Saturday, May 3, 2003

Aboriginal Peoples: Literacy and Learning

by Eileen M. Antone


In this paper “Aboriginal” is used as a generic term to include all Aboriginal people in North America, including Status and non-Status Indians, Metís and Inuit. “Native” is used interchangeably with Aboriginal. The collective name for the Original people of North America has gone through several modifications with the changing political climate. As an individual I have experienced these changes and I am quite comfortable using the word “Native” to talk about my work and all my relatives. I also use the term “First Nations” interchangeably with “Native” and “Aboriginal”. The term “Indian” is legal terminology used in legislation such as the Indian Act, which governs the First Nations People of Canada. Where experience in a particular territory is under discussion, the Nation name (e.g., Odawa, or Oneida) is usually preferred.

“Aboriginal Literacy” describes Aboriginal Peoples ’ distinct perspective on literacy, in the context of Native education as a whole, and includes culture and language.

“Traditional” refers to protocols in keeping with Aboriginal Traditional Ecological Knowledge Systems.

“Practitioners” is used to refer to Aboriginal Elders, Traditional Teachers, literacy teachers, librarians, storytellers, tutors, culture-educators, administrators and resource personnel.

The term “Wholistic” describes the Aboriginal philosophical approach to learning, in which everything is related. By extension, the human being is considered an entire whole – mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally at one with the cosmos. This is distinct from a holistic approach in which the term related is taken as simply meaning interconnected. (Antone 2003).


Sekoli Swa kwe kon, Onkwehonwe ni:I Onyota’a:ka Tsi twa ka tuh ti. London Ontario Akta Tyot su nit ne Hotinnoshoni ne yukats, kale Kaliwisuks ne yukats Eileen Antone ne ah slo ni kik ne yukats. Ano:wal ni wa ki ta lo t^


Sekoli is a formal greeting in my language. Swa kwe kon includes everyone that is here. I am one of the Original People of North America also known to Aboriginal peoples as Turtle Island. I come from Onyota’a:ka, known as Oneida First Nation of the Thames, near London, Ontario. My name in the Longhouse is Tsyot sˆnit. Ka li wi suks is my research name. Ka li wi suks means “she who gathers information.” An elder who was a participant in my original thesis research gave this name to me. I am from the Turtle Clan. Eileen Antone is my English name.

In working with Aboriginal literacy, it is important that I introduce myself in the Oneida language, as language is an integral part of the literacy of Aboriginal people. Identity is also an integral part of Aboriginal literacy, so it is important that I identify myself to you as a member of the Onyota’a:ka First Nation and a member of the Oneida Turtle clan.

Historical Background

Aboriginal education became the focus of my work when I realized that, though I am an Aboriginal person, I was unaware of my heritage and history. I wanted to know why I did not have the traditional knowledge that is the basis of Onyota’a:ka life.

My original research was a sociological study of education for Aboriginal people in Canada. Through in-depth inquiry into the education of Aboriginal people in Canada, I found that the goal of the Euro- Canadian education system was to educate Aboriginal students to an individualistic worldview, based on the knowledge that came from Europe (Antone 1997). Education was a process of assimilation whereby Aboriginal People were to be absorbed into the Eurocentric society (Wilson 1986).

The goal of the Euro-Canadian education system was to educate Aboriginal students to an individualistic worldview.

The main strategy which the Government of Canada used to accomplish assimilation was the Residential School system, in continued existence from the late 1800s to the late 1900s in different parts of Canada. This system removed the children from their home communities and the influence of their parents and extended families (Knockwood 1992). The impact of these schools was that many Aboriginal people lacked the skills they needed for a high quality of life in either Aboriginal or European society (Barman 1986:112).

Aboriginal practitioners began to explore and build connections between Aboriginal literacy, healing, community development and self-determination.

Early literacy programs in Canada continued the aims of assimilation. They tried to teach learners to read and write in the English language so that they could find work in the dominant society (Barman 1986:112). These literacy programs did not seem to help, as Aboriginal people continued to have high unemployment rates (McCallum 1997).

In 1987, Aboriginal people in Toronto began a literacy movement to improve the quality of education for their learners. Aboriginal practitioners began to explore and build connections between Aboriginal literacy, healing, community development and self-determination (Gaikezheyongai 2000). These visionaries saw another way, one not based on the constant negation of Aboriginal views and values (Battiste 1986). Their efforts to enhance literacy for Aboriginal people continue today.

Literacy and Learning Project

The Literacy and Learning project collected data from Aboriginal communities in the province of Ontario between 2000 and 2002. The research team consisted of Dr. Peter Gamlin and myself as principal investigators, both from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT). We worked with five Aboriginal students: Moneca Sinclair, Ed.D. Candidate at OISE/UT; Lois Provost Turchetti, M.Ed. Candidate at OISE/UT; Julian Robbins, Ph.D. Candidate at Trent University; Rhonda L. Paulsen, Ph. D. Postgraduate student at OISE/UT; and Heather McRae, M.A. Candidate at OISE/UT. Heather joined us in the fall of 2002 to help bring this project to a close. The research was a collaborative work, in partnership with the National Literacy Secretariat, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and the Ontario Native Literacy Coalition (ONLC) and OISE/UT. The ONLC currently serves a membership of twenty-six Native literacy programs throughout Ontario. Our research data came from urban and rural Aboriginal communities affiliated with ONLC , as well as independent or stand-alone programs not connected to ONLC.

There were three phases to this research project. The first phase consisted of a literature review, which situated Aboriginal literacy in the context of Native education as a whole. The objective of the literature review was to illuminate some of the potential directions that Aboriginal literacy in Ontario might take in the context of academic “dialogue” currently occurring in Native education. Our intent was to facilitate a process to ensure that Native literacy in Ontario is perceived wholistically. In conjunction with the literature review, we developed an annotated bibliography as well as a list of Native language resources and websites.

The second phase of the research included interviews and focus groups. The major objective was to gather, document and understand the experiences of program personnel and learners, acknowledging Aboriginal wholistic approaches to learning and “best practices” in literacy training programs. A second objective was to identify the barriers and supports experienced by Aboriginal learners in literacy training programs.

The third phase of the research involved a two-day symposium. Nearly eighty practitioners came together for the Native Literacy and Learning–Aboriginal Perspectives Symposium held at OISE/UT on May 3 and 4, 2002. Elders Lillian McGregor and Grafton Antone provided opening and closing each day, respectively. Aboriginal literacy researchers Ningwakwe Priscilla George and Sally Gaikezheyongai gave keynote presentations. Lillian McGregor, Jacqui LaValley, Grafton Antone, Jan Longboat, and Joe Paquette provided a roundtable of Elders and teachers. Fourteen practitioners presented on a broad range of topics related to barriers and supports in literacy, ranging from “Healing the Spirit” to “Deaf Literacy”.

Culturally appropriate practice is flexible and effective because it reframes Aboriginal perspectives in a positive light.

The presenters, Elders and teachers who participated in the symposium were invited to a one-day follow-up workshop in mid-October 2002. Significantly, these gatherings created forums for Aboriginal literacy practitioners to come together and discuss issues that would enhance literacy for the learners in Aboriginal programs. These gatherings were also a way to encourage, enhance, recognize and validate practitioners’ accomplishments. Practitioners were able to develop teaching methods, practices and administrative processes and share their findings from the literacy teaching process.


Four clear and consistent findings came out of the interviews, symposium and follow-up meeting. First, there was complete agreement from practitioners that (a) Aboriginal literacy comprises a distinct, culturally-appropriate and wholistic perspective on literacy; and (b) a proactive response to this wholistic perspective needs to be taken.

Secondly, practitioners agreed that there is no single type of Aboriginal literacy program or “best practice”. Effective and successful programs and practices are those that learners perceive to be directly relevant to their own environments and cultural traditions. Consequently, effective and successful programs are those in which learners are motivated to participate.

Practitioners stated that culturally appropriate practice is flexible and effective because it reframes Aboriginal perspectives in a positive light. As long as funding arrangements are predicated on governmental criteria-based outcome objectives that do not take Aboriginal cultural perspectives into account, culturally appropriate practice cannot be recognized and achieved.

Practitioners also observed that there was very little understanding of, or funding support for, Aboriginal adult literacy programs that include intergene rational literacy participation and practices (Antone 2003).

Finally, practitioners described Aboriginal literacy as distinct from mainstream literacy in that it reflects Aboriginal worldviews in two particular ways. The first is the intergenerational or multigenerational expression of Aboriginal literacy which includes how literacy extends to all areas of life. The second is the particular learning process by which teachers become learners and learners become teachers. As Cajete (1994) describes it, this learning “unfolded through mutual, reciprocal relationships between one’s social group and the natural world... involved all dimensions of one’s being, while providing both personal development and technical skills through participation in community life.” Practitioners, learners and their families need this approach to achieve their place as respected and contributing members of both Aboriginal and Canadian society.

We must continue the work of our earlier visionaries by exploring and building connections between Aboriginal literacy, healing, community development and self-determination.

Eileen Antone is a member of the Oneida of the Thames First Nation. She is a faculty member in the department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto (OISE/UT). Dr. Antone also works with the university’s Transitional Year Program assisting Aboriginal students to achieve university studies.


Antone, Eileen (1997). In Search of Voice: A Collaborative Investigation on Learning Experiences of all Onyota’a:ka. Toronto: Unpublished Thesis-University of Toronto.

Antone, Eileen, Peter Gamlin and Lois Turchetti (2003). Literacy and Learning: Acknowledging Aboriginal Holistic Approaches to Learning in Relation to ‘Best Practices’ Literacy Training Programs Final Report. Toronto: Literacy and Learning.

Barman, Jean (1986). “Separate and unequal: Indian and White girls at All Hallows School, 1884-1920”. In Indian Education in Canada Volume 1: The legacy. Eds. Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McGaskill. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Battiste, Marie (1986). “Micmac Literacy and Cognitive Assimilation”. In Indian Education in Canada Volume 1: The legacy. Eds. Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McGaskill. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Cajete, Greg (1994). Look to the Mountain, An ecology of Indigenous education. Durango, Colorado: Kivakí Press.

Gaikezeheyongai, Sally (2000). Aboriginal-Enhanced Access to Native Learning. Toronto: Native Women’s Resource Centre.

Knockwood, Isabelle (1992). Out of the Depths: The Experiences of Mi'kmaw Children at the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. Lockeport, Nova Scotia: Roseway Publishing.

McCallum, John (1997). Aboriginal Economic Development. Royal Bank of Canada.

Wilson, J. Donald (1986). “‘No blankets to be worn in school’: The education of Indians in nineteenth-century Ontario”. In Indian Education in Canada Volume 1: The legacy. Eds. Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McGaskill. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Friday, May 2, 2003

Making connections

by Richard Darville

(with contributions from Tannis Atkinson, Mary Norton and Tracy Westell)

Literacies: Researching practice, practising research comes out of discussions among experienced literacy practitioners, researchers and academics from across Canada. These discussions concluded with a determination to start a journal that would help to connect adult literacy practice and research. This article tries to elaborate the nature of that connection, and its difficulty.

One idea now commonly discussed is that of a “culture of research” in adult literacy. It is a useful idea to develop, one which points towards a conversation that links research and practice in many ways. In this conversation, people will listen to one another seriously, assume one another’s good will, and aspire to a condition in which research and practice enrich one another. We want this journal to encourage that conversation – to foster dialogue, debate and mutual development between adult literacy research and practice.

There will be different voices in the conversation here, as people from various locations find a place to publish, and ideas to read and discuss. Some of those voices are from adult literacy practice. Some are from adult literacy research.

What is practice, what is research?

By the term adult literacy practice we mean a broad range of activities aimed to promote and develop people’s abilities to read and write, and their opportunities and resources for reading and writing. Of course, the central activities are the many education or training programs for people working to improve their abilities. These programs go by a variety of names: literacy, adult basic education, basic skills, ESL, aboriginal language, and so forth. Literacy practice also includes:

• work to develop awareness about the importance of literacy questions and about ways of respecting and assisting people with limited literacy. This work happens in trade unions, public health services, government departments, and many other places;

• efforts to inform people about, or attract them to, programs;

• writing for audiences that include people with limited literacy – whether that means plain language in institutional communications, or writing by and with communities that have had few writings of their own; and

• attempts to develop public policy that supports the promotion of literacy abilities and literacy opportunities.

There is also another meaning of the word practice. In much writing about literacy, it is used very broadly, to refer to all the ways that people use and relate to texts and documents – writing grocery lists and fictions and applications, reading the news and court orders and textbooks. When we think of practice, we think of that vast domain as well.

The term research likewise encompasses a broad range of activities. It includes all the ways in which people concerned with adult literacy practice re-search – look again, articulating and clarifying what they know, and pushing out into the unclear and the unknown. Research includes:

• the kinds of work usually called “theory and research”, often done by university faculty and students;

• the work of independent researchers who conduct research studies or development projects; and

• the many ways that practitioners look again – especially when they leave a public record of their learning, whether in an “article”, teaching materials, or workshops.

The categories of practitioner and researcher are often cross-cutting. Many practitioners have done academic work about literacy. Current university students may be mid-career practitioners. Some university faculty and some independent researchers have been (sometimes still are) practitioners. In spite of this, the practice conversation and the research conversation often seem remote from one another. Some even question whether they can be put together.

Can practice and research come together?

What are the prospects for connections among all these people, for a lively culture of research?

When we begin to connect a broad understanding of practice with a broad conception of research, the first thing we recognize is that much of practice already includes research. It is research when teachers experiment with learning materials, with the phrasing of explanations, or with learner involvement in program organization, and make findings about what works. It is research when practitioners carry on discussion and debate, seeking to share and to clarify their understandings, or to pose and address problems. It is research when people drafting and testing plain language documents come to new understandings of reading processes. It is research when practitioners and policy makers observe and reflect on how administrative arrangements work.

So research is a normal part of ongoing good practice. But of course when people conventionally speak of research, they mean something different and more formal than this – inquiries that are deliberately planned and conducted, and that result in some writing (or taping or filming) and public communication of their results.

Good practice often includes and grows into research in this more formal sense – that in turn transforms the practice from which it came. But the movement from practice to research isn’t easy. Practitioners may not see the possibility of making knowledge, or the plausibility of using writing as a way of exchanging knowledge about what they do. Even when the point seems clear, there are problems finding the time to read, to observe carefully and to write. And it’s often doubtful whether research will be valued by administrators, policy-makers , or more traditional researchers.

Furthermore, formal research – and public communication of its results – pose demands (and opportunities) for explicitness, coherence and abstraction. These don’t often arise within practice itself, even within the research that is part of good practice. Perhaps the greatest of these demands is finding a language that combines two qualities. It must be grounded in particular situations, in the detail of literacy work and aimed to make sense of it. Yet it must allow exchange between situations, conversations with others elsewhere who are shaping ideas about literacy and its teaching and learning. We have only just begun inventing this language.

On the other hand, people who regularly do formal research and writing are accustomed to explicitness, coherence and abstraction. Formal researchers are accustomed to taking up others’ ideas in relation to their own – accustomed to what is called “building on existing knowledge”. But grounding in practice is not common in formal research. Academic and policy research seem, at least at times, to start someplace away from the particular situations where adult literacy practice goes on.

So from this side, too, language and knowledge need to be invented – knowledge not merely about adult literacy practice, but for it. The problems of practice need to be taken up as problems for research and theorizing. Formal research needs to aspire both to inform and to learn from practitioners grappling with every day practical concerns. But there are barriers here too. For academic and independent researchers, what is rewarded is often not local and grounded but abstract and tied into academic discourses and policy objectives.


There is much to change, and much to learn, in bringing together practice and research. The culture of research will require shifts in both the common assumptions and the working conditions of literacy practice, and in the culture and constraints of academic and policy research.

What role can Literacies play? We think the journal can best work on the invention of new language and new genres. This does not mean sweeping away traditions unreflectively. To connect practice and research, we need to make use of existing forms of writing. There will be ethnographies that describe in detail the activities and interactions of adult literacy practice, and of literacy practices in the more general sense. There will be case studies of learners or teachers. There will be surveys of the uses of literacy, of programming practices and of individual skill levels. There will be practitioners’ analyses of their own practice – likely based on regular journal-keeping or discussions among colleagues. There will be theory, systematic efforts to develop those general conceptions that help us come to terms with what we see about and what we do in literacy practice.

But we will also be continually open to ways that these genres may need to be adapted, and new genres may need to be invented. We’re not sure what these developments will look like. The journal will be a place for experimenting and creating. We will ask that articles written by researchers address not only relevant research literature, but also reach out to address the concerns of literacy practice. We will ask that articles by practitioners not only address their own experiences but also aim to hook up with conversations going on among practitioners elsewhere and with relevant theoretical ideas. We expect to see narrative reports of experience, dialogues, even fictions. We expect we will recurrently step back to look at the basic issues of what literacy practice and literacy research are and how they can relate.

We look forward to you joining us in this unfolding conversation.

Thursday, May 1, 2003

Where have we come from?

Recent developments in literacy research in practice in Canada

An excerpt adapted from “It simply makes us better”: Learning from Literacy Research in Practice Networks in the UK, Australia and the United States, A Resource for Literacy Research in Practice in Canada. Allan Quigley and Mary Norton, The Learning Centre, Edmonton, 2002.

In February 1996, the National Literacy Secretariat, Ottawa, hosted a policy conversation on literacy research. The participants identified a need to recognize, link, support and advance literacy research and practice in Canada. Following the policy conversation, Mary Norton and Yvon Laberge, who had participated in it, surveyed six consultants about practitioner research in Canada. The consultation identified both an interest in research in practice and a number of potential challenges to practitioners engaging in research, including practitioners’ need for support and resources to do research.

Potential challenges include practitioners’ need for support and resources to do research.

The survey led to an October 1997 research in practice seminar in Edmonton. Eighteen literacy researchers, practitioners and consultants met to discuss the potential and possible future applications of literacy research in practice in Canada. Literacy practitioner research networks and projects that had been discussed or attempted in parts of Canada were reviewed, as were some of the established networks in Australia, the UK and the USA. The seminar heightened interest in developing organized approaches to supporting or sustaining research in practice initiatives.

In February 1998, the National Literacy Secretariat produced Enhancing literacy research in Canada, which highlighted the need for research capacity building in Canada. This report outlined a framework for supporting research in literacy and included practitioner research as one important direction for literacy research in Canada. By this time, organized literacy research in practice efforts had been introduced in Alberta and British Columbia.

In 1997, The Learning Centre, Edmonton, in partnership with the University of Alberta Faculty of Education, initiated an NLS-funded practitioner research project that explored participatory approaches in literacy education. Building on this project, a Research in Practice in Adult Literacy (RiPAL) Network was initiated in 2000 by the Literacy Coordinators of Alberta, the Learning Centre, and the University of Alberta Centre for Research on Literacy. Both of these projects used web-based and internet communication to help practitioners read, apply and conduct research about practice. The later project incorporated approaches described in a framework developed by Jenny Horsman and Mary Norton (1999).

Projects used web-based and internet communication to help practitioners read, apply and conduct research about practice.

In 1998, a course on adult research was offered as part of Literacy BC’s summer institute. Twenty-seven practitioners attended from BC, Alberta, Manitoba , Ontario and the Territories. This was followed in the fall by a workshop on practitioner research , sponsored by the BC Ministry of Advanced Education. An on-line research conference is now accessible to conference subscribers in BC and the western provinces and territories.

In 2000 a Research Circles project was initiated at Simon Fraser University with Literacy BC involvement. Its aim was to support and build the capacity for literacy practitioner research. This project was discontinued in 2001. A collaborative research in practice project, initiated in 2001, involved five practitioners who are researching how adults with little formal education learn. A university-based consultant is providing research workshops and support for the research team. Elsewhere in Canada, the Ontario Field Research Group of literacy practitioners and researchers, although disbanded on a formal level, continued to function in an informal manner. The Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education Regional Conference held in Halifax in March 1998 was dedicated to practitioners action research. A national project, based at the University of Ottawa, involved 10 practitioners in action research about workplace literacy. Reports about each project are included in the project report (Taylor 2002) which also includes a guide to doing action research. Meanwhile, the Centre for Education and Work in Winnipeg held consultations across Manitoba in 2002 about the feasibility of conducting research within community-based programs.

In the summer of 2001, a gathering in Edmonton about adult literacy research in practice attracted sixty people from various contexts across Canada, along with some participants from the UK, Australia and the USA. Researchers in practice facilitated workshops and inquiry groups about their research and engaged in discussions about research in practice. Another gathering was held in the summer of 2002 in conjunction with a literacy conference in Vancouver, and the 2003 research and practice institute will be held in St. John’s.


(2002) Looking back. Looking in. Reports from Bearing blossoms... Sowing seeds. A Gathering about literacy research in practice. Edmonton: Learning at the Centre Press.

Horsman, Jenny and Mary Norton (1999). A framework to encourage and support practitioner involvement in adult literacy research in practice in Canada. Edmonton: The Learning Centre. Available from The Learning Centre, 10116 105 Avenue, Edmonton, AB T5H 0K2.

Millar, Robin (2002). Contextualizing Literacy Research in Manitoba. Winnipeg: Centre for Education and Work. Available online at

Quigley, Allan and Mary Norton (2002). “It simply makes us better”: Learning from Literacy Research in Practice Networks in the UK, Australia and the United States, A Resource for Literacy Research in Practice in Canada. Edmonton: The Learning Centre.

Taylor, Maurice (2002). Action research in workplace education: a handbook for literacy instructors. Ottawa: Partnerships in Learning.