Teachers' voices, teachers' practices: Insider perspectives on literacy education.
In recent years, debates about literacy education have been intense and have received considerable media coverage. In these debates, we have frequently heard from politicians, from policy makers, from members of the community, from key media representatives, and from language educators. The voice that has been largely absent from these debates has been that of teachers. Surprisingly, despite the many claims about what is or what ought to be happening in Australian schools, we have very little documented evidence of what is actually going on in schools and of what teachers think about literacy education.
The paper reports on the outcomes of a research project completed during 1998-1999. The purpose of the project was to learn more about what is actually going on in the teaching of English in primary schools; to learn more of the ways in which teachers are negotiating competing priorities; of how teachers generally are `taking up' debates about literacy education; of the theories that inform their teaching practices; of how they are responding to literacy curricula; and how they are developing and implementing literacy programs. The project sought to learn more about teachers' views on a range of topics relevant to literacy education: their views on the value (or otherwise) of teaching knowledge about language; the value of teaching grammar (and which kind of grammar); and the kinds of teaching practices they employ in order to go about teaching knowledge about language, including grammar. It also sought to learn more about teachers' views on the kinds of basic and more advanced competences required by students to meet the communication demands of the twenty-first century; and the extent to which they feel confident in their own knowledge of these competences, and their ability to teach them.
The project arose in a context where it is increasingly evident that priorities identified at a policy level in literacy education are significantly different from those identified in much recent Australian and international research. The priorities of current literacy policy are perhaps best exemplified by the influential 1998 Commonwealth Literacy for All Policy (DEETYA, 1998). While the goals of the Literacy for All Policy are sound and its rhetoric broad and comprehensive, the actual strategies for action that it proposes focus primarily on assessment and remedial literacy. Of the six strategies for action listed in the Policy (p. 10), four refer specifically to assessment: early assessment; development of benchmarks; measurement against benchmarks; and national reporting. One refers to professional development support for the policy (and hence primarily to learning how to assess), and one strategy addresses teaching of literacy--early intervention for students identified as having difficulty with literacy development. The Policy claims (p. 9) that it provides a coherent and integrated strategy for enhancing literacy skills for all Australian children as a basis for progress in schooling and for successful participation in post-school work and further study. However, through its proposals for action, it in fact promotes a very reductive notion of literacy and of the necessary `foundations' of literacy education, in combination with a very extensive emphasis on measurement and reporting (Hammond 1999, Hammond & Burns 1999). Implementation of this Policy is mandatory across Australia, and although each state and territory has some scope for negotiation of details, most are broadly sympathetic to its goals and strategies. The emphasis in the Policy on assessment, standards and benchmarks reflects similar policy developments that have been evident in other English-speaking countries (e.g. Bourne 1999, Cameron 1995, Carter 1996).
In contrast to this preoccupation with assessment and with the reductive notion of literacy that is evident in current policy, there is a well-documented and vigorous body of work in Australia that identifies very different priorities in literacy education (e.g. Anstey & Bull 1996, Christie & Martin 1997, Hasan & Williams 1996, Lo Bianco & Freebody 1997, Muspratt et al. 1998). Priorities that emerge from this work include recognition of the theoretically complex nature of literacy (or literacies); literacies as social practices; literacy as multimodal; literacy as embedded in, and constructive of, power relationships within specific social and cultural contexts. This work provides ways of thinking about the complexities of literacy pedagogy that go far beyond the traditional `basics' of word recognition, spelling, comprehension and so on that are given much priority in current literacy policy. Such work suggests that, while foundational competencies (or basics) are indeed crucial to the successful literacy development of each individual they are only part of any effective literacy program. The work suggests that to limit literacy pedagogy to such `basics' is to fail to provide support for the kind of ongoing literacy development that students need in order to meet the increasingly complex demands of communication in the twenty-first century. This Australian work reflects trends and concerns that are evident in influential international work on literacy (e.g. Barton et al. 2000, Grabe & Kaplan 1996, Fairclough, 1992, Street 1993, Wells 1999).
The balance of these different priorities is currently being played out in Australian schools--with the result that schools, teachers and students are forced to negotiate and construct their paths through competing and often very confusing views about literacy and about the goals of literacy education. As indicated above, we have little systematic information about how this is occurring; about what teachers regard as priorities in literacy education; and about how they are responding to the conflicting pressures that they face. In reporting on a project that specifically sought teachers' views on a range of issues related to literacy education, this paper seeks to contribute teachers' perspectives to debates about literacy education. In doing so, it seeks to redress the imbalance of voices that have dominated these debates in recent years.
To explain how the project set out to achieve its goals, we begin by providing a description of the research methodology.
Methodology of research
The project involved the completion of a written survey by 126 teachers working in 21 state, 10 independent and 10 Catholic primary schools. For practical reasons, the project was restricted to Sydney schools, and only teachers in Years 3 and 5 were asked to participate. However, effort was made to ensure that the selected schools as far as possible were representative of the range of schools that exist in Sydney. In consultation with the project reference group, schools were selected from each of the following categories:
* metropolitan advantaged state school (inner Sydney) (5 schools) * metropolitan disadvantaged state school (inner Sydney) (5 schools) * metropolitan advantaged state school (outer Sydney) (5 schools) * metropolitan disadvantaged state school (outer Sydney) (6 schools) * independent alternative (6 schools) * independent advantaged (4 schools) * Catholic advantaged (4 schools) * Catholic parish (6 schools)
As these figures show, the sample included a slightly higher number of `disadvantaged' than `advantaged' schools, but overall included representatives from all relevant categories.
In order to ensure a high rate of survey response, initial letters were sent to each school principal explaining the nature and purpose of the project. This was followed by telephone contact with schools and then appointments for visits. One of the research team then visited the school and sat with teachers while they completed the surveys. During this time, teachers were encouraged to discuss the survey with the member of the research team and with each other. Detailed notes were kept about teachers' comments on the survey and on their school in order to `fill out' the survey responses. Completed surveys were collected, and teachers were provided with a movie ticket as recognition of the time that they had contributed to the project. While this procedure was time consuming, it ensured a very high rate of survey response (a notoriously difficult thing to achieve in research of this kind, which relies on the goodwill of busy teachers).
At the completion of data collection phase of the research (approximately 8 months), we had written responses from 126 teachers, 47 of them from state schools, 41 from Catholic schools and 38 from independent schools. The high rate of return on the questionnaires and the strong representation from each sector of education lends credibility to our portrayal of trends in teachers' current views on language and literacy education.
The survey questionnaire itself was developed with considerable care. Initial and subsequent drafts were submitted to groups of teachers, to the project reference group and to statistical experts from the Mathematics department at the University of Technology Sydney. It went though about six major rewrites to ensure questions were not ambiguous, to ensure the wording was familiar to teachers, and to ensure that question formats enabled appropriate analysis. The survey included both open and closed questions. The final, much reduced, version was 10 pages in length and covered the following topics:
Section 1: About your school and your students
This section provided a profile of the school and students, including factors such as the proportion of non-English speaking background (NESB) or Aboriginal students, the socio-economic status of students, the proportion of students experiencing learning difficulties, and the nature of any special programs currently in operation in the school.
Section 2: Your views on literacy education
This section probed teachers' views on effective approaches to literacy education, and the asked about specific strategies that they typically use in the teaching of English literacy.
Section 3: Your views on teaching knowledge about language
This section investigated teachers' views on the value of teaching knowledge about language and their views on grammar. It explored the strategies commonly used in teaching knowledge about language in English; and the extent of teaching of both functional and traditional grammars. It also asked about teachers' own levels of knowledge about language.
Section 4: About you
This section asked respondents about their own professional experience, including factors such as years of experience, academic qualifications, current role in their schools and the impact of preservice and inservice courses on their teaching of English.
From our initial statistical analysis of closed questions and content analysis of the open-ended questions, a picture is beginning to emerge of trends in language and literacy education across Sydney primary schools. Further content analysis and statistical cross tabulations remain to be completed, but we present here our initial findings and discuss some of their implications.
Findings from the project
Major findings from the project are first summarised and then discussed in further detail.
Summary of major findings
* Strong support for explicit and systematic teaching of literacy
* Very strong support for the teaching and learning of `text types'
* Strong support for the value of teaching knowledge about language, including grammar
* Considerable lack of confidence in teachers' own levels of knowledge about language, especially of grammar
* Little uptake (as yet) of critical literacy; multiliteracies or multimodality: considerable confusion over what `critical literacy' means and what it looks like in classrooms; confusion over nature and significance of `computer literacy'
* Recognition of the need to teach for diverse needs of students, and of the need to draw eclectically on available teaching strategies and resources to do so.
Discussion of findings
Strong support for explicit and systematic teaching of literacy
The survey results provide strong evidence that teachers believe they need to teach literacy `explicitly and systematically' and that their students need intervention if they are to be equipped to read and write effectively across the curriculum. When asked about their preferred approaches to literacy education, teachers identified as most useful those which involve explicit teaching about literacy (text types, language across the curriculum, in combination with skills based approaches). They regarded as considerably less useful those approaches that emphasised a `print rich' environment for students and the facilitating of `growth' in reading and writing.
The term `explicit and systematic teaching' featured in the NSW primary English curriculum document English K-6 (NSW Dept of School Education, 1998) and has been given considerable emphasis in the implementation of this document. Since English K-6 is compulsory in all NSW state schools and is widely used in both Catholic and independent schools, it is perhaps not surprising that teachers are `tuned in' to the term. However, the survey results indicate that `explicit and systematic teaching' of literacy is not being interpreted in simplistic ways. As Table 1 indicates, the term is interpreted in contemporary primary schools as including student choice, grammar, literary texts, phonics and critical analysis. Table 1 indicates the percentage of respondents who agree with given statements (either strongly or moderately) about the teaching of reading.
Table 1. Statements on reading Statement Percentage in agreement Students need to be taught explicitly about the language features of the texts they read. 88% Knowledge of grammar is an essential component of any good reading program. 88% Students need to relate texts they read to their different social contexts and purposes. 85% Students should learn to critically analyse the text they read. 82% The best reading scheme is one based on students' interests and choices. 79% Literary texts should be the main focus on any reading program. 69% The best way to teach reading is through graded reading schemes. 58% Phonics-based approaches are the core of good reading programs. 51%
A similar complex combination of beliefs is revealed in respondents' views on the knowledge and skills that are important in the explicit teaching of writing. Table 2 presents the percentage of teachers who agree strongly or moderately with the given statements about teaching of writing.
Table 2. Statements on writing Statement Percentage in agreement Students need to write texts that are appropriate for different social purposes and contexts. 98% It is important to teach the conventions of written language (e.g. punctuation) explicitly. 96% A good writing program focuses on the use of correct English. 89% Students should be encouraged to take risks with grammar and spelling (e.g. invent spelling). 80% A good writing program gives students control over the topics and processes of writing. 72% Functional grammar is a useful foundation for teaching writing. 69% Students should create texts that challenge and question social values. 48%
Table 2 shows that there is overwhelming support for improving students' awareness of different contexts and purposes for writing; and for the explicit teaching of conventions of written language. There is also a belief in the importance of strategies like invented spelling, and reasonably strong support for functional grammar. It should also be noted that responses about the importance of critical literacy differ significantly as we move from discussion of the teaching of reading to the teaching of writing (an issue we discuss further later).
While teachers appear to combine approaches from systemic functional linguistics with pedagogic strategies such as invented spelling and conferencing (typically associated with process writing and whole language) the overall focus is on explicit and systematic teaching. This focus is evident in the strategies that teachers say they use in their classrooms. Respondents were asked to indicate frequency of use of a range of strategies on a scale from never to very often. Percentages shown below in Table 3 include responses of often and very often.
Table 3. Strategies used often or very often in literacy classrooms Statement Percentage of teachers Explicitly teaching the structure and function of text types (genres) 96% Using reference books about language (e.g. dictionaries) 96% Explicitly teaching point of grammar (e.g. parts of speech, aspects of sentence structure) 91% Teaching rules of spelling and punctuation 91% Conferencing with students about the language of their own written texts 88% Analysing and discussing the features of literary texts 84% Using skills sheets (or books) based on grammar 50% Teaching phonics-based word attack skills 52% Analysing texts to explore bias 33%
As Table 3 shows, support for systematic and explicit teaching of literacy and language is evident in explicit teaching of the structure of text types, points of grammar, and spelling and punctuation. There also appears to be considerable `talk about texts' going on in primary classrooms through analysis and discussion of features of literary texts, and through conferencing with students, but not (at least yet) a commensurate emphasis on critical analysis of texts.
Some of the teachers' follow-up comments elaborate the meaning of `systematic and explicit teaching' in practice.
In regard to teaching reading:
I have guided reading groups where strategies for reading are modelled and developed e.g. re-reading, reading ahead, sounding out, using contextual syntactic grammatical, semantic cues. (084 Catholic) Students have the opportunity to do independent reading (revisiting texts previously treated). They are exposed to lots of modelled reading (teacher and peer) where the focus is on what good readers do, useful skills, strategies for decoding, working at instructional level. Students are also involved in guided reading on a regular basis (094 Public)
In regard to the teaching of writing:
I use explicit instruction, joint instruction, guided independent instruction. In all phases I give explicit reminders about punctuation, sentence and paragraph construction, grammar through demonstration and examples. (007 Independent) Writing experiences are integrated with learning in other key learning areas (KLAs) so that there is a context for writing as well as exposure to lots of models. All students need exposure to/opportunity for modelled and guided writing (joint construction of texts), independent writing (including the conferencing process). From writing experiences in class spring specific lessons focusing on grammar, spelling, etc. (094 Public)
It is clear from these examples that teachers value intervention in the teaching of literacy and draw on social constructivism and functional approaches in the process. But they also value students' independent and innovative work on texts and one-on-one conferencing with individual students.
Support for the teaching and learning of `text types'
Perhaps the clearest and most consistent outcome of the survey is the level of support for text types across all sectors of primary education in Sydney. Text types is the current inflection of the genre-based approach to literacy. This approach, which draws on the functional model of the language developed by Halliday and others (e.g. Halliday 1978, 1994), was introduced to Australian schools during the 1980s (e.g. Callaghan & Rothery 1988 and Macken- Horarik 1989). Since then it has been the focus of considerable debate and controversy. One outcome of this debate is that the term text types is used in English K--6, instead of genre, and hence it is the term text types that is most familiar to teachers. Although the functional language model has had a broader impact on teaching (evidenced in the focus on functional grammar and on strategies associated with the teaching-learning cycle introduced in early genre-based materials), it is the notion of text types that is ascendant in the contemporary climate. The extent of support for text types is evident in Tables 4 and 5.
Table 4. Statements that reflect teachers' current views on literacy programs Percentage of Statement teachers A good literacy program introduces students to text types appropriate to different purposes and contexts. 83% A good literacy program emphasises the basics of spelling, punctuation and grammatical accuracy. 66% Literacy skills should be taught systematically and explicitly. 45% Every English program should teach critical literacy skills to students from early phases of their schooling. 43% It is important to allow children to have as much freedom in the writing process as possible (e.g. choice of topics, pacing, drafting, conferencing, editing and publishing). 22% It is only by allowing students free choice in their reading that they can develop literacy that is personally relevant. 18% Literacy has more to do with social empowerment than with personal expression. 7% The point of learning to be literate is learning to read the `great works' of literature. 4% Table 5. The kinds of knowledge about language that help students in their literacy development Percentage of Knowledge about language teachers The structure of different text types 91% Sound and writing systems (e.g. sound/symbol correspondence) 85% Conventions of written language (e.g. paragraphing and punctuation) 84% Rules of traditional grammar 67% Relationship between social purpose and text type 65% Critical language awareness (e.g. use of bias or stereotyping in language) 52% A functional approach to language (e.g. different types of verbs; themes of clauses) 51% Features of literary language 45% Visual and verbal features of computer language 43%
Table 4 summarises teachers' responses when they were asked to tick three statements with which they agree. (The percentages shown here represent proportions of teachers who marked each response, and therefore do not add up to 100%.)
In addition to the strong support for text types, Table 4 reveals a number of interesting features. It provides further evidence of the ways in which teachers have taken up notions of explicit teaching, and the importance that teachers attach to the `basic' competences of literacy. It indicates that there is considerable variation in views on the teaching of literature: the `great works' are `out', but, as earlier tables show, teaching of literary texts is `in.' It reveals only low levels of support for free choice in reading and of freedom in the writing process. This, in combination with responses to other questions, suggests that there has been a substantial change in teachers' views on the teaching of literacy over the last fifteen years when freedom of choice was very much a feature of many literacy classrooms. The lack of support for `social empowerment'--a crucial rubric of early genre-based work--is interesting, although it is possible that teachers were reluctant to make a forced choice between `social empowerment' and `personal expression'. These terms do not, after all, represent mutually exclusive options, and in retrospect the wording of this statement could have been improved.
A high level of support for text types and for related knowledge about sound and writing systems and conventions of written language is also evident in teachers' responses to questions about the value of teaching knowledge about language. Table 5 summarises teachers' views on this issue. Respondents were asked to indicate no, minimal, or major importance for different kinds of knowledge about language. The percentages of respondents indicating major importance in relation to different kinds of knowledge about language are shown below.
Table 5 provides further evidence of the extent of `take-up' of text types across the board and, to a lesser extent, of associated ideas such as the relationship between social purpose, text type, and a functional approach to language. It also indicates that, despite the controversies and political intervention that surrounded functional grammar during the development of English K--6, functional grammar is not `dead' in primary school English. A somewhat surprising feature of Table 5 is that it reveals relatively low levels of support for, and interest in, visual and verbal features of computer literacy (an issue we discuss further in a later section).
Strong support for the value of teaching knowledge about language, including grammar
Overall the survey provided evidence of consistent and strong support for the value of teaching knowledge about language in primary school English. Since disagreement about the value of teaching knowledge about language has been a major and recurring feature of debates about literacy education for many years, this outcome is significant (see for example Carter 1996, Hammond & Macken-Horarik 1999, James & Garrett 1992, Luke 1996, Reid 1987). It provides evidence that, despite the differing views of academics and language educators over the years, primary school teachers regard teaching knowledge about language as central to effective literacy programs.
As Table 5 indicates, support for teaching knowledge about language covers a range of features: from text types, to phonics, to paragraphing and punctuation, and to grammar. Responses shown in Table 3 also confirm that teachers do a considerable amount of teaching of knowledge about language in their literacy programs. Such teaching addresses features from text level organisation to grammar to spelling and punctuation. It also includes analysis of features of literary texts and the teaching of phonics. It is evident that literacy education in primary schools includes explicit teaching of knowledge about language across different levels of texts: at the level of text and context, at the level of paragraph, and at the levels of sentence and word. One of the final questions asked of respondents was whether they believe that teaching knowledge about language improves students' ability to read and write effectively. Over 80% of teachers indicated either emphatic or conditional agreement with this statement, while only 3% disagreed.
Some of the teachers' follow-up comments to this question fill out this picture of active commitment to the teaching of knowledge about language in literacy education.
Teaching knowledge about language certainly improves students' abilities to read and write effectively. When it is taught effectively it enhances the students' abilities to learn language. It equips them with the tools and the background to undertake an effective study of language. It allows students and teachers to talk and write about language using the correct terms and conventions. If`we did not teach knowledge about language it would be akin to trying to teach Maths without having taught any basic number knowledge. (139 Public) I feel strongly that teaching knowledge about language improves students' abilities to read and write. This is particularly important for children who come from non English-speaking backgrounds who do not have good role models of the English language within their home environment. (54 Catholic) Students will always learn better if they know why something is happening, i.e. why we write, who we write for, why we read, etc. Knowledge of language provides them with answers to why they do what they do and how it improves their communication. (081 Catholic) I agree that students need to be explicitly taught about language, and that this knowledge will help students to read and write more effectively. However, I believe that many teachers do not feel confident about teaching grammar, and language consequently occurs in a vacuum. There is a need to build on the teachers' understanding of how to teach children about language, not as an isolated `grammar' session, but as part of the literacy session. (094 Public)
Teachers were also asked their views on the value of grammar. The survey included questions about grammar as part of more general questions on knowledge about language, as well as questions that specifically focused on grammar. Responses to both kinds of questions, across state, Catholic and independent sectors, suggest there is considerable interest in, and in fact preoccupation with, the teaching of grammar. Given the controversies that have occurred in NSW in recent years about the relative merits of functional and traditional grammar, we expected teachers to be somewhat polarised in their responses. The overall level of support for the teaching of grammar that emerged from the survey has surprised us.
Support for grammar emerged in responses to a variety of questions. As indicated earlier, 88% of teachers regarded knowledge of grammar as an essential component of any good reading program (Table 1); 69% regard functional grammar as a useful foundation for teaching writing (Table 2); 91% say they explicitly teach points of grammar in their literacy classrooms (Table 3); 66% believe that a good literacy program emphasises the basics of spelling, punctuation and grammatical accuracy (Table 4); and 67% and 51%, respectively, believe that traditional grammar and functional grammar help students in their literacy development (Table 5).
Teachers' responses to a question that specifically addressed attitudes towards the importance of grammar are shown in Table 6. Teachers' were asked on a scale of one to five to indicate strongly disagree to strongly agree. Percentages in Table 6 include agree and strongly agree.
Table 6. Teachers' views on the importance of teaching grammar. Percentage of Statement teachers Grammatical knowledge should be taught explicitly and systematically. 81% Any grammar is useful as long as it is related to texts. 79% Teaching students traditional grammar is important. 78% Critical language study should be taught from early stages of work in English. 76% Teaching functional grammar is important. 70% Grammatical knowledge should only be taught `at the point of need'. 35% Latin is a good foundation for later study of English. 22%
These responses are interesting for what they reveal of teachers' views on the place of grammar. While both traditional and functional grammars are regarded as important (78% and 70% support respectively), the prevailing view is that any grammar is useful as long as it is related to texts. In other words, teachers value a contextualised approach to grammar where grammatical analysis occurs as part of the study of whole texts in context. This is very far from a return to the `bad old days' of decontextualised grammar lessons in which students were taught parts of speech and parsing of sentences. Today's teachers are interested in text semantics and holistic approaches that enable them to see patterns in whole texts and to see the influence of context on these patterns. Since the paradigm underpinning text types emphasises the importance of studying texts in context, and the importance of studying texts across various levels, it is arguable that this paradigm has contributed to such thinking, and has changed teachers' thinking on the place of grammar in teaching knowledge about language.
Interestingly there is much stronger support for systematic teaching of grammar than for teaching at `point of need', and probably not surprisingly, there is little support for Latin as a foundation for teaching English literacy, although support for Latin was somewhat higher amongst teachers from independent schools.
A further point of interest is what teachers say about the place of functional grammar. As indicated earlier, functional grammar has had a controversial history in NSW education. It was included in the 1994 version of English K--6. After the election of the NSW state Labor Government, this version was recalled, reviewed and eventually replaced by the 1998 version of English K--6. At this time teachers were told that they were not to use functional grammar, although `a functional model of language' still underpinned the new curriculum. As we argued earlier, despite the controversies that have surrounded functional grammar in recent years, survey responses reveal that a considerable proportion of primary teachers find functional grammar useful (although responses also reveal higher levels of support for traditional grammar).
Considerable lack of confidence in teachers' own levels of knowledge about language, especially of grammar
While Sydney teachers across the board feel that it is important to teach children about language, they do not, on the whole, feel confident to do so. In disturbing contrast to their strong support for teaching knowledge about language, teachers expressed real ambivalence and lack of confidence about their own knowledge levels. Responses to a question asking them to indicate three areas of knowledge about language that they knew most about provides evidence of this, and results are summarised in Table 7. Percentages in Table 7 indicate areas of knowledge that were ticked by respondents.
Table 7: Teachers' own levels of knowledge about language Type of knowledge about language Percentages The structure of different text types 69% Conventions of written language (e.g. punctuation) 49% Rules of traditional grammar 42% Phonology and pronunciation 27% The relationship between text and context 25% Computer literacy 13% Features of literary language (e.g. allusion, metaphor) 12% Critical language awareness 8% Functional grammar (e.g. types of verbs, clause themes) 6% Cohesion (e.g. reference, connectives) 4%
As Table 7 shows, respondents express some level of confidence in their knowledge of structure of different text types, but little elsewhere. Even in areas traditionally regarded as basic skills, such as conventions of written language and rules of traditional grammar, there is very little confidence in teachers' own levels of knowledge about language. When it comes to issues of functional grammar, critical language awareness and computer literacy, there are very low levels of confidence.
When asked which areas they thought they needed to know more about, the most frequent response was `grammar'. A sample of teachers' comments illustrates this.
It would be useful to know more about functional and traditional grammar. (015 Independent) As a student of the 1980s, I did not receive explicit grammar instruction and in my teacher training, the grammar component was minimal although based on functional terminology. My current knowledge of grammatical terminology is minimal which often makes it difficult to work with children to enhance their writing. I am unable to explain `why' something sounds better. (074 Public) I'd like to be more confident in teaching grammar. I have been learning a lot myself through teaching. (028 Independent) I would like to learn more about functional grammar/language and how it could support students to become better readers and writers. (075 Catholic) My knowledge of both traditional and functional grammar is not well enough developed that I can feel entirely confident trying to teach it or analyse it in students' work. (120 Public) I know a bit about functional grammar, which I was trained in at uni. However, this is different to what I teach now. Everything changes and so often. (080 Public)
The overall lack of confidence in teachers' own levels of knowledge about language is one of the most striking outcomes of the project. This is especially significant when we consider the level of support for explicit and systematic teaching that the teachers expressed in their responses to a number of the other questions in the survey. The teachers' responses may be an indication of lack of confidence in talking about language (rather than of teaching in the context of on-going work about texts). However, they do suggest the need for further professional development in the area of teachers' knowledge about language, and especially in the area of their knowledge of grammar.
Confusion over `critical literacy': what it means and what it looks like in classrooms; confusion over nature and significance of `computer literacy'
A notable outcome of the project was the contradictory nature of responses to questions about the importance of critical perspectives in language and literacy education. While 82% of respondents agreed that students should learn to critically analyse the texts they read (Table 1), only 48% agreed that students should create texts that challenge and question social values (Table 2), and only 33% said they use strategies such as analysing texts to explore bias (Table 3). In response to a question about which approaches to literacy education were most useful, only 7% of teachers chose critical language awareness, but 43% agreed that English programs should teach critical literacy skills to students from early phases of their schooling (Table 4).
The lack of consistency in responses focusing on critical awareness suggests a degree of confusion and perhaps ambiguity amongst teachers about the place of critical perspectives in English literacy teaching generally. Interestingly responses to questions about critical perspectives tended to be more polarised than responses to most other issues. For example, while 52% of teachers agreed that critical language awareness helped students in their literacy development (Table 5), 39% indicated that such knowledge is of minimal importance (not shown in Table). This could indicate that where teachers have embraced critical literacy they have done so enthusiastically, but that (at least as yet) that proportion of such teachers is relatively small. The results overall indicate that many teachers simply do not know, or are not convinced, that critical literacy has much to offer. Thus it appears that, while ideas of critical literacy are very popular amongst researchers, they have not, as yet, permeated current teacher training programs or classroom practices in any sustained way.
The survey also revealed a surprisingly low level of interest in computer literacy and in multimodality generally. While the survey questions were primarily directed to print literacy (rather than multimodal digital texts), they included a question specifically on computer literacy. In response to the question about what kind of knowledge about language helps students in their literacy development, only 43% of teachers regarded knowledge of visual and verbal features of computer literacy as being of major importance (Table 5). Exactly the same proportion (43%) regarded such knowledge as being of minimal importance. Like responses to critical literacy, responses to this question were polarised. When asked about their own levels of knowledge about language, only 13% of teachers indicated confidence in their level of computer literacy.
The apparent lack of interest and confidence in computer literacy may, in part, be a reflection of the nature of the questions included in the survey. However, even when given opportunities to address this issue, smaller proportions of teachers than we had expected identified computer literacy (and multimodality more generally) as a priority. It appears that, as with critical literacy, issues of multimodality are currently of greater interest to researchers than to teachers.
Recognition of the need to teach for diverse needs of students, and of the need to draw eclectically on available teaching strategies and resources to do so
Responses to survey questions confirm that student populations in Sydney schools are diverse. In most respects responses to questions about schools and student populations presented few surprises. The survey schools were primarily co-educational and drew on students from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. Only a few had high numbers of Aboriginal students in their classes, and very few reported high numbers of students with learning difficulties. We found no significant differences in school profiles between state, catholic and independent sectors in primary education (although, as indicated earlier, our sample included slightly more disadvantaged than advantaged schools and therefore may be slightly skewed in this respect).
However, while we had expected high proportions of non-English speaking background (NESB) students in some schools, the proportions across all school sectors and all geographical regions of Sydney caused some surprise. All schools had at least some NESB students and over 40% of teachers reported that more than half of their students were NESB. Rather than being a minority issue (as it is typically portrayed), ESL education is a major concern for most Sydney teachers. Given the proportions of NESB students across all schools, the diversity of students' socio-economic backgrounds, and the existence of clusters of Aboriginal students in schools we can only conclude that diversity is the mainstream in Sydney schools.
A consistent refrain in teachers' survey responses, especially to the open-ended questions, was that their teaching practices were developed in response to students' needs and that, therefore, they often varied--what worked for one group would need to be modified for another. As a result, they said, their teaching practices are really more eclectic than many of their survey responses suggested. The survey questions forced them to make choices that they felt did not fully represent the complexity of what they do. Indeed, a feature of the responses from many teachers was the careful contextualisation of their literacy programs, the exemplification of their teaching practices, and descriptions of ways of integrating and sequencing different teaching strategies to meet the specific needs of different groups of students.
In many ways such responses are to be expected. Teachers have always drawn on available approaches and methodologies in creative and thoughtful ways that enable them to address the specific needs of the students with whom they work. However, in the current educational context, it is important to recognise the significance of the teachers' responses, to revisit issues of diversity, and to consider what diversity means for program development and teaching practices in real-life classrooms (an issue we take further in the concluding comments).
We argued earlier that debates about literacy education in recent years have been shaped, at least in Australia, by the very different priorities and agendas of policy-makers and researchers. We noted that teachers' perspectives have largely been absent from these debates. As we indicated earlier, the goals of the research project reported here were to provide a space for teachers' perspectives on literacy education, and to provide evidence of the ways in which teachers are managing to negotiate their way in the context of different views and competing priorities.
So to what extent has the project achieved its goals? What does the project reveal about teachers' views on literacy education and what are teachers' priorities?
Outcomes from the project do begin to provide a picture of what is going on in the teaching of English literacy in primary schools. They also provide a fairly clear idea of teachers' views on literacy education, and of where their priorities lie. Despite the limited scope of the project (in terms of numbers and location of participating schools), it is probable that trends and concerns that have emerged from the project schools are relevant to those in other NSW and possibly Australian schools (although clearly further research in other regions is needed to verify this).
What does emerge is a picture of teachers drawing on rich models of literacy. These models are largely, although not exclusively, informed by functional theories of language. Dominant features of such models include:
* support for a focus on texts within the context of study across the curriculum
* the teaching and learning of `text types' within these contexts
* support for systematic and explicit teaching of both reading and writing through the use of strategies such as modelled and guided reading; modelling and joint construction of written texts; and conferencing with students
* analysis of texts at different levels: including levels of text structure and organisation, paragraph, sentence grammar and word
* teaching of `basics' such as phonics, spelling and punctuation.
While a notable outcome of the project is the extent to which the notion of text types has been taken up by teachers across state, Catholic and independent sectors, there was little evidence to suggest that this is being done in any reductive way. The project indicated that the majority of teachers work within a strong and clearly articulated `pedagogical framework' (Lo Bianco & Freebody 1997, p. 35). That is, teachers have a clear sense of what is important in literacy education, and of their goals in literacy programs. Within this framework, they draw on text types, in combination with the other features outlined above, in eclectic and creative ways to enable them to meet the diverse needs of the students they work with. A further notable feature of these `strong pedagogical frameworks' is the overall high level of support for explicit and systematic teaching of knowledge about language, across all text levels, that was evident from teachers across state, Catholic and independent sectors.
As we indicated earlier, questions about the value of explicitly teaching knowledge about language have long been the basis for intense debates internationally in the fields of language and literacy education. More recently, debates about the value of teaching grammar (and which grammar) have featured strongly in Australia. In the context of these controversies, the unambiguous nature of teachers' support is especially significant. Clearly teachers believe that explicit teaching of knowledge about language across all levels of texts assists students' literacy development.
In contrast to this level of support, the lack of confidence that teachers expressed in their own levels of knowledge about language is very telling. This is clearly an area where teachers require further preservice and inservice support, especially in extending their own knowledge of grammar. The project outcomes suggest that professional development needs to encompass such issues, rather than, perhaps, national assessment and benchmarking.
So where do the views and priorities of teachers in regard to literacy education sit in relation to the more dominant voices of policy makers and researchers? As our discussion of the outcomes from this project indicates, teachers are clearly concerned with literacy pedagogy. More specifically, teachers are concerned with the ways in which they can draw on theories and methodologies in order to teach effectively to meet the specific and often diverse needs of the students with whom they work. Outcomes from the project indicate that teachers have articulate views on these matters, and that these views are largely consistent across state, Catholic and independent sectors.
What emerges from most current research in Australia (and elsewhere) is an interest in implications of `new times' for ways of understanding and theorising literacy. Outcomes from the project suggest that while theoretical issues are of interest to teachers, they are of interest primarily because of their impact on pedagogy. Thus, it would appear that while teachers' priorities intersect with those of current research, they do not match them exactly.
Project outcomes indicate that, at least at this point in time, there has been relatively little impact at a classroom level of researchers' concerns with complexities of literacy (or literacies) theories, with the impact of digital texts on what it means to be literate, or with notions of multimodality and multiliteracies. It appears that most teachers are working with more traditional definitions of print literacy. This may mean that such issues have yet to filter into teachers' consciousness, or that the implications of such issues for the classroom context have yet to be worked out. It may also mean that teachers simply regard other issues as more important and pressing. However, given the increasing impact of technology on the nature of texts, on our ways of engaging with texts, and overall on the nature of communication in the twenty-first century, it would appear that there is a need for further professional development in this area.
Teachers' priorities appear to intersect less closely with those of policy makers. As indicated earlier, the prevailing literacy policy priorities lie in the areas of assessment: standardised assessment, benchmarks, and national reporting systems. If students, measured against these assessment procedures, are identified as failing, then they have access to remedial literacy programs. Yet large scale assessment procedures and remedial literacy programs are designed for a largely homogenous student population and take very little account of diversity and of the specific needs of different groups of students.
From teachers' perspectives, where effective pedagogy and students' needs are major priorities, current policy initiatives appear to be overly preoccupied with assessment and reporting of literacy standards, and insufficiently concerned with teaching. In addition, policy priorities through their emphasis on large-scale assessment and national reporting systems appear to ignore the fact that Australian school populations are diverse. The reality of teachers' lived experiences in the classroom is that diversity is a very real issue in school education. Teachers' responses to survey questions in this project radically reaffirm this point. From teachers' perspectives, therefore, policy makers would do well to recognise what this diversity means in the classroom: to recognise that different groups of students have different needs and that they require different kinds of literacy programs. Policy would also do well to recognise that diversity means that literacy development does not consist of a single developmental path for all students.
We would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Jennifer Thurstun, our research assistant, who undertook much of the data collection and initial analysis in the project.
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Mary Macken-Horarik is senior lecturer in the Division of Communication and Education at the University of Canberra. She has worked for many years in the field of language education as a teacher, curriculum developer and researcher. As an educational linguist, Mary is interested in the role of metalinguistic awareness in literacy education and the development of pedagogical grammars. The research on which she reports here was generated while working at the University of Technology Sydney.
Address: Faculty of Education, UTS PO Box 123, Broadway, NSW 2007
Email: Mary. Macken-Horarik@uts.edu.au
Jennifer Hammond is program director and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her research interests lie primarily in the field of literacy education of mother tongue and second language learners, and she has published extensively in this field.
Address: Faculty of Education, UTS P.O. Box 123, Broadway, NSW 2007