Developing an early literacy learning app for Dhuwaya speaking children

For many Indigenous children, particularly if they live in the more remote areas of Australia, going to school means engaging with English, often for the first time in their lives. However, a few schools, use a step bilingual model where literacy is introduced initially in the children’s first language.

Yirrkala, a small remote community in Arnhem Land, has a bilingual program and Jill Wigglesworth has been collaborating with a number of the staff there to develop an iPad app for early literacy development in Dhuwaya (a Koine of Yolngu Matha) funded through the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (COEDL)(CE140100041). Working with Jill, the team is comprised of teacher / linguist and COEDL affiliate Yalmay Yunupingu, COEDL affiliate Robyn Beecham, and Literacy Production Centre Manager Jake Stockley, together with Melanie Wilkinson from the NT Department of Education, and software engineer Fardin Elias. Over the last three years they have designed an app to enhance children’s letter and sound knowledge, sight words and early reading skills. There are twenty levels, each with four activities and the app is called YƤku ga Rirrakay (Sounds and Letters). Unfortunately trialling of the app which was planned for 2020 was not possible due to COVID and it will be trialled during 2021 on children in the early primary years and will include a pre and post test to determine its efficacy. The app itself is being developed in modular form which will hopefully allow other communities to use it by changing sounds and pictures relevant to their own Indigenous languages.

Dhuwaya and English have different phonemic inventories, and different alphabets. The Dhuwaya alphabet is based on Roman alphabet symbols and has 31 graphemes (compared to 26 in English) because Dhuwaya has a wider variety of place of articulation contrasts compared to English (eg retroflexes and palatals).

screenshot of app activity

Hear the letter name, choose the letter

screenshot of app activity

Tap the baby, choose the letter name of the sound you hear

The app is designed to teach children how to segment and blend syllables and phonemes, and to identify common words, as well as suffixes used in the language. However, there were a number of unpredictable challenges including inherent variation in the language, particularly in relation to the pronunciation of stops, the focus on syllables as a decoding strategy and difficulties with finding single syllable words such as those initially used with English speaking children, but which have a  limited number in Dhuwaya. Culturally appropriate images which the children could relate to, and which were not copyrighted, also had to be found.

screenshot of app activity

Blended phonemes: choose the picture of the word you hear

screenshot of app activity

Choose the correct suffix

Project details


Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CE140100041)

Chief Investigators

Jill Wigglesworth (University of Melbourne)