Improving Literacy for Indigenous Australians

 A Thousand-Mile Trek

Warburton, Western Australia is a long way from most every other place in Australia.

Around 474 Indigenous Australians call it home.

The main language spoken there is Ngaanyatjarra—and Lisa Woodland traveled thousands of miles to the community last spring to take on low rates of literacy.

Her trip west was brought on by a grant from the Pearson Global Challenge Fund, as part of the broader campaign, Project Literacy to help close the literacy gap among Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. Partnering closely with Australia’s Indigenous Literacy Foundation and Penguin Random House UK, Pearson volunteers helped facilitate, project manage and contribute expertise to the pilot project over a span of 18 months.

Old Book, Unique Version

The partnership developed a custom, free, and downloadable e-book version of the popular children’s book “Where’s Spot?” in two languages: Ngaanyatjarra and English.

Children can listen to the story in English as well as in their first language Ngaanyatjarra, which, research has proven, is one of the most significant factors in successfully learning to read and write.

The e-book was created for children under the age of five in Warburton’s playgroup. It was also shared with classes in the community’s elementary school.

“There’s no surprise that literacy rates are so low in communities like Warburton,” says Lisa Woodland.

“School is taught in English, it’s tough getting teachers to these remote places, and there are very low attendance rates,” she says. “Plus, few of these children have books of any kind at home.”

With this in mind, the new e-book was designed to download onto iPads and other mobile devices—even parent smartphones. This kind of delivery means the book can be read offline, where access to the internet network is unreliable.

“We want to help parents be part of the learning process,” Lisa says. “Plus, if kids can do this together on these devices, peer-to-peer learning can be incredibly valuable.”

The Power of Collaboration

To achieve a successful end product, all parties involved in the partnership were needed for their capabilities and expertise.

While Pearson’s primary role was to facilitate and guide the development plan through production, Pearson volunteers spanned throughout the Rights and Permissions team all the way to the Efficacy team.

Significant input was also needed from the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) to ensure that the project would meet its required outcomes. Then, expertise from Penguin Random House was necessary in achieving a product that was interactive but feasible for use in the community. Most importantly, the Early Learning Program at Warburton was critical in helping all partners involved truly understand the nature of the community and the factors at play.

“One of our first field trips to Warburton opened our eyes to the challenge we were up against,” Lisa says.

“You can’t just hop in a car and show up in the community,” she says. “We had to learn how to make the right arrangements ahead of time to be culturally sensitive and aware.”

There were also technical issues at play.

“Most folks in the community had Android phones,” Lisa says. “The e-book was initially built for Apple’s platform—so we needed to spend some time reworking it in development and testing it on both Apple and Android devices.”

Launch Day

When Lisa and her colleagues arrived in Warburton for the launch of the e-book, families were already getting ready for the celebration well before it was scheduled to begin.

The project team projected the e-book onto a large screen, then sat with family groups to explain how to use the digital version.

“I had little boys and girls of 3 and 4 sitting closely and hanging onto my arms,” says Lisa. “They were totally captivated.”

“Their excitement and giggles were contagious as they touched digital doors to find animated animals such as crocodiles and monkeys—complete with sound effects,” she says.

The team then presented the e-book to Warburton’s elementary school.

“This was the first time the children had ever seen a digital product in their own language,” says Lisa.

Moving the Needle Forward

Months after the launch, Lisa continues to hear positive anecdotes of how the e-book is helping not only the children of Warburton, but the wider community.

Even though the interactive e-book was designed for the youngest members of the community, it is helping to build literacy skills and engagement with older siblings and adult members within the community.

“Traveling to Warburton really opened our eyes to the challenges these families and similar remote indigenous communities are facing,” says Lisa.

Moving forward, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation will monitor the impact of the pilot project on literacy rates. The hope is to scale the project for other remote Indigenous communities.

“We look forward to moving the needle with literacy rates, and ultimately helping to build more access to knowledge here in Australia.”