Today saw a spike in attendance at the ASFLA Conference as literacy educators, teacher trainers and linguists from across the country converged on the ACU for Teachers Day. Whilst Tuesday had focused much more on academic research into SFL, today was more about its application in educational settings.
Beverly Derewianka opened the day with a key note address titled ‘Developing an informed appreciation of literary texts.’ Her work demonstrated a practical application of some of the work presented by Frances Christie yesterday. The learning acquired from Christie’s presentation about semantic waves, semantic gravity and semantic density was put into practice as Derewianka explored how a Year 4 and Year 6 teacher developed student appreciation and written responses using the picture book ‘The Coat.’ A lot of the work we have been doing in our own school has been based on Derewianka’s book ‘A New Grammar Companion for Teachers’ so it was very reaffirming to clarify and build on previous understandings and applications.
Immediately after the key note it was our turn to present our unit Functional Fiction: developing narrative language in the middle years. Despite some nerves, there was a renewed sense of confidence when we realised our presentation linked so well with Derewianka’s and when we noticed the room begin to fill with people. The workshop ran more smoothly than we could have hoped, and feedback was both positive and constructive.
After morning tea, I attended a workshop run by Sally Humphrey and Tina Sharpe from the ACU, and a number of schools with whom they have been working closely to implement the 4 x 4 Toolkit for teachers to support student in developing written language skills. Feedback from the three Catholic schools and two government schools involved in the program was extremely positive, and it was interesting to hear that many of them had been using Reading to Learn and 4 x 4 in conjunction with each other to develop students’ ability to read for and write with meaning.
Today’s second key note speaker was Mary Macken-Hararik who explored the fact that the Australian Curriculum now requires that all teachers have a knowledge about language that is “portable and cumulative”. This challenges professional expertise in that it is very common for secondary teachers to have little or no training in teaching language and literacy, making it difficult for them to truly address the literacy needs required in their subject areas. Macken-Hararik’s paper focused on a project investigating a shared grammatics for school English and how the teachers involved applied new learning in their classrooms to improve student literacy outcomes.
The final workshop I attended was by Imogene Cochrane, an early career teacher who presented a project on behalf of a small team of educators from Erskineville Public School. She and her colleagues have been teaching grammar to their early primary students using a games-based pedagogy. Cochrane’s approach integrates the language, literacy and literature strands of the Australian Curriculum by helping students to engage with grammar in fun but meaningful ways, building their meta-language to be able to explain and manipulate their language choices, even at a very young age.
Teachers Day concluded with a third key note address from Brian Dare and John Polias from Lexis Education. The writers of “How Language Works” presented a two part discussion demonstrating how knowledge about language can be applied in teaching and learning. Dare and Polias emphasised the importance of an explicit language-based pedagogy across the curriculum in primary and secondary schools using examples from their own mentoring work with teachers both in Australia and in Hong Kong. There was explicit discussion of how we can scaffold the genres students are required to produce in a range of subject areas, before Polias explored how language, visuals and mathematics must work together in equal relationship to form texts in the Science Learning Area.
A jam-packed but stimulating program, Teachers Day provided many practical strategies grounded firmly in SFL that schools and teachers can adapt to their own context. As a teacher, I value PD most when I leave with the sense that I have gained new knowledge, understandings and strategies that I can begin to implement almost straightaway in my classroom or in my general practice as an educator. Today was certainly one of those PD days.
After successful pre-conference workshops yesterday by expert linguists Sally Humphrey, Susan Feez, David Rose and Peter White, the ASFLA Conference was officially opened this morning by Professor Clare Wyatt-Smith, the Executive Dean of Education at the Australian Catholic University.
This was followed by the first key note speaker Emeritus Professor Frances Christie, with a paper titled ‘Seizing the moment: the case of English literature studies.’ Christie unpacked how students are expected to adopt a particular ‘gaze’ or knower code in order to respond to literature. The paper was heavy in systemic functional linguistic terminology such as semantic waves, semantic gravity and semantic density, which are rarely – if ever – used in teacher education or in the classroom. However, as the talk unfolded, it became apparent that as teachers we refer to the same or similar elements of responses to literature that Christie was discussing, but we use different terms that are more accessible in a classroom setting or to those whose training is not in the field of systemic functional linguistics. These new concepts acquired through Christie’s presentation were very useful for coming to a deeper understanding of how students need to create meaning in their responses to texts.
After morning tea, delegates broke off into concurrent sessions. Len Unsworth’s presentation considered ‘visual grammatics’ through a study of student interpretive responses to images in picture books. The data was collected and divided into three kinds of responses:
– tactical – seemed like students were simply tying to find something to say
– mimetic – students were aware of interpersonal meaning but did not technicalize awareness
– semiotic – three levels within this response 1) descriptive of interpersonal meaning, 2) technical naming of interpersonal meaning, 3) interpretive, where students relate interpersonal positioning in an image to thematic concerns of the story
The first round of data collected was simply written responses, and very few students from the sample of Year 4 through to Year 10 managed to go beyond the mimetic or early semiotic responses. Interestingly, however, the second round of data, in which both written and oral responses were collected, showed that students could begin to express the interpretive response verbally even at Year 5, when they struggled to express it on writing. This raises questions for educators in terms of how we help students to express the same meaning in an interpretive way through writing. It’s not that they are not capable of the necessary thinking skills , but they don’t necessarily have the formal written language to express these ideas.
Another fascinating concurrent session was that of Lars Salomonsen and Winnie Østergaard, titled ‘Developing a language-based teaching of Maths in primary school using the mode continuum as a teacher planning tool.’ This paper followed how the presenters worked with trainee Maths and Danish as a Second Language students in Denmark to enhance the learning of Year 1 students through language. The presentation provoked fascinating discussion between linguists and educators of varying backgrounds, but a general understanding was met that language, visuals, and symbols are equally important to student learning in mathematics, reaffirming the importance of a cross-curricular approach to literacy.
More concurrent sessions followed after lunch before the first day concluded with the second key note speaker, Peter White. White spoke about “issues associated with authorial identity or persona.” This identity is often seen as flexible – constructed, produced or performed through language according to the requirements of specific communicative events.
Day One of ASFLA’s Conference was engaging and stimulating. The conference attracts delegates from a range of backgrounds, providing the opportunity for academics, linguists, educational consultants and educators to come together and understand the practicalities of each other’s work. This is crucial given that the work of one does, in fact, impact upon the work of the other. What better opportunity to bridge gaps, come to better understandings, translate academia into practical classroom approaches and celebrate the amazing work that is going on in our universities, education departments and schools.