First things first: becoming literate
For many Indigenous children, particularly those living in more remote areas of Australia, going to school means engaging with English, often for the first time in their lives. But for those at the Yirrkala School in North East Arnhem Land, an innovative learning app is helping Aboriginal children develop literacy skills entirely in their first language.
The Yirrkala School, in the small town on the east coast of Arnhem Land’s Gove Peninsula, has offered bilingual education in Dhuwaya and English for over 40 years. But the lack of classroom resources to deliver Indigenous language programs, particularly digital resources, has presented real challenges for teachers in the community.
“Writing and reading is a balanda [white people] way of learning,” said Yalmay Yunupiŋu, a teacher linguist at the Yirrkala School. “We wanted to help teach kids how to read in their first language, Dhuwaya Yolŋu Matha.”
Addressing this need, University of Melbourne linguist Jill Wigglesworth from the Faculty of Arts led an interdisclipinary team to design the Yäku ga Rirrakay app, an innovative teaching resource that introduces phonics skills to children in Dhuwaya.
“We chose to develop an iPad app, rather than use a more traditional approach, because the children at Yirrkala – like children everywhere – are very familiar with modern technology and engage better when using it,” Professor Wigglesworth said.
The app is a departure from other Indigenous language education tools, most of which are designed to teach Aboriginal languages to non-Aboriginal Australians. It takes the unique approach of teaching children how to recognise, break down and blend together sounds to make words in Dhuwaya – skills that are not only important for helping children to read and converse in their first language, but that also promote general literacy, including in English, by enhancing letter and sound knowledge, sight words and early reading skills.
Since being piloted in 2021, the Yäku ga Rirrakay app has become a part of daily classes for children at the Yirrkala School, and was developed over seven years in close collaboration with Dhuwaya speakers, Elders, Yirrkala educators, and linguists from the Northern Territory Government's Department of Education.
The initiative speaks to the broader pressing need to support ongoing use of Indigenous languages across Australia, a challenge that Professor Wigglesworth hopes will be aided by use of the app.
“The tool was designed in modular form which will hopefully allow other communities to use it by changing sounds and pictures relevant to their own Indigenous languages,” she said.
Several other Indigenous communities have already expressed interest in adapting the app for their own first languages, and Professor Wigglesworth believes it will prove a vital digital resource in helping primary teachers and their assistants improve local language literacy.
“It’s been great to see how effective the app has been in establishing children’s literacy skills at Yirrkala, and we’re now looking forward to seeing it used to help preserve and teach other Indigenous languages in remote communities across the country.”
Banner image: The Yäku ga Rirrakay app being used by a student at Yirrkala School in remote north-east Arnhem Land. Image: Loredana Ducco