The implementation of a national curriculum from 2011 will mean a renewed emphasis on literacy as a foundation skill. According to the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) “teachers in all learning areas must take responsibility for literacy”.
In September 2009, students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 received their results in the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). Each student’s results in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy were described in comparison to those of their peer group at their own school and in relation to the national average. In the writing and language conventions sections, students were assessed on their knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
An analysis of the format and content of the 2009 NAPLAN tests of language conventions provides evidence of some serious shortcomings. First, there is no logical order in the structure of the test. That is, questions on grammar, punctuation and spelling are distributed randomly throughout the test, and the rubrics are inconsistent. Second, what is being tested is not always clear.
An urgent challenge for teachers and policymakers is to agree on how the new national curriculum and the accompanying NAPLAN tests can bring practical, ongoing benefits for students in Kindergarten through to Year 12. Specifically, how will teachers and schools use the NAPLAN process to enhance their day-to-day pedagogy, particularly in relation to improving students’ written English?
Furthermore, given that the NAPLAN papers are not returned to the candidates (although the masters are accessible online), and many students do little or no other sustained, formal testing in grammar and punctuation, how can parents and caregivers interpret the results to help their children understand and value this aspect of their schooling?
Do the NAPLAN tests reflect long-term, meaningful literacy goals that are aligned with the national curriculum project? Do they, in fact, encourage partnership with post-secondary training institutions, employer groups, professional organisations and other stakeholders?
In the August edition of Education Review, the Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, wrote that “Together with the new national curriculum currently under development, the education revolution will achieve a renewed focus on the foundation skills of literacy and numeracy … nothing is more important to learning than the quality of the teacher in front of the classroom”. She also pronounced this “a time for transparency”.
ACARA addressed literacy skills in its May 2009 publication, The Shape of the Australian Curriculum, stating that “Initial and major continuing development will be in English, but the national curriculum will ensure that this competency is used and developed in all learning areas”. This approach is reflected at state level. For example, the website of the Queensland Department of Education and Training contains the claim that “quality teaching can make the single biggest difference to students’ literacy outcomes. This is why it is essential that every teacher in every classroom has the knowledge, skills and support to deliver quality literacy programs.”
The NAPLAN tests place a strong emphasis on accurate written expression, including the mastery of formal grammar and punctuation. If this is a manifestation of the renewed focus on literacy, it is critical that, as is stated in ACARA’s National Curriculum Framing Paper (English), “Attention should be given to grammar across K-12, as part of the ‘toolkit’ that helps all students access the resources necessary to meet the demands of schooling and of their lives outside of school”.
Professor Barry McGaw, the ACARA Chair, emphasised that, “We don’t want to just nod in the direction of grammar and say that it should be taught … we need to say what that means”.
This echoed a reminder from the Australian Association of Teachers of English that agreement is yet to be reached on how to teach grammar in Australian schools. Notably, the English Teachers’ Association of Western Australia has conceded that “English teachers are concerned about their ability to teach grammar” and that significant professional development will be required to support staff in this area.
A spokeswoman from the Queensland Department of Education and Training, Kay Bishop, commented recently that “Many of our teachers are young graduates with limited grammar, who realise that this deficit makes it difficult for them to discuss work with their students”.
Concern has been expressed by the English Teachers’ Association of New South Wales, whose members question whether subject English will simply continue to be “the subject that services the literacy needs of others”. In May 2007, an article in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education concluded that “the teaching of literacy is the responsibility of all secondary teachers across the curriculum”. The Australian Primary Principals’ Association insists that “teaching about language is essential at all stages of schooling and is not confined to the primary school”.
If the premise holds that every teacher is a teacher of English, then all teachers across all disciplines must be able to teach and to assess not only subject-specific content, but also language. The question is whether all teachers are competent to identify and to explain the errors their students make. To underpin this, the national curriculum must be prescriptive and the NAPLAN tests must be well-designed.
Our work with school leavers and professionals who are native speakers of English reveals that most are intuitively confident of their ability to use the spoken language correctly, but frequently doubt their competence in written English. In fairness to all students, and particularly to those who must attempt the NAPLAN tests, these issues need to be addressed now as a matter of national urgency.
Elizabeth Grant and Fiona Mueller are language awareness specialists and co-directors of Needs Must Professional Learning.