Language as Social Power
PETAA’s inaugural Sue Bremner Scholarship recipient, Carmel Leahy reports on the Australian Systemic Functional Linguistics Association (ASFLA) 2016 Conference
I have spent about 30 years in education in the Kimberley region of WA. Early in my teaching career the work of Kaldor, Malcolm and Eagleson (1982) revealed to me the potential for classroom questioning to marginalise particular groups of students. It disturbed me deeply. I enrolled in external study in Linguistics at what was then Northern Territory University in an effort to improve my practice. I had the good fortune to have Francis Christie and other SFL focused lecturers walk me through the notion of Scaffolding and introduce me to the organising principles of SFL. Since then I have tried to keep with latest SFL practice but by August this year I was at a bit of a low ebb professionally and the 2016 ASFLA Conference nearly passed me by. I’m so glad PETAA provided the impetus and wherewithal to get me motivated. The experience has been enlightening and inspiring.
At the ASFLA Conference, from left to right: Robyn Cox (PETAA President), Carmel Leahy and Sally Humphrey (ASFLA 2016 Conference Convenor)
Like many teachers across Australia in the 80s the notion of genre became embedded in my otherwise still whole language practice. My move toward more explicit English teaching based on SFL principles began when I started using (1980, 1982) Brian Gray’s Concentrated Language Encounters (CLE) at Yakanarra Aboriginal Independent Community School in 1990. Students at our school were very engaged in the learning and some were making good progress. But it was clear that a group of students despite very regular attendance were still not reading and writing well.
In 1999 Brian Gray and Wendy Cowey visited our school in Yakanarra. Brian looked at a set of body systems ‘readers’ I had made as part of a CLE unit centered on a hospital visit. “They are really nice Carmel but you’ve taken out all the literate language,” was his first comment. It was a light bulb moment for me. Gray and Cowey had developed the Scaffolding Literacy Program at the University of Canberra. Our school was one of several in the Kimberley invited to be part of a pilot of the program. This was the first time I made rigorous, systematic use of SFL grammar at paragraph, sentence and word level together with the broader genre level. We were trained to use careful, systematic assessment to measure our results and inform literacy lesson planning. Videoing and reviewing lessons amongst colleagues and with consultants became routine practice. Now I had the tools to analyze and help those students I had been missing and extend higher achievers. Our results shot up.
The approach later became Accelerated Literacy and was used in Aboriginal Independent Community Schools (AICS) in WA for about ten years [Yakanara and Yiyili schools are numbers 12 and 14 top right on the map of AICS schools adjacent]. I spent five years as an Accelerated Literacy consultant in AICS schools in the Kimberley. During this time I realised the importance of developing networks and being a part of groups like the Australian Systemic Functional Linguistics Association (ASFLA) and the Primary English Teachers’ Association of Australia (PETAA).
Recent changes to funding models and various political machinations has seen support for Accelerated Literacy drop out of most AICS and many other schools across Australia. I am currently a classroom teacher at Yiyili Aboriginal Independent Community School. When I applied for the job I sought approval from the school board to again use Accelerated Literacy. This was readily agreed to.
As a literacy consultant I grew to appreciate the importance of networks and associations. I saw first hand the impact good research can have on classroom practice. Once the support networks for AL fell away it became difficult to maintain these networks and contribute to current research. We have formed the Australian Association of Accelerated Literacy Practioners of Australia (ALPAA) to help address this gap.
When I read the ASFLA 2016 Conference home page I was struck with how pertinent it was to my experience of education in the Kimberley:
The theme of ASFLA 2016, ‘Language as social power’: 20th century beginnings, 21st century futures, turns our attention in two directions: to celebrate what SFL has achieved and to reinvigorate what it might do.
First, we celebrate the continuing equity agenda of SFL and its partnerships with professionals working for equity across a range of educational, legal, medical and civic institutions. We especially celebrate its genre-based pedagogies and have taken our theme, ‘Language as Social Power’, from the name of a partnership with the Metropolitan East Disadvantaged Schools Programme (DSP). This partnership ran throughout the 1980s; it is one of a number of influential collaborations that have profoundly impacted the development of SFL theory and pedagogy as well as to national curriculum policy.
Second, we want to reinvigorate discussion of how SFL theory, its community and its partners can continue in the coming decades to be effective agents in filling ‘the very springs of affirmation, motivation and imagination’, which Bernstein (1996:5) argues have been drained by inequitable access to institutional power. Neo-liberal government reform agendas over the past twenty years have seen a dismantling of large-scale collective agencies such as the DSP, with innovations geared towards marketing and testing regimes. Does this necessarily mean a fragmentation of semiotic and pedagogic knowledge building resources for professionals on the front line of servicing marginalized groups? Or are new, perhaps submerged, collectives forming to continue and redesign the transformative equity work of SFL?
It dawned on me that the rise and fall of Accelerated Literacy (AL) was part of a broader, societal phenomenon not just an unfortunate byproduct of poor planning in remote areas. SFL had impacted hugely on educational outcomes in our school, genre was and still is central, like DSP the supports around AL were withdrawn. Without AL, Yiyili has found it difficult to maintain a cohesive whole school approach to literacy teaching and learning and the school has struggled to continue with its previous record of accelerating students' progress in literacy. ALPAA formed to ensure the work done to date is built upon and grown. A number of schools in WA and other states in Australia are using the methodology. New AL collectives are emerging. The 2016 ASFLA Conference looked very interesting and relevant to my work.
I had not factored the ASFLA Conference into my budget for 2016. Then I came across a scholarship offer from PETAA to honor their much loved and respected former director, Sue Bremner who had passed away unexpectedly, earlier this year. I applied, and much to my delight I was chosen.
The 2016 ASFLA Conference did not disappoint my expectations.
SFL provides powerful tools for text analysis. One of the leading researchers in the field is Jim Martin, Professor, Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney. Prof Martin gave the plenary address on Day 1 of the conference where he described an alternative to the usual analysis of texts, common to genre based English lessons. Martin demonstrated how SFL resources could be used to compare the features of a range of texts and these commonalities be used to build new texts. He offered this notion of synthesis as an alternative to the usual model of scaffolding, where a single text is used as the basis for Joint Constructions or Joint Rewriting.
AL has used narrative texts as the basis of its program because it takes less time to build the field and allows relatively quick access to academic language. Helen Harper and Dan Corke have observed how Science lessons easily turn into shallow activity sessions with little use of genuine Scientific discourse. They presented work they'd done to narrow the field and associated language to a manageable level which allowed the teacher to purposefully build a text orally through the usual demonstrations and experiments so that by the time students were asked to write they had the language resources they needed. Helen Harper and Dr Bronwyn Parkin have been awarded a PEETA Research Grant to continue this work and develop a methodology that scaffolds students into the academic English of Science.
As mentioned earlier, questioning is a powerful tool in the classroom. It marks and affirms the knowers and done well can carefully scaffold learners into new academic discourse. It can also crush and marginalise. The ALPAA Pre-Conference workshops focused on questioning. Dr Bronwyn Parkin explored the notion of contingency using transcribed classroom dialogue to demonstrate how done well it avoids classroom breakdown. Parkin describes contingency as the shuffle or dance effective teachers do to ensure questioning develops students’ mastery of academic English and avoids marginalising those still coming to grips with the language. Wendy Cowey, co-developer of Accelerated Literacy, compared the work of Neil Mercer in The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners to the types of interactions suggested for use in AL. There were many points of commonality. The need to be flexible and ‘contingent’ to where students are at each step of the way was highlighted. Rigid adherence to a script or routine will not work. Both Parkin and Cowey emphasized the need for careful planning that then gives the teacher space to be in sync and ready for each child as they participate in classroom dialogue. Waiting and repair were two features of contingency that were discussed and demonstrated.
Mary Macken Horarik distilled thirty years of research into responses to State testing and later NAPLAN writing tasks. A series of very teacher friendly tables and diagrams clearly show the valued forms of writing that we need to be teaching explicitly. Her research provides teachers with a clear checklist of features students need to know.
Professor Peter Freebody, Dr Sally Humphries and Dr Jenny Hammond all challenged attendees to continue the social equity agenda of SFL and ensure marginalized students gain access to the forms of English that give individuals and communities power in mainstream society.
There were many other fascinating and immediately useful papers presented over the course of the three day conference. My classroom teaching at Yiyili Aboriginal Community School in WA’s Kimberley region, will be enriched by the ideas and new approaches I have met. Next year our school will move back to Accelerated Literacy across all classes. Once teachers have mastered the basics of Accelerated Literacy I will be able to run workshops that extend them into the areas of ‘synthesis vs analysis’, contingency, focusing on valued forms in narrative writing, narrowing the field to enhance students’ use of academic English in Science. We will be able to trial the PETAA research findings of Parkin and Harper.
Most teachers are familiar with the genre work of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). The use of the grammar at paragraph and sentence level is less well known. SFL offers very powerful tools for helping students gain control of the most powerful forms of English needed to be an independent member of Australian society. If you want to know more about Systemic Functional Linguistics PETAA carries some excellent, teacher friendly publications. For those who want to go deeper become a member of the Australian Systemic Functional Linguistics Association and be on the look out for professional development opportunities and courses that can help you enter the fascinating and rewarding world of SFL in the classroom.
Thank you PETAA for awarding me the Sue Bremner Scholarship that allowed me to travel to the ASFLA 2016 Conference. Sue clearly made a big impact in the PETAA community and beyond and I only wish I had, had the opportunity to meet her.
Carmel Leahy November 2016
- Robert . Eagleson, Susan Kaldor and Ian G. Malcolm. (1982) English and the Aboriginal Child. Curriculum Development Centre, Dickson, ACT, Australia
- Gray, B (1980) Developing language and literacy with urban Aboriginal children: a first report on the Traeger Park project. Canberra: Curriculum Development Centre.
- Gray, B (1982) Developing language and literacy with Aboriginal children in urban schools. Paper presented to the 7th annual conference of the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, Perth
- Abstracts of papers referred to in the report can be found online in the ASFLA 2016 Conference Handbook