Knowledge about Language in subject English in contemporary Australia
The development of a national curriculum for English in Australia and the extensive consultative processes involved have generated much excitement and a genuine collaboration in knowledge-sharing amongst many educational stakeholders. However, this process has also crystallised an anxiety within the profession about the 'linguistic turn' in English teaching, and the need for teachers to renew their knowledge about language (Hammond & Macken-Horarik, 2001; DEST, 2005; Harper & Rennie, 2009; Louden, Rohl, Gore, Greaves, McIntosh, Wright, Siemon & House, 2005). In its Language Strand, The Australian Curriculum: English refers to the importance of students learning to describe language as a system, paying attention to both structure (syntax) and meaning (semantics) at word, sentence and text levels. The systems of language it provides are robust enough to look outwards towards both literature and literacy; to build on, but go beyond familiar prescriptive grammars, and to be 'dynamic and evolving'. Yet, while this new Curriculum offers enormous opportunities, it also carries considerable challenges for teachers about how to work with language as a system of structural and meaning-making choices. These syntactic and semantic choices operate at clause, sentence and text levels and we aim to model, in the remainder of this article, how teachers can make principled connections across these levels in meaningful and productive ways.
We will focus on texts that persuade an audience to a point of view on a range of issues. Persuasion, like story-telling, is fundamental to human identity and meaning-making (Kress, 1985). As used in schooling, persuasive texts allow students to demonstrate a wide repertoire of literacy skills and understandings and their particular value is evidenced in their inclusion in National Assessment Program--Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) writing task in 2011 (ACARA, 2011). Learning how to use the rhetorical tools of the trade to persuade others and to understand how others persuade is also fundamental to success in contexts outside of school--in workplaces, social networks, the media and civic life--where young people negotiate with powerful institutions.
Knowledge about Language and persuasive texts
While the teaching of persuasive writing has a rich history in the highly organised and rigorous analysis of traditional rhetoric, the 19th century shift to the study of language as syntactic rules resulted in a loss of attention to the overall meaning and organisation of text and a trivialisation of rhetoric as overgeneralised issues of 'style', 'vocabulary' or 'figures of speech' (see Christie, 1990 for a fuller historical overview). However, The Australian Curriculum, informed by the research of Australian educational linguists (see Derewianka this Issue) has allowed the descriptions of language to go beyond identifying discrete structural features and to explore how language is patterned to do its particular rhetorical work. The contextual view of language at the base of this Curriculum addresses insistent calls for the reintroduction of a more sustained approach to the teaching of rhetoric in English curricula (see for example, Green, 2009; Sawyer, 2009) and links 21st century English teaching with rhetorical traditions dating back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, where oratory was the supreme political skill (see Higgins, 2008). Using this rhetorical toolkit, teachers and students can examine, for example, the resources modern orators use to galvanise public sentiment. They can examine resources used by students and academics to persuade their audiences that a particular position is valid, and thus demonstrate and extend knowledge of their discipline. And they can examine the resources used by advertising and marketing to promote and sell products and ideas. Knowing how these different forms of persuasion unfold, and how the discursive and language choices function, provides deeper understandings about how rhetorical choices impact particular audiences within a particular context. …