Literacy a hoot for Tiwi students

They used to be so shy and scared of reading in front of other people, even their own classmates. After writing this book I have seen them give speeches in front of boardrooms full of people.

Indigenous students from Tiwi College in the Northern Territory may have English as a Second Language (ESL) but that hasn’t stopped them becoming published authors. IE Journalist Fiona Stutz discovers how writing a children’s book helped the students gain confidence and improve their literacy skills.

Writing success began for the Tiwi College students with a plastic owl, when author John Danalis came to the school with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) in 2013. Initially to be used as a conversation starter, the owl was given a name and the students came up with its life story. This imaginative story saw ILF give the students a chance to write a book based on the owl. After a week-long writing workshop in Sydney the story was completed and printed by Allen and Unwin publishing company.

Lessons learnt

Assistant teacher at Tiwi College Dianne Moore said the students learnt a great deal from preparing the book.

“The girls learnt things like how to make ‘the best’ sentence, how to make things interesting, as well and exploring descriptive text. They learnt about relating the story to their target audience.”

Dianne said the students drew inspiration from children’s books, with Dr Seuss becoming a favourite.

“We also learnt about the whole process of making a book from start to finish. Allen and Unwin publishing company had their editors and promotional staff come and talk to the girls and show them exactly what they do.”

Dianne believes the biggest positive to come out of the whole process is the confidence it has given to the students.

“They used to be so shy and scared of reading in front of other people, even their own classmates. After writing this book I have seen them give speeches in front of boardrooms full of people, talk to complete strangers about their book, and read their book to 300 students at the Sydney Opera House. They are proud of themselves and everyone around them is proud of them too.”

At the end of 2014 the students began writing a second book about a young Tiwi Girl who has to make life choices.

“When we were brainstorming, the girls came up with a lot of different situations where this young girl has to make hard choices. We may have to scale this back, or just write a longer book.”

Challenges to literacy

While literacy is important for all students, Dianne said being ESL already puts these students behind everyone else.

“Some of these kids have to try and translate everything in their head to make sense of it, then try and translate it back to answer questions or do their work. You also have to think about whether they can relate to what they are reading. The other problem is that the English language has some letters and sounds that Tiwi language doesn’t have. So when the kids start school, they now have to learn new sounds.”

Positive programs

The school also boasts other programs to help improve students’ literacy skills by having whole school reading groups four days a week.

“At the beginning of school, all students go to their designated reading group for 30 minutes of reading. All staff are assigned to a group, and all students are encouraged to read as much as they can. We also have literacy lessons five days a week in every class.”

She said her reading group is made up of low level readers, who have recently made massive improvements.

“Being a part of this and seeing the girls grow into young ladies has been a privilege. I am very proud of what they have achieved and how much they have grown. There is something special about watching their faces when they show people their book, or read it to a little kid.”