Teaching students who speak Aboriginal English

Yvonne Haig, Patricia Konigsberg and Glenys Collard

This article first published by PETAA in 2005 has been reproduced here as a key resource referenced in the Project 40 essay 'Communication ecology ' and accompanying video interview by Professor Joseph Lo Bianco.

We all bring assumptions to the classroom, based on our own culture and experiences. Some of the most difficult assumptions to unravel are about language and behaviour. Is that student speaking inappropriately, or are they speaking a different dialect? Are they really being rude, or are they expressing a different cultural norm? These are some of the questions we need to ask to be able to teach all our students effectively.

Rosie’s choice

Rosie, a ten year old Aboriginal child, attends a rural district high school (K–10). Both Rosie and her teacher report that she has poor literacy skills and is a quiet student, reluctant to contribute to classroom discussions. Although her teacher relates this reluctance to a lack of ability, Rosie suggests other possibilities when talking about school. There seem to be many barriers to Rosie’s success in school but one that stands out is her view that to be successful you have to become like a “wadjella” (white person). Her brother is the only Aboriginal boy in the school to continue through to Year 10 and experience academic success at that level. Rosie views his success as the result of him mixing with Anglo-Australian boys and learning to use “big words” just like them. She is determined that she will not similarly “sell out” her family and community for such success.

The focus of this PEN

How do teachers support their Indigenous students so that they feel that their language, culture and community are valued, while learning the language skills and understandings needed for success in school and the wider community? One of the issues at the heart of this question is the use of language. We need to recognise that Aboriginal English (AE), the variety of English spoken by Rosie and most other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and Standard Australian English (SAE) are two separate dialects and their differences have an impact on all teaching in the classroom.

Specifically, this PEN will address the following questions:

  • What is Aboriginal English and what is its relationship to Standard Australian English?
  • What are the differences in the language systems of AE and SAE?
  • What are the implications of these differences for teaching?

While this PEN focuses on the dialects of AE and SAE, the general discussion applies to any dialects that you might have in your classroom.

What is Aboriginal English and what is its relationship to Standard Australian English?

Aboriginal English (AE) is the name given to the dialect of English spoken by most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It varies considerably among communities for a range of reasons, including the historical influence of different local Aboriginal languages.1 AE has great importance culturally, particularly in the many communities where the original Aboriginal languages have been lost. It expresses Aboriginal identity and carries Indigenous history. It also differs in systematic ways from other dialects of English, including Standard Australian English.

Standard Australian English (SAE) is also a dialect of English. It is used in public contexts such as education, media, government and law. The written form of SAE is described in grammar books and dictionaries, creating a record of its patterns of use. This influences both the spoken and written form so that it is less variable than other dialects.

Neither of these dialects of English is linguistically better or worse than the other. They are both governed by rules and can be used to perform the full range of functions required of their speakers within various speech communities. Both dialects reflect particular views of the world, ways of behaving, and of constructing and representing knowledge. Neither is intrinsically superior to the other or “more correct”; they are alternatives for different users, contexts and purposes. However, in the context of schooling and wider public life in Australia, SAE has a privileged position. There it is recognised as the language of power and as such it could be argued that all Australians should learn it as part of an additional language repertoire for use in these contexts.

What are the differences in the language systems of AE and SAE?

The examples used in this section are drawn from field work undertaken by the authors and from Eades, 1990; Malcolm, 1995; Malcolm et al, 1999; Sharifian, Rochecouste & Malcolm, 2005.

Differences in the sound systems (phonology) of AE and SAE

Every dialect has a range of sounds that are significant or carry meaning. AE and SAE have some sounds in common and some that are different. These differences are systematic and reflect the different histories of the two dialects. As with all other aspects of language, the sound system will vary between groups of people and between individuals. Teachers need to be alert to the systems used by the students they teach. The differences described below may be a guide. Compared to SAE, AE may have:

  • less contrast between voiced and voiceless consonants, for example, t and d
  • less contrast in plosive pairs, for example, p and b; k and g
  • less distinction between some stops and fricatives,for example, f and p; b and v; t and th (as in thin); d and th (as in then)
  • less distinction between fricatives and affricatives, for example, sh and ch; j (as in jam) and y (as in yet)
  • variable use of initial h, for example, ouse; hegg
  • lower tolerance for consonant clusters (pl, tr, cl, nds), for example, das [that’s]; djis [just]; des [desk].

There are also distinctive differences in the vowel system of AE, including:

  • full vowel quality in unstressed syllables, for example, bread /æ/nd jam [bread ‘n jam]
  • greater tolerance of two vowels together across word boundaries, for example, a apple; a egg (this may also impact on grammar with the use of articles in SAE)
  • elongation of vowel sounds for emphasis, for example, e l-o-o-o-ng way.

Other aspects like pronunciation, stress, intonation and the pauses in speech also contribute to a distinct AE accent.

Implications for teaching

The differences in the sound systems have implications for AE speakers learning spoken and written SAE. It can be argued that the impact should not be as great in speaking and listening because SAE can be spoken with a range of accents (Stubbs, 1976; Sato, 1989; O’Donnell & Todd, 1991; Carter, 1995). However, some students may not be able to understand SAE or to be understood by SAE speakers. In this case, a code-switching approach could be taken. Students can be taught to first distinguish between AE and SAE, and then to learn to use the one that is appropriate for the context, purpose and people to whom they are speaking.

Some of these sound system differences may cause misunderstandings between speakers of AE and SAE. Although, in many cases, the context will make the intention clear, there may be situations where clarification will need to be sought, for example, where the omission of /h/ causes confusion between names such as Hannah and Anna or Helen and Ellen when speaking SAE. Generally, confusion will only occur where the alternative pronunciation is the same word class as the standard pronunciation and sounds the same as a viable alternative word, for example, pan and fan.

In some contexts the number of pronunciation differences, especially when combined with grammar and pragmatic differences, will make it difficult for some teachers and their AE speaking students to understand each other’s unfamiliar speech. However, this should improve with time as they both “tune in” to the speech of the other.

Some sounds found in SAE, or contrasts between sounds, are not present in students’ dialects. When first learning to read and write SAE, the students will need to be able to hear these sounds to appropriately match them to the written symbols. Teachers will need to exercise some care when using phonological awareness approaches that rely on children’s intuitive recognition of sounds in SAE as some students will require explicit teaching to recognise sound contrasts that are not familiar to them. This can take time, and there may be some initial confusion between some sound and symbol relationships such as /t/ and /d/, but the contrasts should become apparent to the students when the sound and symbol relationships in SAE are learnt as part of the literacy program, particularly through aspects such as phonological awareness. This teaching, however, should be done as a comparison, with teachers being careful not to infer that the sound and symbol patterns of SAE as reflected in writing are the “correct” form of English. Rather, teachers need to reinforce the view that different forms are needed for different audiences, purposes and contexts.

For older students who are experiencing difficulty with reading and writing, including spelling, an analysis of the student’s reading and writing will show which patterns are problematic so that teachers can focus on these in their explicit teaching. It is important to remember that spelling is also a meaning-based system (Fryar, 1997) and students may need to be shown the patterns in families of words as well as understanding the relationships between sounds and symbols.

In some contexts, teachers may need to be aware of the incidence of otitis media in their students. Commonly referred to as “glue ear”, this inner ear infection can cause mild to profound hearing loss and in some cases, permanent hearing damage. The fact that the symptoms that compromise hearing are intermittent makes it all the more difficult to manage. There are many helpful approaches and resources available to assist teachers in dealing with this issue.  

Differences in the grammar (morpho-syntax) of AE and SAE

There are a number of differences between the grammar of AE and SAE. However, as with the differences in the sound systems, the context of the communication prevents many potential misunderstandings. Some of the differences, with examples, are provided in the table below.

While particular uses of grammar can alert teachers to possible areas of difficulty for Aboriginal students, each occurrence will be different. This variation will reflect the student’s background experiences and the audience, purpose and context of the communication.

Some students may already control most features from both AE and SAE as part of their repertoire of language. Others will need time and support to develop control over those features of SAE which differ from AE. The difficulty of this task should not be underestimated, as the students have to recognise those features in AE which are the same as SAE and those which vary, and then select the appropriate form for each communicative context.

 Form  AE form
 SAE form
third person pronoun gender inclusive – e masculine – he
feminine – she
neuter – it
second person pronoun singular and plural forms:
you and yous
you for both forms
pronoun system expression of duality, eg. meanyou (heavy forms)
we/wefella (inclusive/exclusive)
we (subject position)
us (but only in object position)
we (no distinction)
person marking I was
you was
we was
I was
you were
we were
plural morpheme ‘s’ optional where already marked (two dog) obligatory (two dogs)
possessive possessive marked by juxtaposition (Tom car) possessive marked by apostrophe and /s/ (Tom’s car)
subjects double (Mum, e come directly) single (My Mum will come when she can)
verb tense present and past not marked in verb:
E live ere.
Before, e live ere.

[some heavy forms use ‘bin’ as past tense marker, eg. e bin live ere]
present and past forms:
He lives here.
Before, he lived here.
auxiliary ‘to have’

auxiliary of verb ‘to be’
I got em.
E comin.
I have got them.
He is coming.
verb ‘to be’ non-use:
E deadly.
He is terrific.
interrogative (question)
frequent use of intonation or tags:
You got biggest one?
E big one, ini?
What you cuttin?
question forms and tags:
Have you got the biggest one?
He is big, isn’t he?
What are you cutting that for?
question tags una, ini, ana, init, inti
eg. E deadly one, una?
auxiliary form of verb:
He is great, isn’t he?
use of articles and
E goin shop.
use of ‘one’ as indefinite article:
eg. E got one car/ toyota.
He is going to the shop.
use of ‘a/an’ as indefinite article:
He has a car.
pre-clausal extension

post-clausal extension
Them boys, I know.

E got modorcar, big red one.
I know those boys.

He has a big red car.
clause final adverb use:
They eatin there.
They are eating.

Table 1: Grammar forms, examples in Aboriginal English and Standard Australian English

Implications for teaching

An understanding of the forms in both dialects can be built through meaningful oral and written tasks. Particular attention to grammar forms may be easier in writing than speech as a writer can attend to the form after the ideas are developed and written. In speech, however, the speaker is forming the ideas as they are spoken, making attention to the form very difficult.

Aboriginal students will need the opportunity to develop an understanding of the grammar system in SAE and the ways in which it differs from the AE system they are more familiar with. Reading and writing texts can provide meaningful contexts for learning about how grammar patterns work to make meaning in SAE. As with the sound systems, those aspects of the grammar relevant to the task at hand should be made explicit to students. This does not mean isolated grammar teaching, but rather a focus on form in the context of interpreting and creating texts. Over time, the patterns in the system will become familiar.

Once the grammar patterns in an individual student’s writing have been analysed, teaching can focus on those areas causing difficulty. It is important to note here that some grammatical forms in AE are similar to developmental forms in SAE. However, as they are part of a stable, adult system these AE forms should not be associated with “delayed” development, immaturity or with having a language problem.

It may be useful here to consider scribing for children in early literacy contexts. Scribing is used most commonly for language experience, where an adult writes down what a child says and the text is then used for a range of literacy-related activities. This is believed to assist children to learn very important early concepts about print. Teachers using this approach with AE speakers will need to decide how they will respond to children’s use of AE grammatical forms. These forms may be a complex combination of oral, dialectal and developmental forms. It is recommended that teachers accept children’s oral expression and write exactly what they say. This allows the children to see the relationship between what they are saying and what is written, and it is this connection that helps them to understand print.

In summary, as with the differences in the sound systems, grammatical differences need to be treated sensitively as alternative ways of expressing meaning: both ways are appropriate in particular contexts. In addition, developing the level of control in both dialects necessary to be able to separate them is very difficult, particularly when they share many features, so students will often need assistance in this task.

Differences in the vocabulary (lexico-semantics) of AE and SAE

“… like big words an you can’t get ya tongue round em properly.” Rosie

The following are just some of the many distinctive features of AE vocabulary:

  • compounding of nouns, for example, eye-glasses
  • inclusion of derivational suffix, for example, long-way
  • neologisms, eg. ownlation, nother
  • transfers from Aboriginal languages, for example, Nyungar
  • transfers from English via Aboriginal languages,for example, wadjella
  • Semantic; use of words shared with SAE but having a different meaning for example, dust, half, law, solid, deadly, language, stop, growl, jar, barbeque, picnic, roast, family, hollow, jarred.

Again, there will be some variation in vocabulary use across Australia and between individual children. Teachers will need to get to know the vocabulary used in their students’ communities.

Implications for teaching

Research suggests that a good predictor of success in schooling is the match between a student’s vocabulary and that demanded by the curriculum (Corson, 1983; 1985; 1993). It is also an aspect of language that is recognised by students and teachers alike as causing students, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, difficulty (Oliver, Haig & Rochecouste, 2003; 2005). There would seem to be two aspects to this difficulty that need to be considered. The first is the manner in which vocabulary reflects a particular way of seeing the world and therefore of representing it. The second is the separation of everyday and specialist vocabulary in SAE.

The first aspect, or how vocabulary reflects a particular view of the world, impacts considerably on Aboriginal students’ vocabulary learning. This is because the way any group of speakers categorises and names aspects of their world contributes to and describes the way it is conceptualised (Sharifian, Rochecouste & Malcolm, 2005). There are many consequences of this for AE speakers as it is assumed that because they seem to control many aspects of SAE they also have a shared understanding of the meanings conveyed by the words used. However, research into words in common such as dust, half, law, solid, deadly, language, to stop, barbeque, picnic, roast and family show that the meanings of these differ sharply between AE and SAE speakers (Malcolm et al, 1999; Sharifian, Rochecouste & Malcolm, 2003). The assumption of shared understandings through the use of common words can lead to unrecognised miscommunication in classrooms.

The second aspect, or the separation between the vocabulary used in everyday communication and that used in formal and academic contexts, also impacts on AE speakers. Corson (1983; 1985; 1993) suggests that this separation can lead to a “lexical bar” whereby students from diverse social backgrounds are disadvantaged in schooling.

An added difficulty for many students from diverse backgrounds, including those who speak AE, is that the specialist vocabulary reflects an unfamiliar category system (Sharifian, 2005). These systems of organising knowledge are “normalised” or “neutralised” in schools and this difference goes unnoticed. It could be argued that the way of organising and naming aspects of the world in the early years of schooling will be less of an issue for young AE speakers as all children at this age are encountering formal learning for the first time. However, there will still be a gap between the understandings of the students from Aboriginal backgrounds and those assumed by the school curriculum (Sharifian, 2001). Even though young Anglo-Australian background children may have little experience with formal contexts, their home and community experiences are often a preparation for what they will experience at school. For example, they will often be more familiar with a concept of time that is associated with clocks and family routines; with a concept of space and their place in it that reflects the preposition system in SAE; of number and counting discrete objects; and with the everyday objects and routines that are the subject of many early readers. The construction of their world of childhood may also include a “miniature world” replete with dolls, dollhouses, cubbies, toy trucks and Lego airports in which they role-play a replicated adult world. Aboriginal children, on the other hand, are more likely to be part of the adult world, learning roles through observing and trial and error in a “real” rather than a parallel world.

This implies that teachers cannot take AE speakers’ understanding of SAE vocabulary for granted, regardless of their age. Neither should they make assumptions about Aboriginal children’s general language abilities and capacity for learning based on their use of the vocabulary valued in schools — as research suggests sometimes happens (Haig, 2001).

As with other areas of language, it is important to teach the required vocabulary explicitly and where necessary build understandings of the category systems which underlie some specialist terms. The question of how to teach the vocabulary necessary for success in school, however, remains a thorny one, especially given that students like Rosie may perceive this vocabulary as “big words” or “flash talk” which is deliberately used to exclude them (Malcolm et al, 1999). Some teachers have found students less resistant to this type of learning when they know the purpose of the vocabulary being taught and when they are involved in exploring how language is used in their everyday worlds (Haig, 2001). In addition, when teachers show genuine interest in the words their students use in different areas of their lives, the engagement with learning about language seems to be greater. Through this type of exploration of language students can recognise that it varies according to contextual factors. They then become aware of the complex decisions they need to make when choosing appropriate vocabulary. As students come to see that the specialist vocabulary is part of another language system that they can learn, rather than as the “correct” words that would replace their own way of speaking, they are often less resistant to learning them.

Differences in the genre (discourse) of AE and SAE

“… and teacher tells us but we can’t write our story the way she wants cos it makes us change and then it’s not our story.” Rosie

Far more attention tends to be given in schools to the development of written discourse than to spoken discourse (Haig, 2001; Oliver, Haig & Rochecouste, 2003; 2005). This has quite serious consequences for Aboriginal English speakers. Firstly, the students’ often considerable oral skills in their home languages are rarely recognised and valued for their own sake or used to support the learning of written skills. Secondly, they may not be given the support they need to be able to gain meaning from, and produce, oral and written SAE texts because teachers take for granted the required background understanding.

AE speakers have distinctive oral genres which tend to shape their writing. These structures include travel/ journey, cause and effect, scary stories, hunting and observing, and have been described in Malcolm et al, 1999; Malcolm et al, 2002; Rochecouste & Malcolm, 2003; Sharifian, Rochecouste & Malcolm, 2003; Sharifian, Rochecouste, & Malcolm, 2005. They are complex representations of knowledge and experience and should not be seen simply as different versions of SAE genres such as recounts, retells and narratives. These differences are more than just alternative ways of saying the same thing; rather, as with other aspects of language, they reflect a different way of viewing the world and of making meaning. The following text is an example of a travel genre.

 Travel/Journey genre  form
On the weekend wewent to our cousins’ ouse moving
Our cousin stopped a long way away participants
An we picked up nan from our aundy Alison’s
Billy boy, Ruthy and Jamie was there too.
We all went to our other cousins’ place moving
Lots a modorcars was parked at the ‘ouse
All like in a line
Our Auny said: “O’s coming swimming?”
All us girls said: “We are, we are”
Auny said: “Yous girls jump in the car” moving
Then we all went swimming in the damm
We was jumpin all around and splashin each other
Then we got jarred for bein too silly
An auny said: “Get out yous girls, yous goin ome now” moving
When we got ome nan said: “You girls wanna ave a feed now? It’s getting late.”
We all had damper and stew
Auny made ‘er big bed for all us girls to sleep on.
When we got up in the morning, dad was skinnin a big boomer
And uncle, e was skinnin the liddle roo
Them boys was still sleep in the back of the modor.
Tha’s all. discourse completer

Table 2: Example of a travel genre

Implications for teaching

Teachers are encouraged to make a place in their classrooms for all students to use their home languages or dialects in purposeful oral and written tasks. For example, students could be given the choice of writing journals, letters, emails, and yarns in AE. There is also a case for encouraging the expression of students’ ideas using a combination of text types — this is already becoming common in multimedia texts. These “hybrid” texts may give all students the opportunity to express complex cross-cultural understandings in powerful ways. For example, in a persuasive text a combination of image, yarns and information using appropriate genre forms may be more powerful for some audiences than a report or expository essay. Of course, all students should be assisted to learn the more traditional genre forms, particularly those expected in further education, but it is important to remember that there are many ways to communicate ideas and that choices can be made.

In order to make informed choices, students need access to and control over the traditional SAE genre forms typically taught in primary schools. These forms usually include retell, recount, narrative, report, procedure, explanation and expository texts.

There are many valuable teaching approaches and materials which provide information about each level of the genre to support teachers in this work. The functional approach is particularly helpful for this purpose as it makes the socio-cultural context, the aspects of register and the features of the text explicit. This approach includes processes such as the teacher and students jointly determining a purpose for the writing, selecting an appropriate genre and building understandings about the subject matter and the genre. This would include extensive handson and investigative tasks with a gradual movement from oral to written activities. In this process, the teacher can develop students’ understandings of the differences between oral and written language forms, and between AE and SAE where appropriate. The teacher needs to model and jointly construct texts with the student to make explicit the processes involved in writing. Students should then be able to choose to independently construct a text, with teacher assistance where necessary. It is important to remember that many students from diverse backgrounds, including Aboriginal students, may also be learning a new way of interpreting, organising and presenting information in the process.  

Differences in the language use (pragmatics) of AE and SAE

“It’s real hard for us cos we don’t always know what way they using the words. Sometimes we get jarred and we don’t know why an they never tell us. Sometimes dey make us feel real shame an look at us funny-way.” Rosie

Although an area of language given little formal attention in the classroom, pragmatics can cause a great deal of miscommunication and subsequent educational failure for Aboriginal students. Some of the following areas of language use may cause difficulty:

  • listener and speaker roles and behaviours
  • asking and answering direct questions
  • explicitness
  • silence during interaction
  • degree of directness
  • ownership of knowledge
  • who can talk to whom — family and community issues around taboo
  • place of “face” / “shame”
  • expectations held for adult/child communication differences between cultures
  • conversational styles
  • the place of “teasing”
  • showing respect
  • differential valuing of speech and writing.

Implications for teaching

Pragmatics is an area of language use that may be taken for granted in general language programs. Too often the lack of understanding of different ways of being and behaving is seen more as a behavioural issue in classrooms rather than as a cross-cultural communication issue (Partington & Gray, 2003).

Differences in language use between the speakers of AE and of SAE may impact on the potential usefulness of teaching strategies. One example of this is the question and answer routines commonly used in Australian classrooms. This routine reflects a practice that begins in the talk of caregivers with pre-verbal babies (for example, “What’s the matter, Possum? Oh dear, you’ve got a wet nappy!”). It is also central to Australian institutions such as government (parliamentary question time, senate inquiries), the law (police interviews, court processes), the health system (hospital admissions, examinations) and the media (interviews) as well as in society generally (inquiry counters, interviews for work, research questionnaires). It is the dominant way for SAE speakers to both seek and provide information.

This is not the case, however, with all sociolinguistic groups. AE speakers are generally less direct about seeking information (Malcolm et al, 1999; Cahill, 1999). Direct questions may be used for general information but when more significant or personal information is sought different approaches are used. For this type of information, a two-way exchange is more common with one person sharing information about themself and waiting for the other person to reciprocate if they choose to. There is care taken not to make people feel pressure or “shame”. Silence is accepted as part of these types of exchange and does not indicate that the communication has broken down. There is also sensitivity about what knowledge is sought and an understanding that some information should not be shared without the permission of those who own it. Additionally, there is no obligation on the part of the listener to provide information in response to a question.

This does not reflect the view of knowledge taken in many classrooms. Here it is seen as freely available and those who display it are often rewarded. Teachers ask questions to allow individuals to display their knowledge and in some cases children are encouraged to give elaborated answers drawing on the knowledge of others to demonstrate their understanding. In some cases, judgements about children’s competence are made on the basis of how they respond in this type of interaction (Malcolm, 1977; Haig, 2001). In these exchanges, however, AE speakers are often disadvantaged because their interactional patterns do not match those expected in the classroom. Below is a table illustrating miscommunication that might occur in this type of situation, where a teacher asks a question and nominates an AE speaker to answer.  

Possible responses  Possible interpretations  Possible reasons for the response
 AE speaker is silent
  • does not know the answer
  • shy
  • unwilling to participate (co-operate)
  • has low self-esteem
  • a level of comfort with the teacher
  • assumes non-obligation to answer the question
  • thinking about what s/he is going to say (wait time)
  • feeling “shame” (singled out from the group)
  • knowledge required may not belong to her/him
  • does not understand the question
  • does not know the answer to the question
  • has not heard the question (otitis media/hearing loss)
AE speaker gives short answer
  • knows little
  • reluctant to participate
  • shy
  • brevity is valued (you only say what is needed)
  • additional knowledge may belong to
  • someone else
  • feels “shame”
  • knows the teacher already knows the answer

Table 3: Illustration of possible instances of miscommunication in the classroom

There are other behaviours that can be misinterpreted, such as not making eye contact. While it is intended to show respect for elders, it can be interpreted as not listening, being “shifty” or untrustworthy, showing defiance or being disrespectful. This seems to be particularly the case if a child is being reprimanded or when they are feeling “shame”.

In AE contexts requests that might cause others some inconvenience are usually not made directly so that there is no embarrassment or loss of face if the person is not able to oblige. For example, a person may ask indirect questions or provide information about their need and then it is up to the other person to respond or not. In the case of requests that do not seem to be potentially difficult, and in situations where the speaker is feeling particularly at ease with the listener, the approach may be much more direct. For example, if someone is near a window it may just be, “Open the window, eh?”. SAE speakers, especially if they have higher status in that context, will expect modals such as “would you mind” and polite forms such as “please” in such a request or even an indirect request such as “It’s hot in here, isn’t it?”.


The way people use language is not universal and neither is politeness. In many ways the interactions in schools, with the large status difference between teachers and students, are not replicated in many other social contexts. It is important then that children and those who work with them learn about each other’s ways of behaving and expressing experience so that misunderstandings are minimised. This, however, needs to be done in a way that recognises and values diversity and which promotes the view that such interpretations of behaviour differ according to the socio-cultural context. Talking about the use of language in this way will not only increase inter-cultural understanding but will also help to develop all children’s metalinguistic understanding. These understandings and skills will be needed if they are to be successful users of a wide repertoire of language practices essential for successful communication across cultures.

There has been a great deal of work done to assist teachers to meet the needs of Aboriginal English speakers. Many valuable approaches and support materials are available. It is not a simple task but with awareness, understanding, and attention to the impact of language and socio-cultural differences on learning, it is possible to significantly improve educational outcomes for all, including Aboriginal children.


About the authors

Dr Yvonne Haig is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Edith Cowan University having previously worked as a classroom teacher and a consultant in the area of education for students from diverse backgrounds.

Patricia Konigsberg is a linguist and a teacher with extensive experience in both adult and school education sectors across Western Australia. She has a strong interest in Aboriginal language diversity and its effect on teaching and learning.  Having grown up as a dialect speaker, fluent in four languages, she has been working with Aboriginal people from across Australia since 1987 and has been involved in collaborative linguistic research into Aboriginal English since 1994.

Glenys Collard is a South West Nyungar woman, mother of six, grandmother of 30, great-grandmother of three, and matriarch within her family of over 280 people. Glenys has pioneered the development of the Nyungar Language Project and of ways to understand Aboriginal English in the non-Aboriginal world. Glenys holds a degree in Community Development and has a wide range of experience in the public sector, especially in developing teachers’ understanding and perceptions of Aboriginal English.

In the original edition of this essay in 2005 the authors gave thanks to Dr Judith Rochecouste (Monash University) for her helpful advice on an early draft of the paper.

How this content relates to AITSL teacher standards

Standard 1: Know students and how they learn

  • 1.3.1 Graduate Students with diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. Demonstrate knowledge of teaching strategies that are responsive to the learning strengths and needs of students from diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • 1.3.2 Proficient Students with diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. Design and implement teaching strategies that are responsive to the learning strengths and needs of students from diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Formative assessment of students emerging understanding and teaching accordingly

  • 1.3.3 Highly Accomplished Students with diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. Support colleagues to develop effective teaching strategies that address the learning strengths and needs of students from diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Reading Conferences

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Unpacking and explicitly teaching metalanguage

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Explicit teaching of comprehension — making connections

  • 1.4.3 Highly Accomplished Strategies for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Provide advice and support colleagues in the implementation of effective teaching strategies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students using knowledge of and support from community representatives.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using ‘Eight ways’ pedagogy to engage and Torres Strait Islander students in Literacy

Standard 2: Know the content and how to teach it

  • 2.4.1 Graduate Understand and respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Demonstrate broad knowledge of, understanding of and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and languages.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Building relationships to support success and access

  • 2.4.2 Proficient Understand and respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Provide opportunities for students to develop understanding of and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and languages.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Promoting Reconciliation

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Creating Digital Timelines of signficiant Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people

  • 2.4.3 Highly Accomplished Understand and respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Support colleagues with providing opportunities for students to develop understanding of and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and languages.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Learning through Aboriginal Perspectives

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Selecting Indigenous resources to support Aboriginal Perspectives

Standard 3: Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning

  • 3.5.2 Proficient Use effective classroom communication. Use effective verbal and non-verbal communication strategies to support student understanding, participation, engagement and achievement.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using a variety of tools to effectively communicate with students in an early primary classroom

  • 3.5.3 Highly Accomplished Use effective classroom communication. Assist colleagues to select a wide range of verbal and non-verbal communication strategies to support students’ understanding, engagement and achievement.

Standard 4: Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments

  • 4.1.2 Proficient Support student participation. Establish and implement inclusive and positive interactions to engage and support all students in class activities.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Differentiating language access to engage a variety of students in learning

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using drama and performance based approaches to explore and engage with texts

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using music to support inclusion and language development in early learners

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Holistic care to support learning

  • 4.1.3 Highly Accomplished Support student participation. Model effective practice and support colleagues in implementing inclusive strategies that engage and support all students.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Experiential learning through excursions and hands on experiences

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Supporting gifted students and their teachers

Standard 6: Engage in professional learning

  • 6.2.2 Proficient Engage in professional learning and improve practice. Participate in learning to update knowledge and practice, targeted to professional needs and school and/or system priorities.
  • 6.2.3 Highly Accomplished Engage in professional learning and improve practice.Plan for professional learning by accessing and critiquing relevant research, engage in high quality targeted opportunities to improve practice and offer quality placements for pre-service teachers where applicable.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Quality placements for pre-service teachers

  • 6.4.2 Proficient Apply professional learning and improve student learning. Undertake professional learning programs designed to address identified student learning needs.
  • 6.4.4 Lead Apply professional learning and improve student learning. Advocate, participate in and lead strategies to support high-quality professional learning opportunities for colleagues that focus on improved student learning.

Standard 7: Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community

  • 7.4.1 Graduate Engage with professional teaching networks and broader communities. Understand the role of external professionals and community representatives in broadening teachers’ professional knowledge and practice.
  • 7.4.2 Proficient Engage with professional teaching networks and broader communities. Participate in professional and community networks and forums to broaden knowledge and improve practice.