Growing TESOL in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander contexts

Thank you for your attending the ACTA event ‘Growing TESOL in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander contexts’ on Monday 8th November 2021.

To view the issue, please visit:

TESOL in Context Vol 29 No 1 Growing TESOL in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander contexts


Here are some of the questions and answers from the Q&A discussion:

  • What are some key considerations to consider in TESOL when working with students from Aboriginal and / or Torres Strait Islander contexts compared to students from linguistically diverse migrant / refugee backgrounds? Can you share some insights into the similarities and differences working in EAL/D education with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and students from linguistically diverse migrant / refugee backgrounds?

Patricia Königsberg: 

Similarities are that students from both contexts – those from Aboriginal and / or Torres Strait Islander background and those from linguistically diverse migrant backgrounds are learning a new language at a stage when their own home language is already well established and their cognitive processes are closely linked with the cultural cognitive and associated linguistic patterns of this home language.

Some of the differences relate to the social and affective areas of language learning.  For most students who are new to Australia, there is an intrinsic desire to fit into the new society.  This includes purposefully learning the new language of standard Australian English and seeking out to learn “how things are done around here”.  For Aboriginal students, the country they are on is their country. Since first colonisation, Aboriginal people have been forcefully made to adapt to the ways of the colonisers. They were punished for speaking their traditional languages and were forced to learn new ways of living.  For most, this was initially never a matter of choice.

Aboriginal people had to adopt the English of the colonisers and in this process, they made English their own. Aboriginal English is a distinctly rule-governed dialect with local variations.  It is the home language of many Aboriginal families and the expression of Aboriginal identity. It is the lingua-franca spoken by Aboriginal people across Australia. 

For Aboriginal English speakers, learning Standard Australian English can be a challenge.  Firstly, many Aboriginal English speakers are not aware that their English is different from Standard Australian English.  Aboriginal English speakers may resent teachers who are continuously picking on their language.  They may not see the point of learning Standard Australian English.

Aboriginal English speaking students will have receptive and productive competence in English.  When working with Aboriginal English speakers, it is important to recognise and respect the language they speak and teach Standard Australian English as an additional rather than as a replaced language. 

Denise Angelo:

Like migrants and refugee students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are a linguistically diverse cohort, so there isn’t a one size fits all answer here. 

Like migrant and refugee EAL/D learners, Indigenous EAL/D learners have their own L1s (first languages) and culture, and are adding English to their language repertoires. As a whole cohort, they are all on an EAL/D learning journey, at different stages, bringing various prior learnings and strengths to the task. Like some overseas background EAL/D learners, many Indigenous EAL/D learners tend not to have many opportunities for developing L1 literacy in formal school settings. (There are a small number of bilingual schools that provide for L1 literacy first. Plus is also some local expertise, projects etc that might also foster L1 literacy)

The position of English, like Patsy pointed out, can be quite different for EAL/D learners from overseas. English is an important international language which millions of people are learning. English has a dominant  role in Australian government and institutions, social, health and financial services, so it is very useful. But for First Nations English is also associated with colonisation, dispossession and laws and rules that have been very detrimental to Indigenous people. English is the default language used in so many contexts that exclude speakers of all types of Indigenous languages, traditional, creole, mixed language and/or Aboriginal Englishes.

For speakers of English-lexified creoles (Kriol, Yumplatok, Yarrie Lingo, Cape York Creole etc)  and Aboriginal Englishes, there is the issue of invisibility. Their languages are often misconstrued as poor versions of the standard language, Standard Australian English, because English speakers perceive that there is some commonality there – and erroneously assume student have full proficiency in the standard language. This is a world wide problem faced by speakers of creoles and dialects of standard languages and their educators.

One big difference between these cohorts is that Indigenous EAL/D learners are doing mainstream curriculum and assessment from the very start of their interactions with schooling: regardless of Their  level of proficiency, in Standard Australian English (SAE). They are supported by mainstream-trained classroom teachers, often with no EAL/D support, also often with no “official” L1 support. Bilingual schools are the exception here; elsewhere Indigenous educators with the same language background as their students can offer L1 support. Unfortunately this is not always supported by wider policy understandings.

  • What principles underpin assessments that build on the strengths of and best serve the needs of Aboriginal and / or Torres Strait Islander learners? How do you use language proficiency assessments to inform practice?

Patricia Königsberg: 

​​The principles of assessment as outlined by ACARA are also relevant here.  ACARA states these five assessment principles:

Assessment should

  1. be an integral part of teaching and learning
  2. be educative
  3. be fair
  4. be designed to meet their specific purposes
  5. lead to informative reporting
  6. lead to school-wide evaluation processes

The strengths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is their Home Language.  In order for assessment to educative and fair, it is essential that this language difference be taken account of. Standard Australian English should only be assessed once the students have developed a sense of

Language difference and once they had been given opportunities to learn standard Australian English in incremental ways.   Tools to support this should be those developed specifically for EALD learners.

Language proficiency tools such as the ESL Bandscales or the EALD Progress Map can be used to monitor, plan and assess – following the teaching learning cycle.

  • What is your view of the process of bandscaling in Queensland?

Catherine Hudson:

Firstly, the dual pathway in the bandscaling process in Queensland is a significant advance in identifying, assessing and monitoring Indigenous EAL/D learners with invisible language backgrounds. The post-enrolment classroom assessed pathway is an extra pathway to the on-enrolment pathway where identification and EAL/D support relies to a large extent on information about country of origin, visa, time of arrival, overseas language.  This entry-enrolment orientation does not apply to Indigenous populations or cater for the complexities of identifying learners with contact language backgrounds.  It leads to under-recognition of Indigenous populations.

See: Angelo (2013). Identification and assessment contexts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners of Standard Australian English: Challenges for the language testing community. Papers in Language Testing and Assessment, 2(2), 67-102.

Department of Education (DoE) (Qld). (2017), Identifying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D)’ students, student/Documents/identifying-aboriginal-torres-strait- islander-eald-learners-flowchart.pdf

Secondly, emphasis on oral assessment in the Bandscales process. particularly with very young learners is significant. See the State Schools – Indigenous Education booklet: Additional Information for Identifying and Assessing Indigenous EAL/D learners Gathering and analysing Data for Bandscales State Schools (Queensland) – Speaking.  A compilation of teacher knowledge and research.

Thirdly, an Essential part of the Bandscales process in Queensland is training in the use of the Bandscales with diverse cohorts in diverse contexts.

  • Can you recommend strategies relating to explaining an English word that does not have any direct translation into an Indigenous word?

Susan Poetsch:

Great question! Breaking the word down into plain English is a starting point, to make it easier to think about a translation. Speakers of the language also need time to think about it and work on it together. Hope this helps!

Patricia Königsberg: 

There are many words in Standard Australian English that do not have a direct correlation to a word in any given language. One strategy is to negotiate the meaning.  If it is a word in SAE, use every means to explain this word (use pictures, drawings, gestures, synonyms, antonyms, stories, examples of this word used in a variety of contexts etc.)

With all this support, students will learn the meaning and usage of the word even if there is no directly correlating word in their home language.

  • Is  the concept of the ‘Code-switching Stairway’ is still relevant in TESOL contexts with Aborginal and/or Torres Strait Islander language learners?

Carly Steel:

The code-switching stairway (Berry and Hudson, 1997) and the language awareness continuum (Angelo and McIntosh, 2009) are useful to identify the language skills involved in code-switching or translangauging, which requires a range of complex skills. There are some issues with both. They position language learning as linear, which is not necessarily the case and does not speak to the complexity of the situation. The code-switching stairway does not include a critical language awareness component and the language awareness continuum positions this as higher order learning in steps 6 and 7. Recent research suggests that critical language awareness is required at all stages of language learning and analysis for students to engage in a meaningful way that is reflective of their social and cultural realities.

Denise Angelo:

The “code-switching stairway” was part of the FELIKS (Fostering English Language in Kimberley Schools) professional development program:





Yes, in my view it is still relevant. It captures some very important aspects for classroom teaching and learning in contexts where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students speak languages that overlap with English, such as creoles like Kriol, Yumplatok/Torres Strait Creole, Cape York Creole, Yarrie Lingo etc, or Aboriginal English dialects.

Awareness is the foundation. Understanding that the home variety is a full and proper language is the basis of respecting students’ language. (I have found that “awareness” is a complex and long term process – I unpack some of this in the Language Awareness Continuum (LAC) in the Angelo & Hudson article – Carly refers to FELIKS & LAC above)

Separation means knowing how “home languages” differ from Standard Australian English and are key to teachers being able to work with students to understand and teach these differences.

Code-switching refers to the additive nature of being able to use the language variety that suits the audience and purpose and place.

Control refers to having the proficiency and confidence in both languages to be able to use either at will.

When code-switching got taken up by education, I’ve noticed that sometimes there’s a bit of misunderstanding… For example, sometimes it’s believed that we should just teach code-switching, rather than understanding that it is a behaviour that grows as proficiency in both “codes” (languages or dialects) develops. This bilingual/bidialectal behaviour can be encouraged, but obviously it rests on speakers having some knowledge of two (or more) languages.

  • What kind of advocacy is or will ACTA engage in as well as the panel members to ensure equitable language education for remote and very remote Indigenous students?


* ACTA is working on setting up an Indigenous EALD Working Group and we would be delighted to hear from anyone at the event who’d be interested to join this group.

* ACTA has already set up an Early Childhood Consultancy Group, whose members include a number of people with considerable expertise in Indigenous EALD, including Denise Angelo, one of the speakers/authors – again, we would be delighted if anyone else would like to join this Group

* ACTA has been working since May this year to support ATESOL NT in developing their submission to the Adult Literacy Inquiry and subsequent advocacy – for details and links, click on this link to the ACTA website:

* ACTA prepared suggested questions for the Greens Senator Mehreen Faruki to ask in Senate Estimates on 28th October, unfortunately these questions were not addressed; subsequently two phone calls have been made to ask if these questions were put on notice; a reply has been promised but unfortunately has not arrived yet.

  • Should we use the term Aboriginal English or the term Aboriginal Englishes?

Ian Malcolm:

The terms Aboriginal English and Aboriginal Englishes are both valid and reflect, respectively, a focus on the pan-Australian dialect which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander speakers have created and maintained, and on the local variant forms of this dialect which have particular relevance to people according to their country identification.

To use a term which Denise Angelo and colleagues Ilana Mushin and Jennifer Munro have used in a recent paper, the vernaculars across the country may be seen as “same but different.”  Initial studies of Aboriginal Englishes focused on particular regional variant forms. Ongoing research enabled such varieties to be compared and understood in terms of what they had in common. When we focus on the variant forms and the factors leading to their distinctiveness, it is appropriate to use the term Aboriginal Englishes. When we focus on the linguistic and cultural commonalities across the country, it is appropriate to see them as comprising one dialect, Aboriginal English, which may be compared with other dialects across the world. It is normal for dialects to embrace variant forms which may reflect regional differences.

Denise Angelo:

I don’t think this is a matter of there being a correct or incorrect usage. Each usage emphasises a different facet:

As a collective term the singular “Aboriginal English” captures the fact that many if not most Aboriginal people have Aboriginal ways of speaking English, which express their culture and identity. 

The plural term “Aboriginal Englishes” captures the fact that most Aboriginal people recognise differences which they can often use to pinpoint where the speaker is from (like dialects in England, for example) – so there are different varieties.

Thinking from the point of view of EAL/D, some varieties of Aboriginal English are close to Standard Australian English (lighter) and some are not (heavier)- speakers of these heavier varieties will probably benefit from EAL/D support. But it might be irrelevant for speakers of lighter Aboriginal Englishes … so it seems useful from this support/service pov to indicate that all Aboriginal English is not the same. (NB In saying that EAL/D might be “irrelevant”, I mean that typical EAL/D language teaching is not appropriate – and might even come across as condescending. Speakers of light Aboriginal English already speak an English so don’t want it taught. Other forms of support such as unpacking cultural meanings, analysing connotations and implications (what lies beneath the surface meaning) etc are examples of what’s potentially more suited to this cohort).

Patricia Königsberg: 

There is a common erroneous belief that speakers of Aboriginal English who speak a lighter Aboriginal English have a better chance and find it easier to succeed in their acquisition of Standard Australian English. However, there is now a plethora of research demonstrating how differing conceptualisations of common concepts seriously hinder communication between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, including students and teachers. (See for example research by Eades, 1982; Harkins, 1994; Malcolm & Sharifian, 2002, 2005; Sharifian, 2002a, 2006; Sharifian et al., 2004; Zubrick et al., 2006; Malcolm and Grote, 2007; and Malcolm 2014).

In order to improve the outcomes of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, the effects of the deep levels of cultural conceptual differences (some of which are explained in our paper)  need to be taken on board by educators.

  • Will an Aboriginal English Lingua Franca be similar across wider areas, ie WA and Northern Queensland for example?

Patricia Königsberg: 

Aboriginal English is a  lingua franca due to the same deep-level cultural conceptualisations that  Aboriginal English speakers from various places have in common.   Aboriginal English shows common ways of  interpreting knowledge and experience. Local variations of Aboriginal English relate mostly to accent and use of different local language words and expressions.  When  Aboriginal people  from ‘different Country” come together, they will adjust their levels of localised input and their talk will be totally comprehensible to the other.  Aboriginal English is a lingua franca as there are far more cultural conceptual commonalities between varieties of Aboriginal English and creoles than there are between these Indigenous varieties and Standard Australian English. 

  • I’m really interested in the work that is being done to help indigenous learners to learn English – especially when their oral language is so competent. Are there any PD workshops coming up where we can learn how to do this better? What is the impact of maintaining first language in a school context, especially if the language is quite rare. Do you have many Indigenous teachers coming through?

Susan Poetsch:

Great questions! In terms of PD, you could try the Teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander EAL/D students hub provides a set of online modules ( Indigenous languages in school settings can make very powerful and positive contributions to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s experience of school – as well as to Reconcilation and cross-cultural understanding. The programs always need to be driven, decided, controlled and taught by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators and community members.

One example of a program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers is:

An example Remote Area Teacher Education Program is:

Patricia Königsberg: 

The Tracks to Two-Way Learning resource is  used as part of a two-way workshop. This resource was developed collaboratively  between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal educators and researchers, including Aboriginal community.  The resource is aimed at engendering positive change through four dimensions of Staff Knowledge and Practice, Community Engagement, Policy and Practice and Learner Engagement to improve quality teaching and learning across education, training and the workplace. 

The resource contains explanations of linguistic differences between Aboriginal English and Standard Australian English from a variety of perspectives,  It also includes an entire Focus Area on teaching strategies appropriate for two-way bidialectal education as well as how to be culturally responsive.   This resource is  informed by 25 years of collaborative linguistic research, carried out throughout the state of Western Australian, including metro, regional and remote schools and workplaces.  

Examples of the impact of allowing students to use  Aboriginal English to improve the literacy literacy can be found in these videos:

My WA: Story books in Aboriginal English – Medina – Bing video

My WA: Story books in Aboriginal English – Kondinin – Bing video

  • Please share ideas around supporting English Language Learning in a remote community setting without interrupting cultural and language identity of traditional language.

Susan Poetsch:

This is an important question. Thanks for thinking of it. At the start of the session today, Baressa Frazer commented on how senstive this issue can be. She described it as something like not wanting to do damage to children’s home language development and identity formation, by teaching English. One idea would be to include the children’s first language in the teaching of English, through a local Indigenous educator in the classroom who can be a model and help witn translating; also using bilingual books. Another idea could be to have open conversations with families and Indigenous staff members about when/if/how they want English to be emphasised in their children’s school day.

Denise Angelo:

This question is an important one, because we should all as educators be aware that English has been the language in which a lot of violence, dispossession and marginalisation has been perpetrated on First Nations peoples. The (unofficial) national language of Australia English often dominates apart from when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are speaking to each other. The effect of this dominance of English is to restrict the extent that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people can use their languages (Traditional languages, creole, languages, mixed languages or Aboriginal Englishes are all languages of identity and culture…)

So anything you can do to ensure that speakers of Indigenous languages can use their languages, helps put a break on  this encroachment of English. Work with local educators to value and support the use of local language(s). You can discuss with them how they might want to use their language skills in the classroom and perhaps expand on this. (See also the ideas about promoting multilingualism above)

One point I’d like to make is that teaching English will not of itself harm children’s existing language proficiencies, as long as children are enabled and encouraged to continue to use their languages. Multilingualism around the world tells us that learning other languages does not automatically harm the languages you speak.  The issue in Australia has been that Indigenous languages have been excluded and marginalised, and often prevented from being used in all areas of life.

Jill Wigglesworth:

I fully agree with Denise’s comments above. Maintaining and encouraging the use of the children’s first languages is crucially important and will not mean that they do not learn English. Encouraging children to do groups or pair work, and to use their traditional language may well help them to understand and use concepts which are somewhat challenging. There is plenty of evidence to support this kind of approach and it is much more language friendly than insisting that English be used in all situations. Children take a long time to get to the point where they can use language to explain and understand difficult concepts as they go through the education system, and often their fluency in everyday oral English is not a good reflection of their underlying competence.

  • Australia made great progress in advancing bidialectal education in the 1990s. How has this been affected by the ‘Closing the Gap’ initiative with its focus on NAPLAN literacy scores?

Denise Angelo:

Yes, the narrow curriculum and assessment focus on NAPLAN literacy scores in Closing the Gap targets did not assist with maintaining the early impetus of “bidialectal” approaches to education for speakers of Aboriginal English and English-lexified creoles like Kriol and Yumplatok/Torres Strait Creole.

The dynamics as I understand it went something like this:

  1. Literacy achievement is underpinned by language proficiency. The focus on NAPLAN literacy scores “invisibilised” the language component.
  2. When students are measured as performing non-optimally in literacy, this opens the door to literacy programs and interventions… Literacy score data doesn’t alert educators that language differences might be the learning need, not literacy.
  3. Off the shelf literacy programs teach literacy-as-if-you-already-speak-English. So their use also undermines the need for language-based, bidialectal approaches.

Nevertheless, many people working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander EAL/D learners with contact language or Aboriginal English backgrounds have kept bidialectal approaches as part of their toolkit (For example language awareness, the code-switching stairway etc mentioned above).

Patricia Königsberg: 

Yes, we have a long way to go on this one.  In many regions, we are still in the “awareness-raising’ phase.  As long as people do not recognise the many significant ways Aboriginal English differs from Standard Australian English and as long as they do not respect it as a dialect in its own right – people will continue to label it as deficit with continued  detrimental effect on students, teachers, school and education systems.

  • How can we push for policy imperatives to ensure that teachers going into EAL/D contexts to teach must do a PD at uni or during orientation before they even go out to teach in these contexts? I teach in the remote NT.  Kriol and Pidgin are our lingua franca.

Jill Wigglesworth:

This is a very challenging question. In general most courses in education do not have a significant focus on language, which always strikes me as odd given that almost every  teacher anywhere in Australia will encounter children whose first language is not English. However, we need to recognise that often teachers/principals need to make difficult decisions about the expertise they need in a teacher – art? Language? Physical education? So there is probably no easy fix for this. I completely agree that a policy imperative that ensured that teachers going into remote or other Aboriginal community contexts need a much more detailed introduction to these communities than they currently get, as well as an introduction and understanding of the language/s of the country they will be living on.

  • How to support our Indigenous EAL/D and EAL/D learners in secondary schooling – especially low SAE language learners? How does that work in a curriculum that has little time for explicit language teaching and teachers are not specialised SAE language teachers?

Patricia Königsberg: 

Without comprehensible input, no learning will take place.  Teachers will need to weigh up going through the curriculum for the sake of having it covered versus spending time learning to communicate effectively.  In all settings, but especially in secondary settings, working with students to recognise language difference can make a huge difference.  Many secondary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have had a sense of failure in their previous education.  This is usually caused by educators’ failure to recognise that the students don’t have a language deficit but rather a language difference. Teachers should concentrate on the communicative aspect of language first.  Can my students understand the content of the lessons?  Can I understand what they are saying?  Teaching the differences and rules of Standard Australian English should follow once students have re-established a sense of satisfaction they are actually leaning new content and that they can learn standard Australian English as an additional language.

Denise Angelo:

Yes, it’s common for high school teachers to feel this pressure – they have fewer contact hours than primary teachers with their students so it can be quite stressful. But what Patsy says above is quite right – we do have to teach students rather than thinking only about covering the curriculum.

Some strategies that might work for you:

  1. think of a way to cover your subject curriculum by investigating an engaging topic – one that can be tackled kinaesthetically, orally, visually (not just via high level English language) This helps students to make meaning.
  2. can you think of an interdisciplinary topic which you could co-teach with another subject teacher: if this can be used to cover elements from both curricula you make more time for teaching the language side of things
  3. familiarity and success are important for student engagement – ensure that each lesson starts with a revision in plain English of the prior lessons (have students talk/draw/act the meaning of key statements, concepts or events (depending on the subject!) If you have an electronic whiteboard or projector use a powerpoint as a “living learning diary” – a brief summary of what was learned each day (preferably with pictures)
  4. I favour having a core text to drive my units, which I revisit regularly for the purposes of familiarising and recycling language. I use a CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) approach, teaching both language and curriculum content together – the Break it Down Build it Up framework is an example of planning for this kind of teaching (see Angelo & Hudson article in TESOL in Context)
  • How can translanguaging be realised in the classroom?

Jill Wigglesworth:

Although translanguaging is a relatively new term it has been has in fact been actively and  widely used in Aboriginal communities for as long as they have been around. In many communities people marry a partner who speaks a different language or dialect and often their communication will naturally involve both languages – one speaking one language and one speaking the other language, but both understanding what is going on. Recently various scholars have written about this and how language use in the communities involved multiple languages and for many people they have a very good passive knowledge of the other language but may choose not to use it in some situations for all sorts of reasons. Ruth Singer and Jill Vaughan have both addressed this issue in recent papers.

In the classroom, there are multiple activities which can be used to encourage children to talk about both their languages and English. We need to demonstrate that we value the children’s languages and this can be done by raising issues about language – discussing what word or words the children might use for a particular concept or thing, and what other words they might know for this; encouraging them to discuss how they say something in their language/dialect rather than how we might say it. All languages should be treated as equally valid.

Denise Angelo:

“Translanguaging” refers to a natural behaviour of multilingual people where they draw on their full language repertoire when they are interacting with others whose language repertoire overlaps. In these contexts, they can move fluidly between their languages, and can use this movement for conveying even more social meaning and nuance – it’s an extra language power, on top of knowing two or more languages.

EAL/D pedagogy can promote this “extra language power” by making room for students’ to use their L1s in their classroom learning – grouping like language speakers together and giving them opportunities to talk about their classroom learning together – ensuring they know they can talk their way(s). Another obvious point is that educators should not correct students when they move between their languages. If as educators we lose track of what the student wants to convey we can call on all the students with the same shared language background to workshop putting it in Standard Australian English. This usually involves a heap of multilingual communication!

To be honest, instead of “translanguaging” – I’d probably recommend that Australian schools dealt with multilingualism more generally. I think we can do much better at purposefully valuing multilingualism, by purposefully responding truly to students’ languages and by intentionally and respectfully teaching English for EAL/D learners – so we can 

– employ staff who have the same language background as students

– modelling strengths of L1 at community/parent/student meetings, in curriculum delivery (e.g. pre-teaching concepts in L1, L1 literacy), in pedagogy (grouping students, using multilingual resources – or creating some)

– positive conversations about students’ L2 learning (not just literacy!)

– explicit school/state policies about fostering multilingualism

An interesting aspect of translanguaging research is that it shows  that switching-between language codes isn’t just about speakers responding to different social domains or locations – moving between languages/dialects  can be a communicative choice too.