080/10862969809548000

Macedo, D. (2001). Foreword. In P. Freire (Ed.), Pedagogy of freedom: ethics, democracy and civic courage (pp. xi – xxxii). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Moyal-Sharrock, D. (2010). Coming to Language: Wittgenstein’s Social “Theory” of Language Acquisition. In SOL Conference 6-8 May 2010. Bucharest.

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.

Developing literacy presents certain challenges in remote contexts

Developing literacy presents certain challenges in remote contexts for a range of reasons; however, these reasons are not insurmountable, though they do present significant obstacles.

If I need to start somewhere, I will cite the lack of a literate tradition as one factor to consider. In non-remote contexts, children are exposed to literate behaviour in a range of forms from a very early age. A literate sensibility is reinforced in literate environments. And a literate environment is one which is stacked with literate artefacts (e.g. books, magazines, list on refrigerators) and populated by readers and writers. However, children in remote communities are growing up in environments with few age-appropriate books and fewer role models who exhibit the diverse habits of a literate individual. 

Furthermore - in remote contexts - it is often the case that learners are brought into literacy in a language that is not their mother tongue. If early literacy experiences were about rendering in print that which is spoken, then English language learners face additional barriers to see the relationship between speech, writing and reading. In addition to the language barrier, there is also the cultural barrier. It is understood that readers are better able to engage and understand what they read when they have the prior knowledge/experience/schema to find the reading meaningful, not to mention access to an experienced reader to aid reading. However, it is often the case that the learners are exposed to texts which (a) use an unnatural (or unfamiliar) flow of language and (b) do not connect with the learner’s experiences (or desire to attach meaning). Whilst these texts may provide “exercises in reading”, there is some doubt as to the meaning being extracted from such text. A child might “read” the text, but does the child understand what he or she is reading?

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ANNOUNCEMENT: A New Essay Has Been Added to the Site

A new essay has been added to the Essays and Presentation section of the site: 

Some may notice that the essay is a revision of a journal entry that first appeared on the site in November 2013

Education For All

The following is a speech delivered by Alan Duncan - UK Minister of State at the UK launch of the Global Monitoring Report on 7 April 2014

"I am delighted to be here today to support the UK launch of this year’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Its theme, Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality For All fits well with DFID’s education priorities. The report also rightly reminds us why investing in education is so important for any economy as a whole but also (and more importantly) why it matters for every individual.

"Behind this report is 1 simple stark truth. If all girls completed primary school in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, the number of girls getting married by the age of 15 would fall significantly. Education does indeed transform lives.

"In these brief remarks, I want to reflect on what the GMR tells us about DFID’s 3 education priorities, and then outline where more effort is needed to make better and faster progress. ‘Leaving no one behind’ is 1 of DFID’s priorities and this report presents impressive progress over the last 20 years on access to school. Globally there are 51 million more children in primary school today than there were in 1999, and 6 out of 10 countries have now achieved an equal number of girls and boys enrolled in primary school.

"These are signs of real improvement which is the result of significant domestic and international investment and effort. Good progress can be made when the world gets behind a simple and compelling message as it has done with the MDG focus on access to primary school.

"While we should recognise and celebrate this progress, we know that schooling does not always lead to learning. I don’t think any of us here would be satisfied with a primary school in which our children do not even learn to read and to count after four years in school. It’s the quality of learning achieved for every girl and boy, and not just the length of schooling, which makes education such a valuable investment."

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