Learning languages and learning literacy are not the same thing. Spoken languages can be represented through the medium of 'literacy'.

Languages are complex systems for making meaning. Spoken languages use:

  • sounds (each language uses a different set)
  • combined into syllables (each language has different patterns)
  • words (each language has its own vocabulary with distinctive meanings)
  • with extra endings or prefixes (each language has its own rules about what’s needed where)
  • words which can be combined into phrases (each language requires different items in different orders)
  • sentences (again what makes a meaningful, grammatical sentence differs from language to language).

They are used for social and cultural purposes (each group of language speakers can convey what is important to them and their culture).

Learning a language involves learning all these inter-related things, which is why language learning takes time.

Literacy is about how we can represent (spoken) languages in a written form. Early literacy learning involves learning a set of symbols (such as letters) and how these represent the target language (the particular language sound values of letters), and how combined, they represent the sounds of a word. There are different writing systems. Alphabetic writing represent each meaningful sound with a letter or group of letters, but some writing systems use a symbol to represent a syllable and others  a whole word. Literacy for young children also involves experiencing something of the forms in which literacy is used, like in books, on signs or on screens, and some of the purposes print can be used for like messages, stories, information etc.

Different languages have different histories of literacy – of being written down. A few languages have long histories of writing but most have only very recent histories of writing. English writing has been around for roughly a thousand years (but in those days English was a very different language and very few people were literate). The history of writing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is more recent. Speakers of Indigenous languages do not necessarily have writing in their languages because this hasn’t always been available or taught in the home/community or in schools.

English literacy uses an alphabet called the Roman alphabet, because the Romans were influential at one stage of European history. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages also use this alphabet but some letters represent different sound values, and each language has some extra sounds which have special spelling patterns (e.g. rr for a trilled r sound, nh tongue between the teeth n sound) and/or marks on letters (e.g. ä for a long a sound, d for a tongue tip bent back d sound) or symbols (e.g. ŋ for the ng sound).

Note – as educators you might have heard 'literacy' used in other ways, such as 'visual literacy' (i.e. interpreting visuals) or 'assessment literacy' (i.e. knowing how to do tests and other assessment items). These uses of 'literacy' are not what we are talking about here.


Making a start with literacy

It is well recognised that the easiest pathway to early literacy is via the language young children speak best, their first and main language. Just imagine being taught to read for the first time in a language you don’t understand!

In some places, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who speak Indigenous languages as their first languages will have the opportunity to experience literacy in their first language because of educators: 

  • who speak their language
  • who have had the opportunity to become literate in their language
  • who have access to written resources in their language.

Early experiences of texts in their own language with adult speakers are really beneficial. Children can immediately understand, enjoy and talk about them. When children describe their drawings, they can experience their words being turned into writing by their educators. These positive experiences set them up for future success in literacy in other languages too, like SAE. They can transfer their early print understandings about books and writing to new languages, giving them a head start.

In many places, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander speakers of Indigenous languages will experience early literacy only or primarily through SAE, a language they are learning as an additional language. In these contexts, children are relying on their educators to understand their language situation and support them to make meaning from well-chosen texts. These would be:

  • well-illustrated to assist children grasp some of the meaning of the text
  • not too much (heavy) language so children don’t get swamped with large amounts of words and sentences they don’t yet understand properly
  • fun or interesting so children want to hear them again – and each time understand a little bit more by using actions and acting to convey more meaning.

When children do art or craft activities staff familiar with the local language can capture the meaning of what children want to convey in SAE. Children will enjoy talking to them about what they’ve done and can observe the process of staff turning what they say into SAE - and hearing it back again in SAE. Alternatively, if staff feel confident and they think parents/caregivers will appreciate it, staff can try scribing how children talk by adapting conventions of English to represent the talk, as well as writing it in SAE and sharing this with the children.

The video Being a communicator – Language/s (below) shows how educators intentionally promote learning that fosters proficiency across first languages and SAE.

Some key points about the differences (and the intersections) between language and literacy are as follows:

  • Language learning and literacy are not the same thing.
  • A language is the entire system of meaning making (sounds, word endings, phrases, sentences, cultural purposes etc.).
  • Literacy relates to the written representation of a language (the conventions differ between languages).
  • Children and adults can have strong oral language skills (or even be fluent in several languages) and have little or no experience of literacy in them.
  • Some children have the opportunity to develop their early literacy skills in their first and strongest language – this is the best pathway (easiest, most efficient etc.).
  • Some children only have the opportunity to develop their early literacy skills through a second language – and require second language learning strategies to support their understanding and oral language development beyond typical early literacy teaching strategies.


Being a communicator – language development strategies in Indigenous early education