Teacher literacy skills

‘Invisible’ literacies are literacies for the future. What are they? Why is teaching them vital?

“We have so much pressure on us to teach literacy in our classrooms. The arts are not valued at all except when it comes to public relations and open day”.(Arts teacher)

Improvement in literacy is high stakes in education today. Educators are constantly told literacy results are not good enough and that more testing will help solve the problem.

Tests can indeed tell us how students are achieving at one point in time in traditional or ‘visible’ literacies such as reading and writing text, spelling, punctuation and other language conventions. These are, of course, important basic literacies. However the constant literacy testing in schools focuses on a narrow conception of literacy and literacy skills. It leads to teaching to the test in many classrooms, and significantly it overlooks vital ‘invisible’ literacies that are used in the world today.

We believe these invisible literacies need to be given more prominence and practice in schools and should be more readily recognised by policy makers, curriculum designers and educational leaders as essential to every day life in the 21stcentury.

Our research interest lies specifically in the range of literacies involved in the arts and we have collaborated in a study to look more closely at what is happening in Australia, France and Canada with arts literacies. Our research findings have wide implications for future classroom practice.

What are ‘invisible’ literacies?

Disciplinespecific literacies (literacies that are specifically needed in a discipline, for example, by an historian or a lawyer, in order for them to work effectively in their fields) have been the focus of much research. Content area specialists build knowledge in their field. They use ‘invisible’ and important literacies that go beyond traditional writing text, spelling, punctuation and other conventional literacies. These include other modes (such as collaboration or demonstration) or semiotics (signs, marks) present in different subject areas.

In orderto become an ‘artist’, a ‘scientist’ or an ‘historian’ in the classroom students need to know how knowledge is built through sophisticated uses of a range of modes in the way that such specialists do. Students need to understand the literacy demands placed upon them when reading historical artefacts, scientific reports or laboratory work and/or artworks such as sculptures or musical scores. They also need to know how such specialists go about their work and make meaning of information through various communicative methods.

Invisible literacies in the arts

In the arts for example, teachers support students to interpret others’ artworks and create their own. Students work towards being an artist by the end of their schooling by critically viewing and discussing artistic-aesthetic elements of art.

Arts-literacies are important because they can enable unique ways of looking at the world that aren’t available in any other subject area. American education philosopher, Maxine Greene, calls this way of knowing ‘being wide awake’. Arts literacies help students develop design-thinking, creativity and critical thinking—all skills said to be important for the future workforce.

Artistic practices intrinsically involve the reception-production of “signs” in a continuous process of “translation” from one ‘language’ to another. Of course, being able to talk, read and write about the arts and arts practice is important to the artistic process, however an artist uses much more than visible traditional literacies to create meaning.

They use arts-specific vocabulary, metaphors, embodiment, and other more demanding ways to express themselves through using their art. Additionally, collaboration and sharing are important aspects of arts classrooms. These literacies however, remain invisible, particularly in schools where high stakes tests are used constantly to check up on traditional visible literacies.

Our curriculums acknowledge the need for invisible literacies

In Australia, Canada and France school curricula acknowledge invisible literacies.

The Australian Curriculum for example highlights in the General Capability: Literacy that all teachers are teachers of literacy. The key concepts in this capability are given as text, grammar, word and visual knowledge. (Other modes such as aural, gestural and spatial that are used when we communicate with each other should be included here.) The arts curriculum includes the notions of responding to and making art.

In Canada, the digital arts have been a strong focus in the curriculum, emphasising how artists, arts professionals, and arts community organisations integrate digital tools as part of their practice. The Canadian curriculum is looking to the future on virtual reality and augmented reality for economic and social growth, as well as continuing their recent teaching and research focus on maker education (problem solving or project based learning)

Art and Cultural Education (ACE) in France, allows students to go beyond explore ‘les enseignements artistiques’ or artistic teachings allowed a common good for ‘classical’ school subjects. Two intertwined educational purposes include education about art,whichis about students’ acquisition of genuine artistic knowledge, and education through art, which allows studentsto develop themselves as cultural citizens that contribute to society.

But our research has revealed that teachers are being pressured to teach and practice traditional literacies at the expense of these important arts-literacies.

Why is it important to pay more attention to these ‘invisible’ literacies?

In our research, we argue that certain approaches to literacy are stifling teachers’ work within their disciplines. Rather than continuing to focus only on traditional literacies such as reading and writing in language/linguistic mode, we believe it is time to make ‘invisible’ literacies visible, that is, acknowledged and valued by schools.

Researchers around the world have spent decades looking at the relationships between the arts, well-being, and the ways we perform literacies on a daily basis. Philosophers of education such as Maxine Greene and Elliot Eisner have defended the need to pay more attention to the arts in both teaching and learning, and research, as it would have positive impact in the schooling of all students.  In classrooms it would mean more focus on important general capabilities such as personal and social capabilities, critical and creative thinking, and ethical and intercultural understanding.

More recently in Canada, work by Brock University Professor Jennifer Rowsell on the relationships between humans, literacy, and the arts as part of the community arts zone project has expanded the way educators understand the teaching of literacy and at the same time revitalised the literacy and arts community in Southern Ontario.

The work of this project can be summed up by one of the participating teachers:

I treat my classroom like it’s a studio, so it’s a place for them to work, so I give them the power…that they are the artists coming into this space, using this as a space, as an opportunity for them to create, and the time to create, and to dialogue with their peers about what they enjoy, and you know, be up to their necks in the creative process without any other distractions and I think that’s really important for them to grow. (CAZ visual arts teacher participant, December, 2013)

As Eisner said, “…the distinctive forms of thinking needed to create artistically crafted work are relevant not only to what students do, they are relevant to virtually all aspects of what we do, from the design of curricula, to the practice of teaching, to the features of the environment in which students and teachers live.”

In other words, communities develop their meaning-making skills by “doing stuff,” and playing with materials, sounds, video, images in order to make sense of the world and engage in contemporary understandings of what reading and writing is in curriculum studies.

What will happen if we don’t make ‘invisible’ literacies ‘visible’?

This necessary question invites a collateral one, which is: what happens when we make invisible literacies visible?  Canadian educators Professor Jennifer Rowsell, and Professor Maureen Kendrick brilliantly argued that the need to make invisible literacies visible depends on teachers understanding and using them in valid ways to articulate students’ motivations, goals, needs, and interests.

To the question what will happen if teachers and researchers do not adopt these types of practices, we answer that there is a high probability that educators will further marginalise young people who struggle with finding their “best mode” or modes of communication so they can articulate their motivations, goals, needs, and interests. As established researchers have found, these modes are often hidden.

For example, sociology of education research has observed how there is a ‘hidden curriculum’ for both students and teachers. That is, there are ways of interacting that implicitly support cultural and social awareness and encourage personal and professional growth, but are not stated in any curriculum. It includes how teachers ‘tune in’ to their particular student or students, and understand and encourage the different ways they can or may want to express themselves and communicate with others.

Maker education (problem based or project based learning) has also been a recent example of how literacies can be hidden. Maker work can include making meaning (using invisible literacies) by playing with sound, building structures, coding and playing with software, making 3D impressions. We must then ask what are the implications for post-millenial students in this day and age? What audiences are they making for, and what kind of citizens do they aspire to be?

Impact on the future

If we continue to focus on narrowed conceptions of literacy we are at risk of creating an educative space that is restrictive for students, particularly those from socio-culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. The research has, for some time, suggested that young people need to have the opportunities to choose the best method of expressing meaning for themselves in assessment practices. Without acknowledging the inherent skills of students as well as what ‘could be’ through their engagement with the arts we are indeed providing a deficit approach (an approach that is based on labeling weaknesses or failures, in tests for example) to learning and teaching rather than one that supports the implicit and invisible and critical work needing to be done in the classroom.



Georgina Barton is Associate Professor (Literacies and Pedagogy) in the School of Teacher Education and Early Childhood at the University of Southern Queensland. She was a teacher in schools for over 20 years with experience as an Acting Principal, lead literacy intervention teacher and Head of Department, the Arts. She also spent time in South India teaching English and learning Carnatic music. She has over 80 publications in the areas of literacy, multiliteracies, multimodalities, the arts and culturally and linguistically diverse contexts including internationalisation. Between 2014-2016 she led an Office for Learning and Teaching innovation and development grant exploring international students’ work place experiences. She is a Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association and is Conference Chair of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) 2017-2019. Georgina is on Twitter at @BartonGeorgina

Amélie Lemieux is Assistant Professor of Literacies at Mount Saint Vincent University. Her research interests revolve around visual and written literacies, aesthetics in art and literacy education, and literacy practices in the 21st century. Her original contributions to literacy and aesthetic reception were recognized by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), especially with the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Scholarships both at the Master’s and PhD levels. She completed a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Centre for Research in Multiliteracies, Brock University. She now works towards shaping debates on the relevance of investigating and valuing subjectivity as a main denominator of meaning-making in multimodal literacies, and intends on further informing pedagogical practices in the literature classroom, specifically in light of fulfilling the competency of “exploring diverse texts of literature”, both at the college and high school levels. Amélie is on Twitter at @ame_lemieux

Jean-Charles Chabanne is Professor of Educational Science at the École Normale Supérieure’s French Institute of Education in Lyon.His academic background is French language and literature with a initial focus on literary and linguistic approaches to humour. He went on to research how language, literature and writing is taught, how language interacts with other disciplines, and how language serves as a form of knowledge, as a tool for thinking and learning, and as a working tool for teachers and mediators.He has directed the LIRDEF research lab (Interdisciplinary Laboratory in Teaching, Education and Training) in Montpellier, and currently leads the scientific programme Alféa(Arts, Language, Training, Teaching, Learning) at the ENS-IFE in Lyon. This programme investigates the form, place and function of language (verbal and other semiotic systems) within learning contexts involving art education or aesthetic experience. His work is situated in the shared space between art/cultural education and the fields of language, linguistics and literature.


Do Australian teachers have poor literacy skills? Let’s look at the evidence

Australians have been sold the idea that our primary school teachers today have poor literacy standards, not only by popular media but often by politicians and sometimes even by the universities that train our teachers. So how true is it? What evidence is there to support these claims? My colleagues* and I decided to find out.

This blog post is a report on our ongoing research. We haven’t finished yet. Our starting point is a survey of what the profession itself thinks (if you are a primary school teacher you might like to join in). We made a few surprising discoveries just to get to this point.

The neverending story

As Professor Bill Louden pointed out a few years and a few reports ago, there have been over 100 reports on teacher education in the last 40 years.

The latest instalment in the neverending story about what is wrong with the preparation of Australian classroom teachers was released earlier this year. It is the Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers Report

As a direct result literacy and numeracy testing of preservice teachers ( student teachers) is being rolled out across Australia.

Who is telling the story?

We are particularly interested in the construction of preservice and graduate teachers as lacking in literacy capabilities.

The view from popular media commentators is clear. Here are a few memorable ones

Can’t write can’t spell

Teachers have a lot to learn

Lament over standards as aspiring teachers flop literacy

It is not surprising that these comments are not supported with evidence. What we did find surprising is how little evidence has been used to support recommendations in government reports.

Tracing back the story

So we began to trace the empirical evidence behind the claim that our primary school teacher education students and graduate teachers lack literacy abilities

We examined academic papers and research reports, government reports and submissions to inquiries, and media commentary.

Those outside Queensland may not be aware that the ‘new’ literacy and numeracy testing was first recommended as part of a review in Queensland in back in 2009. And this was in direct response to a claim from the review that:

Concerns were raised about the adequacy of some primary teachers’ levels of content knowledge. ….These concerns echo concerns raised with the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy about the literacy skills of pre-service teachers. The Inquiry noted ‘some scepticism among practising teachers about the personal literacy standards of new graduates’

Ok so we have some concerns raised, and these concerns reflect findings from a previous Inquiry. This earlier one was the National Inquiry into the teaching of Literacy which resulted in the report Teaching Reading

So let’s go back to that report. The data quoted as evidence are provided through a description of “issues raised” in focus group discussions by participants.

The literacy competency of student teachers was raised as an issue in all focus group discussions. Participants reported that many pre-service teachers lacked the literacy skills required to be effective teachers of reading.

Surely the evidence provided was not just a group of teachers complaining about the quality of pre-service teachers?

Well not entirely. The report also drew on other reports, as well as some small scale studies involving the testing of pre-service teachers’ knowledge of aspects of language use.

One of these sources that is often cited is the Australian Government Report Prepared to Teach.

Yet the lead author of this report, one William Louden, also argued there is a need to investigate the different factors influencing the quality of our preservice teachers.

So after following the trail back to here, we decided to take up Louden’s suggestion and look closely at the different areas discussed around the literacy standards of primary school teachers.

Four dimensions identified to carry out further research

We believe that the factors that influence the quality of pre-service and graduate teachers can be grouped together into four dimensions.

Personal literacy

The first dimension relates to the personal literacy capabilities of preservice teachers. Can preservice teachers spell? Can they write? Is it true that “Graduating pre-service teachers’ levels of personal literacy should be equivalent to the top 30 per cent of the population”?

Knowledge of the curriculum

The second dimension relates to preservice and graduate teachers’ knowledge of the English curriculum. They don’t know enough about literature, they don’t know how to assess writing, they don’t know what to include and exclude from their classroom teaching. Hence the increase in packages and programs such as Soundwaves a spelling program that proudly claims, “you don’t need to be a phonemic expert”.

Quality of teaching

The third dimension relates to preservice and graduate teachers ability to teach, or their pedagogical knowledge about English and literacy. That is, if you don’t know how to teach spelling you can’t teach literacy; teachers who write are good teachers of literacy; teachers who use digital texts such as blogs and websites themselves are experts at using these in classrooms. There are also arguments in the literature about explicit teaching, direct instruction, inquiry based learning, whole language approaches, systemic phonics instruction, etc etc.

Teacher education

A fourth dimension is initial teacher education program’s impact on the above dimensions. So how does the standard of entry to teacher education program impact on graduate teachers’ personal literacy abilities? Does the mode of delivery of teacher education (four year, graduate entry etc) have an impact on graduate teachers’ ability to teach literacy? How does the length and type of professional experience (school based, intense internships) influence preservice teachers’ knowledge of the curriculum?

The content of initial teacher education programs is often hotly disputed as well. Do we teach phonemic awareness? Is there enough practice or too much theory? Who are the best people to teach initial teacher education? Teachers? Researchers?

The next step, a survey

We have used these four dimensions to construct a survey of members of the teaching profession across Australia.

We aim in this survey to answer the following research question, What are the expectations of the profession about the literacy capabilities of graduate teachers required to deliver high quality, intellectually demanding literacy education?

We envisage the results will provide some empirical data that can replace the anecdotes embedded in current storylines about the capabilities of preservice and graduate teachers.

After this survey our next step will be to discover what primary preservice teachers understand about their own personal literacy skills and their perceptions of their own abilities to teach literacy.


*My colleagues involved in this research are Associate Professor Beryl Exley (Queensland University of Technology) Associate Professor Lisa Kervin (University of Wollongong), Associate Professor Alyson Simpson (University of Sydney) and Dr Muriel Wells (Deakin University)  A related paper can be found here



Dr Eileen Honan is a Senior Lecturer in Literacy and English Education at The University of Queensland.