Posts Tagged english

What I miss about HSC English

Times are changing for senior assessment here in Queensland, and senior English has been radically re-written.

To catch you up if you’re just tuning in to this, some notable changes for English in QLD are:

  • Reduction of summative assessment in Year 12 from 6 tasks to 4 tasks.
  • The 4 tasks in Year 12 are all worth 25% each, and one of them is an external exam.
  • There are five courses in the English suite: English, EAL, Essential English (replacing ‘English Communication’), and Literature (a new course in QLD). The fifth course English and Literature Extension, as well as the ‘applied’ subject Essential English, are still in draft.
  • The external exam for English and Literature courses will be a single ‘analytical essay’ responding to unseen questions on their chosen text.
  • Abolition of the existing Queensland Core Skills Test (the current method for scaling and moderating in-school subject rankings).
  • We’re getting a prescribed text list (this is big news)!

The status and relationship of the five English courses is seen in Figure 1 of the English syllabus:

QCAA English pathways map – syllabus screenshot p2

There are a couple of things I think the Queensland design has captured that make it an improvement on the HSC design I am familiar with from NSW.

For starters, the external exam is only one essay (not 2 x 2 hour papers), and it’s only worth 25% of the final grade. My hope is that reducing the weight of the external exam will see Queensland take up fewer exam-driven practices and less anxiety for students.

The next area that is a win is the retention of our work-and-community English course – now called Essential English – as an ‘applied’ course. Unfortunately the equivalent ‘English Studies’ course in NSW has been made ATAR eligible, which based on historical trends will see an over-enrolment in that course.

But wow there are some things that I miss about HSC English.

  • I miss the way each module has a clear direction for the work – it’s a close study, a conceptual study, or a comparative study etc.
  • I miss being able to choose what my internal assessments will be and how much weight they’ll have.
  • I miss the terminology of ‘related texts’ and the sense that something has to be studied in a certain amount of depth to count as a core/prescribed text.
  • I miss Macbeth and To Kill A Mockingbird being mostly left alone for junior English.
  • I miss ‘persuasive’ being uncoupled from ‘speech’.
  • I miss mandatory inclusion of multimodal assessment.

Watching both states redevelop senior English at the same time has been eye-opening. Lots of comparison work to come.

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Critical Literacy

The following is an extract from my PhD thesis, part of a series I am publishing on this blog discussing the background of some contested territory in English curriculum.


Critical Literacy

The notion of promoting critical literacy and the adoption of various forms of critical classroom pedagogy has proven a controversial issue for critics of contemporary English teaching, and for educators working in the field of English curriculum. Borne out of the emancipatory counter-culture of the post-1960s (Medway, 1990) and related concerns about the socio-cultural dimensions of schooling, the practice of critical literacy involves the analysis of discourses within a text and the adoption of a questioning attitude toward these. In this review of background literature relating to critical literacy I explore the inter-related relationship of ‘critical’ literacy to other constructions of literacy, identify the position of critical literacy in the current NSW curriculum, and address the main criticisms of this discourse that have been put forward.

In an analysis of meanings of literacy in North America, Britain and Australasia, Lankshear (1998) describes major constructions of literacy that appear in contemporary educational reform proposals. The first two categories of literacy construction identified – what Lankshear terms the ‘lingering basics’ and the ‘new basics’ – reflect ideas and debates that have been discussed here in previous sections on literacy and multiliteracies. While lingering basics (or ‘basic literacy’) is “framed in terms of mastering the building blocks of code breaking”, new basics approaches recognise the insufficiencies of decontextualised functional competencies in a post-industrial, information/services economy. More sophisticated, “abstract, symbolic-logical capacities” are seen as more necessary than in the past, and this includes the capacity to use higher order skills to think critically for the purposes of “analysis, solving problems and drawing conclusions” (Lankshear, 1998, pp.357-359). Here the concepts of critical thinking and communication are intertwined.

In another category of literacy construction termed ‘elite literacies’, Lankshear (1998) explores further the conceptualisation of critical literacy within educational reform. Elite literacies are described as comprising “high level mastery of subject or discipline literacies” and the resulting “command of the language and literature of subject disciplines enables critique, innovation, variation, diversification and refinement when applied to work” (p.360). One feature of critical literacy viewed as a component of elite literacy, however, is that:

…the critical dimension of knowledge work is valued mainly, if not solely, in terms of value-adding economic potential. This, however, is critical analysis and critical judgement directed toward innovation and improvement within the parameters of a field of enterprise, rather than criticism in larger terms that might hold the field and its applications and effects, or an enterprise and its goals, up to scrutiny. (Lankshear, 1998, p.361)

In making this observation, Lankshear identifies a major point of difference that arises in debates about critical literacy. While the notion of critical thinking in itself is seen as a positive skill to develop, other meanings and intentions that are attached to critical literacy theory can be viewed as either liberating and empowering, or alternatively, as inherently ‘left-wing’ threats of resistance against established institutions and dominant cultures.

The act of challenging the meaning of a text through critical reading takes the form of textual deconstruction, where readers identify the presumed centre of a text – the values and ideologies displayed by the author – and then ‘decentre’ these to draw attention to figures, events or materials that have been marginalised or ignored. Pope (2002) explains that:

There is, strictly, no ‘end’ or ultimate ‘point’ to the process of de- and recentring: there are always multiple absences which will help us realise a presence. Nor is there just one gap or silence which can be detected within the noisy fabric of a text. The value of such an activity, however, is that it encourages us to grasp texts creatively as well as critically. We weigh what they are or seem to say in relation to what they are not or might have said differently. (p.169)

Such acts of reading encourage the development of what Graham Parr has called a ‘culture of critique’, where a diversity of approaches and interpretations “open up interactions rather than…close down or simplify meanings” (Parr, 2001, p.159).

You will recall the explanation in section 2.3.1 that contemporary models of literacy involve the necessary inter-relation of critical dimensions of literacy with resources that engage operational and cultural practices (as theorised by Green, 1988/2002; Freebody and Luke, 1990/1999). Therefore, in addition to promoting a ‘culture of critique’, another advantage of critical literacy practices that has been theorised is their potential to draw in other aspects of learning about language. As Janks further argues, close critical reading involves the use of discourse analysis, which is not possible without explicit engagement with grammar in context (Janks, 2005). While operational and critical literacy can theoretically be combined in literacy learning however, teachers taking up a critical literacy approach “evidently feel marginalised by the reductivist strictures of mass standardised literacy testing” (Howie, 2002, p.46). This experience in Australia is also reported abroad, for example in the U.K. where “exam-based assessment, the teachers argue, has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and the adoption of pedagogical practices…which are inimical to the teachers’ conception of ‘good practice’ in English teaching” (Bousted, 2000, p.14).

Reviewing the ways in which critical literacy is actually represented in the official English curriculum documents from six Australian State Education Departments, Winch (2007) establishes that all states consider ‘literacy’ as including the ability to respond critically to texts, although some avoid direct use of the term. NSW is one state that was found to engage directly with critical literacy, naming it clearly and justifying its value at all stages of schooling. The NSW K-6 English syllabus for example mandates that students are involved in “questioning, challenging and evaluating texts” in order to “perceive how texts position readers to take particular view of people and events” (Board of Studies NSW, 1998, p.5). The NSW 7-10 English syllabus similarly details that critical literacy involves “an understanding of the ways in which values and attitudes are communicated through language, including how subject matter, point of view and language embody assumptions about gender, ethnicity and class” (Board of Studies NSW, 2002, p.79). The inclusion of such descriptions show that “while there is debate about critical literacy in the public domain, the relatively private domain of curriculum statements has accepted that students need critical literacy skills to develop their ability to read well” (Winch, 2007, p.53). Such descriptions also show that, in the stated curriculum at least, critical literacy in Australia is conceptualised as more than what Lankshear would term an ‘elite literacy’ practice, but as an empowered way of reading where cultural constructs, gaps and silences are questioned and challenged.

More recently, concerns about the classroom experience of critical literacy have been articulated by Wendy Morgan and Ray Misson, theorists who have historically been influential advocates of critical literacy in Australia. These theorists share a concern that, while the aims of critical literacy pedagogy remain sound, the lived reality of critical literacy in the classroom has led to a neglect of the ‘aesthetic’ – of both aesthetic texts and aesthetic reading practices – and a neglect of the development of readers who are disposed to receive and take pleasure in aesthetic works. While critical reading involves the reader adopting a questioning attitude, Morgan and Misson argue that this has seen to be unfairly applied to texts, in particular to poems, that are intended to be received aesthetically, explaining that when “a text has features that are characteristic of the aesthetic [these] become significant only if a reader comes along who recognises the signals and so undertakes a particular reading of the text” (2006, p.39).

In response to such claims that critical literacy has diminished or compromised engagement with aspects of the aesthetic, including reading for pleasure, Howie recounts experiences from his own classroom, explaining the pleasure that students took in exploring intertextuality and exercising Bakhtin’s notions of the dialogic nature of language (2008, p.70). Howie also refers to Pope’s definition (cited earlier in this section), which frames critical literacy as a means to ‘grasp texts creatively as well as critically’, by opening up possibilities for reading, and argues that Morgan and Mission’s denigration of critical literacy is inadequate as it denies the realities of curriculum realisation. In doing so their criticism of aesthetic neglect places the supposed ‘failings’ of critical literacy on teachers’ ‘clumsiness’, ‘misunderstanding’, political dogmatism and lack of comfort with traditional literary works (Howie, 2008, p.74). Howie argues that this view of a failing critical literacy project, neglectful of the aesthetic, is a manifestation of “a familiar and conservative trope: the spectral notion of a ‘golden age’” (p.74) which engages a misplaced sense of mourning and does little to take into account the voices and realised experiences of teachers and students.

In focus group discussions with literacy teachers Graham Parr encountered another tension, also related to classroom practice within democratic critical pedagogy, where teachers struggled to negotiate a curriculum approach that was open to different ideas and perspectives, but within which the teacher’s position in the classroom remained one of authority and strong influence. However, while Parr acknowledges “the risk of talking democratically and acting autocratically”, he also makes a strong argument for the need to nevertheless “resist the seduction of certainty as a refuge for intellectual engagement” and to “refuse the call to accept reductive versions of literacy” (Parr, 2001, p.159). It is this ‘seduction of certainty’ which, fundamentally, critical literacy development enables students and teachers alike to resist, and in doing so it is linked closely with the post-modern agenda of breaking down boundaries, exploring intertextuality and problematising subjectivities (Green, 1995). In the next section I discuss more closely the impact of postmodern theory on the English curriculum, in particular in relation to the use of literary theory, which has emerged as a widespread tool for critical reading in the senior curriculum especially.



Board of Studies NSW. (1998). English K-6 syllabus. Sydney: Board of Studies NSW.

Board of Studies NSW. (2002). English 7-10 syllabus. Sydney: Board of Studies NSW.

Bousted, M. (2000). Rhetoric and practice in English teaching. English in Education, 34(1), 12-23.

Freebody, P., & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: Australian Journal of TESOL, 5(3), 7-16.

Green, B. (1988). Subject-specific literacy and school learning: A focus on writing. Australian Journal of Education, 32(2), 156-179.

Howie, M. (2002). ‘Selling a Drink with Less Sugar’: Considering English curriculum and pedagogy as the shaping of a certain sort of person in teaching year 8. English in Australia (134), 45-56.

Howie, M. (2008). Critical literacy, the future of English and the work of mourning. English in Australia, 43(3), 69-78.

Janks, H. (2005). Language and the design of texts. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 4(3), 97-110.

Lankshear, C. (1998). Meanings of literacy in contemporary educational reform proposals. Educational Theory, 48(3), 351-372.

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, New York and Philadelphia: Falmer Press.

Morgan, W., & Misson, R. (2006). Critical literacy and the aesthetic: Transforming the English classroom. Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Parr, G. (2001). A culture of critique? Professional and intellectual tensions in English teaching. English in Australia (129-130), 150-161.

Pope, R. (2002). The English Studies Book (2nd ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

Winch, J. (2007). Critical literacy and the politics of English teaching in the 21st century. English in Australia, 42(1), 49-55.

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The influence of the canon

The following is an extract from my PhD thesis, part of a series I am publishing on this blog discussing the background of some contested territory in English curriculum.


The influence of the canon

The extent to which curriculum content should focus on the teaching of literature that has been officially acknowledged for its ‘greatness’, such as from a recognised list, or ‘canon’ of work is a prominent area of contention relating to the content of English curriculum, whether framed as a factor in finding a balance in content, or as a means for enculturation that will ‘regulate’ the populace. Mathew Arnold famously argued that we could escape our difficulties by pursuing “culture”: that as a society we could pursue “total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold, 1869, Preface). Such a pursuit, however, demands that choices be made about what constitutes the body of works that exhibit ‘the best which has been thought and said’, and the development of such a canon involves people or groups exercising their power and authority in determining what is worth reading and knowing about. While the term ‘canon’ was originally used to refer to books that had officially been chosen by the Church for inclusion in the Bible, the source of authority for a ‘literary canon’ is not as clear-cut. As Eagleton puts it, “the so-called ‘literary canon’, the unquestioned ‘great tradition’ of the ‘national literature’, has to be recognised as a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular reasons at a certain time” (1983, p.11).

Notable attempts to create literary canons (for example, Bloom, 1994) have been criticised for their narrowness, particularly their lack of contributions by and representation of the perspectives of the lower classes, women and non-white authors (Maybin, 2000). Attempts to come to terms with the limitations of a canon are reflected in the way in which the term ‘literary canon’ is often further qualified as being a ‘western literary canon’, to acknowledge the deliberate lack of cultural diversity in a list that is intended to be representative of the keys ideas and attitudes in western (often English) history. In addition to criticisms that the canon is too culturally exclusive, the confinement of the canon to traditional textual forms (in particular to written works of fiction, drama and poetry) has also been met with disapproval from those who value a wider variety of textual forms. With the rise of electronic media over the past few decades and the growing acceptance of multiliteracies in the English classroom, the traditional composition of the canon as being exclusively of printed material has also been challenged.

It is for these reasons that, in his overview of the concept of the canon, Pope (2002) describes the “assumption or assertion that ‘the canon’ (singular and definitive) has always simply been ‘there’, a universal and timeless entity, is a convenient but misleading myth” (p.187). Prescribed reading lists, however, continue to feature works from the western literary canon in the English curriculum both in Australia and abroad. In his discussion of the prescribed reading list in the U.K. National Curriculum for English, Benton describes how “school English has been corseted in a National Curriculum which has no qualms about spelling out who it regards as the ‘major’ and ‘high quality’ authors worthy of study” (2000, p.269). This is despite long standing recognition that “any definition of literary heritage in terms of specific books or authors distorts the cultural significance of a literary tradition by failing to recognise that what the Great Books offer is a continuing dialogue on the moral and philosophical questions central to the culture itself” and the proposition that “contemporary thought is of foremost importance” (Applebee, 1974, pp.247-8)

In her account of the historical construction of and contemporary challenges to the canon, Maybin (2000) explains the impact of the Leavisite model on extending the canon to the prose novel, which, until Leavis’ publication of The Great Tradition (1948), had “held a rather tenuous place in the literary heritage, in comparison with poetry and drama” (p.185). Although a tracking of English curriculum theory since the rise of Leavisite literary criticism reveals a move away from philosophies that treat literary texts as “independent, self-contained objects, with a fixed meaning and literary essence waiting to be discovered by the skilful reader”, Maybin argues that “The [Leavisites] most significant contributions to the development of the subject were their establishment of a canon that has influenced syllabuses ever since, and a form of literary criticism that has become the chief method for studying literature in school and university” (2000, p.185). However, while acknowledgement of the novel as a valid literary form and the use of literary criticism might persist in the academic disciplines this legacy must be reconciled with knowledge about the need for curriculum to operate as what Applebee (1996) calls culturally significant ‘domains of conversation’. That is, when curriculum is viewed as a process of conversation between the individual and various traditions of knowing, then potential fields of activity (such as literary criticism) must “foster students’ entry into living traditions of knowledge-in-action rather than static traditions of knowledge-out-of-context” (Applebee, 1996, p.5). This ‘knowledge-in-action’ requires more than an adoption of respect for the prose novel and methods of literary criticism; because knowledge-in-action requires ‘tacit knowledge’, students must be empowered to become involved with the traditions themselves, to speak back to them, and to become participants in the formation of discourse.

Much work has been done on the relationship between knowledge and power, and the ways in which the sanctioning of ‘official’ knowledge has led to the endorsement and perpetuation of dominant discourses in education and society. Poststructuralist theorists (see for example Foucault 1969) as well as sociologists of education (see for example Apple, 1997; Teese, 2000) have argued that social oppression is perpetuated through the silencing of ‘other’ knowledge and the limitations placed on people’s capacity to explore multiple understandings of mainstream knowledge. Foucault’s call to “question those divisions or groupings with which we have become so familiar” (Foucault, 1969) invites an exploration of the ‘familiar groupings’ that are found not only in the actual 1999 HSC English syllabus (in terms of its rationale, objectives and outcomes), but also in the related curriculum materials including the prescribed text list.

While debates about which texts should be considered for inclusion in a literary canon will continue to take place, discussion of the way in which these texts are then treated as part of an English curriculum should be framed by more explicit thinking about the necessary and desired functions of schooling, such as those identified by Hunter (1993) earlier in this thesis. While the cultural-heritage function of schooling, for example, may call for young people to be introduced to the ways of thinking and acting that have existed and been valued over time, the pastoral function of schooling also calls for caring and humane environments in school in which to grow and develop (which may imply in this case the use of texts from children’s own experience, and which they will enjoy), and the function of developing individual expression requires schooling to provide a context in which individuals can learn to explore, develop, and express their personal goals and aspirations (which may not relate to their cultural heritage).

Attention must be paid to this diverse range of functions when considering the selection of texts for study in the English classroom, in order that judgements about ‘worthy’ or ‘valuable’ texts are closely linked to visions of the type of schooling we are aiming to provide, rather than decontextualised arguments about the nature or value of the literary canon itself. It is also essential to consider the relationship between content and pedagogy – while texts from the canon might provide students with a means to access ‘cultural heritage’ this is not necessarily to say that their study of canonical (or any other) texts should be uncritical. In the following section of this chapter I discuss the significance of critical literacy pedagogy, and explore some of the ways in which it has been conflated with ideas about postmodernism and ‘the aesthetic’.



Apple, M. W. (1997). Official Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Applebee, A. (1996). Curriculum as conversation: Transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arnold, M. (1869). Culture and anarchy.

Benton, M. (2000). Canons ancient and modern: The texts we teach. Educational Review, 52(3), 269-277.

Bloom, H. (1994). The Western Canon: The books and school of the ages. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Eagleton, T. (1983). Literary theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Foucault, M. (1969). The archaeology of knowledge (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). London: Tavistock Publications.

Hunter, I. (1993). The pastoral bureaucracy: Towards a less principled understanding of state schooling. In D. Meredyth & D. Tyler (Eds.), Child and citizen: Genealogies of schooling and subjectivity. Brisbane: Institute for Cultural Policy Studies.

Leavis, F. R. (1948). The great tradition. London: Chatto & Windus.

Maybin, J. (2000). The canon: Historical construction and contemporary challenges. In J. Davison & J. Moss (Eds.), Issues in English Teaching. London: Routledge.

Pope, R. (2002). The English Studies Book (2nd ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

Teese, R. (2000). Academic success and social power: Examinations and inequality. Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.

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The following is an extract from my PhD thesis, part of a series I am publishing on this blog discussing the background of some contested territory in English curriculum.



In addition to theorising the teaching of literacy, Green argues that “there are two particularly insistent matters that need to be engaged in thinking about the contemporary situation of English teaching…these are the question concerning literacy, on the one hand, and the question concerning technology, on the other” (Green, 2004, p.292). The increasing integration of ‘information and communication technologies’ (ICTs) into the workplace is one of the key influences identified by the OECD (2001) as signalling the growth of the knowledge economy and the related demand for multiliterate knowledge workers. As has just been discussed, ideas about what it means to be literate have developed over time, so that the concept of literacy now extends beyond breaking the codes of written words, to also encompass an understanding of conventions and discourses. Literacy is no longer limited to the physical and mechanical processes of reading, and in technologically rich world of the 21st century, it is also no longer limited to reading printed materials.

The term ‘multiliteracies’ began to be widely used after the first meeting of the ‘New London Group’ in 1994, who used the term to refer to the contemporary need to engage with not only the grammar of written language, but also the grammars of still and moving images, music and sound. However, the need to extend the concept of literacy beyond print literacy was just one aspect of what multiliteracies would entail – it also meant the application of established literacy practices, such as engaging critical literacy, to a wider range of semiotic systems. In a paper co-authored by a number of scholars including Bill Cope, Mary Kalantzis, Norman Fairclough, Jim Gee and Allan Luke, the manifesto of the New London Group proclaimed the authors’ twin goals for literacy learning to be: “creating access to the evolving language of work, power, and community, and fostering the critical engagement necessary for them to design their social futures and achieve success through fulfilling employment” (Cazden et al., 1996, p.60).

In an online article for the Curriculum Corporation’s 2007 conference Multiliteracies: Break the Code, Geoff Bull and Michele Anstey lament that “in the media, the teaching of multiliteracies is often trivialised and caricatured: portrayed, for example, as the study of SMS text messaging in place of the plays of Shakespeare. For all their weaknesses, such arguments can still influence members of the public, most of whom do not have direct knowledge of the topic of multiliteracies from their own years at school” (Bull & Anstey, 2007). What is ignored in such “trivialised” portrayals of multiliteracies is the very real impact that technology has had on society, and the culturally and linguistically diverse environment of today’s globalised world. It is these two important factors that the notion of multiliteracies addresses, by supplementing traditional literacy pedagogy in order to engage with “the multiplicity of communication channels and media”, and with “the increasing salience of cultural and linguistic diversity” of the contemporary society in which our students will grow up, live and work in (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000, p. 5).

There is no argument in any of the research literature that ‘linguistic’ semiotic systems and learning to code and decode written language do not constitute a key facet of literacy, however literacy across multiple modes – identified by Bull and Anstey (2007) as ‘linguistic’, ‘visual’, ‘gestural’, ‘spatial’ and ‘aural’ – is widely acknowledged as being required in contemporary society. The question therefore is one of balance, and debates about the balance of attention given to various semiotic systems in the English classroom can be seen to align with broader debates about what the function of schooling should be in the 21st century. While the ‘cultural-heritage’ function of schooling identified by Hunter (1993) may appear compromised in an English curriculum that embraces multiliteracies, as traditional content is lessened to make way for newer content, the role that schools play in providing ‘human-capital’ and a ‘skilled’ workforce is also reflected here. Although “moral panics proliferate about the perceived loss of foundational skills in the net generation” (McWilliam & Dawson, 2008, p.4) the growth of the knowledge economy and the increasingly iconographic and screen-based nature of everyday reading (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003, p.14) demands an increase in skills across multiple literacies. In the next section I discuss in greater detail the nature and influence of the traditional western literary canon, and how debates over its role and importance in the curriculum intersect with these wider concerns about literacy and text.



Bull, G., & Anstey, M. (2007). What’s so different about multiliteracies? Curriculum Leadership, 5(11).

Cazden, C., Cope, B., Fairclough, N., Gee, J. P., Kalantzis, M., Luke, C., et al. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (Eds.). (2000). Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. London: Routledge.

Green, B. (2004). Curriculum, ‘English’ and Cultural Studies; or, changing the scene of English teaching? Changing English, 11(2), 291-305.

Hunter, I. (1993). The pastoral bureaucracy: Towards a less principled understanding of state schooling. In D. Meredyth & D. Tyler (Eds.), Child and citizen: Genealogies of schooling and subjectivity. Brisbane: Institute for Cultural Policy Studies.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2003). New Literacies: Changing knowledge and classroom learning. Buckingham & Philadelphia: Open University Press.

McWilliam, E., & Dawson, S. (2008). Pedagogical practice after the information age. Journal of Futures Studies, 12(3), 1-14.

OECD. (2001). What schools for the future? Paris: OECD.

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‘English’ and ‘literacy’

The following is an extract from my PhD thesis, part of a series I am publishing on this blog discussing the background of some contested territory in English curriculum.


‘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.

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English curriculum: Contested territory

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.

Contested territory

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:


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.

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Damn lies and misinformation: Daily Tele and the new Stage 6 English

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.

Author image created using Trove map resource and Bard portrait

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:

  1. 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?)
  2. The categorisation of English Studies as an ATAR eligible course (what will the impact be on Standard enrolments?)
  3. 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.)

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