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Closing the literacy gap for Indigenous students and inmates

New books keeping readers on track

 Immediate Release

A series of books called Reading Tracks recently launched to help older Indigenous students learn to read has proven to be so successful they have been introduced to every State-run prison in Western Australia, in an effort to improve the literacy skills of adults.

Margaret James, author of the series said she was filling a gap in literacy resources for older students who struggled to grasp reading in their younger years.

 “There are plenty of early reading resources for younger students but limited appropriate learn-to-read material for teenagers and older students. These books have been designed to help engage those older students who are substantially behind their peers in print literacy. 

“The project was deemed to be of such enormous significance that it was funded by the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s office,” said Ms James.

The fifteen learn-to-read books, and seven storybooks, featuring the cultural practices of food gathering – hunting tracking and fishing, took three years from concept to print and were developed in collaboration with students and Central Desert Elders.

 “I had the full support of the Elders who advised and mentored me. After proofing the finals drafts, I was given permission for the books to go to print. 

 “Aboriginal language words and light Aboriginal English are included in the dialogue to keep the characters authentic and to draw attention to the ancient languages of our First Nations people, still spoken in Australia. Standard English is used in the narrative to make the books accessible to all Australian learners.” explained the author.

 WA’s Department of Justice, as well as a number of schools nationwide, have placed orders for the books which where were launched in Perth at an educational conference mid-year.

 According to Jane Stapel, Adult Basic Education Coordinator, Department of Justice, the books are a valuable and unique resource for the prisoners. 

 “Our Literacy and Numeracy Strategy prioritises the engagement of prisoners identified as educationally at risk. We are constantly exploring creative and innovative strategies to promote and encourage the engagement of reluctant learners and the Reading Tracks series have been very well received,” said Ms Stapel.

 “As the largest provider of Adult Indigenous literacy programs in WA, we recognise the importance of education to Indigenous economic, social and cultural development. The Reading Tracks stories are developed in consultation with individual Elders and make the learning for our students relevant, meaningful and engaging. The books are beautifully illustrated and the stories help to teach reading and writing in a culturally appropriate context.”

 To ensure the authenticity of the stories Ms James worked closely with Elders, accepting invitations to go ‘bush’ with them. The stories cover fishing for barramundi, tracking and hunting for emus, perenties, kangaroos, echidnas, and goanna; and digging for witchetty grubs and honey ants.

 “We dug for goannas hidden in their burrows, in freezing winds in the Gibson Desert winter; looked for signs of witchetty grubs living deep in the roots of witchetty trees in Central Australian temperatures in the high 40s; and dug waist high for a tiny sip of honey from an ochre-coloured honey ant in the Western MacDonnell ranges,” said Ms James.

 The former lecturer in Indigenous Tertiary Education enlisted the help of middle and high school students in several schools in the Northern Territory.

 Students from WA’s, Ngaanyatiarra Lands School as well as those from Marrara College, St John’s and Kormilda Colleges in Darwin and Yirara and St Phillip’s Colleges in Alice Springs were involved at the beginning of the project giving their input into what stories they would like to see developed and of the 12 illustrators, six were Middle School students at Tiwi College on Melville Island. 


Background info - Margaret James:


  • Margaret has taught English to migrants and refugees. As a child growing up in rural South Africa, living on a farm amongst Indigenous languages influenced her interest and involvement in Indigenous Education in Australia.
  • They also influenced the choice of Linguistics and Psychology as majors at Rhodes University. She has studied French, German, Icelandic and Japanese. Studied M.Ed (TESOL) at QUT; M Choral conducting at Griffith Univ; and postgraduate humanities at UNE
  • Sings in several Aboriginal languages.
  • Margaret was a singing teacher and choral conductor (Trained at Queensland Con)
  • She has presented at conferences on Aboriginal English, Linguistics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, literacy, preschool education and literacy education. Margaret usually gets the audience to interact by singing when she presents at conferences. 
  • 2012 Australian of the Year finalist.  QUT outstanding alumni, Faculty of Education 2012.