Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Reconceptualising Early Literacy Achievement: Moving beyond Critique-Paralysis

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Reconceptualising Early Literacy Achievement: Moving beyond Critique-Paralysis

Article excerpt


The theme of this edition of the Australian Journal of Early Childhood is reconceptualising early childhood. It is a genuine challenge for researchers to critique and revise the field in which they work. Critique is recognised by researchers as a necessary and legitimate way of advancing most fields that do not survive on faith alone. At the same time, many researchers are acutely aware of the critique-paralysis experienced by educational practitioners when theory is not related to practice, when examples do not flow from the (re)conceptualisations that follow from critique.

This paper does not pretend to avoid critique-paralysis by offering ready-made solutions. More modestly, in moving beyond paralysis, it draws together critique and research on early literacy achievement that, when combined, have the potential to transform thinking and practice.

With this goal in mind, I will begin with a single line of argument that leads to a revision of early literacy achievement. The argument is related to early childhood's historical preoccupation with psychological understanding, to the neglect of sociological and trans-disciplinary understanding, of child development (see Sharp & Green, 1975; Walkerdine, 1984; Clark, 1989; Kessler & Swadener, 1992; Alloway, 1995; Fleer, 1995; Tobin, 1997). Even though it has been vigorously contested, I will argue that the legacy of this history is still evident in the ways in which literacy achievement in the early years is evaluated almost exclusively in relation to developmental continua and individual performance indicators--practices which attest to a continuing preoccupation with the individual child. The limitation of this approach is apparent in its ignoring of the possibility of reviewing children's achievements within a broader terrain of social influence (see Luke, 1994).

In response to such arguments that have filtered through to the field over the past decade, critically aware policy writers now ensure that social and cultural contexts for learning are taken into account in the reformulation of early childhood policy guidelines (see Queensland School Curriculum Council, 1998). Yet, in spite of such changes, it appears that the practice of viewing and evaluating children's performance within an individualist framework has remained relatively intransigent.

This is true for the specific example of school-based literacy achievement--that is, literacy as it is done and measured at the specific site of the school. It seems that education systems generally respond to low level literacy performance by focusing unproblematically on individual children's outcomes. Teachers are commonly required to engage in a variety of practices, many of which focus on remediating each child who is deemed to have a literacy `problem'. But, given an individualist framework, teachers are likely to see the child as the problem rather than questioning their own practices or critiquing literacy practices endorsed by schools and coerced by state education system requirements. By its very nature, an individualist framework does not invite challenge to curricular and pedagogical practices that enfranchise particular groups of students while disenfranchising others.

The remainder of this paper sets out to illustrate these points and to suggest how school-based literacy achievement can be reconceptualised--with significant implications for practice--when early childhood educators move outside familiar frameworks of developmental continua and individual performance indicators and recognise the interplay of broader social patterns. In teasing out an example based on school-based literacy achievement, I will draw on the 1997 results of the National School English Literacy Survey. In doing so, I will challenge responses that automatically turn the gaze on the individual child and question how group data might be used to reconceptualise practice. …

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