* Nomadic mining life leads to writing

Write On June 2006

My husband's mining career has taken our family to live in five states and given us insights in to the geography and many cultural differences within Australia.

I grew up in one of the mining towns of New South Wales and the older members of my family had had little formal education.  So I was aware from a very young age of the relative powerlessness which comes from marginal literacy.  By the time I was eight years old my mother always got me to write any necessary notes to my teacher because she felt ashamed of her writing skills.  She always said, "You write it.  You can do it better than I can."

Then, as an adult, life in remote mining towns of the Northern Territory and Western Australia introduced me to the even greater literacy problems faced by NESB immigrants and many Aboriginal people.  I was fired with the desire to do something to help but had no appropriate specialist training and no idea where to start.   (I was a French and Latin teacher!)

Consequently, when we left the Territory and moved to Melbourne, I took advantage of the city facilities and did my first TESOL training, which stood me and the community in good stead when we moved to another remote mining centre in the Pilbara region of W.A.  It was here that I first became aware of the serious dearth of reading materials suitable for adult migrants who were approaching English print from scratch – no surprise there for any teacher with the briefest of experience with these types of students!

By the time we had moved first to a Central Queensland mining town and then on to Brisbane, my frustration at my inability to find suitable reading materials for my low level ESL students led me to the conclusion that the only solution was to write some myself.  I teamed up with a similar-minded ESL colleague, Dorothy Court, who had the additional, invaluable ability to illustrate in a meaningful way.

We wanted to introduce our students to information about Australia, which they could not readily access because of the limitations imposed by their English skills: their ability to understand spoken English was limited and allowed them to extract very little meaning from TV or radio; they couldn't read English, which cut them off from most information in books or on the internet.  At the same time we wanted to help them learn to read as proficiently as possible.

We decided to start with early Australian history and ultimately produced The Great South Land.  This was a project which seemed to take on a life of its own: we had intended to produce one low level reader, but finished up with three graded reading texts in one volume, a separate volume of worksheets at the three levels and an audiocassette. The concept of the three levels came from a very successful experiment I had conducted with an ESL literacy class a couple of years earlier, where I had written a short text on Ned Kelly and then rewritten it several times, gradually increasing the information, vocabulary and complexity of the sentence structure.

After The Great South Land, we began to draw on my experiences in remote Australia.  The Davidson family had been fascinated by our contact with Aboriginal people in the Territory and Western Australia.  I had spent countless hours in the bush and at the beach with Aboriginal women when our children were small, learning about the plants and animals, the customs and skills of the local people.  This was one of the most intellectually stimulating periods of my life.  The cultural differences between modern, urban Anglo-Celtic Australians and traditional Aborigines are immense – greater than any I have encountered in my 20 years of teaching immigrants. 

So The First Australians was born.  Using the Davidson family photo albums as a reference point, Dorothy and I set out to give our students reading practice and at the same time information about the culture and skills of my Aboriginal friends.  We refined the format we had used in the first reading kit but kept to the same basic pattern of three texts with accompanying workbook and audiocassette.

By this stage we found that Adult Literacy teachers had started to use our materials and, to our surprise, primary and secondary teachers were also interested because the content fits in with the SOSE syllabus and can be used by students whose reading and language skills do not cope easily with more traditional textbooks.  As one secondary remedial reading teacher from Far North Queensland said to me, "If you had ten kits like this, I could cover my whole SOSE programme."  This induced us to read the SOSE documents and, returning again to the Davidson movements around Australia, to write A Very Big Country on basic Australian geography.

Our next project, which we hope to complete in 2005, is on the history of gold mining in Australia, entitled Gold!  A life of moving around the minefields of Australia has engendered yet another set of reading materials.