When literacy and diversity goes hand in hand

When literacy and diversity goes hand in hand

In 2019, a report found that bullying continues to plague the education sector, with 37% of Australian principals reporting that such incidents happen at least weekly, compared to the OECD average.

Another landmark study found that nearly 1/3 of Year 5-9 students from non-white or European backgrounds in NSW and Victoria experience racism on a regular basis. This issue is also one of the leading reasons why Indigenous become disengaged in schools, ultimately impacting their adult lives later on.

Numerous efforts have been introduced to deter bullying, especially when race is concerned. As early as 2016, a toolkit was released to help teachers explain race to preschool children, but a new study has found that gaps still remain.

Edith Cowan University lecturer in Literacy Education and Children’s Literature, Helen Joanne Adam, found through her research that only 18% of 2,413 books in four WA childcare centres have non-white characters.

In her article published in The Conversation, Adam said her research also found that there are more animal characters than non-white characters, as they comprise of about half of the characters in the books covered. Even then, these animal characters reflect middle-class Caucasian values and lives.

Some books which had non-white characters, on the other hand, were only present as background characters rather than protagonists.

Adam’s research, co-authored with ECU Early Childhood Education Professor Caroline Barratt-Pugh, found that books showing cultural diversity were tokenistic and sometimes outdated as these were mostly written by “members of the dominant culture and aimed to “teach” children about other cultures.”

Why representation matters

Adams said children learn more than just phonics when they read books, as these materials help them develop their sense of identity. She added that books can serve as a way for children to perceive others, and monocultural books outnumbering books with diverse characters pose a problem.

Referencing a 2006 study on visual preferences of infants, babies as young as 3-months-old are able to develop bias towards their own race and by age 4-6, they can exhibit stereotyping or prejudice.

But Adams said these can still be corrected so long as children are exposed to other racial representations such as in children’s books.

Change also needs to happen among educators, the study said.

Adams and Barrett-Pugh’s research recommended training and development of guidelines to help educators in recognising and selecting cultural authentic books to add to their collection.

This rings true to the findings of the Education Report 2020, where some respondents said that emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are crucial skills for educators in order to develop respectful relationships.

“Improved access to quality culturally authentic children’s literature is important if the principles of diversity that lie at the heart of Australian educational policy are to be achieved,” the study read.