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 These external tests have now been replaced by the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), a similar diagnostic test that is now sat by students across Australia, not just in NSW.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.