Developing a culturally safe neurocognitive research approach to investigate reading aptitude for Australian Indigenous emergent readers




Freire, Melissa

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Learning to read as a child living in a remote Indigenous community in Australia is impacted by many known social, cultural and contextual factors. In the remote Indigenous community of Wadeye, learning to read in English is further complicated by language and health factors. Much of the research aimed at improving literacy in remote Indigenous communities is predominantly focused on how pedagogical approaches can better deliver reading instruction to Indigenous children. However, there has been no investigation into the central assumption that what we know about the very process of learning to read, based on research conducted with Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) populations, is the same for Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural groups. Neuroscientific and cognitive research tells us that phonological awareness, visuospatial processing and working memory are key neurocognitive processes that drive reading acquisition. Yet we do not know how environment and culture might influence the development of these neurocognitive processes or whether these processes facilitate reading acquisition for Indigenous children in the same way that they facilitate reading for non-Indigenous children. Additionally, while some research has demonstrated the visuospatial and working memory strengths of Australian Indigenous populations, there has been no subsequent research to ascertain whether these potential strengths can be targeted to scaffold literacy learning for remote Indigenous children. Finally, there has also been little research into whether Indigenous and non-Indigenous children approach reading-related cognitive tasks in the same way, or whether any cultural differences in cognitive approach might affect perceived performance outcomes. The primary aim of the current research was to investigate the reading aptitude of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, using language-independent tasks that minimise cultural bias. In this context, reading aptitude is conceptualised as a child's capacity or propensity to develop pre-literate skills necessary to achieve reading proficiency. The current research uses culturally-fair, language independent neurocognitive tasks to investigate possible cultural differences in phonological awareness, visuospatial processing and working memory between Australian and Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. This research also investigates whether there are cultural differences in the approach to cognitive tasks that may affect task performance. Careful consideration was given to the research approaches and methodologies employed in the current studies to ensure a culturally-safe testing environment for Indigenous participants from the remote community of Wadeye. Outcomes from this research reveal a complex interplay between language, culture, context, and reading ability. Cross-cultural similarities and differences in performance on neurocognitive tasks are discussed, with consideration of the broader cultural, linguistic and contextual factors that might influence performance and development. Chosen tasks and methodologies were also critically evaluated in the process of interpreting and discussing the current findings. Further research is needed to gain a comprehensive understanding of the neurocognitive development of phonological awareness, visuospatial processes, and working memory, to construct a comprehensive scientific understanding of their relationship to reading acquisition for remote Indigenous children. Practical recommendations are made for future research.






Thesis (PhD)

Book Title

Entity type

Access Statement

License Rights



Restricted until