I am a teacher of English teachers and I never want to hear the term “basic skills” ever again

By Kelli McGraw

Lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology

One cohort at a time, I am doing my bit to erase the misleading, poorly defined, and often destructive term ‘basic skills’ from educational discourse.

I ask my second year student teachers in their first assignment in English Curriculum Studies to explain their philosophy on English teaching and tell me which teaching methods they think are important in 2014.

I warn them, ” If you tell me that you advocate a ‘basic skills’ approach to teaching I will fail your paper.”

I won’t. (I only tell them this afterwards.)

What I am trying to do is make them think deeply about their work as future English teachers. I want them to better articulate what kinds of skills they consider fundamental to living a healthy, happy, literate life.

I believe the discussion and debate this produces is invaluable to their understanding as aspiring teachers in the 21st century.

Why do I bother with this?

The term ‘basic skills’ is an affront to educators like me on many levels.

Firstly, there are the negative connotations of the term ‘basic’. If these skills are so basic, as in ‘boring’ or ‘unintriguing’, we should not be surprised that students don’t flock to master them. Nor should we be surprised when teachers opt not to employ teaching methods that drill students on them, lest they run the risk of boring everyone to death.

Secondly, it belies the complex task of engaging students with learning in areas such as literacy or numeracy. To non-teachers who insist on using the term basic skills I say: if  the job of teaching reading (for example) is so basic, then how about you try it?

I can tell you it involves a lot more than putting sight words up on the wall and setting spelling tests each Friday.

Thirdly, I find when most people talk about basic skills, they do so with very little knowledge of what is currently covered in the Australian Curriculum. ‘Literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ are very clearly listed as two of seven General Capabilities , alongside fields such as ‘critical and creative thinking’ and ‘ICT capability’. This reflects current ideas in education – that the ‘Three-Rs’ alone are not enough to provide a foundation for a productive and meaningful adult life.

Am I just being pedantic?

No, I don’t think so. The terms we use to describe ideas MATTER.

As an English teacher, I know this. I want so desperately for all my students to know this too.

By taking the term “basic skills” away, my students are forced to articulate what it is they actually believe in. If it is indeed literacy and numeracy I wanted them to be able to explain their definition of such terms.

Is it literacy? If so, they can use the wealth of available theory on literate practices and multiliteracies to argue their case.

Is it life skills? If so, the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum identify a 21st century set of ‘skills’. These currently underpin Australian schooling and should be explored and debated.

Is it the need for increased rates of adult literacy to promote social justice? If so, then it is time to explore  issues of Indigenous literacy  and global trends .

So what should you do, as one student recently asked, when people insist on using the term “basic skills”?

You could suggest they make a list of basic skills. Most people have no such list in mind (which begs the question – if the skills are so basic, why can’t most people articulate what they are?).

Good bye basic skills!

I know I can’t change the world overnight. But I do hope that by banning the term basic skills from assignments in my own class I can get 100+ students each semester to think deeply about what they might do in their classrooms as qualified Australian English teachers.

And I can tell you there is nothing basic about that.



Dr Kelli McGraw is a lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her current research is on the role of social media technologies in engaging first year university students, and the use of online writing for assessment. Previously she worked as a teacher of high school English in South-western Sydney, NSW. Kelli is the Vice President of the English Teachers Association of Queensland. You can reach her via twitter: @kmcg2375

2 thoughts on “I am a teacher of English teachers and I never want to hear the term “basic skills” ever again

  1. Ania Lian says:

    Thank you Kelli,
    In fact we could go further and request our students not to use terms which are not conceptually contextrualised. In relation to basic skills, I wonder if critical thinking is not more basic – we can survive without reading but not without thinking. So what is your pick? We can survive if we have dyslexia (in fact quite well) but we cannot live without creativity as people do not replicate the past, they use past as building-blocks. Anyway, to follow on with my frustrations regarding the labels we use to cover up our own lack of thinking, what about others like “engaging students” – what would this mean and how do we explain this term so that our pre-service teachers can relate it to a process which they can then turn into a learning support for their students. Yes learning support not a teaching activity. Any other terms? Yes scaffolding! Yes another term that makes our discourses feel cozy while making them also fuzzy. This is another one of those fantasies from the industrial era and maybe earlier that teachers can mould students, i.e. they can invent a process that will “inform the sequencing of classroom tasks for children and the means by which the teachers lead children through those tasks.” – Yes I have taken the above text from the Direct Instruction website, but really, isn’t this what the scaffolding is about? Isn’t it about asking the right questions and providing students with the right activities so that they can reach the outcomes as we understand them? And if we stick into this discourse the words like “learner-centred” and “gradually we enable children to decide for themselves”, it makes the discourse even more cozy and feel good. Really, how do we justify this kind of labelling? I would think that pasting Vygotsky 1925 alone (with some evidence drawing on Vygotsky made up criteria) would not be enough considering that others wrote academic work contemporary to him and after him. So the war may not be on the term ‘basic’ alone. As you say Kelli, we need to problematise our terms and we can begin to do so first by asking questions of ourselves – what is that thing we are talking about and what makes is it true?
    Ania Lian
    Charles Darwin University
    School of Education

  2. Kelli McGraw says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment Ania.
    I agree wholeheartedly about the importance of critical thinking – one of the reasons I quite like the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum is that ‘critical and creative thinking’ is counted as one of the seven GCs, alongside ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’. ‘Ethical understanding’ and ‘intercultural understanding’ also feature. And far from being shoved in there as cozy, feel-good terms, there is explicit information about Organising Elements of each GC, and advice on what each capability looks like at different stages of learning. I wish that more journalists and politicians would read this level of detail before opening their mouths about ‘basics’!

    Breaking down big concepts like ‘engagement’ for pre-service teachers sure can be tough. I encourage my own student to do a mental “why should a teenager care about this?” or “what does this have to do with your students’ life outside school?” test on their lessons, and that seems to help. You are quite right that the theory is thick, and that ‘follow Vygotsky’ is an over-simplification.

    I have found that frameworks such as the Productive Pedagogies model (sadly being edged out now in QLD) and the Quality Teaching Framework (thankfully still going strong in NSW) are incredibly helpful for giving explicit advice on teaching practice for pre-service teachers.

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