Designing resources for community-led bilingual education
After years of planning and development, the Yäku ga Rirrakay (Sounds and Letters) app for teaching children phonological awareness in Dhuwaya has recently entered the classroom. Yolŋu community members and teachers from the Dhuwaya/English bilingual school in Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land — including Robyn Beecham, Yalmay Yunupiŋu and Jake Stockley — have been working with software developer Fardin Elias (from Ohmi Labs Pty Ltd) and an ever-expanding group of linguists led by CoEDL CI Jill Wigglesworth to develop the app since 2015. Melanie Wilkinson from the NT Department of Education joined the team in 2019. The team hopes the app will not only serve the community in Yirrkala but go on to be a resource for bilingual education across many other Indigenous languages.
A critical skill in developing literacy, phonological awareness is the ability to segment and manipulate a word using its simplest parts and sounds. Teaching phonological awareness commonly starts with taking a simple word like cat, breaking it down and sounding it out (C-A-T), then identifying how parts of the word can be blended with other sounds to make a different word (e.g., H-A-T).
While there are countless resources that do this for native English speakers, there are hardly any such tools for Australian Indigenous languages. This is one of the primary challenges for delivering bilingual education in an Indigenous language, as Jill, Robyn, Yalmay and others noted in their paper published earlier this year.
“One of the challenges in delivering a bilingual program in an Aboriginal language is that there tend to be limited resources, particularly digital resources. While Yirrkala School has quite a collection of resources available for the classroom, it has few resources for developing the children’s phonological awareness, an important skill required for learning to read. For this reason, we developed [an app] for iPads” (p. 2).
Meticulous effort went into every step of the design process, from maintaining immersion in Dhuwaya through in-language instructions, to ensuring design elements and motifs are culturally appropriate. The app employs iPad meta-language in Dhuwaya, such as wäŋawuy giniŋgarr (from the words for ‘house’ or ‘place’ and ‘bellybutton or ‘knob’) to refer to the home button. Rather than using traffic-light colours (e.g., red, amber and green) to track progress, the app uses black, red and yellow — culturally significant colours corresponding with black skin, blood and yellow fat (a delicacy). The team also worked closely with Yolŋu team members to confirm that all images used for the app are culturally appropriate and relevant to Dhuwaya language learning.
“The icon for the letter name activity, for example, had a picture of puzzle pieces with the English alphabet letters A, B, C and D written on them,” the authors explain in their paper. “This was revised to reflect the first four letters of the Yolŋu alphabet instead.”
Curating a selection of one- to four-syllable words to constitute the initial target vocabulary of the app also posed a challenge. There are few examples in Dhuwaya of the short, two- or three-phoneme, single-syllable words that are common in early English literacy learning and are useful in phonological segmenting and blending exercises (e.g., at, bat, cat, hat).
“Many hours were spent trying to identify monosyllabic words,” the authors note. “Monosyllables that are familiar to young children are limited and many of them are grammatical words… that cannot be easily depicted by a picture for young children.”
Despite the design challenges, which also included the pronunciation and integration of glottal stops throughout the app, the authors point out that Dhuwaya has the benefit of phonological transparency, meaning “a word written correctly in Dhuwaya should be relatively easy to pronounce.” English, on the other hand, has many words — like yacht or colonel — that defy standard patterns of pronunciation, making the language less phonologically transparent.
Phonological transparency makes teaching and learning phonological awareness more straightforward, as children can more easily break down words and identify patterns. Furthermore, evidence suggests these skills are transferable between languages. For most children at Yirrkala school, English is not their first language. Using the app in Dhuwaya therefore provides a framework for learning phonological awareness first with a familiar language, then to apply these skills to English language and literacy learning.
The team has also worked to future-proof the app. Yirrkala School is continuing to work with Fardin to update and maintain the software as glitches become apparent through use. The app was also designed in a modular format; this will allow different communities wanting to develop a similar resource in their own language to use the Yäku ga Rirrakay app as a template.
Already, other communities and bilingual schools have expressed interest in adapting the app to their languages. In this way, the project collaborators have already succeeded in developing a resource that will allow Indigenous communities to continue bilingual education on their own terms while meeting compulsory standards around literacy development.
Header — Yalmay Yunupiŋu tests the Yäku ga Rirrakay app with a student from Yirrkala School (Image: Jill Wigglesworth).
Image 1 — The first four letters of the Yolŋu alphabet, on which the Dhuwaya language is based (Image: Wigglesworth, et al.).
Image 2 — The Yäku ga Rirrakay app icon (Image: Fardin Elias).