The Australian Curriculum for English

As we have already heard from our trusty newspapers (who magically had obtained copies prior to release) we have much to look forward to in the Australian Curriculum for English:

The curriculum takes a more traditional view of literature than has been apparent in some states in the past decade or so. – Justine Ferrari in The Australian 27 Feb

Senior educationists believe the new curriculum for students in kindergarten to Year 10, due to come into force next year, has been infiltrated by fringe lobby groups seeking to include issues such as multiculturalism, indigenous rights, ethical behaviour and sustainable living. – Joe Hildebrand & Bruce McDougall in Daily Tele 27 Feb

GRAMMAR will be front and centre of the federal government’s new national English curriculum.Stephanie Pealting in SMH 28 Feb

AUSTRALIA’s new national school curriculum is to be unveiled today in a long overdue recognition of the need to return the three Rs to the classroom. – Editorial in The Herald Sun 28 Feb

Though, we already knew all this earlier in the week from Julia Gillard’s address to the National Press Club.

ALL states and territories will be forced to follow a set program for teaching reading under the first national English curriculum, which stipulates the letters, sounds and words students must learn in each year of school. – Justine Ferrari in The Australian 25 Feb

Education Minister Julia Gillard told the National Press Club yesterday that, for the first time, grammar would be taught at all levels of school and parents would have a chance to comment directly on what their children would learn. – Scott Hannaford in The Canberra Times 25 Feb

Actually, we have known that this was coming ever since the release of the National Curriculum Shaping Paper [PDF link] back in May 2009.  The Shape of the Australian Curriculum: English paper proposed that K-10 curriculum in English be organised around three interrelated strands:

  1. Language: The Language strand involves the development of a coherent, dynamic and evolving body of knowledge about the English language and how it works.
  2. Literature: Students learn to interpret, appreciate, evaluate and create literary texts such as narrative, poetry, prose, plays, film and multimodal texts, in spoken, print and digital/online contexts.
  3. Literacy: Students apply their English skills and knowledge to read, view, speak, listen to, write and create a growing repertoire of texts.

The separation of these strands sure is nice and neat.  Cute even…the alliteration could appeal to some English teachers.

But while these separate strands might be neat, they have resulted in precisely what English teachers feared: a regression to a 100 year old teaching approach that divorces the learning of the mechanics of ‘language’ from the learning of the feelings, values and ideas it represents.  We’re trying to teach communicators, not copy-typists!  But, predictably, here are some of the content descriptors for what students must learn from the Language strand of the 7-10 curriculum for English:

  • Resources for creating cohesive texts including identifying reference items, the use of substitution and ellipsis, relationships between vocabulary items, and the role of text connectives (Year 7)
  • Understanding spelling rules including origins, word endings, Greek and Latin roots, base words, suffixes, prefixes, spelling patterns and generalisations (Year 7)
  • Sentences can consist of a number of independent and dependent clauses combined in a variety of ways (Year 8 )
  • Purpose of  devices used by authors  including symbolism, analogy and allusion (Year 8 )
  • Language can be multi-layered, resulting in varying interpretations (Year 9) (…a bit late to learn this?)
  • Information can be condensed by collapsing a clause into a noun phrase (nominalisation) (Year 9)
  • Different perspectives can be introduced by citing the words and views of others
  • Construction of multimodal and digital texts involves knowledge of visual grammar (Year 10) (visual literacy…finally!)

Developing skills in reading and writing is something that I value, that English teachers universally value.  But skills such as spelling, grammar and syntax should be taught as means of building a student’s own representational world, rather than as ends in themselves.

Without a clear pedagogical direction that guides teachers to embed language learning within quality literacy and literature teaching, as well as differentiate language learning for students reading at different levels, the Australian English Curriculum will doom countless future students to exercises in disconnected rote learning and grammar drills. Will your child be one of them?

Visit the ACARA website for information on how to submit your views. Have your say about the experience you want your children and students to have by responding during the consultation period from 1 March 2010 to the end of May 2010.

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  1. #1 by Michael Murray on March 1, 2010 - 12:21 pm

    Hi Kelli,

    It’s great to see someone is talking about the elephant in the room!

    Of course we will get a better idea of what the national English curriculum will look like when the drafts are published on the ACARA website in about 15 minutes. In my darkest moments I share your concerns. However, I think it should also be said that the most recent shaping paper does emphasise the necessity of interaction of the three strands in any learning sequence. Teachers should not be teaching language, literature and literacy separately.

    Secondary English teachers have always taught grammar in the broadest sense, i.e. knowledge about language and how it works. It seems the new curriculum will require teachers to use particular terminology in this teaching. However, from all I have seen so far, there will be a focus on teaching grammar for a purpose, so that students can use this knowledge to more effectively make meaning of and through texts.

    We’ll know soon enough anyway!


  2. #2 by Deb Simpson on March 1, 2010 - 12:45 pm

    In what is purportedly a ‘futures-oriented’ curriculum, it is dispiriting that neither viewing nor representing is listed in the modes, a sort by ICT produces mostly word-processing related elements and sorting on collaborative tasks shows mostly oral presentations. I hope we will not be expected to forget too much of what we already know and teach.

  3. #3 by kmcg2375 on March 1, 2010 - 1:05 pm

    The rationale is clear about the visual being in the modes (though they aren’t really conceptualised as modes like we do it):

    “Through studying English students learn to listen, read and view, speak, write and create increasingly complex and sophisticated texts with accuracy, fluency and purpose.”

    Looks like ‘create’ had been swapped in to replace what NSW calls ‘representing’. If the strands are read alongside the rationale, then the balance between the modes is there. However in my research it was clear that the rationale was one of the least read parts of the English syllabus 😦

  4. #4 by Deb Simpson on March 1, 2010 - 2:16 pm

    I take your point about the rationale, Kelli. My concerns are that teachers will be working directly from the syllabus elements, not the rationale, (and your research and my observations over the years apparently confirm this) and the lack of any reference to visual language in the modes could lead to these being largely overlooked. On the whole, it does not seem to me that the forward looking rationale and the language/literacy focussed curriculum have a lot in common.



  5. #5 by Troy on March 1, 2010 - 3:08 pm

    I attended the forum held in Melbourne in 2008 for the English National Curriculum, and I too am not shocked, nor in awe of what was released in May 2009 or even the Sunday Terror’s attempt to incite debate…However, in regards to the place of grammar, it is overstated. Grammar has always been a fundamental element of English, and as I was told today: ‘This will be a shock for younger teachers.’
    I doubt it. This isn’t a revision, this is not going to transport us back to 1964. I don’t think younger teachers will have trouble adapting, and more mature, experienced teachers shouldn’t begin to think that having grammar as a focal point means returning to rote learning of grammar, outside of a context of a students own work or from another quality or valued work.
    I hope Michael is right, that the central idea of grammar and purpose is still a main aspect rather than, say, highlighting all the verbs, nouns etc on each opening page to each chapter of a novel.
    In regards to: ‘Language can be multi-layered, resulting in varying interpretations (Year 9) (…a bit late to learn this?)’…I think we are closer to this idea when we approach the idea of techno-literacy, responding to a text from personal and critical levels…
    I am excited by this challenge. Let’s hope we have visionaries directing learning and teaching in our subject!
    I notice the void in embracing technology as means of communication and composing, something the group I was in during the forums all held highly.

  6. #6 by Paula Madigan on March 1, 2010 - 5:56 pm

    On my first scan of the document in many ways it is as was expected – the grammar push for eg but I hope, like the rest, that this will be done holistically and with specific purposes in mind.

    I am more concerned with the lackof specific acknowledgement of digital literacies and digital texts along with the whole visual literacy strand. ICT is more than wordprocessing and while we can “create multimodal texts” it would have been nice for this very important strand to have been given more emphasis. After all, this is the same government that has funded the laptops!

    It is also depressing to have to go back to listening tests- I hated them the first time we did them!

    Also, hate the history of langauge push including links to Asia – is this really necessary?

    Still, I have only had a quick look and I might well be pleasantly surprised once I examine it more closley. (I am an optimist!) A lot of it is basically what we do now – but when and how etc is more specific and prescriptive.

  7. #7 by Mary Billing on March 1, 2010 - 6:31 pm

    I am concerned about various aspects of the syllabus. After a fairly quick look there are quite a few differences that stand out when compared with the NSW syllabus. There is no cross curriculum content, no key competencies, no ‘students learn about’ nor students learn to’ component with outcomes students are expected to achieve at each level. No reference to ESL apart from a mention that teachers will adapt the syllabus to suit the requirements of ESL students whereas in NSW the syllabus has been mapped to ESL scales created in 1994. Aims and objectives are lumped together. In NSW we have one aim and five objectives which are linked to values and appreciations (which do link up to the Nat. Curric. sorry Aust Curric. aims, sort of).
    The insistence on an Asian component disregards the other equally valid areas of migration groups which are lumped together as ‘world’.
    Is the grammar component about teaching students how to construct language ‘correctly’ or is it about teaching the terminology? Hooray for the glossary. Is punctuation included under the framework of ‘grammar’?
    Also, what are the 10 general capabilities mentioned under General Capabilities?
    There is lots more.

  1. Don’t delay – get involved NSW « Kelli McGraw
  2. On the Explicit Teaching of Grammar « Teaching English in the 21st Century
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  4. 2010 in review « Kelli McGraw

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