Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

The (D) English Divide: Building Bridges with Learners in the English Communication Classroom

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

The (D) English Divide: Building Bridges with Learners in the English Communication Classroom

Article excerpt


I was drawn to English teaching because of my love of reading and writing. No doubt the fact that my parents were both educators and avid readers also helped. As a budding new teacher, I couldn't wait to pass on my love for the classics, passion for poetry and genuine enjoyment of creative writing to my adolescent students. I thought they would be bursting with enthusiasm and motivation to learn in my 'perfect' English classroom! Thus, my first foray (in my first years of teaching) into designing and teaching an 'alternative' English program--which was intended to shift the focus away from traditional literature appreciation, novel studies and creative writing to a more 'work-ready' communication skills-based program--was quite daunting.

I experienced angst that my conservative English literature background from University would not prove to be particularly useful in the circumstances. I also feared that I would not be able to engage my students, many of whom were 'failing academically' in English and were possibly marred by past poor performances and negative experiences in the English classroom.

Reflecting upon my several years of teaching and coordinating English Communication, I can now pinpoint some changes to my earlier construction of myself as a literacy teacher. Knowing the students in my classes and familiarising myself with their repertoires of literacy practice has now become a priority. Using action research and professional development to improve as an educator are also important changes to my pedagogy. I now acknowledge the absolute imperative of motivating students through real world contexts and authentic tasks. Changing notions of success and measures of literacy achievement in the classroom are other key elements that have become part of my approach to teaching literacy. In short, I have had to realign my own notions of what it means to be literate, broaden my understanding and appreciation of students' outside-school literacy practices, and embrace the concept that it is not only what you teach but how you teach that truly helps to build bridges in the learning environment.

Doing (D) English

It wasn't until quite late in the second term of teaching English Communication that I chanced to hear several teenage students entering my English Communication classroom calling out:

'We're off to D'English'

'D'English rules!'

I asked the most obvious of questions. 'What's D'English?'

'It stands for Dumb English, Miss! Get it?!' they chorused.

As other students on their way to mainstream classes passed the doorway with snickers and knowing glances, I started piecing together many of the off-the-cuff remarks and comments that represented the students' perceptions and constructions of the subject and their place in the class.

Early in the subject's inception, some students wore enrolment in English Communication classes or 'Dumb English' as a badge of honour, freely admitting that they had not passed English since Grade 5 or that they hated English and were only here because they had to be. Others often arrived openly embarrassed and ashamed of their place in the class. At times, I too felt a little disheartened at the difficult road ahead in developing the subject's profile and value in the school and wider community. I was determined to work on building pride in the subject of English Communication and the particular aspects of the literacy learning taking place in our classroom.

The English Communication kids

One of the many challenges I faced when designing the English Communication work program was the diversity of the adolescent student population. Students from backgrounds where English was an additional language and who had not yet acquired enough linguistic proficiency in the dominant language to pass mainstream English were enrolled alongside students with Attention Deficit Disorder and Asperger's Syndrome, severe learning difficulties and behavioural problems. …

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