If you are doing any sort of a road trip with your family this year, the question ‘Are we there yet?’ is one which might become very familiar. The landscape can slip by while we concentrate on our driving, on the need to stop for food or fuel or toilet breaks, and the car talk, while the kids argue in the back seat or immerse themselves in their books and games and devices. And the destination is ‘just down the road’, ‘a bit further on’, or ‘we’ll be there for dinner’.
‘As a concept and a practice, literacy is a horizon rather than a destination.’
Miller and Schultz 2014 p.78
This is the time of year when teachers review and regroup. We can re-examine our understandings about that literacy landscape that slips by – the horizon that changes its shape and form – as we focus on our curriculum work with our students throughout the school year. 2018, like previous years, like every year, has had a focus on literacy. So where are we? What have we been teaching? Are we there yet?
These questions are the ones that lead us to every next year, to the next steps in our professional development, to the continual building of our knowledge and skills so that we can be the best teacher we can.
I want to present some basic ideas about the complex business of literacy, so that the trip along our teaching road becomes more interesting and fulfilling for us and our students.
‘The Conversation’ serves various debates about education. It is worth subscribing to this free online resource. A recent example is from Edwin Creely and Fleur Diamond at Monash University: Has the joy gone out of your classroom writing? Tags for this article include: education, schools, school curriculum, creative writing, writing, imagination. That’s not bad for a generalist online news resource. The authors acknowledge the restrictive environment in which we work, and don’t blame teachers. That gets a + from me.
The key message takes us closer to what the literacy horizon looks like:
The key to promoting the effective writing skills needed by students is to be found in making writing engaging, meaningful and pleasurable. Every opportunity should be taken to open up the possibilities of writing for students so they want to do it and see its relevance to their lives.
Creely & Diamond, 2018
What has tended to happen is that we focus on some of the elements of literacy. We feel that by doing all the ‘bits’, ticking the boxes for all the outcomes and indicators, that literacy one day will magically sort of happen.
But if our students’ writing and reading, speaking and listening, composing and responding are not engaging, meaningful and pleasurable, and see its relevance to their lives, then it is just busy work.
The benefits of literacy as a human rights issue and its contribution to social, economic and democratic development are also known –
At its founding in 1946, UNESCO put literacy at the top of its education and human rights agenda. More than six decades later, UNESCO maintains (on its website) the mission statement: ‘‘UNESCO is at the forefront of global literacy efforts and is dedicated to keeping literacy high on national, regional and international agendas.’’
Wagner 2010 p.1
Seventy years later, we are still keeping literacy at the apparent forefront of our teaching and learning in our schools.
Dr Leonie Rowan’s Occasional Paper (PETA 2005) Journeying towards Literacy: Are We there Yet? is a good read to get a broader view of literacy, that ‘horizon’ perspective. Rowan illustrates the then rapidly changing world of literacy, and its shifting horizon. We have moved on to the 2019 world, which is dramatically different in its technological, social, and political aspects. The world will be different again in ten years, when our students are moving into, through, and beyond adolescence. They will be becoming the adults we want them to be, with their literacy skills having impact on their own lives, and on society.
Our teaching must address the ‘nuts and bolts’ of what is described as literacy – the content of our syllabuses, and itemized in the Literacy Learning Progressions. In this holiday time, we will give some attention to teaching those nuts and bolts, like the skills for encoding and decoding text, and looking at context and purpose.
But more is required to open up the possibilities of literacy. Consider the broader horizon of the attributes that are vital for students to develop.
- How can you use text to help your students to look critically at our society? How can you use holiday brochures, advertising, speeches, games, food labels, signage, magazine covers and articles, online news, programs such as the ABC’s Behind the News etc to view the world? How can we be sure of the veracity of the talk and text that is around us?
- What diversity can you utilise in your classroom? How can you investigate the richness of our Australian culture so that our students develop understanding of commonalities of this diversity? Can you access texts in a variety of languages? Do you have shops nearby that provide textual and cultural resources that you can access? How can you find out about the scripts of the first languages of the children in your classroom/school? How can parents be included – can you ask them to come to the school and talk about where and when they learnt to read and write? How they use reading and writing inn their working lives?
- How do you help your students to develop a strong sense of self-worth and belief in their own potential? Does your classroom setup provide opportunities for affirmation of achievement for every student? Are you convinced of the merit of having charts on display for behaviour or achievement, or of having inspirational quotes from admirable individuals on display? Do you use the other staff to inspire your students by providing a statement or image that helped them to achieve? Do you use positive ‘feed forward’ to recognise achievement and provide direction for further action? The work of Dylan Wiliam has been important, and this video is worth a revisit here.
Learning to be literate plays a central role in determining an individual’s life choices and life chances.
Literacy in 21st Century Australia ALEA Declaration
How will we help our students towards that literacy horizon in 2019?
We are never literate enough. Nor is literacy ever finished or complete. Literacy … is made flesh as it is embodied and enacted with real people and in real contexts, thus producing real outcomes and real contexts in the worlds we live in.
Miller and Schultz 2014 p.78
ABC BTNN http://www.abc.net.au/btn/ accessed 11/12/2018
ACARA (2017) Using the progressions in teaching and learning at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRUxySSgo4Y
Creely, E & Diamond, F. (2018) Where has the joy of writing gone and how do we get it back for our children?In The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/where-has-the-joy-of-writing-gone-and-how-do-we-get-it-back-for-our-children-101900?fbclid=IwAR3Y0fdGPn56LUOdbib44smTl9UHEkQGlHG7MWgoewO-Trpz4OFANDxP_9k November 21, 2018. Accessed 22/11/2018
Miller and Schultz English in Australia, Vol 49 No 3 2014 p.78
NSW DoE (2018) Learning progressions in primary school at https://education.nsw.gov.au/literacy-and-numeracy-strategy/learning-progressions/primary
Rowan, L. (2005) Journeying towards Literacy: Are We there Yet? Occasional Paper 1, PETA
Wagner, D.A. (2011) What happened to literacy? Historical and conceptual perspectives on literacy in UNESCO in the International Journal of Educational Development 31 (2011) 319–323