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Literacies in health and physical education.


Health and Physical Education is often considered a literacy free zone where students can expel energy and improve motor skills and fitness. However, Health and Physical Education can be a learning area in which holistic literacies can be enhanced. As it has both practical and theoretical components, it allows for the exploration of various modes of text. The theoretical component of Health and Physical Education requires traditional literacy (Gee, 2008). Reading of printed text and writing are a large proportion of the learning area while speaking and listening are highly prominent in both theoretical and practical lessons (Wyatt-Smith & Gunn, 2007). However, the literacies involved in Health and Physical Education involve much more than traditional literacy and these are considered in this article. Wyatt-Smith and Cumming (2003) state that literacies in learning areas like Health and Physical Education are both generic and content specific, as the communities of practice and discourses shape the particular literacies required. In the practical component, Tremblay and Lloyd (2010) describe 'physical literacy' as the 'new kid on the block' (p. 26).

This article begins by defining literacies and their place in Health and Physical Education. It discusses the role of literacies within this curriculum area through the lens of established and emerging literacy theories such as multiliteracies frameworks (The New London Group, 1996), Freebody and Luke's (1990) four resources model and the concept of body-as-text (e.g., Kamler, 1997). These theories can be used to frame literacy and serve to lay the foundations for a holistic conceptualisation of literacies in Health and Physical Education. Currently, however, competing literacy theories and neoliberal policies impact on the way that literacies are perceived and implemented. Their examination can also shed light on the possible future direction of literacies within Health and Physical Education.

Defining literacy in Health and Physical Education

Whitehead (2001) proposes the term physical literacy is wholly legitimate, despite strong criticisms from traditional literacy advocates that those in Health and Physical Education are using the term to acquire academic legitimacy. The UK Sports Council (1991) identified that 'Physical Education creates literacy in movement, which is as vital to every person as literacy in verbal expression itself' (p. 1). However, just like traditional literacy, the definition of physical literacy continues to be contested. For example, Corlett and Mandigo (2013) argue that the word literacy has been adapted for purposes beyond its birthplace in the discourse of Health and Physical Education and world of language.

The most agreed upon definition comes from Whitehead (2001) who explains that physical literacy includes being able to perceive intelligently and respond discerningly. Therefore, it transcends motor skill performance. It is the ability of individuals to 'read' the environment and communicate an effective response. If we assume that reading is the ability to make meaning in the world, then it is a process that extends past that of recognising words. It involves perceiving informational gaps in context (Higgs, 2010) and understanding writing as an ability to respond to what has been read. Therefore, just as readers need to make meaning of text and they can respond in a multitude of ways (e.g., through writing, drawing, drama, songs, and so on), students in Health and Physical Education are required to read and perceive their environment through their embodied capacities.

Several authors agree with the notion of literacy as being able to respond and communicate critically and creatively through physical movement by comprehending and reading the situations of authentic environments (Corlett & Mandigo, 2013; Mandigo, Francis, Lodewyk & Lopez, 2009; Wall & Murray, 1994). Just like traditional literacy, the degree to which someone is physically literate is also difficult to judge, especially without a concrete definition. Wall and Murray (1994) suggest that physically literate individuals should be 'creative, imaginative, critical, clear in expressive movement, competent, efficient, inventive, versatile, perceptive, and skilful in communication' (p. 5). Being physically literate is more than just the capability to move; it is about knowing how and, more importantly, why.

Just as physical literacy shares parallels with other literacies by its emphasis on reading of environment and responding through body, a similar evolution of its definition can be likened to that of traditional literacy. Penney and Chandler (2000) and Wright and Burrows (2006) recognise the interaction of social and cultural contexts of movement with an individual's physical abilities, thus opening the social view of physical literacy. Group relations rely on sensitive responses and appropriate expressions, which may include verbal and non-verbal communication, embodied attributes that help us to communicate with each other (Matusov, 1996; Whitehead, 2001). Clark (1997) suggests that 'mind, body and world thus emerge as equal partners in the construction of robust, flexible behaviours' (p. 45). Additionally, Ryan and Rossi (2008) support the idea of physical literacy being embedded in the rejection of the binary division between mind and body of the Cartesian dualist position. Our social realities are comprised through our body. Therefore, the concept of physical literacy not only has to be learned, but it has to be embodied.


Body-as-text is a relatively new concept that has emerged along with the concept of physical literacy. Massumi (2002) argues that 'often bodies are captured in a "cultural freeze frame"' (p. 4), where body movement is seen as body displacement and not transformation. The notion of body as a transformative and dynamic text is not considered. Engaging in movement inscribes meaning to the body through not only the knowledge of literacy, but through its embodiment (Hong, 2000; Kamler, 1997). Not only can the body embody text and respond to text, but it can be text.

Ryan and Rossi (2008) propose that 'first, the body must be a central artefact for meaning making and, as such, the body as text should be integral to physical literacy', and that discourses and text 'speak through the body' (p. 44). Our body is a textual concept where the significance of meaning is given through emotions, responses and sensations (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987; Leander & Boldt, 2012). The body is a semiotic system as it extends our way of reading and writing our world. Yet, our society more so values our linguistic expression than our bodily expression, so literacy designs often neglect the physical embodiment of literacy. Therefore, the body is an untapped resource in literacy development. Considering body-as-text allows for the development of embodied literacy practices.

Multiliteracies, the four resources model and meaning making

Rossi and Ryan (2006) emphasise that 'knowledge and understanding of appropriate language use is just as important in Health and Physical Education as it is in other curriculum areas' (p. 71). However, school curriculum may seem to negate the importance of literacies in Health and Physical Education in favour of History, Maths, Geography, Science and English. Therefore, to re-establish this importance, Health and Physical Education needs to be considered as part of a multiliteracies agenda. This agenda includes the following literacy forms:

* linguistic (words);

* visual (images);

* spatial (meaning of environmental spaces);

* gestural (body language, sensuality, behaviour, bodily physicality);

* aural (sound). (The New London Group, 1996)

Most texts are multimodal as they are compositions of various literacy forms; therefore, literacies play an important role in Health and Physical Education as they allow for a diversity of ways in which multiliteracies can be developed in the learning area. Deriving from Ryan and Rossi (2008), in Health and Physical Education:

* Students engage with linguistic literacy in theoretical lessons where they might be asked to engage with different genres of designing text. When engaged in movement, it is suggested that 'language exists in the movement itself (p. 34);

* Visual literacy is engaged in both practical and theoretical environments where students are required to consistently connect visual, spatial and gestural literacies when working independently to create meaning in movement;

* Students engage in spatial literacy by reading environmental spaces to derive contextual meaning and 'understanding about appropriate actions, movements, behaviours and language ... within the spatial boundaries of the activity which lead to decision making' (p. 34);

* Students engage in gestural literacy through their physicality and behaviours.

* Aural literacy is developed by co-ordinating heavily utilised sound cues, whether vocal or from equipment, with movement. It provides the opportunity for students to develop deep listening skills and respond accordingly.

To excel, students need to use metacognitive and linguistic skills to justify their reasoning and the impact of their responses, as well as those of others. Therefore, as Ryan and Rossi (2008) explain, Health and Physical Education allows for holistic development of all five elements of a multiliteracies framework.

Freebody and Luke's (1990) four resources model encapsulates the roles needed to engage with multiliteracies. Being literate involves adopting these roles to actively participate and make meaning in our world. The model has four components, which are not sequential or hierarchical:

* the operational role of code breaking when individuals decipher semiotic systems;

* text participation where learners can use prior knowledge to comprehend and compose text;

* the cultural text use component, where the learner understands the function, form and sociocultural purpose of text;

* critical text analysis, where the learner analyses such things as point of view and bias. (Freebody & Luke, 1990; Luke, 2000; Luke & Freebody, 1999).

Ryan and Rossi (2008) connect Health and Physical Education with the four resources model:

* Codebreaking refers to the fundamental motor skills and movement patterns along with visual body signifiers and gestural language codes;

* Text participation is about understanding how movement is shaped by spatial influences;

* Using text is about understanding how meanings and the purpose of movement are 'dependent upon contextual understandings and students develop these understandings through experience of how changes in movement affect them' (Freebody & Luke, 1990, p. 40).

* Text analysis involves understanding that movements can be assessed and scrutinised for normalised societal values and behaviours; thus societal discourses are critically analysed.

This means that Health and Physical Education can contribute to the development of literacies at varying levels. These are in relation to traditional literacy as well as to much broader understandings of literacies, including understandings of the body-as-text.

Despite the different content and context, the process through which we make meaning and thus become literate is similar. To make meaning from a written text or the environment, knowledge is developed for both the reader and the mover and this enables them to create a new and unique response that is added to their available options for making meaning (The New London Group, 1996). The ability to build up a bank of ways to make meaning and withdraw from it when necessary is a cognitive and social skill that is required in all literacy practices (Cain, 2011; Corlett & Mandigo, 2013; Gee, 2008). The development of meaning-making skills combines subconscious and conscious control, and readers are continuously modifying their ways of making meaning in response to their reading. Pearson (2009) suggests that teachers can develop skills to enhance literacy practices by filling in information gaps, focusing attention selectively, and enabling inference and editing in all learning areas, not just English. Therefore, reading and designing are about collating various texts and responses, including those from the body, and considering the relationship between society and self. When engaging in literacies, individuals do not only draw on linguistic skills. We comprehend text and demonstrate literacy by making connections (Block, 2001; Rhodes & Shanklin, 1993), thus using a similar process to the one that occurs in physical literacy and motor development (Newell, 1991; Turvey & Carello, 1988).

Barriers to developing multiple literacies

Health and Physical Education is a learning area which can develop a range of literacies in students, including traditionally understood aspects of literacy along with the wider conceptualisations of multiliteracies. However, ingrained and traditional views of Health and Physical Education and a lack of explicit policy about the place of literacy in this learning area diminish the legitimacy of developing literacies in theoretical and practical classes. The Australian Curriculum (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), 2013) and Gee (2003) identify literacy as not being the sole responsibility of the English teacher as it is an overarching social practice; all teachers' ability to nurture literacy is a necessity.

However, some Health and Physical Education teachers are resistant to change (Tannehill, Romar & O'Sullivan, 1994). Block (2001) found significant resistance when trying to incorporate literacy strategies for physical educators as professional development. Even with new paradigms such as the Constraints Led Approach or Games for Understanding, which focus more on cognitive skills such as strategising, justifying, hypothesising and reflecting, physical educators often default back to traditional motor development methods which limit multiliteracies development (Clemente, Rocha & Korgaokar, 2012). There seems to be a lack of policy at tertiary level and this seems to lead to many courses in Health and Physical Education lacking any work in literacy skills; consequently, physical educators may lack the knowledge to harness the literacy potential in the learning area. This may inhibit the ability of students to enhance general literacy skills and, more importantly, content literacies which refer to the literacies required to acquire learning area specific content (Buell & Whittaker, 2001).

Further, in the past, the development of literacies has not only been limited by the lack of literacy policy for physical education training, but the required curriculum in Health and Physical Education has often favoured one genre of writing--expository text--rather than varied genres such as performance logs, montages and documentaries (Tishman & Perkins, 1995). A lack of variation in genre and purpose may limit the potential of holistic literacy development (Buell & Whittaker, 2001) in Health and Physical Education. Luke (2000) states that valued discourses influence literacy development. These values in education, and in particular Health and Physical Education, are of white, masculine, middle class society (Gutierrez, 2008). Dominant cultural activities and text types seem to be the most prominent choices made by heads of subjects in schools, with the exclusion of aesthetic activities in male and co-educational schools quite common (Bourda, Brown, Crawford & Koyal, 1995). Therefore, the lack of variety and strong dominant discourses may limit Health and Physical Education and prevent it from widening students' literacy practices.

In current times, neoliberal policies seem to be further marginalising the role of Health and Physical Education within society, despite the fact that the current generation is the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents due to lifestyle diseases (Steensma, Loukine, Orpana, Lo, Choi & Waters, 2013). These policies often involve curriculum alignment with high stakes standardised tests which may result in a negative impact (Smeed, 2010). It is evident that high stakes assessments are impacting on individual and collective identities and future policy initiatives, with increasing accountability, narrowing of the curriculum, reducing or eliminating learning areas that are not tested, and developing an outcome-oriented rather than learning-orientated environment (Amrein & Berliner, 2002; Dweck, 1999; Hattie, 2005). Although the first national plan for literacy, Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools (Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, 1998), recommended that testing was in the best interest of all students, there is substantial evidence that this has not been the case for the learning areas that are on the 'periphery' (Hattie, 2005; Hipwell & Klenowski, 2011).


Even though literacies in Health and Physical Education are contested, it is clear that the learning area does have the capability to enhance literacy development. There is some consensus that literacy has morphed into a broader concept, beyond what has been traditionally considered as literacy, and that successful performance in Health and Physical Education requires proficiency in both linguistic literacy and broader multiliteracies. These involve thinking critically and metacognitively, reading and writing traditional forms as well as new forms, such as perceiving, responding and expressing, and considering the body-as-text. By taking a wider view, Health and Physical Education has the potential to develop a broad range of literacies.

Thinking about the literacies in Health and Physical Education prompts us to consider the embodiment of literacies and the role it plays in the development of students. It challenges us to consider the role of the body-as-text and the similar meaning making processes that occur in various curriculum areas. It challenges us to think that if all learning is contextual, then Health and Physical Education is just another context in which literacies can be enhanced. It challenges us to question our own values of literacy practices and consider the merit in defining text as something more than just the linguistic elements.

Although past policies and attitudes seem to have limited our ability to fully explore and engage with literacies in Health and Physical Education, and at times, work in this area has seemed precarious, further discussion and understanding of how literacy can be embodied and delivered within Health and Physical Education may lay the foundation for a context specific literacies framework for the learning area. With the introduction of Health and Physical Education into the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2014), this might be the time for such a possibility. Emerging literacy theories are providing opportunities to rethink what literacy learning might be incorporated into the learning area of Health and Physical Education. The development of holistic and shared literacy guidelines could allow Health and Physical Education teachers to develop multiliteracies as a way to enhance learning and literacy outcomes for students.

Michelle Guerrero | St Joseph's Nudgee College, Queensland


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Michelle Guerrero is currently a middle school teacher of English and Health and Physical Education at St Joseph's Nudgee College, Brisbane. She holds bachelor degrees in both Education and Exercise Science as well as a masters degree in Education. Michelle is particularly interested in research concerning semiotic systems and multi-literacies in Physical Education with the aim of developing a context specific literacy framework for the learning area.
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Author:Guerrero, Michelle
Publication:Literacy Learning: The Middle Years
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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