This afternoon I was fortunate enough to be present at the launch of Composing Written Texts: Across the Australian Curriculum F – 6. This fantastic resource, aimed at a national audience, represents several years of work from Beverley White, Anne Hamilton, and Kylie Pedler from Catholic Education SA and Bronwyn Custance from the Department for Education and Child Development.
The book is a practical manual for classroom teachers to support the scaffolding of written language in English, Science, History and Mathematics. The writers set out to provide “written models that illustrate the language features for particular genres at specific stages of linguistic development” (White & Hamilton 2013, p. 5). They have drawn upon genre maps to determine which genres students are expected to write at each year level in the Australian Curriculum. They have then developed writing samples for each genre which reflect the AC’s expectation of linguistic capacity at each year level. Each year level and genre is aligned not only to the Australian Curriculum, but also to DECD’s 2012 Language and Literacy Levels across the Australian Curriculum: EALD which have replaced the former ESL Scales and “describe the development of language and literacy needed across the year levels to access and demonstrate curriculum knowledge, skills and understandings for all learning areas” (DECD 2012, in White & Hamilton 2013, p. 6). Hence, the content of the book is relevant to all students in a mainstream or EAL classroom.
It is important to note at this point that while the resource draws heavily on functional grammar, it is not a guide to functional grammar and does not offer further explanation of terms other than in the glossary. That is not its purpose, although it provides references for those who do wish to learn more about the linguistic theory that underpins the work.
Structurally, Composing Written Texts is divided into year levels Foundation to Year 6. Annotated samples of the genres expected at each year level are found within the sections. These annotations include details about text cohesion, text structure, grammar and word knowledge, which are features described in the Language and Literacy Levels. Immediately following the annotated samples are practical suggestions for scaffolding the learning of students at this stage in their development. The scaffolding is structured around the following teaching and learning cycle:
This cycle allows teachers and learners to engage in a continual process of assessment for learning, and provides the flexibility necessary for differentiation of learning at any point depending on student needs.
Finally, at the end of each sample, specific links are made to the Australian Curriculum for English, Mathematics, Science and History to demonstrate where these units of work meet AC requirements.
This edition of the resource only covers Foundation to Year 6, but there were whispers at the launch today of an edition covering the scaffolding of writing from Year 7 to Year 10 (where the Australian Curriculum stops and the South Australian Certificate of Education begins). This would take some time to develop, but as a secondary teacher I am excited about the possibilities. Having said this, I still think that Composing Written Texts: Across the Australian Curriculum F – 6 is an incredibly useful resource for secondary teachers. It is a reality that we do have students working at the language levels that are explored in the book. This may be for any number of reasons, but regardless of what those are we must meet these students where they are at and work to move them up the levels. Composing Written Texts provides a practical guide for doing so that I will certainly draw upon in my role as both an EAL teacher and a mainstream classroom teacher in a secondary setting.
Yesterday a colleague and I attended a Purposeful Assessment workshop run by ACER. It focused on the PAT-R and PAT-M tests, and how they can be interpreted and used for diagnostic data and to inform classroom strategies. It was a clearly-structured, relevant workshop which provided me with direction for how to effectively use the PAT-Reading tests my Year 8 English students completed at the end of last term.
Something which the presenter said that struck me was about the necessity for teachers to have a deep understanding what makes a text complex. This seems obvious, I know – but it got me thinking, I wasn’t taught this at uni. At no stage in my degree do I remember doing a topic or unit that focused on explicit teaching of grammar. We did a lot of work on unit planning, lesson planning and the curriculum, but nothing when it came to teaching students language (other than in in my Italian elective). But nothing substantial when it came to English. So as a graduate, I didn’t have the depth of knowledge and skills required to explain linguistic operations to students, or to effectively deconstruct a text. I could do it myself, but to make some of the concepts accessible to students was a struggle.
It wasn’t until my work with the EAL team at Catholic Education SA that I was truly able to explain the connection between what I could do, and the theory behind those skills. Then I was able to effectively communicate them to my middle school students in a way that set them up for successful reading and writing. Given that I was training to be an English teacher, this is a gaping hole in the course. Fortunately in my first few years I have been exposed to and participated in courses and projects surrounding literacy and have made links with amazing colleagues from whom I have learnt the necessary skills.
Essentially what beginning teachers need in order to learn to move students from general decoding of language to real comprehension, interpretation and analysis is a starting point. The Reading to Learn program was my stimulus, and now that we are using the PAT-R test I am able to effectively identify and target the skills that my students need to develop. There are a wealth of resources out there to help students develop the language they need to be effective readers but it is important to be discerning. We must consider multimodal presentations, and whether or not the questions posed are appropriate. For example, questions that simply require the students to recount the events word for word do not require any critical thinking or manipulation of language and therefore are not an accurate measure of comprehension. Questions and activities need to encourage students to explore, infer, interpret, analyse and crate using language.
Some recommended resources for building students’ language skills and comprehension include: