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The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) was first introduced in 2008 as an assessment for the following domains: reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy; for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
Figure 1 Mean scale score
As displayed, a similar pattern could be seen across all five domains in each of the states in Australia. This trend has also been reproduced every year from the start of the NAPLAN (ACARA, 2018).
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The demographic of indigenous young adults plays a primary contributory factor, where only about one third of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived in Major Cities of Australia, compared with around three-quarters of the Non-Indigenous population (ABS, 2018). For those living in the rural and regional communities, exposure to Standard Australian English (SAE) is rather limited prior to formal education. Growing up in an environment of traditional languages and English-based creoles [of which there is at least 250 known distinct Indigenous languages (AIATSIS, 2005)] , they become circumstantial bilinguals, learning a second language out of necessity (Valdes, G. & Figuero, 1994). This was exemplified in the 2011 Census reports where 83% of Indigenous Australians speak English at home, but a majority of them uses a distinctly Aboriginal form of English that differs from the SAE used in educational settings (Hall, 2013; Eades, 2013). A problem arises when standardized tests normed on populations of only English speaking backgrounds are used (Genishi & Brainard, 1995; Thomas & Collier, 2002). Mastery of a sentence like “He likes apples” is an achievement for someone who speaks SAE as a second language, but is trivial for one who uses SAE as a first language. Derivatively, poor grades do not represent poor cognition nor inadequate linguistic competence, but will consequentially result in limitations of future life options.
A key to developing core skills in education is the minimization of disruption to formal education. Although there is a paucity of studies, but the available data on the school attendance and retention rates (defined as proportion of students who continue studying to a certain year) is sufficient to establish a statistically significant gap between the indigenous and non-indigenous students. Independent of their age, Indigenous students consistently have poorer attendance and retention rates from Year 1 to 10 (Nola & Sarah, 2010). This problem is multifactorial and among them includes parental-condoned absenteeism, society insufficiently valuing education, inadequate welfare support especially in the early years of schooling, inconsistent approach to absenteeism among schools, unsuitable curriculum for some pupils, local unemployment, poverty, etc (Reid, 2008). Approaching this problem from multiple angles would be the key feature in reducing the issue as this has been identified as the most important feature accounting for the disparity between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous literacy and numeracy outcomes (DEST, 2006).
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Among populations of different socioeconomic (SE) backgrounds, literacy gaps already exist prior to the initiation of formal education. In 2014-2015, the proportion of Indigenous adults in the lowest income quintile was twice compared to non-indigenous (36% vs 17%). Employment rates were similar with only 48% of Indigenous adults having employment while it was 73% for non-indigenous (AIHW, 2017). Fundamental skills pertaining to reading acquisition such as phonological awareness, vocabulary, and oral language were less likely to be developed among children from low-SE families (Buckingham & Beaman-Wheldall, 2013). Initial reading competency is greatly correlated with the home literacy environment and book resources (Aikens & Barbarin, 2008; Bergen, Zuijen, Bishop & Jong, 2016). A positive literacy environment stemming from access to learning materials and experiences, including books, skill-building lessons or tutors are less likely to be found in a poor household (Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo & Garcia, 2001; Orr 2003). Academic skills develop slower among children from low-SE households and communities, with an association with poorer cognitive development, language, memory and socioemotional processing (Morgan, Farkas, Hillemeier & Maczuga, 2009).
As a conclusion, the factors explained above only represents a few major factors to why Indigenous students underperform in NAPLAN. The path to approximating the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students remains a long one. As front liners, educators play a significant role in the mitigation of this problem.
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