Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

The language of formal schooling in Australia is called Standard Australian English (SAE). It is the dialect of English that is used by teachers and is the foundation of all curriculum, teaching and assessment. It is also the language of textbooks. It is often referred to formal English or academic English in order to distinguish it from the ‘everyday’ informal English that is also used at school. In NSW many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students come to school using a different dialect of English than SAE.

Linguists refer to Aboriginal Ways of Using English (Eades, 2013) in order to describe the ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples use English and how this differs to the SAE that is required for academic success in school. In NSW schools the preferred term is Aboriginal English but this term is not universally used or accepted across all Aboriginal communities in NSW. Aboriginal English is widely used by Aboriginal people in urban, regional and remote areas and is a strong marker of identity for Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal English differs to other varieties of English in distinctive ways including:

  • differences in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation
  • differences in the ways that language is used and how language changes according to audience and purpose.

To achieve academic success at school all students need to be explicitly taught how to demonstrate syllabus outcomes in Standard Australian English. The teaching of Standard Australian English is a mandatory requirement of NSW syllabuses. Teachers must equip Aboriginal students with the skills and knowledge needed to ‘code-switch’ from one dialect of English to the other, according to demand and context.

Code-switching involves more than being able to speak two or more codes. It also involves being able to judge which dialect will best serve ones needs in any given context. This is determined by things like audience, purpose, content and situation but will also be influenced by individual choices made by each language user. All these options and skills need to be explored and explicitly taught at schools so students who speak a non-standard dialect at home are equipped to participate fully at school, and empowered to participate fully in the wider community outside school.

More information on Aboriginal English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D) learners

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