Close message Scootle has stopped supporting resources that use the Adobe Flash plug-in from 18 Dec 2020. Learning paths that include these resources will have alerts to notify teachers and students that one or more of the resources will be unavailable. Click here for more info.

Audio May O'Brien talks about Aboriginal storytelling, 2008

TLF ID R10097

This is an edited sound recording of an interview with Western Australian Aboriginal educator and author May O'Brien. O'Brien says that in her early life she was told Aboriginal stories orally and in drawings in the sand. She says that when she puts Aboriginal stories in writing, she thinks carefully about the words she uses in order to convey the true meaning. She stresses the importance of Aboriginal children learning to read and write in English 'so that they can get the true meaning' of stories and what people are saying. She also recounts how proud Aboriginal children are when she reads them stories that include language. This recording was made in November 2008.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This recording gives an insight into the process of Aboriginal storytelling from one of the leading Aboriginal educators in Australia, May O'Brien (1933-). O'Brien in describing her own life experience reflects on changes in the way Aboriginal stories are told, changes that may be seen as illustrative of the vast changes that have taken place in the lives of Aboriginal people as a result of contact.
  • O'Brien gives a sense of the difficulties involved in accurately recording Aboriginal legends or stories in English. O'Brien says that she has to choose words carefully because sometimes people writing Aboriginal stories do not capture the 'true gist and meaning'. She also notes the difficulty of writing in English for an Aboriginal person for whom English is an additional language.
  • As a teacher and educationalist and since her retirement O'Brien has been a vigorous campaigner for improved literacy and numeracy among Indigenous children in Australia. In this recording she says that the ability to read and write in English helps Aboriginal children to be able to accurately record and understand Aboriginal stories and legends from 'our perspective'.
  • O'Brien, who was born in the eastern goldfields region of WA, began her formal education in 1940, when at the age of 7 she was taken from the bush to live at the Mount Margaret Mission. In 1949 she went to Perth Girls' High School, and in 1954 she became WA's first female Aboriginal teacher. She later held senior positions in the WA Department of Education and on national advisory bodies on Indigenous programs.
  • O'Brien has achieved success largely through books written in English, but she also incorporates Wongatha language. She talks here about including Wongatha words in one of her best-known books, 'Barn-Barn Barlala, the bush trickster' (1992). O'Brien says that Aboriginal children and their parents are excited when she reads stories that include Aboriginal language, even if it is a different Aboriginal language from their own.
  • O'Brien's contribution to improving Indigenous education in WA and other parts of Australia has been recognised with a number of awards, including the British Empire Medal in 1977, the John Curtin Medal in 1998 and the Centenary Medal in 2001. In 1984 O'Brien was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study Indigenous education programs in the USA and Canada, and she represented Australia at the Second World Conference on Women, convened by the UN and held in Denmark in 1980.

Other details

  • Contributor
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Content provider
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: May O'Brien
  • Description: Author
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
Access profile
  • Colour independence
  • Device independence
Learning Resource Type
  • Audio
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements.