Knowing about the English Language: A Wrinkle in Time
Exley, Beryl, Wilson, Gael, Practically Primary
The 2010 release of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority's (ACARA) Australian Curriculum English (hereafter ACE) heralded a new momentum for the teaching of English. Aside from the overt focus on multimodal text and three contemporary cross-curriculum priorities of 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures', 'Asia and Australia's engagement with Asia' and 'Sustainability', the ACE introduces an innovative approach for talking about language conventions and their use. An overarching statement, taken from the 'Language: Knowing about the English language' section of the ACE (ACARA, 2010, pp. 4-5), introduces the strand:
[The Australian Curriculum] English uses standard grammatical terminology within a contextual framework, in which language choices are seen to vary according to the topics at hand, the nature and proximity of the relationships between the language users, and the modalities or channels of communication available.
The innovation is the weaving of two different language theories. By way of explanation, the use of 'standard grammatical terminology' points to elements of traditional grammar (ACARA, 2010, p. 4). The statement that 'language choices are seen to vary' according to the 'relationship between the language users' and 'modalities' borrows from Systemic Functional Linguistics (hereafter SFL). This approach, refined by Michael Halliday (see Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004) when he was the Foundation Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, has been adapted to some Australian school settings for a couple of decades under the term 'functional grammar'. The ACARA statement also uses the term 'contextual framework', another element that draws on understandings of the 'text in context' model from SFL. The statement also refers to the three systems of meaning developed in SFL theory: field, tenor and mode. The 'topics at hand' concern the field or subject matter of the text. The 'relationships between the language users' is a description of tenor. There is also reference to 'modalities' or channels of communication. The important point is that the model of language appropriated in the ACARA ACE (2010) pays attention to both form (syntax) and function (semantics).
In the next section, we recount how one Year Five teacher, Ms Imogen Nashon (pseudonym), employs this 'new' metalanguage to develop her students' understandings of noun and adjective groups. She used a series of reading lessons as a precursor to a series of writing lessons focused on the ACE Year 5 learning outcome from the language strand (ACARA, 2010):
Understand how noun and adjective groups can be expanded in a variety of ways to provide a fuller description of the person, thing or idea (ACELA1508)
Ms Nashon is an experienced teacher working in a low-socio economic, high multi-cultural/multilingual context on Brisbane's outskirts. Whilst Ms Nashon is an avid reader, her Year 5 students are reluctant readers and generally speaking, hesitate with new genres. The students, however, are very responsive when Ms Nashon reads aloud from her extensive and wide-ranging library collection. The current novel, A Wrinkle in Time, was written by Madeline L'Engle in 1962 and reprinted in 2007. This science fantasy recounts the experiences of a brilliantly minded but socially awkward adolescent named Meg (Margaret Murry) whose father disappears whilst he is working on a top-secret government project. The novel deals with a number of mature themes through the eyes of the young female protagonist, including the perennial 'good versus evil' and the pros and cons of social conformity. It is a challenging but satisfying read and the students actively engage in the multiple comprehension activities Ms Nashon introduces. In brief, during the read aloud sessions the students are encouraged to activate their prior knowledge, make predictions, connect to their own experiences, create mental images, draw inferences, discuss symbols and other literary devices and externalise their internal understandings (for example, see Tompkins, 2010). …