Tag Archives: literacy

What do South Australian pre-service and graduate teachers really need?

I would really like to know precisely who determines which courses must be completed by pre-service teachers and what those courses should contain.

I ponder this for a reason. Too regularly throughout the first four years of my career have I questioned, “Why was I not taught this at uni?” Friends who are also teachers have expressed that they have felt the same way.

I experienced a wide range of teaching styles at uni, from some amazing lecturers and tutors to some who weren’t quite as up there. I learnt a lot about big ideas like teaching students from diverse cultural backgrounds, about the importance of relationships in education, about involving parents and families, about SACSA, SACE and even a couple of nods towards what would become the Australian Curriculum. I learnt to write elaborate lesson plans and unit plans that ticked all the boxes according to the relevant policies and frameworks.

But very rarely was I taught the HOW of teaching. Of course, we looked at educational theory both in terms of methodology and classroom management, but my university program did not prepare me for the nitty-gritty of what I teach and the medium through which I teach it: language.

Which brings me to the question: given that we were bombarded with the principle of “Literacy and numeracy are everybody’s responsibility”, why was I not adequately taught how to teach literacy and numeracy in my subject area?

Friends who attended other universities tell me that they had “Literacy” courses, but even those courses didn’t go quite far enough.

So how can we expect pre-service and graduate teachers of ANY subject area to teach literacy and numeracy effectively if they are not equipped with the skills to do so? How can we expect explicit teaching of language features in subjects other than English if teachers do not have the linguistic knowledge? (At this point, I would like to qualify my point by saying that I do not assert that teachers do not know their subject area. What I mean is, do they know how to explicitly teach the language and language features associated with that discipline?)

In the past few years I have immersed myself in Language and Literacy PD (and by Language, I am not referring to my role as a LOTE teacher, but as an English teacher) and it has made me a hundred times more effective in my role. Yet, I cannot shake the feeling that due to a lack of skills in teaching literacy in my first year of teaching, I let my students down. If I had known then a small fraction of what I know now, their learning and approach to the subject might have been different. I majored in English at uni – I can only imagine how non-English trained English teachers might feel when faced with meeting the Language Strand requirements of the Australian Curriculum. It would be like putting me in front of a Maths class!

The skills for teaching literacy and numeracy are something that I feel passionately about being more effectively integrated into pre-service teacher training and on-going graduate teacher professional development. I wonder, what else do pre-service and graduate teachers really need? According to the Australian Journal of Teacher Education, approximately 30% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

What can be done better at university and in the earliest years of their career to prevent this? What do those teachers require?

I would love to hear your thoughts!


ASFLA Conference 2013 – Day 2 (Teachers Day)

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.

Helping students to re-engage with their creative sides

It has been some time since my last post. The past couple of weeks have been full of marking, report writing, TESMC, Language and Literacy Levels and Youth Mental Health First Aid courses. Needless to say, I’m glad to finally have a little time to breathe and get some thoughts up on my blog!

Today I was fortunate enough to attend the launch of a very talented colleague’s second novel. You can find his Facebook page here¬†and follow him on Twitter (@rjbrownauthor). R.J. Brown has an incredible ability to draw even the most reluctant readers and writers into the world of literature and creativity. There were actually two launches of his book – one public and the other one at the school. I was unable to attend the one at school, but from what those who did go have recounted, the event drew together students, parents and staff in a shared celebration of the achievements of someone who is an integral part of our school community.

These events got me thinking. As English teachers, part of our role is to help students develop and apply their creativity through language. Yet one of the biggest obstacles I come across in my English classes is how to inspire students to play with language and engage with their creative sides. So often, when doing a unit on narrative, have I heard students try to use the excuse “But I’m not creative.” I don’t think this is true at all. I think humans are innately creative. Watch children play with their toys. Whether it’s girls playing with dolls, or boys playing with cars or action figures (or vice versa), kids make up story lines. They act out these narratives through their toys, or through the performances that they put on for adults. They are being creative without even having to think about it.

So what happens to make so many students seem to lose confidence in their creative side? It is still there, but it can be a challenge to help them find it.

Perhaps it is the absence of ‘play’?

Or the imposition of rules and limitations on what they should be writing about?

Or a belief that they need to write simply to please the teacher, rather than for their own pleasure?

Or a culture that doesn’t encourage spontaneous reading and writing?

I’m not a hundred percent sure if it is any of these, but I know that one thing I would like to do this year is to help my more reluctant readers and writers to find their creative sides and to use them whether they are writing a narrative or an essay. Another colleague and I are working on a project which aims, in part, to do just this. More information to follow on that at a later date as it is still in its early stages.

In the meantime, I’d love to get your thoughts – how do you help your students engage with their creative sides? What do you do to counter the attitude that writing is “just something they have to do” to get a grade?

Why are kids put off reading?

I did a quick survey of my brand new Year 8 English class this year. Nice and simple: do you enjoy reading – any form of reading, including magazines, graphic novels, etc? The response – about 5 out of 30 put their hands up for the affirmative.

This is my fourth year teaching Year 8 English and each year I ask the same question. This year’s response is not an unusual one.

As somebody who has been exposed to books and encouraged to read for pleasure from an extremely early age I have always loved reading. My partner, on the other hand, was brought up with books but still hates reading.

It really saddens me when someone – particularly students – tell me they hate reading, because most of them can’t actually explain why. With the exception of those who genuinely have difficulties with reading and writing, of course. Most people enjoy a good narrative until they have to read it. So I wonder what causes this aversion?

Is it a lack of exposure to reading?
Is it indicative of a society that needs instant gratification and reading a book takes too much time?
Is it something else?

And how can I inspire my students to overcome that attitude?

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