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Rising to the literacy challenge; teachers’ capacity and willingness to match the official rhetoric

By Elizabeth Grant and Fiona Mueller - posted Friday, 16 April 2010

The expectation that teachers from Kindergarten to Year 12 can and will rise quickly to the literacy challenges presented by both the forthcoming national curriculum and the annual National Assessment Program – Literacy And Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing regime is unrealistic. Such challenges require not only an unequivocal commitment from teachers to a whole-school approach, but also confidence in their competence at the classroom level. In contrast to the expectations outlined in federal, state and school-based publications, current practice does not mandate whole-school approaches to supporting the development of children’s literacy skills, at least not with regard to grammar and punctuation.

In secondary schools, the development of literacy skills is left to English teachers and to literacy coordinators, mainly because few other specialists accept that this is part of their overall role, and also because teacher training in this area is extremely weak. In primary schools, where secondary teachers tend to believe the responsibility for English language education truly lies, many teachers simply do not have an understanding of the language that enables them to identify and to explain the conventions that are, may, or should be tested in NAPLAN, or even to teach points of grammar and punctuation independently of any textbook. The very large gap between what is being asked of teachers and what they have been trained to do means Australian educational jurisdictions face a significant, long-term dichotomy.

A clear, prescriptive but flexible national curriculum needs to take account of this dichotomy. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has stated that the new curriculum expects a renewed focus on literacy skills in all learning areas. National testing of literacy standards, as long as it is closely aligned to the curriculum, could provide an effective means of measuring and ensuring real achievement by students and their teachers. By ACARA’s own admission, however, this alignment is not yet in place, meaning that the testing is taking place in a kind of pedagogical limbo. Do Australian teachers have the confidence and competence to incorporate a renewed focus on literacy into their daily practices?  If not, how can this be addressed? The kind of refresher courses that are needed to enable teachers to teach correct English usage explicitly have not been emphasised in professional development in recent decades. Because of acute sensitivity to accusations of native speaker deficits, and the fact that offerings in ICT and other areas have far higher status and fiscal priority, the mere suggestion is often actively resisted.


Another driver of cooperative federalism in educational matters is the new organisation known as the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). AITSL’s chair, Tony Mackay, who also holds the deputy chair role at ACARA, has said that teachers will need to be supported “to acquire the necessary skills to operate at [the levels required to implement the new curriculum]” In an interview with Education Review (March 2010, p.3), Mr Mackay indicated that AITSL will ‘want to identify professional development programs that will develop skills and knowledge necessary to meet national standards.’

According to a key document commissioned by the Australian Government Quality Teacher Programme, titled Innovative and Effective Professional Learning (2008, p.3), the key requirement of professional development opportunities is that they “enable teachers to respond to national state/territory educational agendas and initiatives, and to make them relevant to their particular school and educational contexts.” This document noted that the teaching environment should emphasise ‘innovation designed to bring about sustainable whole-school transformation.’

One of the authors, Professor Stephen Dinham, referred to the many studies that show that ‘the individual classroom teacher is the major in-school influence on student achievement’ (p.6).  Professor Dinham also stated that ‘Learning communities create a climate of high expectations and professionalism that members rise to, not wanting to let anyone down, least of all students’ (p.6).

The absence of a universal approach to the explicit teaching of language across all ages and stages of learning, together with a whole-school approach to correcting students’ written work, is a major problem. Our work with schools and teachers reveals the deep need for such a commitment as a direct response to the national and state-based curriculum expectations. It is a simple strategy that will allow all teachers in all schools to help all children to express themselves clearly and accurately. Intensifying the focus on language through language awareness training leads to improvements in reading comprehension, greater facility with words and syntax generally, and improvements in composing, editing and proofreading.

One school-based literacy coordinator commented to us recently that, “Teachers have to get over the idea that they’ve done their teaching degree so they don’t need to do any more.” That is, they must model the commitment to ongoing learning. None of us can assume that we always know what we don’t know. It is not the role of any professional learning program in this area of the curriculum to teach every aspect of correct English usage, but rather to inspire professionals to continue their own learning, to be curious, and to develop and maintain a real focus on language in their specialist areas.

Elizabeth Grant and Fiona Mueller
12 April 2010

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About the Authors

Elizabeth Grant BA, Grad Dip (TESOL), MA (TESOL) worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for over 20 years before moving to Seoul and then Shanghai to teach English as a Second Language. Since 2002, she has been based in Canberra, co-ordinating and teaching English language and communication skills programs for university students. In 2005, she participated in a major research project to investigate undergraduates’ perceptions of the extent to which their experience of English in K-12 prepared them for their tertiary courses. Liz’s professional experience in Europe, Asia and Australia has made her very aware of the value of language awareness training for both native and non-native speakers of English.

Dr Fiona Mueller is a teacher of English and foreign languages and a former Head of ANU College at the Australian National University. In 2016-2017, she was Director of Curriculum at the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). She is particularly interested in the history of education, international education, single-sex schooling and K-12 curriculum design.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Elizabeth Grant
All articles by Fiona Mueller

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