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Desert schools: An investigation of English language and literacy among young aboriginal people in seven communities

Jean Clayton
Cybertalk Language and Literacies Consultancies
South Australia

The Desert Schools report[1] was the outcome of twelve months of research into the English language and literacy development of Aboriginal teenagers in the extreme west and north-west of South Australia and neighbouring borders of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In these remote and isolated desert communities English has marginal use, apart from inside school and in the communities' contacts with the wider world.

The three interrelated research objectives were:

The research considered to what extent the aims and practices of different groups involved in literacy development, such as teachers and curriculum designers, were compatible with the cultural and linguistic ecology in these communities. The notion of language ecology[2] was central to the project. The key findings and recommendations related to:


As a preamble to the following comments, it needs to be emphasised that the researchers were sensitive to the dangers in offering solutions to the complex questions concerning English language use and children's schooling in the Aboriginal communities under study and in Aboriginal education more generally. While the project's observations are not necessarily transferable to other contexts they can, however, provide input to inform the implementation of the National Plan (DEETYA, 1998).

Apart from the research studies, the project produced a substantial annotated bibliography of recent research, issues papers and policy initiatives, which is of considerable value to those implementing policy, educators and researchers. The accompanying literature review offers perspectives in such areas as literacy and language development, classroom discourse, learner profiling and assessment, issues in adolescence, educational disadvantage and Aboriginal education.

The Desert Schools project provides clear indication that educational participation and outcomes for adolescent students in these remote Aboriginal communities remain far below levels elsewhere in the country. It must be remembered that literacy learning in these communities is akin to learning English as a foreign language, since beyond the walls of the school these young people are immersed almost entirely in the community languages and in community lives in which literacy does not have a high functional priority. This context of special learning needs and educational disadvantage raises a number of issues and challenges pertinent to implementation of the National Plan.

The recent Commonwealth Government allocation of $6.2 million within the National Literacy and Numeracy Plan for new programs to provide indigenous students with English as a Second Language (ESL) tuition (previously only available to new migrant/refugee children) is one very positive measure. However, the targeting of this to early years intervention may allow older learners, particularly those who are disengaging with school, to slip though the net of support. The literacy and numeracy strategies for young unemployed may pick them up, but the question remains as to whether specialised, culturally-appropriate and effective support will be able to be provided to remote areas.

Research from this project (also Cairney et al., 1995; Hill et al., 1997) indicates how students may be placed at risk by schooling which is unable to build on learners' strengths and community funds of knowledge. This mismatch of expectations and inappropriate pedagogy creates an operational structure of deficit.

The Desert Schools project found that:

The classroom discourse and language distance[3] studies, community interviews and language sampling from the project, all reveal a range of linguistic and cultural tensions operating in the schools. The challenge is to achieve improvement in culturally-appropriate ways, so that literacy (and educational development more broadly) is a shared enterprise between the learner, their community and the school. There is a question as to whether the models on which the National Plan is formed are sufficiently flexible to accommodate the very different 'learning and literacy spaces' which may need to be explored, for example, to explore how education can work better for extremely irregular attendees, and to counter impediments in learners' education pathways as varied as boys' traditional initiation into manhood, endemic welfare dependency, early pregnancy and substance abuse.

One implication is that the National Plan should place strong emphasis on cultural inclusiveness in its definitions of literacy, in strategic planning and in the setting of literacy benchmarks. Otherwise literacy in the context of schooling (program content, pedagogic approaches, assessment processes and outcome statements) cannot genuinely respond to the linguistic and cultural contexts of young Aboriginal people in remote and isolated communities. The Desert Schools project identified significant factors impacting on classroom discourse, literacy pedagogy and the communities' linguistic ecology which will inform such approaches.

An echoing of themes in the Desert Schools project in a diversity of other locations suggests that the seven community case studies in Desert Schools are not atypical. For example, the Bilingual Interface Project (McKay et al., 1997, p. 215) raises many similar issues in a different regional context and highlights similar salient factors. Hill et al. (1997) also deal with aspects of home language literacy and the potential impacts of discontinuity and disconnections in learning, and offer a case study of an Aboriginal ESL/literacy learner just beginning school and already at risk. A collation of these and other recent studies, and a more detailed analysis of the national survey data and other available data (for example on school attendance, participation and performance criteria and how literacy is ineffectually or most effectively contextualised across the curriculum) may be useful to find ways forward and to clarify the extent of difficulty teachers and learners face in literacy development in such educationally disadvantaged contexts.

The Desert Schools project team felt that a key focus, along with a more soundly-based education and training provision for this group of students, should be the improvement of the social and economic well-being of young people from remote communities. This acknowledges the interdependency of socio-economic circumstances, health, traditional culture and other factors in the ecology of the communities, both in supporting young people's literacy development in the compulsory years of schooling and in the transition of young adolescents into post-schooling life options.

The Desert Schools project recommended that community aspirations and young people's needs should be addressed by two major thrusts, to be undertaken in close consultation with communities and their representative councils:

This dual focus was designed to address the significant drift away from schooling by post-primary students in the communities in the study, particularly by adolescent boys and by girls with young children or elders to care for.

Frequent and lengthy absenteeism and families' movement amongst extended networks of kin across widely-separated communities were commonly correlated with lack of successful progress in literacy and education. The readily accessible distance education programs might be seen as one avenue for providing a wider range of options in secondary schooling and a more flexible individual programming for infrequent attenders. However, examination of the learning materials revealed inhibiting factors: an inappropriate cultural base; high literacy demands in age-appropriate texts; and less demanding materials which were not appropriate to the learners' level of maturity or interests.

Placement of post-primary students in large regional boarding schools (for example, in Alice Springs, Darwin and Adelaide) is another option producing very mixed outcomes. The Desert Schools project reports on these options in a very limited way, and the structural features and implications of these options require further research and recommendations.

Improving community services, resources and support for English language and literacy development was also seen to be a critical aspect of educational development within and beyond the schools and in future community development. This focus was also reflected in the research of Cairney et al. (1995) and Hill et al. (1997) which recommended exploring the significance of matches and mismatches between the literacy practices of schools and their communities. This implies that literacy goals and strategies need to be integrated with initiatives and evaluative studies in Aboriginal education (both national and state) which have emerged from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody up to the current Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Programme.

The key concern is that this group of post-primary students should not fall outside the screening and interventionary strategies set in place by the National Plan, and that a broad range of other options should be explored. A further area of concern about the National Plan lies in its orientation to national 'literacy skills' tests as the base for the Literacy Benchmarks. Their premise is that school literacy builds on an extended preschool history of development in spoken English. Lo Bianco and Freebody (1997), McKay et al. (1996) and others point out that this is far from the case in Australia's culturally-diverse community. It is certainly not the case in the remoter central Australian communities or in the northern coastal fringe.

The survey tools underpinning the benchmarks in their current form are not the most appropriate diagnostic tool to provide accurate information to teachers and parents about certain groups within the school community 'meeting a minimum acceptable standard: a critical level...without which a student will have difficulty in making sufficient progress at school' (DEETYA, 1998). Progress in schooling for the ESL learner will depend on the nature of the curriculum and the support offered to the learner, on highly individualised English-learning pathways, among other dimensions.

Criterion-referenced assessment promotes notions of equity and individual pathways in development of skills and understandings. The current model of norm-referenced literacy assessment which does not take into account the aspects of literacy embedded as social practice, sets a context of deficit, illustrated in the comparison of statistics as reported to the public in the media and in Literacy for all (DEETYA, 1998).

There are dangers in resources being directed to intervention appropriate for an English-speaking background group in a school or region (which may be highly inappropriate for the ESL learners within it) and diverted away from specialist ESL/Indigenous support. The early years focus in assessment and intervention may be to the detriment of older ESL learners who are arguably at greater risk, in terms of immediate educational and social disadvantage and in the gap between their current level of literacy performance and the cognitive-academic language proficiency demanded by their school's study program or vocational training.

There are a number of frameworks for profiling ESL learner progress and for describing ESL learning pathways, for example the ESL Scales and ESL Bandscales. Criterion-referenced performance exemplars and assessment templates are being developed as resources for teacher training in the implementation of these documents nationally. Breen et al. (1997) examined teachers' understandings and interpretations of the national and state literacy/ESL assessment frameworks. This research, and other CLP projects with an ESL/bilingual focus, such as the Desert Schools project and the Bilingual Interface project, offer information to assist the National Plan in designing valid, reliable and equitable assessment instruments and interventions for ESL/Indigenous learners.

Assessment frameworks should acknowledge:


A recurring theme identified in the mapping of children's literacy research nationally (DEETYA, 1998) is the need for teachers to have access to meaningful professional development and professional resource materials which include the study of disadvantage and socio-cultural diversities, so as to ensure appropriate responses to diversity in the classroom.

The Desert Schools project recommended:

There are relevant specialisations for teachers and learning support staff (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) mainly in programs of Aboriginal and Islander Studies, such as the Remote Area Teacher Education Program in the Northern Territory and Queensland and Anangu Training and Education Program in South Australia, but these are precariously funded and tend to have marginal status in comparison with 'mainstream' teacher training. In any case, teachers, Aboriginal Education Workers and Bilingual School Services Officers can often only seek this development through school and community-based initiatives because of constraints of time and distance.

One issue is the high proportion of non-Aboriginal staff which continues to be of considerable concern in remote desert schools, especially in the light of high attrition among staff appointed to the schools from outside the communities. Extreme difficulty in retaining teachers and in attracting teachers with suitable skills and experience (non-Aboriginal staff) is a significant factor in the discontinuity of literacy and learning experiences in these schools, and high levels of teacher turnover (especially for novice teachers and those with families transferring back to urban settings) mean that inservice training and skills developed in the workplace often do not deliver long-term returns to the schools. For Aboriginal education support staff and community-based staff to assume the role of equal partners in the classroom, curriculum planning and management, student support and materials development, their training needs and career aspirations need to be met more appropriately than at present. Measures should continue to be energetically pursued within national strategic planning to encourage and assist greater Aboriginal representation in all areas of the teaching service, in school management and more broadly for community development in literacy and training.

Since it is clearly apparent that the subject area designated as English/Literacy in the curriculum should be taught in these remote communities as a second language program, professional development of teachers across the curriculum should incorporate theory and methodologies appropriate for teaching English to speakers of Aboriginal languages and include training in culturally-responsive curriculum design (to support the development of literacy within intercultural understandings and multilingual identity). For these reasons, the National Plan for literacy and numeracy needs to maintain strong lateral linkages with other areas of educational planning, especially in regard to preparing teachers and related para-professionals for working with ESL and Indigenous learners.

In the pre-service teacher education reviewed by the Desert Schools project, focus was found to be generally lacking in the following areas:

It was proposed that appropriate professional specialisations could be developed collaboratively by departments and universities experienced in the area, and that these should be primarily school and community based (inservice rather than preservice) with distance education and mentoring components to ensure the broadest coverage across the country. The 1995 investigation of postgraduate pathways in language education (Baldauf et al., 1995) provides models for cross-accreditation and identifies specialised training available within the broad range of offerings in applied linguistics.

Classroom research is an important aspect of such teacher education. The valuing of reflective practice allows educators to engage with research, mentoring, training and curriculum development within and beyond their own schools. For example, Breen et al. (1997) examined teachers' interpretations of the national and state literacy/ESL assessment frameworks. The findings from this project provide a baseline for developing training resources and exemplars in this area which would support quality improvement in literacy/ESL profiling and assessment practices.

Improved professionalism in teacher preparation and inservice, however, is pointless without parallel strategies to improve teacher retention in isolated and remote schools, through building structures and allocating resources which give teachers the required support and open attractive long-term career pathways. These initiatives need to ensure appropriate career development pathways are identified for those staff who have commitment to staying in these communities but who do not currently have full formal teaching qualifications.


It was interesting to note the degree of congruence between the general thrust of the research priorities from this project and those identified in other Children's Literacy National Program (CLP) projects. Among broader educational research, the Desert Schools project recommended the following: Further research into factors impacting on the quality of ESL/literacy education in a range of Aboriginal contexts was the major area recommended by the Desert Schools project. It needs to be emphasised, however, that Aboriginal schools and Aboriginal communities are weary of being the subject of research by 'outsiders' and seek to have ownership of the research and of its outcomes.

The development of age-appropriate ESL/literacy teaching and learning resources was seen as one of the most critical factors in curriculum development. The Desert Schools project recommended reviewing and replacing materials in use which are identified as unsuitable, as well as seeking materials which might motivate adolescent students to interact with the widest range of English language experiences through reading, viewing, listening and thinking. From this base, learning activities can be developed in: speaking and writing; groupwork; critical literacy; studies in discourse forms; and interpersonal, informational, aesthetic and analytical domains of language.


The intention in the Desert Schools project (and in this brief overview of its outcomes and implications) is to help define future directions for language and literacy education which might guarantee Indigenous learners dignity, equity of access, supportive learning environments and enriching outcomes from their schooling. It is hoped that the National Plan can appropriately support teachers and learners in this endeavour.


Beldauf, R. et al. (1995). Negotiation and accreditation nationally of postgraduate study in language education: A facilitation handbook with examples. Canberra: NLLIA.

Breen, M., Barratt-Pugh, C., Derewianka, B., House, H., Hudson, C., Lumley, T. & Rohl, M. (1997). Profiling ESL children: How teachers interpret and use national and state assessment frameworks. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_profiling.html

Cairney, T., Ruge, J., Buchanan, J., Lowe, K. & Munsie, L. (1995). Developing partnerships: The home, school and community interface. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1995_partnerships.html

DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra, ACT: DEETYA. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm

Hill, S., Comber, B., Louden, W., Rivalland, J. & Reid, J. (1998). 100 children go to school: Connections and disconnections in the year prior to school and the first year of school. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1998_100children.html

Lo Bianco, J. & Freebody, P. (1997). Australian literacies: Informing national policy on literacy education. Belconnen, ACT: Language Australia.

McKay, P., Davies, A., Devlin, B., Clayton, J., Oliver, R. & Zammit, S. (1997). The Bilingual Interface Project Report. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_bilingual.html


  1. Clayton, J., Barnett, J., Kemelfield, G. & Muhlhausler, P. (1996). Desert Schools: An investigation of English language and literacy among young Aboriginal people in seven communities. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1996_desert.html

  2. A dynamic system of interdependent languages and dialect varieties, interpersonal relationships and discourses, in schooling and in other cultural and economic structures and practices.

  3. Language distance theory proposes that a second language will be more difficult to learn where it is considerably distant from the home language in its ideational, phonetic, interpersonal and textual systems.

Author details: Jean Clayton
Cybertalk Language and Literacies Consultancies
Email (updated 25 May 2009): jean.clayton@flinders.edu.au

Please cite as: Clayton, J. (1999). Desert schools: An investigation of English language and literacy among young aboriginal people in seven communities. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 101-112. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qjer15/clayton.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 6 Jan 2005. Last correction: 25 May 2009.
URL: http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qjer15/clayton.html