Rosemary Johnston

The study of novels and poetry is essential for senior secondary students

The serious dumbing down of the senior English syllabus in NSW will have significant repercussions for students, employers, writers, poets, and Australian culture.

The changes have been widely criticized. The worst ones are the reduction in texts to be studied, the study of both novels and poetry becoming optional and the formerly non-ATAR English course now becoming assessable for the ATAR. My colleague Don Carter, who in a former role led the team developing the non-ATAR course, is greatly concerned by how this will affect students, as is Jackie Manuel, who has examined these changes in detail here on this blog.

Yes we understand the importance of STEM education and why it needs special attention these days. Also it can’t be denied that film, media and digital texts are part of today’s technologies so should be studied. And bottom line, these changes to HSC English will save money by cutting marking time.

So why worry about our HSC students skipping novels and poetry in their final year of school? What have novels and poetry got to offer in today’s world?

So much, so very much.

Why studying  novels and poetry should be compulsory

The intensive study of multiple texts, written from diverse points of view and cultural heritages, gives a vicarious glimpse of the worlds of others. Literature is the ultimate virtual reality.


In a novel, and without fancy gaming scenes and movement, sound effects, actors and cinematography, literary worlds (and plot and characters) are built by a writer using one simple tool, the infinite arrangements of an alphabet consisting of a mere 26 letters, and are then sustained and grown by readers’ imaginations.

Intensive study of novels grows awareness of how words can be used and manipulated, in both positive and negative ways, and helps us learn how we, and others, respond to such words, as well as how we can use them. Forensic study of novels, delving beyond the top layer and investigating how language creates characters and conveys feelings and emotions somehow sparks all senses; hearing, seeing, feeling, touching, smelling. Observing and studying people both like and unlike ourselves in crafted case studies in a created world provides resources that mature our understandings of our own world.

Exploring how novels and poetry (I’ll come to poetry in a minute) work, not only breeds creativity, that highly sought-after attribute when everyone is talking ‘innovation’, it also expands awareness of other perspectives, ways of thinking, and needs and problems. A novel can change cultures and bring about social change. Think about the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said on meeting author Harriet Beecher Stowe, ‘So this is the little lady whose book started a big war.’ He was of course referring to the American Civil War.

This lowering of standards by NSW represents a lowering of expectations and is a sad reflection of our impoverished educational philosophy. It’s a scary repeat of the scrapping of grammar decades ago.

In a few years we’ll (suddenly!) discover that Australian students are lagging behind world standards not only in literacy and reading and writing skills but in cultural literacy, creativity, nuanced thinking and the ability to critically analyse language.

The more people and experiences we are exposed to, actually, and virtually (and I repeat, literature is of course a virtual reality), the more we learn to respect others and respect difference. As David Parker notes, novels are ‘sites of the culture’s deepest moral questionings’; Simon Haines writes that they are sites of ‘ethical reflection’.

This is the ethical reflection of deep literacy, not just respect but a generous and intimate understanding of others that makes us hope for their wellbeing. Writing about the novel, Martha Nussbaum says that ‘respect for a soul’ is ‘built into the genre itself’. In other words it makes us more empathic, more collaborative, better teammates. It makes for more flexibility in thinking, more agility in considering how things can be done.

And some of our most beautiful novels can be challenging and need a guide (good teachers!) to introduce us to them. I’m thinking of Tim Winton’s opening lines in Cloudstreet – ‘The beautiful, the beautiful, the river’, and David Malouf’s description of the sea in Remembering Babylon:

It glows in fullness till the tide is high and the light almost, but not quite, unbearable, as the moon plucks at our world and all the waters of the earth ache towards it ….

Extended exposure to creative imageries such as these encourage a similar ache, and the capacity to listen with the mind as well as the ear, to see with the spirit as well as the eyes. Creativity is contagious; it jumps from one thought to another, from one imagination to another, from one mode of expression to another.


Poetry is the literary genre that first attracts children into language. Think of ‘Round and round the garden/Dancing teddy bear’ and ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’: rhythm and rhyme, sound and imagery. Poetry is important both for philosophical and pragmatic reasons, both for self enhancement (life enhancement) and for the skills it grows.

Poetry breeds and cultivates and demonstrates succinctness of expression, depths of thinking that generate a creative climate of shared human-ness – humanity. It uses words like Russian dolls; open up one word and another one tumbles out, wrapped in thoughts and feelings and scattering other images along the way. Advertisers and jingle writers know and love this, and we need our children to understand how it happens.

Poetry is like a theorem; a few words can express a deep thought. I’ve used this example before, but it’s just so apt:


This world of dew

is but a world of dew,

and yet …oh, and yet.    

Koyabayashi Issa (1763-1828)

The words are so simple, we know what each one means. But what is this famous haiku actually saying? It feels repetitive, unfinished. It’s like saying an apple is an apple, and the ‘and yet’ repeated at the end means – what?

These words stand on the surface of a complex thought, above not just one idea but many (philosophical, creative, intellectual, universal, particular) that may provoke, delight, and/or unsettle. We know what ‘dew’ is ( the dictionary says it is ‘moisture condensed from the atmosphere especially at night’) but this simple definition unravels into other ideas pertaining to moisture; water, morning, dawn. These in turn tumble into thoughts about dawn as being a new day, as being either a fresh start or a despairing start (or both), and moisture and water as both that which assuages thirst and as the moisture of tears and sweat, sorrow and exhaustion, or sometimes of great happiness and pleasure.

So, almost subliminally, this invites the reader to take a thought plunge into both the profound delights and the profound sadness of the world and indeed of human existence. And whichever way we read this, as delight or sadness, or both, or neither, there is always the ‘and yet’, the something else, the other side, the perhaps holy or perhaps unholy concomitance.

Poetry – using the magic of sound as well as sense – energises rigour of thought and the imagination that recognises and engages with the enigmas and the puzzles of the ‘and yet, oh and yet.’ It acknowledges and accentuates the wondering (and the wonder).

And Australian poetry! The line of a simple ballad is with me every time I look up at a starry sky: ‘And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars’. Simple, some say trite, I say tapping into and enlarging the experience of being human, of being part of a mind-staggering universe.

If young Australians don’t have to study it, will they know such poetry exists? They may miss John Shaw’s Nielson’s delicate ‘Love’s coming’ (a wonderful antidote to the current deluge of lovers on reality TV); and Judith Wright’s “five senses’ that ‘gather into a meaning/all acts, all presences’; and Lionel Fogarty’s ‘sweet peace crowned country’ and Martin Harrison’s morning song, ‘As early as this – it’s just after dawn – you’re overwhelmed by the glimmering of things’; and Paolo Totaro’s cry against war when a child picks up something that looks like a pomegranate: ‘Where did it come from, that winsome hand-grenade?’

Studying novels and poetry is needed in this new global world

Most of all, intensive study of novels and poetry grows a willingness to engage with ambiguity. Think of that ‘world of dew’ again. We haven’t got all the answers and our point of view is not always right. And the idea of ‘right’ may always be ambiguous.

Think about quantum theory and the theory of relativity. The position of the observer is always disruptive and time is not absolute.

I have heard whispers of the idea of ‘unknowing’ creeping into educational discourse, and applaud this. Part of deep engagement with novels and poetry helps us to understand that we just don’t always know and that we need to acknowledge our unknowing. This is not a deficit, but a part of growth. Life is profound and mysterious; in philosopher Cora Diamond’s words:

There is far more to things, to life, than we know or understand. Such a feeling is tied to a rejection of the spirit of knowingness often found in abstract moral and social theorising.

It is this that helps individuals to commit to a moral order beyond the self and to connect, with integrity, to community.

By cutting the need for high-level study of a range of novels and poetry are we really equipping our students for global futures?

NESA, please rethink this decision, which is not grounded on pedagogical principles or research, and is contrary to the feedback received from so many experts.

Our students are worth more than this.


Rosemary Ross Johnston is Professor of Education and Culture at UTS, and is the Director of the International Research Centre for Youth Futures. Her latest book, Australian Literature for Young People, is currently in press with Oxford.





Last week (end of March 2017) NESA did a back-flip and announced a new ruling “to clarify the requirement to study a novel in Year 12 in English”.

Read about it here.

Australopedia is teaching Australian children the power of storytelling


I believe in the power of story. Storytelling is the way we make sense of our lives, and the lives of others; it’s part of every discipline, every thought, every image. It’s part of running a restaurant as well as running the Olympics, of window dressing as well as quantum physics. Could you imagine Brian Cox without his stories?

I have had a dream for years about projects for young people that would use the power of storytelling. My dream is all about children creating and recreating stories, discovering and telling stories about their families, cultures and the places they live. I could see children using storytelling to talk about who, where and what they are, to create new stories about themselves and rejig old, perhaps less positive, stories.

Reading is of course an integral and wonderful part of this dream. These stories would be created for all to read. They would be gathered and told by young people using their particular talents and their fresh eyes to see potential and possibilities and options for futures.

Maybe, especially for the vulnerable (and many young people are vulnerable), writing a new story could make a new story.

Locality would be basic to all of this. All localities are interesting to me. I love it when books or films are situated in real places where, through the lens of a story, I am exposed to the previously unnoticed. There are so many films I could mention that do this, but a recently watched one called The Lake House. It took me to parts of Chicago I had never seen. I saw the prettiness in the midst of the grime.

My dream as a part of schooling

I have given much thought to how we could use the school curriculum to inspire projects to be part of this storytelling dream. I know the curriculum today has children learning about their local areas and they do local exploring. But could we inspire children to tell stories about it all? Get them to record their experiences of local places, to speak with local families about their experiences say of leaving ‘home’ for a new country; or go to a local RSL or retirement village and gather oral histories; or tell stories about when the first local roads and early shops/churches/banks were built; or find stories about local geographies and ecologies; discover local Aboriginal histories, legends, stories about language and names for places and landmarks (rivers, creeks, rocks, hills).

In my dream I could see each school represented nationally not only in terms of its marks (as on the My School website) but in terms of its cultural richness of places and people.

What I could see was a sort of cultural mosaic of Australian school communities, a jigsaw in which each school/community would be a piece. There is so much more to Australian schools and Australian children than the numbers and scores that represent them on the My School website. My dream was for a sort of ‘Our Place’ or ‘Our Community’ website made up of stories gathered and told by Australian children.

Storytelling helps people connect

Storytelling is powerful in building relationships. It was my experience working with students in challenging circumstances through the IMC Sky High program that made me think about how storytelling might help build relationships within schools and beyond, in the homes of the children and the local community. I saw how families and schools and businesses and clubs can exist in the same locality but be separate, not just in siloes, but sometimes, because of cultural and/or social differences, in distrustful siloes.

So my dream was to use children’s storytelling not only to motivate and create new opportunities to succeed but also to help create meaningful connections where communities can celebrate the local environment and those who live in it.

The Australopedia dream

australopedia-launchWith a lot of help my storytelling dream has come into being. It was launched last month at NSW Parliament House by the premier, with the minister for education and the minister for planning also present. The website is under construction, and will be ready for the first projects coming in from IMC Sky High schools.

Australopedia is a digital, multimedia, multimodal encyclopedia celebrating people, place, and local community. It will be composed of the stories of schools and their communities, stories that are linked to curriculum and created by children and teachers as part of their normal school work.

It is a new model for project-based, interdisciplinary, self-directed learning and real-world collaborations with families, communities, businesses and organisations. Stories can be told through prose, poetry, artwork, music, dance, drama, film clip, interviews, photographs, documentaries.

Australopedia will encompass heritage stories and oral histories collected from local citizens and local heroes. It will explore the local impact of real-life issues and apply STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) knowledge to possible solutions (eg local roads, services, water pollution, public transport). It will discover and record local Indigenous histories, legends and languages and give a platform for appreciating, protecting and enhancing the local environment. And it will all be written/collected/artistically created by children.

And yes, it emerges from strong and progressive pedagogical principles.

Pedagogical principles underpinning Australopedia

Recent research notes the significance of the following for schools and future-focus learning:

  • deeper learning approaches such as project- and challenge-based learning
  • a focus on projects and active demonstrations of knowledge acquisition (note the example of Finland)
  • students as creators of knowledge not just consumers
  • collaborative learning opportunities that are learner- centred, emphasise interaction and doing, and work in groups towards developing solutions to real-world problems:

‘Collaborative learning models are proving successful in improving student engagement and achievement, especially for disadvantaged students.’

  • students working in teams in real world contexts to create a final product and develop skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and communication
  • active and meaningful relationships, productive and purposeful interaction and partnerships with parent and school communities
  • interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary learning – how knowledge and skills fit together
  • a rubric that offers diverse students with diverse talents diverse opportunities for success
  • student engagement in (and contribution to ) real world – local world – issues and problems

StArters and STEAMers

It’s very early days for Australopedia, but exciting. It’s all about relationships and collaboration. We have a UTS team skilled in professional learning and development of teachers. We are also gathering a group of expert writers and artists in children’s literature. We are calling them StArters (stories+art), to run specialist workshops for teachers and students. And this wonderful group will be led by Jackie French, prizewinning author, ex-Children’s Laureate, and the 2015 Senior Australian of the Year.

We are also developing a group of STEAMers. These are experts in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths with the additional A for the necessary accompanying arts of storytelling (yes like Brian Cox!) who will inspire our Australopedia storytellers with their expertise.

A group of Indigenous schools in Western Australia is part of the introduction of the program.

At a recent function at UTS Professor Pat Dudgeon, National Mental Health Commissioner, spoke about the importance of identity, culture, and community. I’d like to add the importance of having opportunities to show other talents and capacities (telling story through art, or music, or dance), especially perhaps when not feeling confident in writing in the mainstream language.

Australopedia celebrates all this and will create a different, deeper, textured, nuanced map. When the school name is tapped, a picture of the school will come up as well as both the Indigenous and English names of its locality. Then the storytelling will begin.

There’s a long way to go, but we’ve started. Every child can be a storyteller. Every school is full of storytellers. Australopedia wants to find them all.


Professor Rosemary Ross Johnston is Professor of Education and Culture and the Director of the  International Research Centre for Youth Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. She leads several large research projects, including IMC Sky High. She has held 3 ARC Grants, a UK Leverhulme Grant and is widely published in the fields of literacy and children’s literature and culture.


The power of reading aloud: not just for babies and little children

A recent study on children’s reading found that fewer children are reading for fun. Worse, as children grow up the less they read for fun.

Does it matter if children don’t read for fun? They are (sort of) reading on devices and mobiles and using social media anyway. And isn’t this mostly for fun?

I believe it does matter, and reading stuff on social media is not enough. Evidence is growing that sustained reading is important, but not only for the sake of getting better at reading. According to an influential study on reading by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and King’s College London, it also impacts education, health, socioeconomic status, and creativity.

The same study concludes:

Since reading is an ability that can be improved, our findings have implications for reading instruction. Early remediation of reading problems might aid not only the growth of literacy, but also more general cognitive abilities that are of critical importance across a person’s lifetime.

Employers are now listing creativity as one of the most important future-focus skills.

But children need more than the skills to read; they need the desire to read. A recent report commissioned by Scholastic found that the more children read, the better readers they become, and the better readers they become, the more they enjoy reading.

Parents are role models

So how to encourage reading? It helps if parents are reading role models and have a pile of books on their bedside table, and if teachers give time in class for children to read a book of their choice independently. It also helps if children are encouraged to browse in libraries and bookshops and choose their own books.

But one of the best ways to encourage a child to read is very simple and very enjoyable: reading aloud.

So read aloud !

This is a message for both schoolteachers and parents.

When do you start reading aloud to your children? As Dorothy Butler said back in 1980 (in her classic Babies Need Books), you start when the child is a baby, the younger the better. Reading aloud celebrates words; the sound of them, the melody of them, the flow of them; and syntax, how words fit together, nouns naming and verbs doing.

It celebrates rhyme and rhythm and the comfortableness of prediction. Think about lullabies, ‘Lula lula lula lula bye bye … .’

Reading aloud with very young children is part of Jerome Bruner’s idea of ‘the courteous translation’ – not just ‘inculcating’ but welcoming children into new knowledge gently and respectfully –and Donald Holdaway’s stress on exposing children to books ‘beyond their immediate needs’.

Books are about creative response as much as intellectual comprehension. Adults can stage manage creative responses by how they read.

Read aloud to proficient readers too

Don’t underestimate the power of reading aloud to very proficient readers. Children report that they enjoy parents reading with them even when they can read well themselves. Listening well is also a literate and imaginative practice.

I read aloud with my university students, not just to model how it can be done and not only to offer a courteous, enticing translation into a complex text. I want them to hear and experience the sounds of the words – the cadences and rhythms and assonances of the sentences. Read aloud to yourself the haunting opening paragraphs of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet:

Will you look at us by the river? … Unless you knew, you’d think they were a whole group, an earthly vision. Because, look, even the missing are there, the gone and taken are with them in the shade pools of the peppermints by the beautiful, the beautiful the river. And even now, one of the here is leaving.

When to read aloud

Reading aloud doesn’t have to happen only at bedtime. I was sometimes just too tired so I read to my kids in the bath, sometimes in the garden, and we always had a holiday book (which they chose) for reading aloud in the afternoons after all the activities of the morning.

What books to read aloud?

I like the idea of an unlimited uninhibited continuum – to let children roam freely in the wonderful world of books (when I first read Gone With the Wind I was also reading the Famous Five). I think both parents and children need to interrogate by practice conventional ideas about the difficulty of certain texts.

Be adventurous. I’ve written elsewhere that there is not so very much difference between the following. There is magic in all these lines:

Each peach pear plum / I spy Tom Thumb / Tom Thumb in the cupboard / I spy Mother Hubbard / Mother Hubbard down the cellar / I spy Cinderella …

Janet and Allan Ahlberg Each peach pear plum


Where the bee sucks, there suck I / In a cowslip’s bell I lie / There I couch when owls do cry / On the bat’s back I do fly /After summer merrily./ Merrily, merrily shall I live now / Under the blossoms that hang on the bough.’

Shakespeare The Tempest Ariel’s Song


The woods are lovely, dark and deep, / And I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.’

Robert Frost Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening


What reading aloud does for children

Reading aloud with children (and the ‘with’ is important, encourage young children to help with sound effects!) grows the wealth of stories that helps to shape our world, both present and future.

The theorist Jürgen Habermas wrote of the idea of the ‘interpretive horizon’: ‘The horizons of our life histories and forms of life…’. That is, horizons, how far ahead we can look, are interpreted in the context of our repertoire of stories, both real and virtual.

Reading aloud gives children opportunities to listen in different contexts and engage in stories that grow confidence, social and life skills, improve physical and mental wellbeing, and enhance senses of identity.

A teacher reading aloud is special

‘There is something special about reading books together at school. A clever teacher can turn the reading experience into an almost theatrical event, and transform ‘the class’ into a keen and interactive audience. A shared story is communal; it is protective to those who are most struggling, who are learning about words, how they sound and what they do; they are helped by hearing others say them. It helps to bring about a shared class-consciousness, a shared memory that enriches and motivates. Reading a shared story every day is one of the most rewarding teaching experiences and one with highly productive outcomes.

The magic of those 26 letters

It’s magical, isn’t it, that reading experience? I point out to my university students that when the first Harry Potter book was turned into a movie, J.K Rowling insisted on the film being true to the book. And it was. To enable this truth to book, we had the efforts of cinematographers, scriptwriters, producers, Jim Henson’s digital effects, editors, and a long list of fantastic actors. It’s a great movie.

But isn’t it amazing that all those people and their different skills and expertise were needed to be ‘true’ to a book that consisted of no more than black marks on a white page?

And that those black marks represent various arrangements of only 26 letters of the alphabet?

That’s the power of the imagination stimulated through the process of reading! That’s the importance of reading!

And that’s what parents and teachers who read aloud can inspire and give to their children. It is the gift of a lifetime.




Rosemary Johnston is Professor of Education and Culture at UTS. She is the founding Director of the International Research Centre for Youth Futures and leads several large research projects, including IMC Sky High. She has held 3 ARC Grants, a UK Leverhulme Grant and is widely published in the fields of literacy and children’s literature and culture.