03 — an essay from 1998: Literacy

See also Why I reject Kevin Donnelly’s educational analysis. NOTE: Many of the links here no longer work.

Some resources and a brief introduction

  • CSLPLC: The Schooling Australia Project: A curriculum history of English teaching, teacher education and public schooling from Federation to World War II.
  • AIS Literacy Website. — from the Australian Government Quality Teacher Programme.
  • The National Institute for Literacy (USA)
  • Literacy and Technology. This site was created by Dr. Joyce Hinkson, an educator from California, to assist teachers, students, parents and others, with the integration of curriculum and the Internet to promote student literacy.
  • LEO: Literacy Education Online. LEO provides online handouts about a variety of writing topics. Although LEO is affiliated with the Write Place (the writing center at St. Cloud State University), LEO does not offer online tutoring, answer questions about grammar or punctuation, or give feedback about your writing or papers.
  • Literacy Matters. The goal of the Literacy Matters project is to improve the literacy development of middle grades and secondary school students, especially those students who are struggling to succeed. The content within this web site focuses on what matters most in adolescent literacy development.
  • LiteracyWeb Australia.
  • Australian Literacy Educators’ Association – Winner of the Technology Showcase section of the Australian Awards for Excellence in Educational Publishing 2003.
  • Literacy Resources from the P.L. Duffy Resource Centre, Trinity College, Western Australia, Rosemary K Horton Teacher Librarian.

* * * * *
The following essay was written in 1998 for a post-graduate certificate course in TESOL at the University of Technology Sydney. The course particularly favoured Halliday’s
systemic/functional grammar, and that’s a pretty good site on this. However, this essay does not draw too heavily on Halliday, at least not in depth.

On related matters, especially on the obsession with standardised tests of literacy in a US context, search the archives of Teacher Magazine. You may be asked to register.

America’s obsession with standardized tests is about to become even more intense as states move to comply with the new Bush education law requiring annual testing in grades 3 through 8. The foolish emphasis we put on testing is expensive, unnecessary, and probably harmful to millions of children.

See also Fair Test for some valuable critiques of testing techniques.


For an overview from a UK perspective, read Viv Ellis, “Rethinking English in English Schools”, Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training Discussion Paper 5 2005 (PDF)

My 1998 essay


My mind and my teaching practice are archaeological sites. Some exploration of those sites seems a good way to focus the development of my present approach to literacy education, primarily but not exclusively in English in secondary schools. So far as this article has a thesis it is this: that, despite the sometimes combative rhetoric of those advocating one model or pedagogy or another (as when Martin [1993:159] pillories whole language approaches as ‘benevolent neglect’), an informed, dynamic eclecticism is a viable stance. (Compare Anstey and Bull 1996:52-53, Brock 1998:11 on the ‘either/or myth’.)

Thirty years have deposited approaches beginning with the very traditional mainstream English teaching of 1966, not much changed from the 1950s.


Throughout these thirty years literacy has apparently been in a state of crisis. In the late 1950s and early 60s certain Science professors at the University of Sydney lamented the ‘illiteracy’ of their students. In the 1970s, even before any rational person could have detected any impact on school leavers of the various ‘progressive’ developments of the early 70s, many commentators (such as Professor Crisp of the Australian National University) discerned a rapid decline in literacy and numeracy between 1970 and 1975 (Watson 1994:1).

Even today successful adman and potboiler writer Bryce Courtney (speaking in a good cause against tax on books) can claim:

This country is facing a serious literacy problem. We could very easily by about 2020 have a country where 55pc of the population is illiterate. (Sun-Herald 23 August 1998.)

Just what Courtney means by literacy and how he arrived at this alarming prognostication is anybody’s guess. Such critics usually have in mind one or more of the following: that phonics and other skill-centred pedagogies constitute ‘real teaching’ as opposed to trendiness or left-wing subversion; that traditional grammar is the same; that spelling is in a parlous state; that our white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage is being systematically white-anted; that teachers are responsible for crime, drugs and youth unemployment; that infinitives are being split–and so on.

Nearer the mark is Mem Fox who observed on Margaret Throsby’s ABC-FM program on August 24 1998 that we think literacy standards are falling because more people’s literacy is exposed; in other words social demands have changed.


The 1971 Year 7-10 NSW English Syllabus brought into a growing number of classrooms approaches derived from the Dartmouth Conference of 1966 (James Moffett, Teaching the Universe of Discourse 1968; John Dixon, Growth through English 1967). Among a host of influences one major one was Noam Chomsky with his nativist view of language acquisition, summed up by Richard Ohmann (1969:xxxii):

Speakers do not need to learn to create sentences, understand new sentences, and distinguish between English and non-English through formal instruction; preschool children, illiterates and feeble-minded adults are capable of such acts.

In the late 60s and early 70s a shift of emphasis occurred “…from English as information to English as activity. The objectives in English are concerned with what the pupil does and can do in English, not with what he (sic) knows about it in some theoretical way.” (NSW Syllabus support document 1972 in Watson 1994:40.)

In addition, through the 70s and early 80s teachers sought clues to good literacy teaching in the practices of proficient readers and writers (Goodman 1988; Murray 1982). Among the outcomes in literacy practice were the process approach to writing, psycholinguistic approaches to reading and the whole language view of literacy learning in general. Carol Zucker (1993) encapsulates the essence of whole language:

According to whole language, the fundamental basis for literacy learning emphasizes, among other things, the integration of content curriculum areas and the four related language processes of reading, writing, listening, and speaking in authentic settings. It is based on the premise that students can gain competence in these areas if they are immersed in a literate environment, given opportunities to communicate through print, and provided with supportive feedback.

One articulate exponent of whole language has been Brian Cambourne who emphasises the crucial role in literacy development of what he called conditions of learning (Cambourne 1988) which may be summarised as follows:

Learners need:

a) immersion in appropriate texts.

b) appropriate demonstrations.

c) responsibility for making some decisions about when, how and what they read and write.

d) high expectations about themselves as potential readers and writers.

e) high expectations about their abilities to complete the reading and writing tasks they attempt.

f) freedom to approximate mature and/or ‘ideal’ forms of reading and writing.

g) time to engage in the acts of reading and writing.

h) opportunities to employ developing reading and writing skills and knowledge in meaningful and purposeful contexts.

i) responses and feedback from knowledgeable others which both support and inform their attempts at constructing meaning using written language.

j) plenty of opportunities, with respect to the written form of language, to reflect upon and make explicit what they are learning.

When Whitfield examined the practices of reading teachers K-12 in the Botany region of Sydney in 1993 he found this to be the dominant approach, aside from a minority who favoured such skills-centred, bottom-up approaches as the Macquarie Probes, for example. However, many teachers were taking up the genre pedagogy advocated by the various Metropolitan East Disadvantaged Schools projects on literacy and the then developing English K-6 syllabus document, the final version of which has recently been published. In very many cases the genre pedagogy was deployed in a whole language framework. Typical of this blend of approaches is this STLD (support teacher learning difficulties) teacher in an Infants School:

We work within a framework of a Whole Language Classroom, which reflects also a Naturalistic Approach, and by Naturalistic Approach we mean that the conditions which are operating when a child learns to talk can also be applied to the classroom. Within that Whole Language framework we also do the Genre Writing Approach based on Halliday’s Systemic Functional Model of language and learning. What we are actually talking about is that children have a purpose or a social goal and an audience in mind. So we work with all these frameworks, so I guess we’re a bit eclectic in the approaches and methodologies that we actually use. (Whitfield 1993:4.)

To the ESL trained teacher all this has a familiar ring. Stephen Krashen immediately comes to mind, with his emphasis on acquisition as primary compared to learning, his emphasis on comprehensible input, and the various ‘natural approaches’ modelled on the way in which the infant learns his or her first language (Lightbown and Spada 1993:26-29; Brown 1994:65-66; Dulay, Burt and Krashen 1982). In both whole language and the Natural Approach to L2 teaching, there is a faith in the implicit, subconscious operations of some ‘language acquisition device’ which simply needs the right kind of stimulation, the most auspicious kind of environment, to kick in with language acquisition.

Both whole language and Natural Approaches are attractive, and it is fair to say that they have enhanced the learning and educational experiences of many students. Both mainstream and second-language classes became places where meaning was valued, where communication really took place, where the students could deploy their growing resources of language in interesting and stimulating ways.

Looking back through my own teaching in the 1970s and 1980s I must acknowledge the positive inputs of this family of approaches and their continuing relevance. Among the benefits was an opening of the concerns of English teaching to the world itself, including the mass media and issues of importance in the lives of students and their communities. It was a liberation from the narrow round of literary text analysis, vapid ‘compositions”, mechanical ‘comprehensions’ and arbitrarily sequenced sentence grammar exercises. Students engaged in reception and production of much more authentic texts for real purposes. There was more scope for small group work and an increase in classroom talk and reflection on process. We all found much to be excited about in those years.

It was not all fizz and excitement, however, with blind faith in the students to become literate ‘naturally’. Bob Walshe, an influential advocate in NSW of the process approach to writing, always advocated careful attention to what he called the ‘writing situation’ with attention to the effect on text of variables such as purpose, audience and context. He also advocated the teaching of a minimal sentence grammar, preferably as the need arose in students’ writing. (See Emmitt and Pollock 1991:103.)

Conscious study of language was recommended even by the ‘growth through English’ school:

What is clear, however, is that working with themes allows for a natural flow between talk, drama, writing and reading, and for varieties of language and genres to be explored within each mode. By giving pupils the chance to engage with experience through different varieties, the teacher is helping them to understand more clearly the opportunities and constraints which each offers, but also that experiences can be ordered, modified, and seen differently through working in different ways with language. (Stratta, Dixon and Wilkinson 1973:105.)


Looking at Cambourne’s conditions of learning, too, one can see there something beyond mere faith in students’ own innate capacities. While it is true that the approaches we have been discussing so far emphasise the ‘learning through language’ part of the Hallidayan triad (Anstey and Bull 1996: 2, 12) at the expense, perhaps, of ‘learning of language’ and ‘learning about language’, there is scope in conditions (b) ‘appropriate demonstrations’ and (i) ‘responses and feedback from knowledgeable others’ for that to take place, if the teacher has the appropriate tools. In an influential contribution to the debate on learning to write, Martin found this was often not the case:

The fact that currently in Australia most teachers and students share next to no knowledge about language is a crippling problem for educational linguistics. (Martin 1986 in Painter and Martin (eds) 1986:12.)

Martin also claimed that he and Joan Rothery constantly found ‘ideological hang-ups about intervening at all’:

To take just a very few examples: many people view texts as private property and feel it is wrong to tamper with something someone else owns; or there are people who treat writing (I should perhaps say authoring) as creative expression, and conclude that if we give children models, we will crush the poet or author the child might otherwise become; or, to take a third, many members of our culture perceive children first and foremost as individuals, and worry that if we teach them to write they will all come out the same. (Martin 1986:12.)


Such views did exist, perhaps still do; however, as Paul Brock points out, the idea that ‘Children should own their own writing and never be directed to do anything with their writing’, for example, is actually disavowed by Donald Graves one of the founding figures of process writing (Brock 1998:12.) We have already seen that there is no necessary contradiction between providing models, teaching the stages of a genre, intervening with the writing process at any level, or exploring how texts work and a whole language approach using Cambourne’s conditions of learning.

As a secondary mainstream English teacher I benefited greatly from the insights of the various whole language approaches. The most important element for me was the stress on making meaning. I had by 1983 been modifying (but not rejecting) a cultural heritage model, the growth and whole language models, and adding insights from various linguistic sources, among them such early formulations of the functional model of language as Benson and Greaves (1973) and of critical linguistics (Kress and Hodge 1979), together with developments in the early 1980s in semiotics and post-modernism, such as Barthes (1977), Image- Music-Text. I was able then to formulate the following statement of purpose to which I still essentially subscribe.

I am concerned here with theory at a fairly low level of generality; or, putting it another way, I am in search of models and procedures which might make my practice more effective, more critical, or more broadly based… In all of this I am making the following assumptions about English teaching:

1. Language creates and orders meanings, personal and social, outward and inward. Language is the primary means of creating, expressing and interpreting the self, in the context of society and history. Language is also a means of ordering and interpreting reality. While there are many difficult theoretical questions raised by the idea that language constructs the self and reality, we cannot give up the idea that in doing so language is more than merely self-reflexive.

2. Central to English teaching is the learner as meaning-maker, a participant in the network of meanings that constitute our culture.

3. In using and studying language or other means of meaning-making in a variety of contexts and realizations, the learner grows more competent, more aware, and less helpless. (Published in The Teaching of English, NSW English Teachers’ Association, 1983.)


I would love to take up issues concerned with the status today of the cultural heritage model as of considerable relevance to, for example, the 1998 draft Stage 6 English Syllabus in NSW, and a controversial aspect of literacy broadly defined. Any vestigial Leavisism (adherence to the elitist literary ideas of F R Leavis, the English critic) has for me been effectively killed off by Andrew Reimer’s Sandstone Gothic (Sydney, Allen and Unwin 1998), but the issues raised on the one hand, say, by Fish (1994) and on the other by Denby (1996) are still to me extremely important. Such issues are dealt with in Maybin and Spencer (1996) in a most digestible manner.

Fascinating too, given that I work in a situation where the ‘minorities’ are now the majority, are issues raised in post-colonial studies such as Said (1985, 1994) and Webb and Enstice (1998). Texts such as Martino (1997) and Kenworthy and Kenworthy (1997) provide models for a post-colonial, critically literate reading practice. The cross-cultural anthology From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt (Whitfield 1995) attempts to come to grips with some of these issues. I might add that much can also be gained from Macken-Horarik (1995 and 1996) whose conceptualising of the curriculum (in English and Science) in terms of an extended functional language model has much influenced Feez (1998) in her text-based syllabus design for ELT. However, while I find Macken-Horarik’s articles quite inspiring , I think at the moment she underplays the potential of ‘canonical’ literary studies and the whole field of creativity and imagination, perhaps in reaction to rather less informed practice in the past.


A problem with the whole language approach may stem from what at first seems an advantage: that it is concerned with the growth of the individual child.

While a number of studies have found good results with the whole language model in second language (Lim and Watson 1993) and learning disabilities classes (Zucker 1993), the weight of evidence seems on the side of those who suggest that whole language alone may not be enough. The seminal research of Brice-Heath (1994) and other research reported by Gee (1990) are sufficient reminder that students arrive at school with much already learned, and the degree to which this learning may or may not be congruent with school learning could affect outcomes achieved by some ‘natural’ pedagogy alone. Students may need an ‘apprenticeship in literacy’ (Wells 1991); indeed it would be unjust to deny them such an apprenticeship in the interests of ‘personal growth’ or even some perhaps sentimental sense of social equity (Delpit 1988):

In an insightful study entitled “Racism without Racists: Institutional Racism in Urban Schools”, Massey, Scott and Dornbusch (1975) found that under the pressures of teaching, and with all intentions of “being nice”, teachers had essentially stopped attempting to teach Black children.. ..As I have been reminded by many teachers since the publication of my article, those who are most skillful at educating Black and poor children do not allow themselves to be placed in “skills” or “process” boxes. They understand the need for both approaches, the need to help students to establish their own voices, but to coach those voices to produce notes that will be heard in the larger society. (Delpit 1988:296)

In such a spirit a number of teams working in Sydney from the later 1980s on literacy education, principally through the old Disadvantaged Schools Program, began applying the functional model of language to literacy in schools, especially at first to writing. (For example, Callaghan and Rothery 1988, Rothery 1992, Knapp and Watkins 1994.) Their work has been most influential.

Without going into too much detail here, I would say the essential elements that have proved useful in this approach to literacy education are:

1. A clear sense of text, of the importance of using whole texts.

2. A clear sense of language as social semiotic, of the ways the resources of language enact and achieve social purposes.

3. A much more satisfactory metalanguage for mapping the contexts of situation and contexts of culture that constrain the language in a text. The mode continuum, for example, maps clearly the differences between speech and writing (Hammond 1990), and this in turn can be explored by students in their reading and writing and may also be used by teachers to help organise their programming (Feez 1998:81-83).

4. A more satisfactory metalanguage for looking at the language itself at all levels ranging from the graphophonic, through lexis to sentence and text. A somewhat less scholastic version of this metalanguage has been adopted in the 1998 NSW K-6 English Syllabus and in the 1997 and 1998 Literacy documents from the NSW Department of Education and Training. In looking at textuality, for example, I have found the idea of word-chains and other forms of cohesion enabling for my students, both mainstream and ESL.

5. A sense of genre or text-type, and the ability to discern the stages and characteristic lexical and syntactic patterns that typically mark each text-type. This can be a powerful tool for developing reading and writing, making much that was previously implicit or mysterious accessible to students.

6. A clearly articulated teaching-learning cycle, typically involving negotiating the field, deconstructing context and text, joint construction and independent construction of text. (Rothery 1992:30.)

Needless to say none of this has escaped criticism. As we shall see, it does not constitute a complete account of literacy, but it does address the ‘learning of language’ and ‘learning about language’ arms of the Hallidayan triad, as well as the ‘learning through language’ arm. It is also productive in all Key Learning Areas. In my own school continuing inservice work in this area has raised the consciousness of teachers in all faculties about the language they use, the language of textbooks and examinations, and the language students are expected to process and produce. The idea that Science and Mathematics are sites for language teaching no longer seems alien; the idea that the English Department or the ESL teacher ‘looks after all that’ seems to be dying. Teachers are now developing a common language for talking about text and literacy.


One rather interesting criticism of genre pedagogy has come from within the genre camp itself. While asserting that it is the only pedagogy worth considering (a touch arrogant perhaps?), Ruqaiya Hasan (1996:402-404) speaks of a tendency, noted by Alan Luke amongst others, for genre-based pedagogy to reproduce existing social relations by following currently approved models of discourse. Against that, she says, is the greater problem of maintaining the inequities of the social system by not teaching the educational genres that such gatekeepers as HSC examiners are looking for. However she does see a potential problem in the lack of encouragement of reflection in many genre-based programs:

So an important question is whether in learning discursive ability through genre-based pedagogy, one is also learning the ability to analyse and to challenge the desirability of the prevalent ways of being, doing and saying… The implied underlying message of this pedagogy is conformism, a respect for convention which is not required to be tempered by analytical reflection. (Hasan 1996:404- 405.)

Hasan goes on, of course, to propose a ‘reflection literacy’ whose aim is to ‘produce in the pupils a disposition to distrust doxic knowledge, that is, knowledge whose sole authority is the authority of someone in authority.’ (Hasan 1996:412)

A worry similar to Hasan’s occurs to me as I examine the marking criteria for the ELLA Year 7 literacy tests. They are criterion-referenced, so one either does or does not score on a series of purely formal and textual criteria, couched though they may be in the language of the functional model. Nowhere, it occurs to me, is there scope for the brilliant if eccentric response, nowhere is what the student says actually taken into account. I have real reservations about this which seems to me formalism out of control in the interests of producing a “measure” essentially for political consumption, that drivel with the appropriate formal or generic characteristics is indistinguishable in this test from intelligent writing. However, it can also be said that ELLA has some diagnostic use, particularly for ESL teachers who can line up certain criteria in reading and writing with ESL Scales indicators.

However, does ELLA measure literacy? It depends what you mean…


The arguments put forward by Hasan (1996) echo earlier work by Kress (1988), Freebody and Luke (1990) and Wells (1991). They can be followed extensively, along with excursions into feminist and post-colonial reading practices, in Muspratt, Luke and Freebody (1997). Essentially these are family quarrels as all these writers share a concern for the contextual, social and ideological dimensions of language and literacy. While they differ in detail, proposals for critical literacy share a concern that Ernest Hemingway once said was the aim of education: to provide students with a “built-in crap detector.”

A feature of these discussions is the idea that there is not a single literacy, but rather “literacies”. By this is meant not only the principle that different fields and registers or media might require different reading practices (decoding images/ advertisements; “reading” film; interpreting law, and so on). We all engage in a range of literacy practices involving various domains of discourse (Brice-Heath 1994; Barton 1991).

A further dimension is that text in any domain is never neutral but is implicated in ideology. Text positions us as acted on or acting, as male or female, straight or gay, mainstream or marginal. Text enacts power relations (Kress 1988). Rothery builds this into her version of the functional model of language (1992) as does Martin (1993), while Macken-Horarik (1995 and 1996) incorporates this aspect of language as social semiotic into her model of the curriculum.

Literacy or literacies encompass at least four levels. Wells (1991), Hasan (1996) and Freebody and Luke (1990) come up with similar descriptions. In the case of Freebody and Luke these are:

1. Learning your role as a code breaker. This includes decoding skills, being able to process print.

2. Learning your role as a text participant. This enables the reader to access the network of meanings in a text, and may include access to necessary background or cultural knowledge. (In an interesting study of himself learning Cantonese,
Sinclair Bell (1995) found this could include teaching and learning styles considered appropriate in the L1 and L2 cultural settings, indeed even cultural concepts of writing itself. Sinclair Bell found that an unexpected mismatch between himself and his teacher in this regard inhibited his learning of Cantonese, not only in this role but also in the role of code breaker.)

3. Learning your role as text user. Here the learner is enabled through classroom demonstrations and discussion to participate in a range of social situations beyond the everyday. These may include important gatekeeping situations such as the ability to read and interpret a literary text in the manner valued by the culture one is being inducted into, where that differs from the culture of the home. Much of the genre pedagogy is directed at this role.

4. Learning your role as text analyst. Here there is “an expanded notion of what has traditionally been called critical reading” (Freebody and Luke 1990:7). It corresponds fairly closely to Wells’s concept of “epistemic literacy” (Wells 1991:3-4) and to Hasan’s “reflection literacy” (Hasan 1996:32-36). Perhaps Hasan’s version is the most radical, proposing “a literacy that turns back upon the very systems that perpetuate the literacy teaching practices in a society”, an ability to deconstruct text in order to throw into relief its ideological antecedents, to perceive with clarity what the text is doing to you, a reading of resistance. (Such a person could not possibly support Pauline Hanson, or even Dr Kemp whose interventions in the literacy debate both before and after becoming a government minister have done much to fuel popular panic, but have been narrow in their concept of literacy and even downright devious in their interpretation of the available data. Paul Brock covers this well [1998:6-8].)

Macken-Horarik (1995 and 1996) gives concrete examples of such literacies in practice in the pedagogy of an English teacher in a Western Sydney School. In our own school we have a unit on heroes in Year 8, another on news in Year 10, where texts in many media are examined, analysed and written and/or performed in order to develop critical literacy. The Topic Area in Year 12 2-Unit General English provided many opportunities for similar activity, as do units such as that proposed on the media creation of Princess Diana in the 1998 English Stage 6 draft syllabus.

A range of texts is appearing that may help provide material and examples for teachers (for example Schill 1996, Whitfield 1995, Kenworthy and Kenworthy 1997, Martino 1997). The best option, however, would seem to be in being open to possibilities in all Key Learning Areas for demonstrating and practising literacies of all kinds wherever possible, and more aware of the literacy demands our particular Key Learning Area is making.


My own position (and that of many I suspect) has been an evolving one. Rather than earlier approaches being absolutely displaced by later ones, I have tended to keep what works from many perspectives. So when I embraced aspects of the process or whole language approaches, it was because these opened up the range of things students could do; but I continued to look at sentence grammar, paragraphing, spelling and so on. Teaching of grammar and style was enhanced by reading in the areas of stylistics and language variation in the later 1970s and 1980s, and these were in turn strengthened by the genre pedagogy of the early 1990s. An abiding concern of most English teachers has been critical reading; the meaning and scope of that has been enriched by insights from Freebody and Luke, Kress and Hasan, to name a few.


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