teaching literacy

Now grammar is back again. And again. And again.

It was with some surprise that we recently read newspaper reports that ‘Grammar is back’ in NSW schools. Were they not aware that grammar has been mandated in the Australian Curriculum for the past decade or so? And was greeted with similar headlines at the time: 

This announcement was somewhat premature as the English Syllabus (3-10 years) hadn’t yet been released – but any excuse to grab a headline and appeal to readers with promises that bringing back grammar will fix the latest ‘literacy crisis’. And the readers’ comments echoed these sentiments:

Absolutely agree . . . Wonderful news!  Should have been done years ago!! The three R’s. – about time. It’s taken a while, but the penny has finally dropped. 

… along with sharing their pet peeves: 

GREAT! Can we eliminate the word ‘like’ out of every conjunction to?

I’ve been advocating for many years that a gap/space should be made between the last word of a sentence and the symbols ? and !. Obvious examples include …hill! V hill ! and …zoo? V zoo ?. 

Hopefully people will stop using “him” and “her” as subjects of a verb and will go back to using “he” and “she”.

I will die happy if this new syllabus means children will be taught to say they are bored “by” or “with” something instead of the cringe-inducing ‘bored of’.

And banning the use of “gotten”.

Such comments reveal a pedantic understanding of grammar as the mark of an educated person. And of course such a view should not to be underestimated given that correct usage is a powerful gate-keeping device.  (Oops! Just began a sentence with ‘and’.)

Several of the comments equated grammar with punctuation, spelling and vocabulary – another common misunderstanding. 

Another reader lamented the disappearance of Latin on the grounds that this would help with English grammar – a misconception that underpinned much of the traditional approach to the teaching of grammar that resulted in its rejection from the curriculum some fifty years ago.  

So if ‘elegant speech’ and the parsing of sentences is no longer seen as the end goal of teaching grammar, then what are they to be replaced by?

Here we might consider a distinction between the constrained and the unconstrained skills (Paris 2005). The constrained skills focus on grammar (along with phonics, spelling and punctuation) as a limited set of rules that can be assessed as correct or incorrect. We would want students to be able, for example, to compose well-structured sentences with clarity and precision. 

While important, this isn’t sufficient in developing students’ ability to use language effectively. The unconstrained skills are concerned with meaning-making – how language functions in our lives to help achieve our purposes. Australia has been at the forefront internationally in developing a functional approach to the teaching of grammar. It has underpinned the Language Strand of the Australian Curriculum: English since 2010. A functional model:

  • sees language as a flexible resource for making meaning. It provides tools to investigate and critique how language is involved in the construction of meaning.
  • focuses on knowing how to make effective choices from the language system depending on the context in which language is being used (the topic, the audience, the purpose, the mode – written, spoken, multimodal).
  • is taught in the context of authentic curriculum tasks, not as an end in itself.
  • works at the level of the whole text right down to relevant grammatical choices.
  • incorporates terminology to refer to the function of a grammatical feature as well as its form (using traditional terminology such as clause, prepositional phrase, conjunction).

However, as several of the readers commented:  

The only problem is that there are currently generations of teachers, including coming graduates who have no understanding of grammar themselves and will therefore struggle to teach it!

This is not entirely the case. Grammar is a key component of initial teacher education programs. And many in-service teachers, anxious over their knowledge about language, have completed professional learning courses (often in their own time) in universities, have undertaken upskilling programs offered by experts in the field (Dare & Polias, 2022, Rose & Martin 2012) and professional associations, and have participated in many classroom-based research projects (Derewianka, 2020; Humphrey, 2017). These programs are usually intensive and engage teachers in iterative cycles of learning, classroom trialling and reflecting, so that teachers’ knowledge about language and appropriate pedagogy is developed over time. We know that teachers with strong knowledge about language are well placed to support their students’ literacy development (Myhill et al., 2012).  

Nevertheless, there are still many teachers who require intensive support. If this current focus on grammar is not a mere election stunt (as several of the reader comments suggest), then systems must make significant investment in teachers, their professional learning and curriculum resources. Companion documents that include explanations of concepts, analysed model texts, exemplars of practice, and authentic assessment tasks – all coherent and linked to syllabus content – must be forthcoming.  Such resources should be based on sound theory, accessible to teachers and appliable to their subject areas and to the diverse needs of the students in their classrooms. Further, resources require ‘wrap around’, quality professional learning, so that teachers can deepen their language and pedagogic know-how in dialogue with colleagues and experts in the field.

Pauline Jones is Associate Professor, Language in Education at the University of Wollongong. Her research interests are educational semiotics, literacy development, and pedagogic dialogue.  Recent publications include Transition and Continuity in School Literacy Development (Bloomsbury, 2021) co-edited with Erika Matruglio & Christine Edwards-Groves, and Teaching Language in Context 3rd ed. (OUP, 2022) with Beverly Derewianka. She is also currently President of the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA).

Beverly Derewianka is Professor Emerita at the University of Wollongong. An educational linguist, she has researched students’ literacy development, particularly writing in the context of school curriculum. Her current research focusses on writing development from junior to senior secondary years in English, History and Science. She has written numerous scholarly publications, textbooks and professional resources for teachers. The third edition of her best-selling Grammar Companion for Primary Teachers (PETAA) has just been published.

A 21st Century approach to emergent literacy: No flashcards in preschool please!

We believe children need a strong emergent literacy foundation in the years prior to school in preparation for when they experience formal reading instruction at school. This journey begins from birth. 

With current attention on learning to read and the teaching of phonics we think it is timely to focus on what is happening with learning to read in the years prior to formal schooling. While phonics is mandated in the Australian Curriculum for the first years of formal schooling, this is not the case in the prior-to-school years when the focus is on emergent literacy. 

With an emergent literacy approach flash-cards are not necessary!  Early learning environments need to be engaging, creative and flexible.  It is not just about learning the technical aspects of reading, it is also about helping children to develop a love of reading and motivation in preparation for when they start formal reading at school.  If children in the prior-to-school years have a strong foundation of emergent literacy knowledge, skills and concepts, then they are well placed to continue their journey towards reading success into their formal school years.  

What is emergent literacy?  

Emergent literacy involves children learning about literacy through engaging in socio-cultural contexts and participating in meaningful literacy experiences through home, preschool and community settings that are language and print rich. Examples of emergent literacy activities  include playing alphabet games to support children’s developing knowledge of letter names and sounds. Children can also learn about print through:

 i) pointing out letters and words on signs and labels in their home and community environment; 

ii) shared reading of picture books with parents, carers and teachers; and 

iii) exploring mark making, drawing and name writing through using tools such as pencils and writing apps. 

iv) making meaning from print (e.g., text, digital and multimodal). 

Emergent literacy skills include phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge (for example, letters, sounds), oral language, vocabulary, emergent writing skills (name writing/ letter writing), and development of symbolic systems – all strong predictors for future reading success. These are essential for children to become fluent comprehenders and readers.

The Australian Early Years Learning Framework for children in the years prior to formal schooling, provides broad directions in relation to alphabetic literacy learning and teaching.

Learning to read is a complex process and all children in the years prior to school develop at different rates. We are all (researchers, policy makers, parents, teachers, health practitioners) striving to provide children with the ability to become effective readers. Learning how to become a fluent and successful reader occurs differently for each child and each child’s learning journey is unique. Reading fluently requires a high knowledge of skills that include decoding, rich vocabulary, comprehension abilities, world knowledge, and understanding grammatical features of different genres. 

The prior-to-school years are a vital part of this complex journey in learning to read. We believe it is timely to reconsider emergent literacy as it relates to 21st Century early years contexts. 

Supporting emergent literacy practices at preschool and home

Support for emergent literacy in the prior-to-school years should focus on helping children develop a love of reading, in addition to developing emergent literacy foundations such as opportunities to develop oral language and alphabet knowledge.

In supporting children’s oral language, an awareness of phonological, syntactic and lexical development can occur through play-literacy experiences – playing with rhyme (words with the same end sound), drawing attention to words with the same beginning sound (alliteration), and shared adult-child picture book reading.

It is recommended that prior to starting school children should be supported through the provision of meaningful alphabet experiences to learn 26 letter names and their corresponding regular letter sounds. In addition, irregular letter-sound correspondences can be learnt within relevant and meaningful contexts (e.g. /CH/ as in Charlie and long sound /A/ for Aiden). This flexible approach will allow teachers to extend children’s personal knowledge of the alphabet. 

Children can be supported in their literacy learning journey through a range of contextualised guided instruction, whilst children are engaged in both adult and child-initiated, guided and free play, meaningful experiences, such as:

  • Games  
  • Dramatic play
  • Literacy apps
  • Rhymes and songs 
  • Drawing children’s attention to print during shared reading experiences
  • Multisensory experiences with environmental print
  • Name writing
  • Playing with letters

Emergent literacy in the 21st century involves both code-related skills (e.g., identifying alphabet letter names and sounds) and meaning making skills (e.g., comprehension and vocabulary). This can occur through direct instruction, for example, when a teacher instructs children directly about what they are trying to teach, together with a flexible and holistic child-centred meaningful approach, within culturally mediated learning environments. For example, when a teacher engages children in singing, rhymes and shared reading that is interactive, and related to topics relevant to children’s interests, whilst embedded in social purposes.  

Each learning to read journey is unique

It is imperative to cater for the learning needs of individual children as each learning to read journey is unique. A multidisciplinary approach, where researchers using different methodologies, is needed to work out the best way to support children to become fluent reading comprehenders in the 21st century. 

We are excited about working together in a unified way to support teachers, parents, researchers, policy makers and health practitioners to ensure children in the prior-to-school years have the best start towards becoming successful readers.

Dr Stacey Campbell is a lecturer in early childhood English, literacy and language at Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on early childhood literacy, phonics, oral language, teacher and parent beliefs and practices. In addition to her PhD, she has a Masters degree in children’s literature and two teaching degrees, one in early childhood birth-to-eight and another in primary school education. Stacey also has over 10-years experience as an early childhood teacher in both the prior-to-school years and early years of school. Stacey can be contacted at stacey.campbell@qut.edu.au and is on Twitter @DrStacey_C

Dr Michelle Neumann is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher in the School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University, Australia. Michelle is also a registered Queensland school teacher. Michelle’s research interests are in early childhood education particularly in the fields of early literacy, parent-child interactions, home and preschool settings, and digital technology. Michelle can be contacted at  m.neumann@griffith.edu.au and is on Twitter @drmneumann

Multimodal texts surround us. What are they? How can we use them in our teaching?

 The ways in which we communicate with each other in today’s world are wide ranging. We live in a time where politicians tweet national policy announcements, a YouTuber can have 75 million subscribers from around the world, and pre-teen children communicate using images on Instagram. It seems strange then, that assessment practices in schools largely remain focused on traditional written texts such as essays and reports. These texts often involve only language mode despite there being other modes that can be effectively used to express meaning. By other modes I mean communication including things like images, sounds, signs and gestures. When a text uses two or more modes we call it a multimodal text.

I have been researching how teachers use and teach multimodal texts and I believe Australia needs to update the way we understand multimodality in our schools and how we assess our students across the curriculum.

What are modes and what is multimodality?

A mode is a socially and culturally-shaped resource for meaning-making. Modes include not only language but gesture, image, sound and space. In fact, digital platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat rely on communication through pictures. Instagram is a photo and video sharing app and Snapchat is a messaging app that lets users exchange pictures and videos, called snaps, that are meant to disappear after they are viewed.

Other forms of communication might include ensembles of modes such as movement and sound. How these are orchestrated determines the intent and main message. A film for example contains a character’s voice and gestures as well as the space in which they move, not to mention the film score. Another example could be a sculpture that uses visual and spatial conventions. This is known as multimodality and it is important that teachers in schools teach all of the modes so all students can succeed.

 My research has revealed that teachers understand multimodal texts, defined as a combination of two or more communication modes by ACARA, as texts only involving digital technologies. But they can be much more than this. Cultural theorists understand texts as cultural artefacts—meaning even an ancient ceramic pot can be considered a multimodal text as it shares knowledge and meaning for a viewer through its shape, markings on it as well as the compositional material. Therefore, multimodal texts are more than just iMovie trailers.

How to plan for and teach authentic multimodal texts

 It is important that students can effectively communicate through both oral and written language, not just within the subject of English, but in other subjects as well. The Australian curriculum now expects students to be able to comprehend and compose multimodal texts in curriculum areas such as science, history and the arts.

Planning for teaching that supports students’ understanding and knowledge of literacy demands in texts that use a range of modes is critical for student to be able to compose multimodal texts effectively. These literacy demands include the codes and conventions associated with each mode.

When students learn about the codes and conventions, their meta-language (the way they can talk about the codes and conventions) improves and this transfers to their compositions.

Knowing how to create cohesive multimodal texts includes knowing how the modes link and talk to each other. For example, visual image and text in children’s pictures books work together to share the narrative. Curriculum planning therefore needs to ensure inclusion of content about a range of texts in each curriculum area as well as how different modes are used in these texts.

Effective teaching methods are also needed to teach critical multimodal literacies. These approaches to teaching relate to both the comprehension and composition of multimodal texts. Models of teaching need to be age-appropriate and address students’ personal, social and cultural needs. They also need to support students in being able to read texts critically through inferential comprehension.

How students can be effective readers and producers of multimodal texts

Students need to be able to read multimodal texts. A proficient reader of multimodal texts will more likely be a more effective composer of multimodal texts.

Here is my list of what I believe proficient readers of multimodal texts should be able to do.

  •  Use prior and new knowledge to share and understand meaning through all the modes
  • Make connections between their own experience and others
  • Develop metalanguage related to all of the modes
  • Draw appropriate and diverse conclusions from a range of texts
  • Make predictions through reading, testing and revising
  • Create different texts as a result of interpreting other texts
  • Critique what multimodal texts they read.

Once students are able to analyse and talk about multimodal texts they can then more effectively create their own.

Assessment related to composing multimodal texts

Varying assessment and options for students is empowering and makes them at the centre of learning. Multimodal texts and assessment therefore can be the catalyst in creating authentic and engaging assessment tasks that students write for purpose and with a particular audience in mind.

“Different modes demand different intellectual work from pupils and this work ‘fills up’ the concepts to be learnt in different ways. The range of representational resources made available through visual communication (spatial relations, colour, etc.), for example, enable the expression of kinds of meaning that would be difficult, or perhaps impossible, in language (Jewitt et al., 2000)”(p. 84).

It is therefore critical that educators consider ways in which to vary their assessment to meet the needs of their students. Referred to as ‘multimodal reshaping’ teachers can offer students a range of options in terms of assessment that address the same criteria. It ensures students have a choice and voice and can therefore express their meaning via a range of modes and ensembles of modes.

For example, if students are required to present an argument for or against climate change they could do so through embodiment (dance or drama), an artwork, a sequence of photographs, a newspaper report, a blog or a 3D model such as a diorama.

 What are some examples of multimodal texts across the curriculum?

English Stories that include text and images, newspaper articles, photographs, memes, comic strips, dramatisations
Science Scientific illustrations or animations, 3D models, ‘How To’ guides with pictures, museum exhibits
History Biographical portraits, dioramas, replicas of primary sources, pamphlets, posters, mobiles
The arts Sculptures, performances – dramatic and musical, soundscapes, choreographed works, advertisements

My research with teachers and students into the use and teaching of multimodal texts continues. In the meantime, I hope we can see assessment practices in schools capture more effectively some of the wide-ranging ways we communicate with each other in the world today.

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. She has over 80 publications in the areas of literacy, multiliteracies, multimodalities, the arts and culturally and linguistically diverse contexts including internationalisation. She is currently involved in an Australian Research Council grant led by Professor Mary Ryan that explores effective and reflexive approaches to teaching writing. She is a Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association and was the Conference Chair of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE)2017-2018. Georgina is on Twitter at @BartonGeorgina

‘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.


New research shows what makes a difference in teaching literacy and why ‘evidence-based’ is not enough

Public discourse about schooling generally assumes that it’s in crisis. The script goes something like this: There’s a problem and it’s big – really big! Test results show us Australia is going downhill and teachers need to be accountable. There are ‘evidence-based’ solutions but teachers are not using them. If they did, literacy standards would improve, test results would improve, and Australia would be among the best in the world again.

Well we have some good news and bad news for you.

The good news is our research, a long-term study of schools in communities in Australia experiencing high-levels of disadvantage, funded by the Australian Research Council, shows that teachers are indeed now implementing the ‘evidence-based’ local literacy agreements that they have been asked to implement and that their work includes a diverse range of research-informed approaches to literacy learning.

The bad news is despite the highly professional and caring use of evidence based methods by the teachers in the four schools in our study, the literacy levels for children from the most disadvantaged families remain persistently low.

The majority of teachers in our study were implementing their schools’ well-developed literacy agreements. They were not loyal to methods of the past or inadequately trained. They adopted recommended methods of evaluation and regularly assessed their students’ progress.

We used ‘fly on the wall’ type of research, which included regular and constant visits to the classrooms of the teachers involved, to study what was happening and try to work out why it was happening. I want to share with you some of our findings.

Use of common pedagogies

Teachers used what we call common pedagogical approaches. These often took the form of tightly scripted lessons, in which teachers, operating in good faith, implemented a range of literacy programs.
The cost of such cooperation is well documented in the research literature: teachers’ pedagogical choices (choice of teaching methods) are narrowed, and their professional autonomy is weakened. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as curriculum narrowing, and in the case of literacy, ‘fickle literacies’.

We observed numerous missed opportunities for learning due to:
• too much emphasis on only the kinds of skills that can be easily tested;
• narrow views of literacy constraining the purpose of literacy teaching and learning;
• a prevalence of models of teaching that assume students need to have mastered particular basic skills, or sets of skills, before they can move on to other more demanding tasks (which is not the case for many children). These models, called normative developmental models, can be rigid, repetitive and disengaging, however highly qualified, experienced teachers were expected to adopt them because they were part of the school literacy plan or agreement.
• deficit views about the capabilities of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are views that lead teachers to expect less of some children and make it less likely those children will be offered more intellectually challenging literacy learning activities.

These missed opportunities were an unintended effect of teachers trying to do what they believed was expected of them.

Use of uncommon pedagogies

We also encountered a smaller number of teachers who adopted uncommon pedagogical approaches. Their practices stood out from the more common practices of their peers because they were palpably different. These teachers incorporated the requirements of their school’s literacy agreements into an already rich repertoire of teaching practice.

We observed numerous ways in which these teachers supported literacy learning by:
• recognising the knowledge and experiences that students have, and connecting these to school learning;
• actively and positively connecting classroom practice to families and communities;
• designing learning tasks that were open ended and that demanded complex thinking and language;
• providing opportunities for students to think about significant personal and social issues, such as loneliness, hope and relationships, by engaging with relevant texts.

These uncommon pedagogical approaches led to much higher levels of engagement and success by students. They built on relationships, especially with families and helped to develop trust that in turn can contribute to learning at home and at school.

The importance of a teacher’s body of work

Barbara Comber, one of Australia’s foremost literacy researchers, has argued that we do not usually think of teachers’ practices as demonstrating a body of work, perhaps because it is so ephemeral and of the moment. Instead, teachers are assumed to translate theory into practice or implement policy. However, the uncommon pedagogies of the teachers we observed illustrated complex designs, that demonstrated their intention to keep learning about how to improve their work. These rich banks of knowledge and experience could well be considered their ‘oeuvre’ or body of work, in the sense of what they create across a career.

How might we support teachers to develop their oeuvre? What might the public discourse of schooling look like if it were to be based upon a deep respect for teachers, their knowledge and their understanding of the local conditions of teaching and learning?

Peter Freebody and Allan Luke, two other highly respected Australian literacy researchers, reminded us some time ago that:

‘it is not that some literacy teaching methods work and others do not. They all work to shape and construct different literate repertoires in classrooms…What do particular combinations and blends of families of practices work to produce? In which combinations and emphases do they work with specific communities of students? For what practices, places, times, and occasions do they prepare students? And for what political and ideological configurations?’

Understanding teachers’ work is vital to improving literacy in Australia

We need to change the script that blames teachers for low literacy levels by telling them how to do their job. Our observation of uncommon pedagogies is an indication of how doing a teacher’s job can’t be simplified into a set of ‘evidence-based’ methods.

Well-intentioned efforts to improve literacy in Australia should be built upon the understanding that the work of teachers is complex, situated in particular classroom with particular children, and dependent upon a range of factors including a teacher’s own body of work, relationships with students and their families, the local context, and the availability of opportunities for sustained professional development and dialogue.

The prevalence of common pedagogies is a sign that educational policy is working, it’s just not working in ways that address the problem it is intended to solve.


Deb Hayes is Professor of Equity and Education at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She is co-author of the book, Literacy, Leading and Learning (Routledge, 2017) with Robert Hattam, Barbara Comber, Lyn Kerkham, Ruth Lupton and Pat Thomson. Follow Deb on Twitter @DrDebHayes

Learning to write should not be hijacked by NAPLAN: New research shows what is really going on

You couldn’t miss the headlines and page one stories across Australia recently about the decline of Australian children’s writing skills. The release of results of national tests in literacy and numeracy meant we were treated to a range of colour-coded tables and various info graphics that highlighted ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ and that dire, downward trend. A few reports were quite positive about improved reading scores and an improvement in writing in the early years of schooling. However, most media stories delivered the same grim message that Australian students have a ‘major problem’ with writing.

Of course politicians and media commentators got on board, keen to add their comments about it all. The release of NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) every year in Australia offers a great media opportunity for many pundits. Unfortunately the solutions suggested were predictable to educators: more testing, more data-based evidence, more accountability, more direct instruction, more ‘accountability’.

These solutions seem to have become part of ‘common sense’ assumptions around what to do about any perceived problem we have with literacy and numeracy. However, as a group of educators involved in literacy learning, especially writing, we know any ‘problem’ the testing uncovers will be complex. There are no simple solutions. Certainly more testing or more drilling of anything will not help.

What worries us in particular about the media driven responses to the test results is the negative way in which teachers, some school communities and even some students are portrayed. Teachers recognise it as ‘teacher bashing’, with the added ‘bashing’ of certain regions and groups of schools or school students.  This is what we call ‘deficit talk’ and it is incredibly damaging to teachers and school communities, and to the achievement of a quality education for all children and young people.

Providing strong teaching of literacy is an important component of achieving quality outcomes for all students in our schools. There’s little doubt that such outcomes are what all politicians, educators, students and their families want to achieve.

As we are in the process of conducting a large research project into learning to write in the early years of schooling in Australia we decided to have a say. We have a deep understanding of the complexities involved in learning to write. Especially, our research is significant in that it shows teachers should be seen as partners in any solution to a writing ‘problem’ and not as the problem.

Our project is looking at how young children are learning to write as they participate in producing both print and digital texts with a range of tools and technologies. While the project is not complete, our work is already providing a fresh understanding of how the teaching of writing is enacted across schools at this time. We thought we should tell you about it.

What we did

Our research was carried out in two schools situated in low socio-economic communities across two states. The schools were purposefully selected from communities of high poverty that service children from diverse cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds in Australia.  Schools like these often achieve substantially below the national average in writing as measured by NAPLAN. These two schools are beginning to demonstrate that this does not need to be the case.

We looked at how, when, where, with what, and with whom children are learning to write in early childhood classrooms. We want to know what happens when writing, and other text production, is understood to be a collaborative, shared practice rather than an individual task; and when teaching and learning has a focus on print and digital tools, texts resources and devices. We worked collectively with the schools to think about the implications for teaching and learning.

Spending time in these schools has giving us a deeper understanding of how poverty and access to resources impact on student outcomes. We found many positive things, for example the way the teachers, researchers, children, their families and communities work together enthusiastically to plan and implement high quality literacy curriculum and teaching to all students.

As part of our study, we audited the current practices of teaching and learning writing. We interviewed teachers and children to gather their perspectives on what learning to write involves, asking them about when they write, where they write, who they write with and the resources they use when writing. By combining teacher and children’s perspectives, we aim to understand how children learn to write from a variety of perspectives.

What we found (so far)

This is just the first step in sharing the results of our research (there is much more to come) but we thought this was a good time to start telling you about it. It might help with an understanding of what is happening in schools with writing and where NAPLAN results might fit in.

We identified four vital areas. Each is important. This is just an overview, but we think you’ll get the idea.

Teaching skills and time to write

Teachers are indeed teaching basic print-based skills to their students. This is despite what you might be told by the media. What teachers and children have told us is that they need more time to practise writing texts. Our observations and discussions with teachers and children suggest that the current crowded curriculum and the way schools now expect to use a range of bought systems, tools, kits and programs to teach the various syllabuses, is providing less time for children to actually write and produce texts. We believe this has significant implications for how well children write texts.

Technology and writing

We captured the close and networked relationship between texts, technologies, resources and people as young children learn to write. In summary, we believe print-based and digital resources need to come together in writing classrooms rather than be taught and used separately.

Another important point is that there is a problem with equity related to access to technology and digital texts. Children in certain communities and schools have access while those in other communities do not. This is not something teachers can solve. It is a funding issue and only our governments can address it.

Writing as a relational activity

We know that teachers and children understand that learning to write is a relational process. It needs to be a practice that people do together – including in classrooms when the learners and the teacher and other adults work on this together. When asked, children represented themselves as active participants in the writing process. This is a positive outlook to have. They talked about being able to bring their ideas, preferences, and emotions, not just their knowledge of basic skills, to the mix. They represented writing as an enjoyable activity, particularly when they were able to experience success.

Who is helping children to learn to write?

Children saw other children and family members, as well as their teachers, as key human resources they could call upon when learning to write. Children perceived these people as being knowledgeable about writing and as being able to help them. Again this is a positive finding and has many implications for the way we teach writing in our schools, and the way we engage with parents.

We know that learning to write should not be considered an individual pursuit where the goal is to learn sets of composite skills, even if these skills are easy to test. Rather, it is a process where the goal should always be to learn how to produce texts that communicate meaning.

We hope our work can help you to see that learning to write is not a simple process and that any problems encountered won’t have simple solutions.

For schools in communities of poverty, the aim to achieve improvements in how well students write will be impacted upon by a variety of complex social, economic, political and material issues. Teachers do play an important role. However, while teachers are held accountable for student outcomes, so too should systems be held accountable for balancing the policy levers to enable teachers to do their job.

If the latest NAPLAN results mean that standards in writing in Australia are declining (and we won’t go into how that could be contestable) it is unlikely that any of the simple solutions recently offered by media commentary or politicians will help. More testing leading to more box ticking means less time to learn to write and less time to write.

We will have more to tell you about our research into young children learning to write in the future. Watch out for our posts.


**The blog is drawn from the ARC funded project, Learning to write: A socio-material analysis of text production (DP150101240 Woods, Comber, & Kervin). In the context of increased calls for improved literacy outcomes, intense curriculum change and the rapidly increasing digitisation of communication, this project explores the changing practices associated with learning to write in contemporary Early Childhood classrooms. We acknowledge the support of the Australian Research Council and our research partners who are the leaders, teachers, children and their families who research with us on this project.


Annette Woods is a professor in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She researches and teaches in school reform, literacies, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. She leads the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240).



Aspa Baroutsis is a senior research fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is currently working on the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240). Her research interests include media, policy, social justice, science education, digital technologies and literacies.



Lisa Kervin is an associate professor in language and literacy in the Faculty of Social Sciences and a researcher at the Early Start Research Institute at the University of Wollongong. Lisa’s current research interests are focused on young children and how they engage with literate practices. She is a chief investigator on the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240).



Barbara Comber is a professor in education at the University of South Australia. Barbara researches and teaches in literacies, pedagogy and socioeconomic disadvantage. She is a chief investigator on the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240).


A new phonics test for Australian six year olds is a BAD idea

The recent announcement by Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, of a nation-wide phonics assessment for six year olds is of great concern to me. I believe, as do many of my fellow literacy expert colleagues, this new test will not help improve our literacy levels.

Australian children have been “marking time” or “falling behind” when compared on international benchmarks like PISA since high-stakes testing has been introduced and ramped up in this country. This latest mandate is part of the political cycle associated with testing regimes. Continuing this kind of assessment will not improve student literacy outcomes.

Evidence from the UK and USA, where similar tests have been used, may show improvement in performance on the phonics test over time but do not correlate with an improvement in children’s literacy levels. In fact what can happen is a narrowing of the literacy curriculum.

No evidence that phonics training preceding meaning making helps

 As renowned English author Michael Rosen explains, the difference between a phonics test and learning to read is that a phonics test merely requires children to pronounce a list of words, while learning to read is about making meaning of a text.  Phonics is only one part of the literacy story. And there is no evidence that phonics training should precede meaning making in literacy learning. It is much more productive to address decoding skills in meaningful contexts.

Absolutely the drilling of phonics will help some children do better in phonics tests, but there is no correlation with ultimately learning to be literate.

What the evidence says

We do know that six year olds should not be subjected to this kind of assessment. There is emerging evidence that teachers and students are finding the test-driven approach to education in Australia is anxiety producing.

Early childhood contexts and the first years of schooling should be centred on engaging in creative play with language including poetry, songs and rhymes, developing children’s confidence in talking about and responding to story, building a rich vocabulary and developing an understanding and love of literature.

One of the best predictors of literacy success is access to books in the home, as well known research tells us. In addition, shared reading, storytelling, talking about books from an early age and the opportunity for children to read widely are all important in learning to be literate.  Many children living in poverty do not have access to a wide range of books and shared reading experiences from an early age. If we want to spend more money in Australia to develop literacy we should be investing in the provision of quality literature for all Australian children and better resources for teachers who teach disadvantaged children. We need more teacher librarians in our schools. At the moment, however, we are seeing a reduction in teacher librarians in public schools.

A new research brief from Save our Schools supports the argument that the continuing gap in access to education resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia are among the largest in the world and the OECD. Disadvantaged students in Australia continue to be denied equal opportunities to learn because they have less access to qualified teachers and resources than their more advantaged counterparts.

Data from PISA 2015 published in a supplementary report by the OECD show that disadvantaged schools in Australia experience more teacher shortages, higher teacher-student ratios and more shortages or inadequacy of material educational resources than advantaged schools.

If we are serious about improving literacy levels in Australia we should be investing our money more wisely than in another useless test. Widening socioeconomic inequality will be a much larger determiner of children’s literacy achievement than performance on a phonics test.


Robyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices. 

Teaching literacy is more than teaching simple reading skills: it can’t be done in five easy steps

If we truly care about all Australian children and young people becoming literate I believe it is vital we understand and define the complexity of literacy.

The conflation of different terms like reading instruction and literacy is not very useful. While reading is part of literacy, literacy is a much bigger concept which is continually changing due to the ever-increasing forms of literacy that are developing.

Educators who specialise in literacy are currently working with the Australian Curriculum definition (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) which defines literacy as encompassing:

…listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts, and using and modifying language for different purposes in a range of contexts.

Literacy encompasses the knowledge and skills students need to access, understand, analyse and evaluate information, make meaning, express thoughts and emotions, present ideas and opinions, interact with others and participate in activities at school and in their lives beyond school….

Becoming literate is not simply about knowledge and skills. Certain behaviours and dispositions assist students to become effective learners who are confident and motivated to use their literacy skills broadly.

For example, the Australian curriculum’s definition of literacy thus far exceeds the ‘key skills’ addressed in the recently launched FIVE from FIVE project proposed by the Centre for Independent Studies. FIVE from FIVE is being touted, with much fanfare, as some all-encompassing way of teaching children to read. Evidence-based methods of how to teach reading differ markedly from such simplistic ‘solutions’.

Each one of the ‘five key skills’ (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) listed by the FIVE from FIVE project is indeed an important skill. This is why they are already embedded in most teachers’ reading programs. In my experience there are few literacy educators who would deny the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness (identifying, thinking about, and working with the individual sounds in words) as needed when becoming literate.

However, these are not the only skills needed in helping a child learn to read. Any child being taught to read in a way that focuses solely on these skills will be short-changed. I believe that asserting that such a program is sufficient could be damaging to many children as it could lead to them disengaging from the literacy learning process.

Stop telling teachers there is a simplistic way to teach reading

Like many educators, I am fed up with the suggestion that teachers and principals, parents and policymakers are unaware of the importance of teaching these skills. Competent, experienced readers sample just enough visual information to feel satisfied that they have grasped the meaning so far of whatever text they are reading. They also bring their past experiences and knowledge of language to the information in a specific text and use prediction and questioning strategies to test and re‐test that they have understood the author’s purpose in a particular context. An over‐emphasis on letter‐sound relationships can be very confusing for children learning to read.

Australian teachers, principals, parents and policymakers already have a deep understanding of the repertoire of strategies and approaches that need to be chosen to suit the intellectual and learning needs of individual children. They know how important it is to make sure that all children learn to read for meaning and to enjoy the process.

Let’s talk about what is important

I agree with eminent Australian literacy educators and educational researchers Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson who explain that the:

Three important sources of information in text are meaning, grammar and letter‐sound relationships – often referred to as semantics, syntax and graphophonic relationships respectively. Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson (2013, p.3)

These sources, or cueing systems, work together simultaneously. Over‐emphasis on any one cueing system when learning to read is not effective.

Also, as teachers know, a rich vocabulary and fluency are significant but children need to be able to go beyond simple literal ‘comprehension’ of a text. They need to be able to make inferences and evaluate the importance of words within a text.

Teachers of reading today share rich authentic literary texts with their students. They know extensive research has demonstrated the importance of prediction and questioning strategies in learning to be literate.

One of the best ways for children to excel in reading comprehension tasks is for them to have the opportunity to interact widely with a wide range of books, selected by them, for enjoyment.

Children not only need to learn how to make meaning from text to carefully analyse the arguments or assertions in a text, to evaluate texts, but also how to create their own with confidence and creative flair.

There is no single recipe for literacy learning. The FIVE from FIVE project is yet another implicit criticism of the Australian teaching profession; and a good example of what we should not be doing by reducing the teaching of reading to five skills.

Instead we should be investing in more teachers to work with the children who need more intensive support. Our public schools should be appropriately funded to provide rich authentic resources and ongoing teacher professional learning. These are the things that will make a difference.


EwingRobyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices.