To promote discussion based on research

There is no question that English and literacy education receives a lot of attention in public discourse — politicians, the media and the wider community all have an interest in the work of teachers and the outcomes of education.

To clarify PETAA’s position on a range of the most commonly discussed aspects of English and literacy education, the PETAA Board have prepared a number of position papers, as below, with more in the pipeline. These papers are designed to strengthen PETAA’s place as an authoritative voice and to promote sensible discussion that is based on research.

Further information

For more information, including media queries, contact Stephen Wilson, General Manager PETAA, +61(0)2 8020 3900 or [email protected]. Resources to support teachers can be found on the PETAA website.

Teaching reading is rocket science.’

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Approaches to early reading instruction

Key questions

  • How do children learn to read?
  • What do teachers need to know to teach early reading?
  • What is the role of phonics and phonemic awareness?

Reading is a complex process of making meaning from texts. As readers engage with texts, they use cueing systems to make meaning; graphophonic, semantic, syntactic and pragmatic knowledge, and visual cues.

Expert teachers employ a wide range of teaching strategies based on a deep knowledge of how children learn to read and the needs of learners.

Phonics, the relationship between letters and sounds, and phonemic awareness, the awareness of sounds that make up spoken words, together with the ability to segment and blend individual sounds to form words, is an important part of reading, and is also important as students learn to write and spell. However, phonics and phonemic awareness are only one tool that children use to make meaning from texts. Effective readers also use knowledge about text structure and grammar as well as activating their own knowledge about the topic.

At times the teaching of reading has been driven by commercial reading programs. These play a role in early reading instruction, however research makes it clear that emergent readers need access to a range of rich materials in a variety of modes. It is critical that this range of materials include high-quality, authentic literature.

Reading should not be seen in isolation. Conversations about texts support students’ reading skills. Reading a wide range of texts also supports students’ abilities to write effectively.

Finally, teachers develop expertise as they respond to the needs of the students in their classroom; different students will need support in different aspects of reading and as teachers respond to these needs, they will add to their repertoire of teaching strategies. Teachers also pay attention to building comprehension skills, fluency and vocabulary knowledge in developing readers.

Key points

  • Teaching reading is a complex process requiring teachers to use range of teaching strategies based on a deep knowledge of language.
  • Teachers need to know about the structure of the language and how children learn.
  • Effective teachers use specific and explicit instruction across all cueing systems in varied and meaningful contexts.

The work of teachers is complex and multifaceted.

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Valuing teachers as professionals

Key questions

  • What is the nature of a teacher’s work?
  • What are the characteristics of an effective teacher?
  • What is role of the professional standards and professional learning?

Although the role of teachers is constantly evolving, research is now able to describe the qualities of an effective teacher. Teachers need to know their students and understand how they learn as well as know the content of the curriculum and the most effective ways to teach it. They also need to continually monitor student learning to inform the next steps in learning — for teachers and students — so that students make continual progress.

Teaching is a collaborative profession that is constantly informed by new research and evidence. Teachers must access quality professional learning to remain up-to-date and work with colleagues including other teachers, teacher aides, and specialists such as guidance counsellors and speech pathologists.

The value of teachers is not always acknowledged. Yet, effective teachers have a significant impact on learning and must be supported in their demanding and complex work. Effective teachers hold high expectations for all students, are creative, adaptable and reflective practitioners, life-long learners as well as positive and good communicators. Their achievements should be acknowledged and celebrated.

To be effective, teachers need to establish education as relevant beyond the classroom and beyond the years of schooling. They need to value student voice, parent engagement and community partnerships.

Accountability is important in every profession and teaching is no different, however measures of quality should reflect the complex and multifaceted nature of teaching. Professional standards are a useful way to describe the complexity of teachers’ work at different stages of their careers, provide the basis for substantive conversations about practice within a school setting and guide professional learning.

Key points

  • The work of teachers is complex and multifaceted.
  • Teachers have a significant impact on learning.
  • Measures of teacher quality should reflect the complex nature of teaching.

Literacy in the 21st century has expanded.

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21st century literacies

Key questions

  • What does it mean to be literate in the 21st century?
  • What is the place of ‘traditional’ literacies?
  • What are ‘multiliteracies’ or ‘new literacies’?

Literacy in the 21st century demands the ability to move confidently, efficiently and ethically between a wide range of written and visual, print, live, digital or electronic text types according to purpose.

Traditional literacy governed by the language conventions of social and academic Standard Australian English remains important. Students learn to read and write increasingly sophisticated written print with fluency and comprehension being aware of how both writer and reader influence the interpretation of content.

Literacy in the 21st century has expanded to reflect social change, increasing specialisation and digital technologies. To be literate now requires the comprehension, selection and use of multimodal codes and conventions to interpret and express ideas, feelings and information. Subject-specific literacies are recognised that require the application of specialised communication knowledge and skills including information skills, as well as language used in creative and imaginative ways. The value of other dialects is embraced and accommodated.

The increasing complexity of modern communication gives rise to a number of distinct capabilities. These cross-curricular capabilities are the separate threads that, when combined, become what is recognised as 21st century literacy. Once called ‘multiliteracies’, but now generally referred to as ‘new literacies’, these broad skills include visual literacy, information literacy, cultural literacy and digital literacy. These new literacies work together with traditional print literacy to create the dispositions and capabilities that will enable students to approach, understand and use new text types, while at the same time, discovering their role and possibilities, as they inevitably arise within future communication technologies.

Key points

  • Students need the knowledge and skills to adapt flexibly to the range of texts they will create and encounter in the future, including print texts and those types of texts arising from current and future technologies.
  • 21st century literacies are a critical aspect of students’ language and literacy education along with more traditional literacy skills.
  • Teachers can make new literacies explicit to students by consciously and systematically incorporating them in English lessons as well as other learning areas, and through skilful and flexible classroom pedagogy.

Language and grammar are tools for making meaning.

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Language and grammar

Key questions

  • What is grammar?
  • What do students need to know about language and grammar?
  • Why is it important for students to learn about language and grammar?

Language is a system of choices made within cultural contexts. Language choices in texts are largely predictable as they function to achieve particular purposes within contexts. When looking at language, grammar can be a powerful tool for students to describe and analyse the language choices made by others and those in their own texts. Attention to grammatical accuracy is important, but it should always be seen in a context of meaning making.

An important part of this is metalanguage; language to talk about language. Students use it to describe, analyse and evaluate their own language choices and the choices of others. Metalanguage includes the terms usually associated with ‘traditional’ approaches to grammar, such as noun, verb, article etc. However, PETAA supports an approach to language which goes beyond labelling the form to understanding the role or functions different language features play in a text to make meaning. This functional approach includes descriptions of language, such as noun groups, which represent participants, and verb groups, which represent processes.

Students from literate, text-rich backgrounds may be unconsciously aware that language has patterns and be able to apply them to their own texts. However, they do not necessarily understand how the language is working and why. Some students will not have implicitly developed these skills. English as an Additional Language/Dialect (EAL/D) students benefit from explicit instruction in the structures and features of texts as it gives them access to the texts valued in schooling.

It is for this reason that grammar must be taught explicitly; to give students the key to unlocking language. To do this, teachers need to have a rich and deep knowledge about language and how to teach it.

Key points

  • A deep knowledge about language and how it works supports effective English and literacy teaching.
  • Students need a language to talk about language, using terms from traditional and functional approaches to language.
  • Grammar must be taught explicitly in context of meaning making across a range of modes.

There is no perfect formula for getting text selection right.

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Selecting texts for the English classrooms

Key questions

  • How and why do teachers choose texts?
  • Should there be a standardised reading list?
  • Should students study Western literature?

Texts are central to the study of English and are used for a range of purposes. Students learn through texts, developing their reading and viewing skills, using texts as models for writing and creating. Imaginative and critical engagement with a range of high-quality literature is also a vital part of student learning in the English classroom.

Text selection is an important and complex aspect of teachers’ work; there are many factors which they must consider before making their selection. Factors include: purposes for reading; student motivation, interest and enjoyment; community, parent and school expectations; student diversity and planning for increasing complexity and challenge.

Teachers must have the flexibility to select texts based on their professional knowledge and expertise, and in collaboration with students and school communities. Sample reading lists can be a useful resources, but prescriptive lists limit the ability of teachers to make choices sensitive to their students learning needs.

There is no perfect formula for getting text selection right. At any time, one of the many reasons for selecting texts may take precedence over another. For example, a teacher may need to select a more challenging text to meet the needs of a student who is making good progress.

A high-quality, balanced English program should include a wide range of texts which reflect a diverse range of experiences, ideas and contexts, and should span written, spoken and multimodal. This should include Australian literature, including the oral narrative traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as the contemporary literature of these two cultural groups, and classic and contemporary world literature, including texts from a Western tradition, and from and about Asia.

Key points

  • Texts are used in the English classroom for a range of purposes.
  • Text selection is complex and teachers balance a range of factors when selecting texts.
  • A high-quality, balanced English program should include a range of texts which reflect a diverse range of experiences, ideas and contexts.