Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Objectivity and Critique: The Creation of Historical Perspectives in Senior Secondary Writing

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Objectivity and Critique: The Creation of Historical Perspectives in Senior Secondary Writing

Article excerpt


The senior secondary curriculum, with its highly specialised subject areas, places increasing demands on students' literacy abilities when compared to the curriculum of the junior high school. Government literature acknowledges, to some extent, the need for ongoing literacy development in senior years, stating that '[m] any students need explicit support in managing the literacy demands of the post-compulsory curriculum, and ... there are equity issues related to the increasingly complex and often abstract forms of text which students encounter as they progress through school.' (Australian Department of Employment Education Training and Youth Affairs, 1998, p. 40)

The move away from common-sense meanings in senior years and the corresponding increase in complexity and abstraction in text has also been documented by a range of educational linguistics scholars both in Australia and overseas (Christie & Derewianka, 2008; Coffin, 2006; Columbi & Schleppegrell, 2002; Macken-Horarik, Love & Unsworth, 2011; Martin, 1993; Rose & Martin, 2012; Schleppegrell, 2004). It has been argued that this movement towards less common-sense meanings in writing 'is generally not made explicit or even understood by secondary school teachers, often causing more fragile learners . a great deal of confusion' (Love, 2010, p. 350). The increasing literacy demands senior studies place on students, particularly in the humanities, can present a significant challenge for many who are often assumed to be able to manage writing for school by the time they reach their final two years of schooling.

In addition to the general increase in abstraction in the senior years, many students are expected to write in ways they have not written before, as several subjects either begin in Year 11 or are divided into speciality areas. For example in New South Wales, the junior subject 'History' becomes two separate subjects in Year 11--Modern History and Ancient History. This separation of learning into discrete subjects could reasonably be expected to involve differing ways of interacting with text (Hyland, 2004, 2012; Martin, 1993; Martin & Rose, 2008; Swales, 1990). The increasing compartmentalisation of learning into disciplinary areas can make the task of writing development in some subjects very challenging, as the context for which students have to write may be as unfamiliar as the content they are beginning to learn.

A further challenge for students and teachers negotiating the path of literacy development in the senior years is the expectation in the humanities for students to write evaluatively. The Ancient History syllabus, for example, requires students to 'analyse and evaluate sources for their usefulness and reliability' and to 'explain and evaluate differing perspectives and interpretations of the past' while 'using appropriate oral and written forms' (NSW Board of Studies, 2004a, p. 11). Similarly, the Modern History syllabus demands '[t]he fluent communication of thoughts and ideas gleaned from the critical analysis of primary and secondary sources' (NSW Board of Studies, 2004b, p. 6) using 'appropriate and well-structured oral and written forms' (NSW Board of Studies, 2004b, p. 11). The question of what is 'appropriate' in writing is critical to achievement of subject outcomes, however this is not spelt out clearly in the syllabus documents, beyond, perhaps, the expectation that students should be developing 'tolerant and informed attitudes' (NSW Board of Studies, 2004a, p. 12).

The injunction to write evaluatively may appear at times to be at odds with another often-heard instruction that formal writing by school students should be 'impersonal', 'objective' or 'non-emotive'. Coffin's research into school History found that students are encouraged to critically analyse a range of sources ... to understand the way in which the same event may be variously (subjectively) interpreted and represented. …

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