SPaRK – The Bone Sparrow

By Kelly Hodkinson – Head Teacher English at Erskine Park High School.

SPaRK overview

A using quality literature Shared Practice and Resource Kit (SPaRK) for English Stage 4. Years 7-8.

Resource: ‘The Bone Sparrow’ by Zana Fraillon, Lothian, NSW, 2016.

Learning and teaching activities in this SPaRK are centred on outcomes and content from the NSW English K-10 Syllabus and the English Textual Concepts resource.

What is it about?

‘The Bone Sparrow' is a modern narrative set in an Australian immigration detention centre. The novel centres on Subhi a young boy born in Australia within the walls of the detention centre. Subhi’s mother, his sister and best friend Eli are also inmates of the centre. They are all trying to make the best of their situation as they await their release. Readers are also introduced to the one friendly guard, Harvey, and to the workings of the centre itself. Things start to change for Subhi with the arrival of an outsider, Jimmie, who is also lost and trapped for different reasons. Together a friendship forms which helps them both to face their problems.

The novel presents an interesting way to teach students about the power of narrative and representations of the world and how these can be used to build an argument. It could be readily applied to other textual concepts. The text can also address cross curricular priorities and capabilities including critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding, intercultural understanding, literacy, difference and diversity and civics and citizenship.

Why is this important? Why does it matter?

Fraillon’s novel presents a vivid representation of life for people living in Australian immigration detention centres. The many images created through descriptions of events and settings, reflect a general understanding and knowledge of the conditions similar to those shown in the mass media, including poor housing, extreme environmental conditions, guard brutality, inadequate food and water supplies, lack of hope and despair leading to depression and self-harm, and so on. However, some of the content is highly sensitive and such images are more appropriate for older students. Those like the hunger strikers sewing their lips closed and Eli’s beating, might be quite distressing, even though the protagonist is even younger than Stage 4 students. The book presents a strong argument against the detention of children by creating believable characters that children will care about and with whom they will find they have common thoughts and similar likes and dislikes. These aspects along with familiar Australian settings and events that depict the hardships faced will captivate young adolescent readers

By combining an analysis of narrative structure and language choices students can learn about the ways composers deliberately stage ideas and feelings in fictional texts to evoke a response. As we usually focus on argument through factual texts, this book provides an opportunity to look at argument in a new context whilst exploring a complex dilemma in our society. By providing students with an opportunity to research this topic further in order to develop their own views and argument, and then asking them to experiment with creating their own imaginative text, students will enhance their understanding of techniques used in narratives and representations to persuade responders.

How do I use the text to teach the textual concepts of Argument, Narrative and Representation?

Argument activity

Explain to students that arguments can be developed in different types of texts, and that composers often use narratives to deliver an argument. Ask students to consider whether they think an argument has been presented in ‘The Bone Sparrow’. Discuss students’ ideas and propose the notion that the author was presenting an argument against children being kept in immigration detention centres. Make a list of elements in the story that support this assertion, for example, the lack of food, the cruelty of the guards, mental health problems, children being treated like adults, children watching hunger strikes, and so on. Explain further that the impact of an argument will depend on the way we respond to the

text and how critically we look at the information. There are several things we can consider in relation to how effectively a text presents its argument. One of these is to reflect on whether information is presented subjectively or objectively. Explain to students that we can investigate this by examining the modality, bias, personal pronouns, and other semantic cues. Consider these in light of the representation of the world presented through the narrative. Choose an extract from the book where part of an argument has been presented and discuss how the argument is delivered. Then assign students different sections of the book to analyse and determine the elements contributing to the effectiveness of the argument. Collate students’ findings and then debate and rank the power of each element of the argument (understanding and engaging critically).

An image of textual analysis from an extract of bone sparrow by Zana Fraillion
Image: Example of textual analysis using an extract from ‘The Bone Sparrow’ by Zana Fraillion

Example of textual analysis using an extract from ‘The Bone Sparrow’ by Zana Fraillion


  • recognise when information is presented objectively and subjectively by examining the language of opinion, including modality, bias, personal pronouns and other semantic cues


  • identify and discuss main ideas, concepts and points of view in spoken texts to evaluate qualities, for example the strength of an argument or the lyrical power of a poetic rendition (ACELY1719)


  • share, reflect on, clarify and evaluate opinions and arguments about aspects of literary texts (ACELT1627).

Linking our world and experiences to those of the narrative

Create a large mindmap of details relating to characters and the world represented in the novel. Ask students to highlight all the things they have in common with the characters and their experiences. For example, drinking hot chocolate, listening to family stories, having an older brother or sister, secrets kept from a best friend, feeling alone, and so on. Discuss the power of storytelling to draw us in to imaginative worlds and make us care about the people and situations they represent. Provide students with the definitions for the words ‘sympathy’, ‘empathy’ and ‘antipathy’. Ask students to think of examples from the text that elicit each of these feelings. Discuss the reasons for their responses focussing on the ways that they can see that they link to their own lives and experiences.

Analyse the way the characters, events and settings are combined in the novel to build a representation of life in an immigration detention centre. Are they believable characters? Why or why not? How do characters develop throughout the novel based on the events occurring? How do the different settings reflect the different characters and events? Does this novel develop an argument against children being detained in Australia through deliberate choices in relation to characterisation, events and setting? Have students complete a table (see example) to help them see the purpose of the choices made by the author through a consideration of the way they would respond to the text if different choices had been made. Finally ask students to write a reflective discussion on the way that the narrative is able to engage us and create an argument primarily through our concern for the characters and the situations depicted (connecting, engaging personally, engaging critically and reflecting).

Changes based on

What happens if…

To the narrative

To the argument


Subhi complaining all the time and having no imagination


Eli isn’t so protective


Harvey isn’t kind



Subhi doesn’t find Eli’s knife


Maá dies


Jimmie doesn’t get ill



The detention setting is in Germany


Jimmie lives in a wealthy home and suburb


The detention centre has new air conditioned buildings and good amenities


What changes do you think could enhance the narrative?

What changes do you think would strengthen the argument against children in detention centres?


  • recognise, reflect on, interpret and explain the connections between their own experiences and the world in texts
  • explore and appreciate the aesthetic qualities in their own and other texts and the power of language to communicate information, ideas, feelings and viewpoints
  • recognise and analyse the ways that characterisation, events and settings are combined in narratives, and discuss the purposes and appeal of different approaches (ACELT1622)


  • explain and justify personal empathy, sympathy and antipathy towards characters, situations and concerns depicted in texts.

Experimenting with presenting an argument in digital format activity

Organise students into groups to create a fictional digital text that explores and presents an argument on the same issue as the novel, that is, ‘Children in immigration detention centres’. Have students brainstorm the important elements for success of the text with a focus on argument, narrative and representation.

Create a marking criteria based on the discussions and share these with students. Students then create a list of actions required to complete the task and assign members of the group roles and responsibilities to complete the work in a given timeframe. Have students complete their first draft, then analyse their use of objective and subjective language. Complete an analysis sheet explaining their choices and making recommendations for change. Students complete their second draft and then share their texts around the class for peer marking. Give students an opportunity to engage with the feedback and make any changes to their work before final publication. Share the texts on a class blog, school website or through a preferred online learning platform (engaging personally, experimenting and reflecting).

Analysis of our text titled:____________________________________


Subjective or objective?

Justification of choice

Possible changes





Personal pronouns


Other semantic cues


Overall findings and recommendations:

EN4 -1A

  • experiment with language forms and features to compose texts for pleasure and enjoyment


  • use processes of representation, including the creative use of symbols, images, icons, clichés, stereotypes, connotations and particular aural, visual and/or digital techniques
  • use collaborative processes, eg playbuilding, performances and digital compositions to construct texts
  • consider and apply a range of strategies to improve their texts, including editing by rereading and peer editing, checking accuracy of paragraphing, grammar, spelling and punctuation, and considering relevance for purpose, audience and context


  • plan, draft and publish imaginative, informative and persuasive texts, selecting aspects of subject matter and particular language, visual, and audio features to convey information and ideas (ACELY1725)


  • understand and use conventions of storytelling in a range of modes and media, eg digital storytelling
  • compose texts using alternative, creative and imaginative ways of expressing ideas, recognising, valuing and celebrating originality and inventiveness

EN4- 8D

  • create imaginative, informative and persuasive texts that raise issues, report events and advance opinions, using deliberate language and textual choices, and including digital elements as appropriate (ACELY1736).

Related texts

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

Rainbow Bird by Czenya Cavouras


The Bone Sparrow: A Teaching Resource

Zana Fraillon on The Bone Sparrow, Refugees and Representation

How to cite this article – Hodkinson, K. 2017, 'SPaRK – The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon', Scan 36(3).

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