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‘English’ and ‘Literacy’
Beyond the historical tensions between definitions of ‘English-as-Literature’ and ‘English-as-Language’ is the increased focus in more recent times on the role of English in developing students’ ‘literacy’. In the contemporary context, conversations about language have been largely overtaken by conversations about literacy. While literacy has traditionally been defined as “the ability to read and write the language” (Misson, 2005, p.38) the growing recognition of electronic, visual and multimodal elements in texts has led to a definition of literacy that expands beyond the written, printed word. In a large scale literacy review for Education Queensland, literacy was more broadly defined as “the flexible and sustainable mastery of a repertoire of practices with the texts of traditional and new communications technologies via spoken language, print, and multimedia” (Luke & Freebody, 2000, p.9). This conceptualisation of literacy as ‘repertoires of practice’, and of the literate person as what Misson describes as having learned “skill to crack particular codes” has made it easy to adopt metaphoric uses of the word literacy, such as in the terms ‘visual literacy’, ‘musical literacy’, ‘computer literacy’ and ‘emotional literacy’ (Misson, 2005, p.38).
A recent report by The Audit Office of NSW (2008, p.2) describes how in the past decade the NSW Department of Education and Training has spent a significant amount on programs designed to improve students’ literacy and numeracy, tripling its 1998-9 levels of program funding to a total $157 million in 2006-7. In NSW there can be seen an emphasis on teaching literacy skills to prepare students for literacy testing through external examination such as the Basic Skills Test that was conducted in NSW primary schools in years 3 and 5, and the English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA) exam paper that was mandatorily undertaken by NSW high school students in Year 7, and optionally taken again in Year 8. These external tests have now been replaced by the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), a similar diagnostic test that is now sat by students across Australia, not just in NSW. This focus on raising standards of literacy (along with numeracy) and the associated focus on literacy assessment in NSW echoes the international shift toward government policies that demand higher success rates in literacy assessment, for example the No Child Left Behind policy in the U.S. and the National Literacy Strategy in the U.K.
However, while literacy has grown as a priority for policymakers in Australia and internationally, the relationship between literacy and the subject English and the role of English teachers in ensuring and maintaining standards of literacy is uncertain. In recent decades education policy in Australia has positioned literacy as a cross-curriculum issue with teachers in all subject areas given responsibility for the teaching of skills in reading and writing as part of their regular classroom work. However the movement to promote curriculum learning areas as having a vital role to play in students becoming literate “appears to have been largely unsuccessful”, with many teachers withdrawing from seeing literacy teaching as part of their responsibility (Yaxley, 2002, p.27). This is arguably due to the fact that most teachers in other curriculum areas have not had access to high quality professional learning in the teaching of reading (Australian Association for the Teaching of English, 2005, p.26).
Furthermore, more recent research has shown that while teachers in subject areas other than English have not generally engaged with a focus on literacy, that schooling success may in fact depend more on the ability of students to cue themselves into particular ‘curriculum literacies’. One of the recommendations of research undertaken by Cumming and Wyatt-Smith et al. (1998) was that schools “move away from the notion of ‘literacy across the curriculum’” and instead, engage students in learning “the accepted subject- and context- specific ways of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, doing and thinking, and how they can be combined, as occasion demands” in different subjects (Wyatt-Smith, 2000, p.76). Although this new understanding of the function of curriculum literacy may eventually see teachers across the curriculum engaging with certain acts of what they see as more relevant, subject-specific literacy, extra pressure has been returned to English teachers to again take responsibility for developing students’ general literacy skills. This may seem logical to some given the language-based subject matter of English, however Green (2002) argues that “English should not be seen as the sole curriculum area charged with responsibility for literacy; rather, it has its own substantive curriculum concerns, as indeed does each and every subject” (p.27).
Useful and enduring models for conceptualising the place of literacy within English as a discrete subject have been proposed by Freebody and Luke (1990) as well as Green (1988). Green offers a model of literacy that draws on the discourses of functional literacy, cultural literacy and critical literacy to delineate three dimensions of literate practice and learning: the ‘operational’, the ‘cultural’ and the ‘critical’ dimensions of literacy. While Green explains that students can take any of these dimensions as a starting point (as long as all three dimensions are taken into account) he also contends that there is pedagogical value in starting with the cultural dimension and “drawing the critical and the operational in organically, as the need arises” (2002, p.28). Using this model Green (2002) proposes a special ‘literacy project’ for English as a school subject, where various domains of text – literature, media and everyday texts – provide content that is not covered elsewhere in the school curriculum, and which allow attention to be paid to all three dimensions of literacy. The focus of such a literacy project is the exploration of meaning-making, “in a complex sense that brings together structure and agency, discourse and event, content and text” (Green, 2002, p.29).
The ‘four resources’ model developed by Luke and Freebody, which was referred to earlier in this chapter, provides a similar model of similar inter-related dimensions that has become influential in Australian curriculum policy and design. This model provides a framework for understanding how effective literacy “draw on a repertoire of practices” that allow learners to engage with print and multi-media texts as ‘code breakers’, ‘text participants’, ‘text users’ and ‘text analysts’. These resources are described in the Table below:
As with Green’s operational, cultural and critical dimensions, it is imperative that the four resources in Luke and Freebody’s model are seen as inter-related and interdependent. Such models provide English teachers with a rich framework that goes beyond the decontextualised language drills that were resisted during the twentieth century, and positions literacy as a set of embedded (rather than competing) practices within the English curriculum.
Australian Association for the Teaching of English. (2005). The Australian Association for the Teaching of English’s submission to the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Idiom, 41(1), 21-27.
Cumming, J. J., Wyatt-Smith, C. M., Ryan, J., & Doig, S. (1998). The literacy curriculum interface. Canberra: DEETYA.
Green, B. (1988). Subject-specific literacy and school learning: A focus on writing. Australian Journal of Education, 32(2), 156-179.
Green, B. (2002). A literacy project of our own? English in Australia, (134), 25-32.
Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999). A map of possible practices: Further notes on the four resources model. Practically Primary, 4(2), 5-8.
Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (2000). Literate futures: Report of the literacy review for Queensland state schools. Education Queensland.
Misson, R. (2005). The origin of literacies: How the fittest will survive. English in Australia, (142), 37-46.
The Audit Office of NSW. (2008). Improving literacy and numeracy in NSW public schools: Department of Education and Training performance audit (No. 183).
Wyatt-Smith, C. M. (2000). The English/Literacy interface in senior school: Debates in Queensland. English in Australia, (127-128), 71-79.
Yaxley, B. (2002). Literacy and English education: Insights and possibilities. Opinion, 46(2), 19-32.
Each day this week I will be adding posts on this blog that share sections of my PhD thesis. They will be drawn from a section in Chapter 2 titled ‘Contested territory’.
The motivation to do this comes from speaking with a lot of English teachers this week, following the release of the new Stage 6 English syllabus in NSW. Many were eager to learn more about the background to some of the issues coming up in professional discussion.
In her ‘Unofficial Guide’, Bethan Marshall describes English as “a subject which is apparently so amorphous that it elides definition and yet it is sufficiently hard edged to provoke bitter controversy” (2000, p.2). A decade before this Peter Medway, in writing about the history and politics of English as a school subject, argued that the reason why “English is special [is because] certain characteristics generally attributable to academic subjects are notably lacking. The most obvious example is that English does not comprise a body of facts and concepts to be communicated” (Medway, 1990, p.1). This lack of a “body of facts and concepts” and the resultant “amorphous” nature of English as a school subject has indeed ensured that both the purpose and context of the subject continue to be hotly debated. This section will provide an overview of the ‘sticking points’ that have shaped contemporary debates and which endure in current debates about English, and the various (at times competing) demands that are placed on English as a subject area in contemporary NSW schools.
(McGraw, 2010, pp.27-28)
Stay tuned this week for the following elaborations on contested territory in English:
- ‘English’ and ‘Literacy’
- The influence of the canon
- Critical Literacy
- Literary theory and the postmodern turn
- Examination and Assessment
Marshall, B. (2000). English teachers – the unofficial guide: Researching the philosophies of English teachers. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
McGraw, K. (2010). Innovation and change in the 1999 NSW HSC English syllabus: Challenges and problems (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Sydney: Sydney.
Medway, P. (1990). Into the sixties: English and English society at a time of change. In I. Goodson & P. Medway (Eds.), Bringing English to order: The history and politics of a school subject (pp. 1-46). London: Falmer Press.
New Stage 6 (senior secondary) syllabuses were released today in NSW, and the media circus was on point.
The worst offender for misinformation was probably the Daily Telegraph, with Bruce McDougall’s piece ‘NSW Education: School syllabus shake-up promotes the classics, Shakespeare and Austen back for the HSC’ riddled with unnamed sources and incorrect claims.
Among the claims are:
- That “Shakespeare is back” (he never left – he remains mandatory study in Advanced English)
- That “Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad will become mandatory for Year 11 and Year 12” (impossible to know until the text prescriptions are released later this year, and unlikely to be true for all courses)
- That the Area of Study is “criticised by students, parents and teachers” as being tied to “woolly concepts” (name your sources or go home).
Disappointingly, NESA president Tom Alegounarias seemed to add fuel to the fire with this misleading statement:
- “In English, for example, Shakespeare or the equivalent other aspects of great literature will be mandatory.” (Shakespeare is ONLY mandatory in Advanced English, and always has been, and ‘great literature’ i.e. texts from the Western literary canon have always been studied in other courses)
Once again we heard this old chestnut:
- “Education chiefs said they had listened to sustained criticism from employers and businesses that many school leavers applying for jobs lacked basic skills in literacy and numeracy.” (does this reference to ‘sustained criticism’ mean complaints about this dating back to the early 1900s, which perennially persist despite amazing growth in youth literacy rates?)
It was a frustrating read.
Especially given that NESA had fed the media machine with statements before making the syllabuses available on their website for teachers to see first hand. PDF versions of the material didn’t come online until lunchtime, leaving busy teachers with sense of panic about navigating disparate web-only resources.
One can only hope that these spurious claims work to galvanize the profession in the coming months, as we create new resources and share fresh perspectives on the syllabus change. If conversations I had online with colleagues today are anything to go by, there is still hope for this. We are already interrogating more important aspects of the changes to consider implications, including:
- The inclusion of a ‘multimodal presentation’ assessment (will this be more than a speech-aka-essay-read-aloud with a dose of death by Powerpoint to boot?)
- The categorisation of English Studies as an ATAR eligible course (what will the impact be on Standard enrolments?)
- The increased ability to forgo completed any study of digital or multimodal texts in Advanced English (congratulations NSW, you just got a ‘Literature’ syllabus in disguise!)
Stay tuned for more analysis in weeks to come.
(Author image created using Trove map resource, Bard portrait, and news quote.)
Jk. Hope you took the click bait.
Here is a wrap up of my favourite posts this week in response to the usual sky-is-falling in education, ‘where’s-the-bandaid solution’ sh*tshow that has followed release of the latest PISA results.
If you want some intelligent, grounded-in-reality reading about improving ‘student performance’, I highly recommend:
- Misty Adoniou’s piece in The Conversation: Australia’s students are failing. I blame the politicians (PS. So do I)
- Charlotte Pezaro’s blog post about a phonics debate that got way out of hand: The unforgivable
- Stewart Riddle and Bob Lingard’s piece in The Guardian: Pisa results don’t look good, but let’s look at what we can learn before we panic
- The joint statement by ALEA and PETAA: on phonics instruction in early reading development
Also a few older posts here:
- Eileen Honan’s March 2015 piece on the AARE blog EduResearch Matters: This is how Australian teachers are taught how to teach children to read: not just phonics
- Darcy Moore’s October 2016 blog post about test data and measuring outcomes: The KFC fix
Please share any or all of the posts above with your friends.
And a reminder, as always, NOT TO FEED THE TROLLS.
I have been wondering what advice I should give to my pre-service teachers (PSTs) next semester before their first prac., about how many hours a week a new teacher actually works, generally speaking.
Here is my working so far:
- Each school day (Mon-Fri) you work your teaching timetable from about 8am-3pm. Or 8.30am-3.30pm. Whatever. A roughly 8 hour day, including roll call, teaching, prep periods, playground duty, and yes a recess and lunch break when we are probably meeting with students or colleagues or…ugh, so many things eat up the lunch breaks, don’t even try to suggest that teachers enjoy many lunch breaks.
- Let’s say you do leave straight after school, maybe you pick up your own kids and/or grab some groceries, make some dinner, eat and wait until the house is settled. Or maybe you crash into an epic nap to recover from the work day. You can probably start working again if you need to around 8pm.
- Experienced teachers perhaps don’t do as much work at this time of night as others (unless they are also in a leadership role or have taken up extra duties/further studies – thoughts?) but beginning teachers will generally do another 2-4 hours every night to keep on top of the workload. For new English teachers this work includes reading new texts they are planning to teach, marking assessment tasks and draft work, finding and preparing resources for upcoming lessons such as AV materials and student support strategies. Let’s say an average extra 3 hours per night. But perhaps this is conservative – I know I did more, and rarely saw bedtime before 1am.
- When teachers are new it takes them a long time to mark each piece of student work. This results in long weekend marking sessions. I’d estimate I did around an extra 4 hours each weekend day in my first couple of years of teaching. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Rarely none. Teaching has peak periods and slower patches, but truthfully there’s always something big on – half yearly or yearly exams, half yearly or yearly reports, year 11 and 12 assessment task marking sometimes double marked, year 10 and 12 formal, camp, debating finals, school musical…
That’s a 59 hour work week for new/graduate teachers.
I’d love to hear in comments below if you think I’m on or off the mark on this.
NB. The holiday clause:
Yes teachers get about 10 weeks of non-teaching time a year. Only a few weeks over summer break of this are truly ‘on holiday’.
In the three 2-week school ‘holiday’ breaks, new teachers invariably are sick for the first of the two weeks. Ask anyone, it’s true. Also true for many experienced teachers, but new teachers are still literally building up their immune system to cope with the range of nasty illnesses around a school, so are highly susceptible. The the second week is spent doing increasing amounts each day, until a final panicked frenzy of non-stop work in the weekend before school goes back.
Am I right?
So also don’t give teachers any grief about having ‘more holidays’ because although yes having respite from face-to-face teaching for a couple of weeks is essential and so so so welcome, it is rarely a relaxing or nourishing time. You may not rack up 59 hours of work in these weeks, but you probably would rather do that than be in holiday sick bay.
You really have to have some experience under your belt and work hard and be super organised to use your holiday time wisely.
I just think it would be best if PSTs prepared themselves for this. And realised that their prac placements are likely going to be just as intense. You know?
Not sure what the collective noun for posts is (?)
Here is a nest of posts this week that have stayed with me. Not keen to post them on social media so much because argh the noise everywhere this week is deafening…
Post 1: You can’t fix education. By Hank Green on Medium.
Post 2: Cultural Marxism: A uniting theory for rightwingers who love to play the victim. By Jason Wilson in The Guardian.
Post 3: The truth will set you free. By Graham Brown-Martin on Medium.
What posts have had impact for you this week?