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Welcome back to Term 3! This week, we are absolutely thrilled to share with you our conversation with Margaret James of Honey Ant Readers. These grassroots readers have been developed in collaboration with community and are designed to act as a bridge between home and school when it comes to engaging kids with reading. Read on to hear all about how the Honey Ant Readers work, how they’re created and how your school can get involved. 

We’re here to support schools communicate with their parents and caregivers. Watch this short video to see how we can help you or keep reading for our interview with Margaret James from Honey Ant Readers.

Introducing Honey Ant Readers

Honey Ant Readers are designed as an entry point to reading. The readers support Indigenous children to read in the language they use every day in play and at home via meaningful stories. Honey Ant Readers and Reading Tracks readers act as an introduction to literacy, while the supporting materials introduce Standard English through tailored speaking and singing activities. The Honey Ant readers let students see themselves in their own stories, which in turn scaffolds the learning process, builds confidence and generates enthusiasm for reading. You know what they say, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

“I’m like genius with them books.” (Enthusiastic young reader, Rosie, from the Tiwi Islands)

We’re very lucky to have Margaret James as a special guest this week. Margaret is a passionate advocate for learning to read, early childhood education and accessibility. She has been working in Indigenous education for 16 years and is the author of the Honey Ant Readers.  

Thank you so much for speaking with us, Margaret. For anyone who hasn’t come across Honey Ant Readers (HARs) before, could you please tell us about the project?

“The Honey Ant Readers and Reading Tracks books were developed to teach reading. I believe that it’s our responsibility as teachers to ensure that every learner has access to engaging, relevant, authentic and meaningful texts at their reading level, in which they can see their culture, experiences and identities represented and respected. Books that discuss familiar topics are easier to understand and are a powerful way to engage and motivate learners while building self-esteem.“

“We have published two series of 15 learn-to-read books. The Honey Ant Readers for younger learners and Reading Tracks for older learners. We have also published seven more advanced books about tracking, hunting and cooking animals the traditional way in the Reading Tracks series, which are suitable and informative for all readers, of all backgrounds.”

What inspired you to create these books?

“When I was teaching ESL speakers, I wrote individual books for the learners and saw how well that worked. I was concerned about Indigenous ESL students’ print literacy outcomes and the lack of awareness in schools of Aboriginal English. I felt that Indigenous learners, in particular those who speak a traditional Aboriginal language or Aboriginal English, lacked opportunities to learn to read from material that was relevant to them, of interest to them, or reflected their lives. They needed to be in the books. For this reason, I felt they were finding it challenging to become engaged with the English books available to them.”  

When the Elders encouraged me to act and enthusiastically mentored me, it all became a reality.”

“If we had the resources to fulfill all the requests of Elders for more books in both their languages and English, we’d be very busy and fill a huge library!”

We understand Honey Ant Readers is very much a collaborative process. Can you speak to how you develop these readers?

“I have worked mainly with Elders, students and communities in the Northern Territory and WA. The Elders wanted more books for their children reflecting their lives. Initially, it was a matter of determining what the Elders wanted in the books, and then what the students wanted to read about. Without hesitation it was tracking and hunting! We spent a lot of time together.”

“The Elders and students brought their cultural knowledge and expertise and I worked on the pedagogy and structure of the books.”

“Some of the books are based on real-life events, while others are inspired by stories that Aboriginal Elders have shared with me. Elder Trudy Inkamala felt that the HARs should include her people’s stories in the books, to help Aboriginal children to learn to read.” 

“After recording the stories told by the Elders and young people, and sometimes having a wonderful time going out hunting, I design the readers so that they present these stories in a way that gradually develops 15 levels of reading competence suitable for the first two or three years of learning to read. We have 12 illustrators, including six middle schoolers from the Tiwi Islands! The Elders proofread and edit every draft of the books and are very much my mentors.”

We’ve done this for our kids so when they grow up, they can learn how to go hunting with grandparents … girls can go with grandmother hunting for honey ants and witchetty grubs. They are true stories about what happens when you go out bush.” (Western Arrernte Elder, storyteller and illustrator Marjorie Williams)

Margaret stresses that everyone involved in the development of the readers is paid for their time and expertise. 

By all accounts, the readers are enthusiastically received by teachers, students and their families. A Central Arrernte assistant teacher had this to say:

With a lot of the little ones it’s easier to use Honey Ant Readers because they like them so much. I usually go through each page, talk about what’s on that picture. All the little stories, like ‘nana dig’ or ‘Drowned him, drowned him’- they love that one because it relates to the country. The kids sort of know what’s coming next. I really enjoy reading with them because it’s simple- they understand easily. With them other books, it’s harder. You got to sort of explain things longer and keep stopping just to get them to know the story. But with the Honey Ants you don’t have to, cos they understand right away.

“The overall goal is for learners from Indigenous backgrounds to learn to read, write, and learn Standard English. Hands-on experiential learning is powerful”.

“Both the Honey Ant Readers and more advanced Reading Tracks series were developed with careful pedagogical consideration for the phonology (sound systems), syntax (grammar), lexicon (vocabulary) and semantics (meanings) of Aboriginal English…. In remote schools, the students can go out and dig for honey ants and then read the book. In urban schools they can bury cut-out honey ants in sand and play games with those in order to learn about the context. The HAR books were primarily developed for Indigenous learners. Once we went on to publish the Reading Tracks series, that expanded to include non-Indigenous students, resulting in them having a greater understanding of and respect for, the unique contributions of the cultures of First Nations people.”

How to get involved

If your school would like to order a set of readers or to donate a set of readers to a remote school, please visit www.honeyant.com.au email info@honeyant.com.au. Margaret is happy to chat with teachers via Zoom, email, in person, or on the phone to share ideas on using these resources in schools. 

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