Our work in literacy does not have to have our students tied to a desk, involved in tedious or mind-numbingly repetition and practice.
That’s not literacy; it isn’t learning. It is not good teaching.
And it most certainly isn’t setting our students up for being enthusiastic about the amazing learning potential that school has to offer.
For starters, literacy is not a subject, with lists of content points and a clear set of outcomes.
Literacy is a result, an outcome in and of itself. Literacy flexes and bends according to context. Our own literacy is continually being developed, and added to, and used and applied in differing contexts where we interact with others and make meaning. It is the same for our students.
We would not hesitate to use the first one at any time we needed to, but the second has quite different preconditions for action. Literacy is not about the letters and their sounds, it is about meaning. It is about thinking, and using text.
This last two weeks we have seen the excitement and enthusiasm of students and their teachers acknowledging the new school year and the wonderful potential for learning.
In some schools, however, it is that other culture that is paramount. Teachers and their students are already – already! – ‘practising NAPLAN’. It is like the way Easter eggs and hot cross buns appear in supermarkets as soon as the Christmas decorations are cleared – ‘NAPLAN-style practice’ materials appear in bookshops, newsagents and supermarkets even before the new school year starts.
Are we being taken for a commercial ride in both instances?
Working through pages of a publisher’s interpretation of sample exercises certainly won’t do much for a child’s understanding about communicating meaningfully with others. It won’t assist with sharing ideas, or being creative, or learning about quality literature or being critical consumers of the texts.
We as teachers have bought into the discourse of what Robyn Ewing describes as the storyline of Australian literacy education as ‘a continued technical and highly prescriptive approach.’ (2016).
The very harmful, problematic thing that comes with it [a focus on English and maths] is that it narrows the whole idea of intelligence.
Pasi Sahlberg in Bourke, SMH 2018
The results on a narrow, purpose-driven, sternly didactic and heavily criticised test are not the measure of our students’ learning. Nor of our students.
There is growing national and international evidence of the value to learning and academic success of an emphasis on different ways of learning.
unequivocally confirms that embedding quality arts processes, experiences and activities centrally in the curriculum and using artistic approaches to learning and teaching in other subjects have very positive effects on children’s creativity, motivation, problem-solving and academic learning outcomes.’
We must ensure our discourse with our students, colleagues, school executive and parents reflects a view of education and learning that is broad and rich.
We can do this by going back to what we know about text and about our language choices.
There are three key factors in the context that affect the language choices we make from our language system field, the tenor and mode. These make up the register. It is the register of our talk that will indicate our focus for student learning and what we view as important:
- Field – the content, what the text is about. This varies according to the curriculum or learning area, and our topic. We can foreground NAPLAN in our schools by making it the focus of our discourse with students, parents, our colleagues and other members of the school community. Or we can foreground learning, creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking by making them the topic of conversation in our classrooms, in the staff room, in speaking with parents and in our thinking. The range, depth and variety of learning experiences we provide and talk about clearly indicate what we value as educators.
- Tenor – refers to the roles we adopt in our relationships and conversations with others. The language choices we make are dependent on these relationships, and help to shape the discourse. We can be perceived as advocating for NAPLAN and its ilk. Our talk about our students does not need to reference a test. Our talk needs to focus on our students’ creativity, their problem-soling and their creative thinking.
- Mode – this refers to the ‘channel of communication being used’. (Derewianka & Jones 2016, p.5). It is primarily about the differences in language choices in a spoken, written or multi-modal context.
See Derewianka and Jones (2016) for detailed information about register.
The test is one shard of a facet of the narrow definition of literacy. This definition is held by those who need statistical evidence of acquisition of a set of skills that are measurable, apparently in such a way as to be informative for the school community. This perspective is increasingly being viewed as bad for teachers as well as students. The point has been made by others more knowledgeable and authoritative than me. It has also been made by teachers who are relatively new to the profession, as well as the more experienced ones who are feeling increasingly constrained.
Debra Hayes’ excellent essay New research shows what makes a difference in teaching literacy and why ‘evidence-based’ is not enough (2018) addresses a couple of the issues facing teachers and students – and the wider public – as we deal with the popular discourse on the apparent necessity for nation-wide testing.
Public discourse about schooling generally assumes that it’s in crisis. The script goes something like this: there’s a problem and it’s big – really big! Test results show Australia is going downhill and teachers need to be accountable.
Hayes investigated teacher use of the so-called ‘evidence-based’ methods of teaching. Her findings indicated that teachers use these. That teachers are not clinging to outdated methodology, they are not inadequately trained. Teachers use ‘recommended methods of evaluation’ and assess student progress regularly and efficiently.
Teachers operate in their classrooms with sound intent. They endeavour to implement the structures and strictures of school and commercial programs. They bend and shift, they challenge their practice, they are innovative and keen. They are flexible. Teachers want their students to achieve in everything.
What makes the difference for students and teachers? In her research Hayes discovered that one element with great impact is pedagogical approach, that teachers use ‘common pedagogical approaches of tightly scripted lessons controlled and dictated by different literacy programs.’ The results of such pedagogies indicate a narrowing of the curriculum because:
- teachers’ pedagogical choices (choice of teaching methods) are narrowed, and
- their professional autonomy is weakened.
In the case of literacy, Hayes refers to the effect as ‘fickle literacies’ (Hayes, 2018). Such adherence to a script dictated by someone external to the classroom resulted in missed opportunities for learning, ‘due to:
- too much emphasis on only the kinds of skills that can be easily tested;
- a narrow views of literacy constraining the purpose of literacy teaching and learning;
- a prevalence of models of teaching that assume students need to have mastered particular basic skills, or sets of skills, before they can move on to other more demanding tasks (which is not the case for many children). These models, called normative developmental models, can be rigid, repetitive and disengaging, however highly qualified, experienced teachers were expected to adopt them because they were part of the school literacy plan or agreement.
There was also the incidence of deficit views about the potential for learning for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The result is that teachers expect less of some children, and offer them less challenging activities.
The net result is that teachers are constantly being asked to reconsider their own views and knowledge about what is right for their students. The use of their own professional judgement is restricted.
Hayes’ research also identified practice that was highly effective, using what the researchers called ‘uncommon pedagogies’. This is described as occurring when teachers were able to incorporate the literacy demands of the school’s policies within their own ‘rich repertoire of teaching practices.’
These teachers supported students’ literacy learning in ways that
- recognised students’ skills and prior learning and linked these what was happening in the classroom;
- positively connected the classroom practice to families and communities;
- provided open-ended learning that required complex thinking and language; and
- provided ‘opportunities for students to think about significant personal and social issues, such as loneliness, hope and relationships, by engaging with relevant texts.’
The result was higher levels of engagement and success. ‘They built on relationships, especially with families and helped to develop trust that in turn can contribute to learning at home and at school.’
(All in Hayes, 2018)
The results of the narrowing of focus and practice, and research into teacher practice, continue to indicate that we still haven’t got the formula right. Maybe there is no right. We have to reconsider that denying teachers their classroom autonomy, and denying our students their own autonomy in travelling their own literacy journey.
What we want is to be the best we can. Here is what one researcher found out from students about what makes a ‘good’ teacher:
Students make a connection between their teachers getting to know them, listening to them and the quality of their engagement in learning.
A good teacher was one who offered a variety of learning experiences that were both enjoyable and challenging.
Students really value being taught by subject specialists, particularly when a teacher demonstrates and shares their passion for learning with their students, and even learns alongside them.
Claire Golledge 2018
Not drill and practice for an anxiety-inducing test of dubious value.
Pasi Sahlberg is reported as indicating that our teaching practice must be a much more personal thing:
When I hear people saying … ‘I don’t care about the regulations, I don’t care about the policies if I know they are not good for the kids, we are doing things that are good for the children,’ then I know it is a good school.
Pasi Sahlberg in Bourke, SMH 2018
Such ideas have an impact on the lives of our teachers. We do not need statements like this one from a teacher new to the profession and already damaged in only two years of professional practice, rather than professional challenge:
The scope of Australian education is becoming increasingly narrow. Many of teachers’
professional decisions are driven by expectations about student performance in high-stakes, national tests and the need to meet school-wide and national achievement benchmarks. In the constant pursuit of academic outcomes and evidence of quantifiable student achievement, opportunities to make autonomous decisions about our teaching are rare. While seeing my students achieve and experience success is a great feeling, student growth and professional autonomy have become almost mutually exclusive.
Erin Canavan ‘The culture driving teachers like me from the profession’
If we can bring our focus as teachers, educators, parents and school administrators, back on to what we know is good for students, then we may be able to really shift the results of our teaching, and activities such as NAPLAN will be relegated to their appropriate position in the literacy and numeracy growth of our children. A sort of ‘exit stage right’.
This new ride is one we can all be enriched by.
Canavan, E. (2019) The culture driving teachers like me from the profession in Sydney Morning Herald, February 6 2019 at https://www.smh.com.au/education/the-culture-driving-teachers-like-me-from-the-profession-20190204-p50vo5.html accessed via Facebook, 7/2/2019
Derewianka, B. & Jones, P. (2016) Teaching Language in Context 2nd OUP: Australia
Ewing, R. (2018) Anticipating future storylines: Considering possible directions in Australian literacy education in Australian Journal of language and Literacy, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2016, pp 96-102 (Abstract)
Golledge, C. (2018) Listen to the children. This is what ‘good’ teaching looks like to them in EduResearch Matters, Australian Association for research in Education, November 26, 2018
Hayes, D. (2018) New research shows what makes a difference in teaching literacy and why ‘evidence-based’ is not enough in EduResearch Matters, Australian Association for Research in Education March 5 2018
Bourke, L. (2018) Education expert slams NAPLAN ahead of shift Sydney Morning Herald News Review January 20-21, 2018. P. 27