Posts Tagged HSC

Examination and Assessment

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.


Examination and Assessment

While our definitions of what the subject ‘English’ is have shifted over the years, it is worthwhile considering whether attitudes to examination and assessment have shifted as much, especially considering the reported impact of standardised exam-based assessment on the realised delivery of the intended curriculum and the construction of student identity (cf. Gale & Densmore, 2000; Kohn, 1999). The assessment and reporting of learning is one major way in which the school system retains power over the knowledge that students are deemed to have acquired (Foucault, 1977), in particular when ‘technicist’ forms of assessment such as traditional written exams are employed as these tend to “concentrate upon a narrow view of student achievement” (Marsh, 1997, p.56). In this final area of commonly contested territory I overview these broad ideas about the role of assessment and examination in the school system, as well as more specific thinking about the NSW curriculum landscape and about assessment in HSC English.

In a research project looking at the link between examinations and inequality in Australia in particular, Teese (2000) explores the ways in which choices about syllabuses and their examination result in increased social power for a privileged group that are more likely to gain academic success. The research project documented the way in which students with the “fewest family advantages entered schools with the fewest facilities and encountered the least experienced staff” (p.31) resulting in a low level of academic security for such students. Teese also argues the existence of a ‘curriculum hierarchy’, in which it is not just “any subjects that occupy the top levels of the curriculum, but those that give the greatest play to the economic power, cultural outlook and life-styles of the most educated populations” (p.197).

In the specific case of English, and of particular interest for research examining the NSW HSC English syllabus and its inclusion of a broader range of texts for study, Teese argues that the removal of canonical texts from the curriculum does not “free students from the cultural world in which Shakespeare was venerated” (p.45). Examination requirements themselves can also be seen as discriminating between “sophisticated” and “pedestrian” styles of written response (a phenomenon that is also explored in the work of Rosser, 2002), preferring responses that demonstrate not just a mastery of skills and content knowledge, but also showcase creativity and moral sensibility. Green makes a similar point in his discussion of the influence of postmodernism on advancing English teaching for critical consciousness and change, explaining that “the emergence of a more radically and socially-critical version of English teaching along these lines is still linked to particular, and arguably limited, understanding of culture and society” (Green, 1995, p.405).

Resources such as the OECD scenarios for future schooling discussed at the outset of this chapter provide one avenue for holistically pursuing curriculum change that is firmly embedded in a larger plan for system-wide change. Each of the six scenarios created by the OECD include description of four integral facets of schooling: ‘learning and organisation’; ‘management and governance’; ‘resources and infrastructure’; and ‘teachers’. Decisions relating to assessment in schooling fall under the area of learning and organisation, and systems where “curriculum and qualifications are central ideas of policy, and student assessments are key elements of accountability” (OECD, 2001, p.1) are described as part of the bureaucratic school system that forms the ‘status quo’ (scenario 1a). In this scenario the bureaucracy encourages uniformity, and is resistant to radical change – this is consistent with the findings of Green and Teese who identify curriculum hierarchies surrounding both content and assessment as barriers to realising change in the English curriculum.

While technicist forms of assessment such as traditional written examinations and mass standardised assessment are currently embedded in the educational landscape, diversity in student achievement is recognised through other discourses in assessment policy, for example in employing a distinction between summative and formative assessment. NSW curriculum and policy documents refer to these as ‘assessment of learning’, and ‘assessment for learning’ respectively and these terms are defined by the Curriculum Corporation:

Assessment of learning is assessment for accountability purposes, to determine a student’s level of performance on a specific task or at the conclusion of a unit of teaching and learning. The information gained from this kind of assessment is often used in reporting.

Assessment for learning, on the other hand, acknowledges that assessment should occur as a regular part of teaching and learning and that the information gained from assessment activities can be used to shape the teaching and learning process.
(Curriculum Corporation, website accessed May 18, 2006)

This distinction however, while shifting the focus of certain forms of assessment to acts of learning rather than accountability, does not address concerns about curriculum hierarchy, or of narrow (academic) visions for the aims of schooling.

Another important contribution to the field of assessment discourse is the notion of authentic learning, or authentic assessment. In exploring what implications this approach has to curriculum, Marsh explains that “authentic assessment encompasses far more than what students learn as measured by standardised tests or even by ordinary teacher-made tests. Authenticity arises from assessing what is most important, not from assessing what is most convenient.” (1997, p.56) Students who are learning in an environment of authenticity will undertake tasks that are more context-bound and more practical than formal exams, and which focus on challenging students by requiring analysis, integration of knowledge and invention (Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Falk, 1995). Authentic assessment practices most closely align with the learning and organisation features of the OECDs scenario of ‘Re-schooling’, where more explicit attention is given to non-cognitive outcomes, and there is a strong emphasis on non-formal learning (scenario 2a) and quality norms replace regulatory approaches (scenario 2b). It also features in the first ‘De-schooling’ scenario (3a) where learning networks are focused on local community needs, however social inequalities are predicted in the second of these scenarios (3b) where the market determines a new educational hierarchy.

In NSW the Quality Teaching Framework is provided as a model for planning and reflecting on curriculum content choices and pedagogy. The framework, which was largely derived from the ‘Productive Pedagogies’ that were developed and implemented in Queensland as a result of longitudinal research on school reform, formally underpins teaching practice in NSW public schools by guiding teachers in the incorporation of a range of pedagogical elements in their ‘Quality Teaching’ practice by focussing on the intellectual quality in a lesson, the development of a quality learning environment, and the significance of the material learned to the lives of students. While the Quality Teaching Framework is presented as a guide to pedagogy, the implications for assessment are that although technicist forms of assessment are not precluded, pedagogic elements such as providing ‘problematic knowledge’, ‘engagement’, ‘student direction’, ‘cultural knowledge’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘connectedness’ are more closely aligned with authentic assessment practices that flow from authentic, context-bound learning.

QTF table

Table: Dimensions and elements within the Quality Teaching Framework (NSW DET, 2003)


Such aims to provide a quality learning environment in NSW stand in stark contrast to accounts of high-stakes testing in international contexts. In an account of assessment in the context of the 1970s, Dixon explains that in the U.K. especially “the tradition…is for preparation for the specialised uses of language demanded by the examination to be fed back into the normal course…the examination itself begins to look quite normal, and English becomes a weird kind of game”, and he also quotes an observation made by Walter Loban at the 1966 Dartmouth Conference: “the curriculum in the secondary school inevitably shrinks to the boundaries of evaluation; if your evaluation is narrow and mechanical, this is what the curriculum will be” (Dixon, 1975, p.93).

In more recent research on English teachers’ rhetoric and practice, Bousted (2000) confirms that English teachers in the U.K. continue to view timed examinations as “[limiting] the opportunities for pupils to formulate a personal response to a literary text” (p.13). Teachers interviewed and observed for the study also argue that exam-based assessment had led to the adoption of poor pedagogical practices, such as rote learning and the concentration on a narrow range of curriculum content (p.14). Research by Darling-Hammond in the U.S. found that even when authentic assessment practices such as performance-based rather than standardised testing were employed, the continued use of assessment results to ‘sort students and sanction schools’ rather than to ‘support student-centred teaching’ resulted in the perpetuation of social inequity (Darling-Hammond, 1994, p.25).

Whether authentic learning and assessment, and a balance of assessment for and of learning is something that is realised in the NSW HSC English classroom to support student-centred teaching is one aspect of the curriculum explored later in this dissertation through analysis of the collected data. Recent research on Year 12 students in NSW by Ayres, Sawyer and Dinham (1999) suggests that high-stakes examinations do not inhibit best-practice teaching, as generating understanding of the subject remains teachers’ paramount concern. This research however only involved the observation and interview of teachers of high-achieving Year 12 students (those scoring in the top 1% of the state in particular subjects), therefore, while it may be concluded that effective teaching takes place in NSW despite the high-stakes assessment environment, it is essential to consider the effects of this environment on students who do not achieve as highly.

In relation to English specifically it is significant that an account of English examinations such as Dixon’s from over 30 years ago would still come close to accurately describing the current HSC English exam, in which students complete six questions over two written exams lasting two hours each:

The range of English activities covered by present methods of examining in the U.K. and the U.S. is extremely narrow: talk and listening is often simply excluded, and drama almost always omitted…literature is examined but the texts are not available, unseen poems may not be read aloud, an eighteen-year-old in the U.S. is given 20 minutes for a composition and in the U.K. three major essays are demanded in three hours. (Dixon, 1975, pp.92-93)

Concerns about assessment and examination therefore must be considered both in relation to their impact on pedagogy, and in terms of the adequacy of the actual examination methods utilised in realising the stated purposes of the English curriculum in the senior years of high school.

To conclude this section I return to Teese’s observations of the ways in which perceptions about the ideal student are shaped by the demands of the formal examinations they are required to take. Teese (2000) argues that formal exams in Australia have required students to ‘project an image…of the young scholar-intellectual’ (p.4) as “examiners have unfailingly demanded [academic] qualities [e.g. abstraction and concentration, sensitivity to form and structure, logical and retentive abilities, and maturity of perspective and argument], whatever the circumstances under which real students have learnt” (p.194). His findings also show a relationship between the image of the ideal student informing the nature of school examinations and attributes of higher socio-economic status, as “…elements of the scholarly disposition…are linked closely to an educated life-style and arise from the continuous and informal training given by families rather than explicit and methodical instruction in school” (p. 5). By interrogating ideals that are constructed in both public and professional discourses, the research in this thesis will reflect on the functions of schooling and possible futures that are implied in the current HSC English curriculum.



Ayres, P., Dinham, S., & Sawyer, W. (1999). Successful teaching in the NSW Higher School Certificate: Summary of a research report for the NSW Department of Education and Training. Sydney: NSW DET.

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

Curriculum Corporation. Assessment for learning: What is assessment for learning? Retrieved from

Darling-Hammond, L. (1994). Performance-based assessment and educational equity. Harvard Educational Review, 64(1), 5-30.

Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Falk, B. (1995). Authentic assessment in action. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dixon, J. (1975). Growth through English: Set in the perspective of the seventies. London: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). London: Penguin Books.

Gale, T., & Densmore, K. (2000). Just schooling: Explorations in the cultural politics of teaching. Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Green, B. (1995). Post-curriculum possibilities: English teaching, cultural politics, and the postmodern turn. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 27(4), 391-409.

Kohn, A. (1999). The schools our children deserve: Moving beyond traditional classrooms and ‘tougher standards’. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Marsh, C. J. (1997). Key concepts for understanding curriculum (A fully rev. and extended ed.). London: Falmer Press.

NSW DET. (2003). Quality teaching in NSW public schools: A classroom practice guide. Ryde: NSW Department of Education and Training Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate.

OECD. (2001). The OECD schooling scenarios in brief. Retrieved

Rosser, G. (2002). Examining HSC English: Questions and answers. Change: Transformations in Education, 5(2), 91-109.

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

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Literary theory and the postmodern turn

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.


Literary theory and the postmodern turn

As explained [previously], critical reading was one of the significant additions to the study of texts in post-1960s English curriculum, and one that came about as a means for problematising subjectivities, usually through the analysis of dominant discourses in texts and the ways in which these might operate to suppress or devalue marginalised discourses. One of the tools for such analyses is the engagement with various literary theories and the method of ‘reading’ a text through certain theoretical lenses:

Feminist and post-colonial readings and writings have called into question the Leavisite canon’s assumptions of cultural and moral excellence, its view of literature and its promotion of particular ways of reading. Their arguments about the importance of readings ‘against the text’, reflect a more general shift in ideas about communication, which has been occurring over the last thirty years, alongside widespread questioning of established notions of culture, value and tradition. (Maybin, 2000, p.190)

Green attributes the post-1960s growth of interest in marginal constituencies (such as the feminist movement and various ethnic groupings) to the development of new forms of identity, the “release of hitherto suppressed and constrained social energies”, and a new “politics of subjectivity” (Green, 1995, p.393). The emergence of ‘youth’ as a distinctive social force also contributed to the change in identity politics, and Green cites Medway’s account (1990) of how the resulting “increased focus on the media and the peer group as in influential forces in socialisation”, which were and remain “oppositional…to mainstream culture and the established social order” (Green, 1995, p.395) were viewed as dangerous and threatening due to their role in realigning social relations of power. These significant social, cultural and political shifts were reflected in the school system at large, and in the English curriculum specifically by the shift away from traditional literary studies toward a model of cultural studies that involved a heightened engagement with notions of rhetoric and textuality as well as an increased valuing of popular culture texts.

The broadening of the content to be studied in English from the traditional, canonical definition of ‘literature’ to encompass ‘texts’ from the media, from youth and popular culture, and other everyday contexts can therefore be viewed as a response to changes in more general social beliefs about the functions of schooling, such as those referred to [earlier in this thesis]. In particular this would have involved significant shifts in discourse surrounding what Hunter terms the ‘regulative’ and ‘political’ functions of schooling, as the ‘preferred political principles of the society’ and the type of citizen and populace that schools were aiming to produce underwent radical change. Hunter’s framework asserts that schools in Australia historically have had a regulatory function requiring the transmission of forms of orderliness and control, and in this light the adoption of cultural studies within the English curriculum reflects the negotiation of control within new paradigms, rather than an abandonment of control and orderliness. The interrelation between functions of schooling is also demonstrated in this case, as changes to the dominant discourses of control were adapted to accommodate a new set of political principles, including an explicitly egalitarian approach to pleasure and empowerment.

In his explanation of the ‘point’ of literary theory, Thomson claims a need for teachers to “ask questions about the purpose and value of the things we habitually do in classrooms”, which includes interrogating our naturalised “intentions with our students in teaching literature the way the Higher School Certificate English papers direct us to” (Thomson, 1992, p.7). To further his argument that everything that a teacher does is informed by some theory of learning, whether they realise it or not, he cites Selden:

Readers may believe that theories and concepts will only deaden the spontaneity of their response to literary works. They may forget that ‘spontaneous’ discourse about literature is unconsciously dependent on the theorising of older generations. Their talk of ‘feeling, ‘imagination’, ‘genius’, ‘sincerity’ and ‘reality’ is full of dead theory which is sanctified by time and has become part of the language of common sense. (Selden, 1985, p.3)

Thomson goes on to provide an overview of what he identifies as the major contemporary literary theories that have significance for use in the English classroom; Expressive Realism (including ‘Leavisite’ criticism), New Criticism, Reception Theory, Psychoanalytical Theory, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Feminism, and Political Criticism. Using classroom examples Thomson shows how these theories can act as lenses, not only to enable students to read against the text and de-naturalise the discourses presented, but also through which students can gain a reflexive understanding of their own reading processes. Recalling concerns presented by Morgan and Misson in the previous section of this chapter, this argument by Thomson forms another explanation as to how critical reading and a postmodern focus on textuality can result in an enhancement of the reading process, even of taking pleasure in the aesthetic, as students develop reflexive reading practices rather than unconsciously adopting ‘dead theory’ merely because it has been ‘sanctified by time’.

The application of critical readings to texts set for study appears in the HSC English syllabus for the Advanced course in Module B: ‘Critical study of texts’. Although the critical study of a variety of perspectives is not mandated in the Standard English course, critical readings of this nature may be applied at point of need throughout junior and senior English studies as a means to meet other overarching learning outcomes. The difficulty, however, that many teachers of the HSC Advanced course experienced in applying a perceived number of readings to a set text within the time frame set for study of Module B is documented in an official statement by the English Teachers’ Association in NSW (2007), who described the issue of critical reading as being “fraught with controversy” due to incorrect perceptions about there being a number and type of readings that must be covered. The ETA statement refers teachers to sections of the syllabus and to excerpts from examiners reports to show that “the notion that a set of potential readings of the text based on specific ideological approaches (Marxist, feminist etc.) is being encouraged by the course is specifically contradicted by both the syllabus and the examiners’ reports” (2007, p.2).

Misunderstandings about how literary theory could be applied in Module B of the HSC Advanced English course were significant enough to require an official response from the NSW Board of Studies, who state clearly that Module B principally “is designed to nurture enjoyment and appreciation of significant texts” and that practices that involve “discussing and evaluating notions of context and the perspectives of others amplifies the exploration of the ideas in the text, enabling a deeper and richer understanding” (2008, p.1). In response to difficulties faced by teachers attempting to develop their critical pedagogy in a way that does not restrict deep, personal engagement with the set text – the very issue that Morgan and Misson had found to be problematic – the ETA official statement offers a model very similar to Howie’s framework (2005) that applies the concept of frames, in order that research into the perspectives of others is always returned to further inform a personal reading of the text.

The constant reiteration from both the ETA and the Board of Studies, however, that Module B is clearly described in the Advanced English syllabus as requiring the rigorous development of a personal perspective on the integrity of a text might suggest that pressure felt by teachers to ‘cram in’ or ‘tack on’ a number of predefined literary theories had come from other areas of the curriculum. Specifically, the fact that six out of the ten pages of the Board of Studies support document is dedicated to an Appendix modelling the assessment of student work in Module B signals that issues relating to assessment provided a significant amount of pressure. In the following and final section of this chapter I turn to the examination and assessment of English and explore the impact of issues in this area on shaping content and pedagogy.



Board of Studies NSW. (2008). HSC English (Advanced) course – Module B: Critical study of texts – support document. Sydney: Board of Studies NSW.

English Teachers’ Association. (2007). Official statement on Stage 6 Advanced Module B: Critical study of texts. Sydney: English Teachers’ Association (NSW).

Green, B. (1995). Post-curriculum possibilities: English teaching, cultural politics, and the postmodern turn. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 27(4), 391-409.

Howie, M. (2005). A transformative model for programming 7-10 English. English in Australia (142), 57-63.

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

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.

Selden, R. (1985). A reader’s guide to contemporary literary theory. Brighton: The Harvester Press.

Thomson, J. (1992). The significance and uses of contemporary literary theory for the teaching of literature. In J. Thomson (Ed.), Reconstructing literature teaching: New essays on the teaching of literature (pp. 3-39). Norwood: Australian Association for the Teaching of English.

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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 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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