ALNF at the National Early Language and Literacy Coalition Forum

The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation was honoured to take part in the National Early Language and Literacy Coalition Forum on 22 March 2023.

Professor Tom Calma AO, Co-Chair of ALNF, was invited to present the opening address, welcoming participants and officially launching the Forum.

His opening address is published below:


Prof Tom Calma AO: National Early Language and Literacy Coalition Forum Speech – March 22, 2023

Acknowledgement of Country

Opening Address

Good Morning and thank you for the invitation to share a few words at today’s Forum. I have been involved with Early Years Language and Literacy with the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF) since 2009 and have now co-chaired the ALNF for over a decade. I acknowledge my fellow co-chair Mary-Ruth Mendel who we will hear from later in the morning.

The first time I welcomed participants to talk about early language and literacy was back in 2016 when it was my great pleasure to give the opening address at the very first National Literacy Summit. The Australian Libraries and Information Association – ALIA, organised that very first Summit.

The aim then was to bring together people who placed a high value on children accessing a quality education because their literacy abilities gave them skills to do so.

That day’s conversations revolved around the common understanding that strong development in early language and early literacy across the 0-5 years of age, crucially underpins later successful reading and writing acquisition and, hence – access to a good education, with lifestyle options and choices.

As we say at ALNF, ‘so that children can write their own bright futures’.

Evolving from the momentum of that first Summit, the National Early Language and Literacy Coalition formalised as a working group of talented people who in 2021 produced the Proposed National Early Language and Literacy Strategy —— a quality document of strategic direction recommendations.

Anyone wishing to view the document can go to the Coalition’s website to view it. (

I congratulate the Coalition on this important work that is recognised as a substantial contribution within the collective representations that the current Commonwealth Government is reviewing for the much welcomed Early Years Strategy – that we are all so thrilled is occurring.

As a newish grand-father of a delightful, chatty, little grandson, I can say with absolute certainty that, like me, parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles want the very best opportunities for their own children, their communities’ children and for all Australian children.

All of us here know that a little one who has strong speaking and listening skills is going to explore their own world with ever increasing curiosity and confidence, navigating and building relationships and friendships as they go. We also know that nearly 30% of under 5 (year old) children do not start school with strong communication skills.

These vulnerable children are, for the most part, living in vulnerable communities. For most, un-fortunately, a cycle of disadvantage rotates through the generations.

Changing that outcome must include providing community-led, community involved practical programs that break through the trans-generational hand-me-down of low literacy by uplifting literacy levels – beginning in the early years.

The problems just compound for children with these communication and literacy challenges. We know that a protective factor for health and wellbeing is education. We also know that those children who start school behind, stay behind.

Not having a strong start in the early years can have far reaching ramifications that negatively impact health and happiness and generally pass from one generation to the next. Multiple disadvantage factors compound each other creating a vicious cycle where low education perpetuates poor health as well as ……early exits from high school, low employment and job retention rates, increased trauma episodes, suicide and deep sadness.

This cycle is underpinned by low literacy and poor communication skills. It is more than a glass ceiling – it is a rock-hard cap restricting people from participating in a productive society. Breaking that cycle needs 2 things to happen.

  1. We need to start supporting children and families and educators in the very early years, with
  2. the very elements you as a group know are essential; strong early language and literacy growth.

Closing the Gap on health involves Closing the education Gap.

Since our first Summit in 2016, the conversation has matured.

The Commonwealth and various State governments have responded to calls to address many aspects with-in the early years’ envelope. And, the Early Years Strategy will generate strategic and systemic change. But, it is a very competitive space as there are multiple aspects needing attention.

The Early Years Strategy:

  • aspires to “shape the future of Australia’s children and their families.”;
  • recognises how critical the early years are for children’s development and continued success over their lifetime; and
  • is committed to creating a “more integrated, holistic approach to the early years and to better support education”.

But, a word of caution, the key skills of strong language and literacy development in the early years must not get overlooked or the Strategy’s aspiration of “continued success over their (that is, a child’s) lifetime” will not be achieved.

Without the inclusion of well thought out plans (and the funding for these plans) to support communities to achieve local, strong early years’ language and literacy capacity, these aspirations and the intersection between health and education will not be positively impacted.

I encourage all here today to ensure that your expert knowledge in early language and literacy is heard and included in the Strategy plans. I recommend that government access and be guided by your expertise formally and regularly.

I would like to see an advisory group of Coalition members routinely invited, and funded, to provide guidance and feedback so that the practical business of providing early language and literacy skills and opportunities to communities are not lost amongst competing needs.

As you go about your thinking and discussions today, keep practical plans for early years oral language and literacy development top of mind.

As you did by producing the Proposed National Early Years Strategy, keep that practical focus on how quality language and literacy development can be built with, and not for, communities to create informed communities who are skilled at supporting strong growth in children’s early language and literacy.

May I contribute today with two practical considerations:

Today is the first day of Harmony Week –

Over half of all Australians are born overseas or have at least one parent who was born overseas. They, along with First Nation Australians, cherish their home languages and literacy. Sharing language and literacy through stories and song promotes inclusiveness, respect and belonging which in turn, is a protective factor for healthy children and adults. (Again, Closing the Gap for health involves Closing the Education Gap).

Shared language and literacy experiences in the very early years through authentic engagement with quality home language, and English language learning experiences builds strong communities and strong children. I have heard on countless occasions that families wish their children to be strong and capable in both English and in their home language.

And this group here today needs to ensure that home languages, which includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Languages, are included in the Early Years Strategy backed by clear guidelines as to how this work will be funded and rolled out from the urban to very remote early years learning sites.

In my view, attendance and engagement with families will grow and children will have a stronger pathway to English language and literacy skills and a stronger educational journey …… promoting stronger health and wellbeing too.

This segues neatly into my next key practical consideration – it is – positive engagement with digital opportunities that enhance children’s learning growth.

As Co-Chair of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF), and Chair of the Living First Language Platform Co. I oversee three of their digital products which are examples of harnessing the best of what new technology offers for children’s growth and community involvement.

First example…..The Living First Language Platform is a multi-award winning*, internationally recognised app. It is a globally scalable digital platform that Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities are using to rapidly and collectively record, curate, explore and share their Language as vibrant, living teaching and learning resources.

Second is the Feed the Monster app – it is an early literacy game in First Languages. The Warumungu version is soon to be available from your preferred App Store.

Third is the Early Language and Literacy Development Index (ELLDI) that is a digital formative assessment, with a world unique progression scale for 2 – 8 year-olds. At the moment it is in English but has the digital architecture to be replicated in home languages too.

These are three (3) examples of utilising the exceptional opportunities that quality digital technology designs open up for quality education opportunities.

The ability to view, and hear and interact with the content is so enriching. Children can hear their own community members pronouncing words correctly as they listen to a story or sing a song, which can then be shared from one site to another building a rich resource of quality locally sourced multi-sensory language and literacy learning experiences. I can definitely tell you that communities want more than the jingle, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in home language!

This Thursday, a wonderful event will be held here in Canberra at the National Library of Australia – It showcases what I have just described.

The event is a launch presented by the Papulu Apparr – Kari Aboriginal Corporation (PAK) a Language Centre in Tennant Creek in partnership with ALNF.

The launch represents a significant milestone in the 19-year collaboration between PAK and ALNF, and will highlight the innovations made possible by the award- winning* Living First Language Platform.

On the day, ALNF and PAK will unveil the comprehensive Warumungu Language Space on the Platform along with the Warumungu version of the Feed the Monster Arranji yukur nukku junta!

The Platform and the practical learning resources that flow from it are an example of the type of practical tools Australia needs for sharing quality home language and literacy experiences across geographic divides.

Invitations to this launch are on the front tables ….. you are all invited to the launch this Thursday or you can join on-line. The zoom link will be put in the chat if you are interested – Thursday at noon.

As the National Early Language and Literacy Coalition your expertise is wide ranging and represents long standing experience in language and literacy services that support communities and children.

I thank you for asking me to open today’s important conversations and wish you a very productive day.


* The LFLP awards…… The LFLP has international recognition and has been awarded for its innovation by the likes of Google, SXSW, MIT Solve and the UN- based World Summit Awards.


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