Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Teachers' Voices, Teachers' Practices: Insider Perspectives on Literacy Education

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Teachers' Voices, Teachers' Practices: Insider Perspectives on Literacy Education

Article excerpt

Introduction

In recent years, debates about literacy education have been intense and have received considerable media coverage. In these debates, we have frequently heard from politicians, from policy makers, from members of the community, from key media representatives, and from language educators. The voice that has been largely absent from these debates has been that of teachers. Surprisingly, despite the many claims about what is or what ought to be happening in Australian schools, we have very little documented evidence of what is actually going on in schools and of what teachers think about literacy education.

The paper reports on the outcomes of a research project completed during 1998-1999. The purpose of the project was to learn more about what is actually going on in the teaching of English in primary schools; to learn more of the ways in which teachers are negotiating competing priorities; of how teachers generally are `taking up' debates about literacy education; of the theories that inform their teaching practices; of how they are responding to literacy curricula; and how they are developing and implementing literacy programs. The project sought to learn more about teachers' views on a range of topics relevant to literacy education: their views on the value (or otherwise) of teaching knowledge about language; the value of teaching grammar (and which kind of grammar); and the kinds of teaching practices they employ in order to go about teaching knowledge about language, including grammar. It also sought to learn more about teachers' views on the kinds of basic and more advanced competences required by students to meet the communication demands of the twenty-first century; and the extent to which they feel confident in their own knowledge of these competences, and their ability to teach them.

The project arose in a context where it is increasingly evident that priorities identified at a policy level in literacy education are significantly different from those identified in much recent Australian and international research. The priorities of current literacy policy are perhaps best exemplified by the influential 1998 Commonwealth Literacy for All Policy (DEETYA, 1998). While the goals of the Literacy for All Policy are sound and its rhetoric broad and comprehensive, the actual strategies for action that it proposes focus primarily on assessment and remedial literacy. Of the six strategies for action listed in the Policy (p. 10), four refer specifically to assessment: early assessment; development of benchmarks; measurement against benchmarks; and national reporting. One refers to professional development support for the policy (and hence primarily to learning how to assess), and one strategy addresses teaching of literacy--early intervention for students identified as having difficulty with literacy development. The Policy claims (p. 9) that it provides a coherent and integrated strategy for enhancing literacy skills for all Australian children as a basis for progress in schooling and for successful participation in post-school work and further study. However, through its proposals for action, it in fact promotes a very reductive notion of literacy and of the necessary `foundations' of literacy education, in combination with a very extensive emphasis on measurement and reporting (Hammond 1999, Hammond & Burns 1999). Implementation of this Policy is mandatory across Australia, and although each state and territory has some scope for negotiation of details, most are broadly sympathetic to its goals and strategies. The emphasis in the Policy on assessment, standards and benchmarks reflects similar policy developments that have been evident in other English-speaking countries (e.g. Bourne 1999, Cameron 1995, Carter 1996).

In contrast to this preoccupation with assessment and with the reductive notion of literacy that is evident in current policy, there is a well-documented and vigorous body of work in Australia that identifies very different priorities in literacy education (e. …

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