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Literacy is a human right

Literacy is a human right essential for health and wellbeing – award-winning UC

A University of Canterbury researcher is positioning literacy as a human right linked with health and wellbeing, community engagement, cultural imperatives and lifelong learning; and making a difference in the lives of the children participating in the study.

UC doctoral candidate in the College of Education, Health and Human Development | Te Rānga Ako me te Hauora, Melissa Derby’s lifelong passion for reading, coupled with her strong interest in Māori development and human rights, has culminated in her doctoral research. Melissa’s work explores emerging literacy in bilingual (te reo Māori and English) preschool children.

She recently won the Fulbright-Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Graduate Award to undertake postgraduate research in the United States in the field of indigenous development. She is going to research critical theories of race, ethnicity and indigeneity at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, and at San Diego State University in San Diego, California, towards her UC PhD.

Her thesis – which has the working title Ko te kai a te rangatira he kōrero: Restoring Māori literacy narratives to create contemporary stories of success – will contribute to the Literacy strand of A Better Start: E Tipu e Rea National Science Challenge.

“We know what skills children need to be strong in before they learn to read so I am very happy to be employing a strengths-based approach in my study. I am working with preschool children to develop their skills so that they start primary school with the best possible chance of success in reading and writing,” she says.

“When the written word first arrived in Aotearoa, Māori were enthusiastic, exuberant and extremely successful in adopting this new skill. I am drawing on this narrative of success in order to offer an alternative to the deficit discourse that is so often used in relation to Māori education and achievement.”

Cultivating self-determination

Melissa believes literacy plays a key role in cultivating self-determination for Māori.

“My thesis is also unfolding as a platform to promote global human rights and self-determination, particularly for Indigenous people. I argue that literacy is a human right that is key to accessing other human rights associated with health and wellbeing, community engagement, cultural imperatives and lifelong learning. Ultimately, it is my hope that my research makes a difference in the lives of the children who are participating in my study, and that they will find enjoyment in reading, just like I did as a child.”

Her Fulbright-Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Graduate Award will help to further her research. Melissa and her three-year-old son, Te Awanui Derby, will travel to the US in August.

Human rights advocate

Melissa has been vocal about human rights in the media, particularly freedom of speech and the implications censorship has on Māori cultural practices.

“The marae is a place where rigorous and unrestrained debate has always occurred and censorship has the potential to impact on this. Freedom of speech has allowed Māori to protest and to voice opinions that were once, and often still are, politically unpopular,” she says.

From Tauranga Moana, Melissa has strong associations with the Ngāi Tamarāwaho hapū of Ngāti Ranginui. She grew up in Ōtautahi Christchurch and completed her Master of Arts in Māori Development at AUT, where she was awarded first-class honours and made the Dean’s List for Exceptional Theses. She also completed a Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Studies at Columbia University in New York. In 2017 Melissa was awarded UC’s prestigious Brownlie Scholarship.

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