Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Making Sense of Mixed Messages: Literacy within the Australian Curriculum

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Making Sense of Mixed Messages: Literacy within the Australian Curriculum

Article excerpt


The Australian Curriculum is framed by considerable rhetoric around the importance, significance and value of literacy in terms of what it means to receive a 'good' education in the Australian school system. Not only is literacy a core organising strand within the area of English, but it also appears as a recurring theme throughout the curriculum as a whole, including literacy as a General Capability and (bi)literacy within the area of Languages (other than English) (see Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), 2011a, 2011e).

These extensive references to literacy raise the question of what the concept actually means. We argue that, although the Australian Curriculum has claimed to adopt a functional and critical approach to literacy, when critiqued against the suggested messages the curriculum presents in relation to assessment, the result is a return to an emphasis on basic forms of literacy in practice.

Following a discussion of orientations to literacy within education, we turn to approaches for understanding curriculum to examine the discourse of literacy within the Australian Curriculum. We then interrogate inconsistencies between the claimed and suggested messages of the curriculum, before concluding with a consideration of the problems they pose for realising the intent of the Australian Curriculum in practice.

Three perspectives on literacy

Historically, literacy has been difficult to define. As Roberts (1995) noted, 'the sheer number and variety of definitions is staggering in magnitude and ... thoroughly confusing: literacy, it seems, can mean whatever people want it to mean' (p. 419). The array of definitions surrounding literacy demonstrates the distinct, if not contradictory, possibilities for understanding the concept. One crucial reason for these multiple interpretations is that literacy, as both a concept and practice, is highly contextualised. As UNESCO (UNESCO Education Sector, 2004) has argued, literacy is 'embedded in different cultural processes, personal circumstances and collective structures', with understandings varying according to 'economic, political and social transformations, including globalisation, and the advancement of information and communication technologies (ICTs)' (p. 6).

Although any classification of literacy runs the risk of generalisation, the rest of this paper approaches literacy closely within the context of the Australian Curriculum, which embraces the possibility of three broad perspectives: literacy as cognitive skills and development, literacy as patterns of social and cultural interaction, and literacy as an ideological practice (see ACARA, 2011a-k). Educationally, these perspectives are typically framed as three main approaches to literacy: basic, functional and critical (Cook-Gumperz, 2006). All three approaches are almost certainly familiar to readers of this journal and it is not our intention to rehearse their characteristics in any great detail here. However, as a conceptual basis for reviewing the Australian Curriculum as a text, it is helpful to revisit their main assumptions and the aspects that they share, as well as what makes them distinctive.

Addressing literacy as a global issue and attempting to evaluate literacy internationally, UNESCO adopted a 'basic skills' approach to literacy when it stated in 1948 that literacy is the 'ability both to read and to write a simple message in any language' (United Nations Population Commission, 1948, p. 25), thus referring to a capacity for encoding and decoding written texts. Understood as a cognitive skill, literacy can be taught as a series of increasingly complex increments, measurable against normative benchmarks for development. This definition was expanded in 1966--'(a) A person is literate who can with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his (her) everyday life. (b) A person is illiterate who cannot with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his (her) everyday life' (as cited in Koffi, 2012, p. …

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