Specialised work: Being literate for school

Portrait photo of Peter Freebody

Professor Peter Freebody, Professorial Research Fellow, Faculty of Education and Social Work, The University of Sydney, Australia.

Literacy education: two questions

Two questions I have studied over the years have been:

How does literacy education operate in and out of schools?

How can teachers help students improve their literacy learning?

I have become increasingly interested in how different kinds of literacy capabilities are called for and developed across differing school subject areas, and the trajectory of these differences from the early childhood school years to Year 12. In this brief discussion I summarise some aspects of this topic that I believe are important. Some of the ideas below arise from what I see as gaps in the available research, in systems’ and schools’ policies, and in teacher preparation programs; some have arisen from my own recent research projects.

The current moment in literacy education

For at least five thousand years people have found it useful to make texts – on tree bark, bone fragments, lengths of twine, clay tablets, pottery shards, papyrus, calf-skin, paper, electro-magnetic tape, disks, and virtual space, in dots, notches, knots, words, pictures, icons, sounds, and analog and digital codes (Fischer, 2001). So learning how to make and read texts has clearly added some significant value, in a variety of ways, to the life experiences of individuals and collectives, over and above what oral language offers.

This means that passing on the capabilities of reading and making texts, and the dispositions to use and value them, has called for a significant effort on the part of one generation for the next. These capabilities and dispositions have, in turn, become part of what determines how deeply and broadly individuals and communities are geared into their experiences.

The uses of texts, the number and kind of people who need to use them, and the kinds of uses these people need to bring about, have all changed over the millennia. These changes have impacted on, and been intensified by, the extent and complexity of social structures that are supported, maintained, and grown by literacy. That is, changes in the uses and spread of literacy do not, of themselves, increase social complexity, knowledge specialisation, or technological advances; neither do these latter developments, of themselves, cause changes in the literacy characteristics of a society. Rather, both developments intensify – deepen, accelerate, expand, inhibit – one another.

With all that in mind, we can reconsider literacy teaching and learning in our schools, here and now. What are the key educational features of the changes that contemporary societies are experiencing, and what do these changes imply for literacy education? One aspect is this: a scan of the research and professional development literature on literacy education shows us that often we have thought about literacy in generic terms, that we have taken ‘literacy’to represent a common, universally applicable set of capabilities.

This view might suit a society with limited levels of work and knowledge specialisation, technological development, and/or civic or political engagement.

But this is not the society that surrounds our students, here and now. Instead, what will confront them later, as they become citizens and workers, is a literacy-dependent and literacy-saturated society and the complex world of specialisations that such a society affords. At school, in the here and now, what confronts them, most evidently from the upper primary school years onward, are different curriculum domains that put the resources of literacy to work in increasingly different ways. It is those generally unremarked curriculum-specific literacy demands that constitute the main bases of how they will be assessed over the years; perhaps more than a little paradoxically, it is the ways in which they must deal with these demands that have been less thoroughly researched than the more generic capabilities worked up in the acquisition phase of literacy learning, from about the first three or four years of school.

Learning, teaching, and assessing literacy

Put simply, students may be acquiring generic literacy skills adequately enough, but they are not acquiring the more particular demands that are put to heavy duty from about the fifth year of schooling onward. The effects on curriculum progress and motivation for these students can be serious, because struggling with literacy through that period, when the curriculum areas become more consequentially distinct in their reading and writing demands, can lead to shortfalls in critical domains of knowledge and understanding and in the ability to participate in classroom work activities.

So what may begin as unattended literacy difficulties come to be presented as difficulties in aptitude, knowledge, or motivation.

Seen in this light, to ask what does good at literacy mean?’ is to ask:

‘What is English about? What is science about? What is the major gift that a particular curriculum area is supposed to be giving youngsters, many of whom may not go on to become specialists in that area?’. The pedagogical work within a particular area comes more finely into focus when we construe everyday curriculum experiences as deeply joined up with literacy resources – as specialised ways of communicating that represent and embody specialised ways of knowing. Institutionally, the knowledge – coming from the texts, the teacher, or the students – does not exist in some non-textual zone. It is stored, accessed, managed, taught, learned, and displayed through literacy practices.

So we start to appreciate that, far from being over and done with by the end of Year 4, from a curricular point of view literacy education is just beginning in earnest about then. It is just beginning because the teachers are starting to introduce students more formally into the domains of curriculum knowledge that we use to organise our understandings of the world, where each domain puts literacy to work in its own image and likeness. We do not assess generic literacy skills at the end of Year 12. Generic literacy capabilities are not sufficient for getting anywhere close to what many secondary school students are facing and worrying about every day with respect to their reading and writing.

Maybe the widespread investment in generic reading and writing reflects bureaucratic convenience or media friendliness, but readers and writers in school do not just use reading and writing resources when they are just … well, reading and writing. If they decode and encode, predict, comprehend, visualise, structure the genres, compose, tailor to their audience, use the grammar, apply, critique, and all the rest ‘in the same ways’ whether the materials at hand relate to mathematics, social studies, science, English, health and physical education, or whatever, then they have not ‘geared into’those ways of knowing about and acting in the world. They may still be in this intellectual ante-room if curriculum-specific literacy practices are not treated as objects of pedagogy, research, or policy.

There have been many researchers (including my colleagues and me, as in Freebody, Barton & Chan, and Freebody, Chan & Barton, both forthcoming in 2013; Coffin, 2006; and Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008) who have pointed to concerns arising from the assumption that generic literacy is the appropriate focus of pedagogy, assessment, and policy.

To sharpen the focus on this we can look at the research on the explicit teaching of curriculum-specific writing. The Carnegie Corporation, for instance, commissioned a large review of the research on teaching writing in the middle and secondary years. This review (Graham & Hebert, 2010) summarised research that demonstrably supported various techniques that improved students’ writing. Almost all of the studies cited dealt with helping writing in a generic sense (for example, the demonstrated efficacy of strategies such as summarisation, sentence combination, studying models). The final recommendation noted the value ‘of writing for curriculum content learning’.

The reviewers named several studies in teaching writing for science, some in mathematics and social studies, and one exploring the way writing in different domains helps develop appropriate cognitive processes. No extended classroom field studies were identified that showed direct contrasts in the ways in which different domains present different literacy demands to students or how teachers might address these.

But significant work has been done by applied linguists and discourse analysts that helps us focus on these curriculum-specific reading and writing demands. McDonald (1994) for instance, studied the ways in which high school and college students struggled with reading and writing across different curriculum areas. In describing these textual demands, she discovered four particular dimensions on which texts differ according to discipline/curriculum domain:

  1. Identification of the field’s central puzzle: Some fields of study (for example, history, art) deal with a diffuse set of problems, while others (for example, physics) focus on increasingly detailed inquiries into a compact cluster of problems.
  2. Criteria for knowledge production: In some fields, the bases on which observation and hypothesis can become valid knowledge are implicit (worked up through learner’s experience of problems or interactions with advanced practitioners of the discipline), while in other fields, these bases are highly explicit, and become themselves part of the overt content of the area.
  3. Key cognitive functions: Some fields of study are mainly constituted by interpretive work, while others aim to explain the world.
  4. Socio-cultural functions: Some fields involve application of knowledge to the advocacy of particular positions or causes, while others remain strictly concerned with knowledge production.

In an important Australian contribution to this work, Christie and Derewianka (2008) have shown what the implications of these differences are for the detailed expectations on students in their developing writing over the school years. One of the important findings from that study is that many students ‘fall off the pace’in their writing as the particular demands of the early-middle secondary years are encountered, that is, at the moment when reading and writing for school becomes overtly and consequentially curriculum-specific.

And so …?

These observations relate directly to the big question for students: ‘how do I read and write about this, for this subject, here and now?’ (Not just, ‘is my reading and writing generally acceptable?) Unless we assume that students come along knowing the this, here and now already, or can simply pick it up for themselves, then these issues also come to be fundamental to the teaching of reading and writing. Further, this should be a priority from the beginning of the long, gradual, and generally unannounced separation of the curriculum domains in the schooling process – usually about Year 5.

The disproportionate concentration of literacy research on students in the earlier grades, and the assumptions (i) that generic literacy skills are built before Year 5 and (ii) that these are enough to carry a student through the reading and writing demands of the subsequent years, can distract us from what it is about reading and writing that actually matters to students in the later school years.

Students face challenges when they encounter curriculum knowledge and the specific ways in which literacy is put to work in the different curriculum domains – that is, every 50 minutes or so, of every school day. So informative research, effective teaching, and rich, ecologically valid assessment would require close collaborations among researchers and teachers across different curriculum specialisations, a thing neither schools nor universities are currently well-designed to support. In the long term, this may mean reorganising work structures and work flows in jurisdictions’ support units, universities, and schools.

References and further reading

Christie, F. & Derewianka, B. 2008, School discourse, Continuum, London.

Coffin, C. 2006, Historical discourse: the language of time, cause, and evaluation, Continuum, London.

Fischer, R. 2001, A history of writing, Reaktion Books.

Freebody, P., Barton, G. & Chan, E. (forthcoming/2013), ‘Literacy education: about being in the world’, to appear in C Leung & BV Street (eds) The handbook of English language studies, Routledge, London.

Freebody, P., Chan, E., & Barton, G. (forthcoming/2013), ‘Curriculum as literate practice: language and knowledge in the classroom’, to appear in K. Hall, T. Cremin, B. Comber & L. Moll (eds), International handbook of research in children’s literacy, learning and culture, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

Graham, S. & Hebert, M.A. 2010, Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading, A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report, Alliance for Excellence Education, Washington, DC.

MacDonald, S.P. 1994, Professional academic writing in the humanities and social sciences, SIUP, Carbondale, Ill.

Shanahan, T. & Shanahan, C. 2008, ‘Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: rethinking content-area literacy’, Harvard Educational Review, 78, pp.40-59.

Writing across the secondary curriculum, National Literacy and Numeracy Week 2012, Commonwealth of Australia.

Keywords: literacy, reading, writing, curriculum

How to cite this article: Freebody, P. 2013, ‘Specialised work: Being literate for school’, Scan 32(1)

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