Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Creating the Student Writer: A Study of Writing Identities in Non-Academic Senior English Classes

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Creating the Student Writer: A Study of Writing Identities in Non-Academic Senior English Classes

Article excerpt


For the past two decades, the English subject area has generated controversial and at times heated discussion in the Australian media (Cullen, 2014). Much of this public debate has focused on the quality of teacher education programs, reading and writing pedagogy, the role of the National Assessment Program--Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), university entry, and international reading and writing results in which the performance of Australian students overall is perceived to have declined (Macken-Horarik, 2009; Turner, 2007). The discussion has taken place during a period of considerable social change, technological advances and concomitant changes in the ways societies and individuals communicate.

One key change in the past two decades has been an increase in the number of young Australians completing 12 years of school. The landmark report, Educational opportunity in 2015: Who succeeds and who misses out (Lamb, Jackson, Walstab & Huo, 2015), reports that '74 per cent of 19-year-olds had attained Year 12' (p. 41). For Western Australia, the figure was 71%, an increase from 66% reported by the Curriculum Council in 2002 (Curriculum Council of Western Australia, 2002). The Lamb et al. (2015) report also makes the significant point that 'not all those who complete school are equally prepared to pursue their post-school goals, whether university, other forms of study and training, or a job' (p. 43).

Throughout this period, the capacity to use written language and to produce recognised genres has remained highly valued within school systems and academia, where written texts are still 'powerful organisers of what we do and who we are: quite fundamental, in fact, as conditions of possibility--historically, epistemologically and technically' (Green, 2004, p. 297). As Johnson and Kress (2003) argued over a decade ago, attention needs to be given to the teaching of writing, as '... writing will remain the preferred form of the cultural and political elites, so that an equitable curriculum must pay the greatest attention to writing for the reason of 'access' alone' (p. 13).

Research into the writing done by senior school students undertaking non-academic pathways is limited. In 2001, Gilbert made the point that within the English subject area 'English literacy has been defined and appropriated by various discourses operating in the post-compulsory schooling arena' (p. 139). Her research into Queensland's English programs revealed highly differentiated forms of textual practice between vocationally orientated subjects, and literary and cultural studies streams of English. As a result, subjects such as English are 'complicit in the social differentiation of young adult learners in terms of economic and social privilege' (p. 139). In this respect, what students write in senior school English is politically significant in terms of shaping their potential destinations.

Purpose of the Study

This research explored how the senior school English student writer who has not traditionally participated in senior school English is constructed in schools in WA. In doing so, it asked:

1. What discursive features shape the writing identities of senior secondary English students?

2. With what writing identities are students affiliated in these contexts?

3. How are students' understanding of themselves as writers, and teachers' expectations of students, reflected in the genres they construct?

An approach to writing--applying a social semiotic framework

A social semiotic model offers researchers and educators a framework that conceptualises writing as a process of constructing meaning (Christie, 2012; Christie, 2005; Halliday, 1985). Contemporary social semiotic thought owes much to Halliday (1985) and Hodge and Kress' (1988) contention that groups and individuals make meaning to achieve social purposes and to 'get things done' (Halliday, 1985). …

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