Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Deconstructing Binary Oppositions in Literacy Discourse and Pedagogy

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Deconstructing Binary Oppositions in Literacy Discourse and Pedagogy

Article excerpt

This is my personal position statement in an attempt to reconcile three salient polarities within the field of literacy learning throughout the latter half of the twentieth century to the present. While I am an Australian educator, these key debates are also important in New Zealand, USA and the UK. These three fundamental binary oppositions are the 'skills based' versus 'whole language' approaches, 'print-based literacy' versus 'multiliteracies', and the 'cultural heritage' versus 'critical literacy' perspectives. The dogmatism of these polarised literacy pedagogies cannot provide dialectic resolution, that is, a solution brought about through continuous dialogue, to the shifting sands of language and learning in the context of a literate, postmodern society. The assumptions underlying these competing models will be described and 'constructively deconstructed' and the tensions reframed for future literacy discourse and practice.

This personal position statement must be interpreted within my personal educational journey which has been impinged upon in many ways by the aforementioned literacy polarities. I am a tertiary literacy educator with previous teaching experience in private Queensland primary schools. My professional practice reflects a selection of pedagogical principles from skills-based, whole language, the genre-based or functional approach, and more recently, multiliteracies and critical literacy perspectives. My practices, like many teachers, are grounded in principles of ever-widening critical and scholarly educational research. However, as a seemingly powerless figure beneath the shadow of educational bureaucracy, my voyage has been a struggle of contesting the imposition of prescriptive and often exclusively skills- and print-based approaches to literacy curricula and methodology by school-based administrators. I have consistently sought to honour the voice of the teacher within, contesting threats to my integrity as a literacy educator and welcoming only what affirmed it. It is only in this way that '... teaching can come from the depths of truth, and the truth that is within my students has a chance to respond in kind' (Palmer, 1988, p. 31). The following statement of position has been formulated through the dialogue between literacy research and my own educational practice.

Deconstruction of skills versus whole language debate

One of the most contentious debates that have continued to impinge on literacy pedagogy is the skills versus whole language debate. The traditional, compartmentalised, skills-based ideology of literacy has persisted since the 1960s. While it historically represents the earliest research into literacy learning, its tenets still dictate educational pedagogy both implicitly and explicitly (Ediger, 2001, p. 24). Advocates of this approach perceive literacy as something merely technical to be acquired, as a neutral set of skills that remain constant irrespective of the manner in which they are acquired or used. From this perspective, reading is described as a combination of visual and perceptual skills, sight vocabulary, word attack skills and comprehension (Anstey & Bull, 2003, pp. 67-70). Reading is practiced in such a way that the context of the literature is implicitly regarded as either immaterial to the learning of reading, or ideologically benign (Luke & Freebody, 1997, p. 191). Associated with the skills-based approach is a false distinction between the literate who possess these skills and the illiterate who do not (Street, 1995, p. 19). Yet such practices often have little affiliation with literacy in use, either in community, occupational or subsequent academic experiences (West, 1992, p. 8).

One of the key criticisms of the skills-based approach is that literate practice is regarded as a fixed, static body of decontextualised skills, rather than a dynamic, social semiotic practice varying across cultures, time and space (Behrman, 2002, p. …

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