Project 40 Essay 4

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Communication ecology



4o logo 1972–2012

October 2013

Joseph Lo BiancoProfessor Joseph Lo Bianco AM FAHA

University of Melbourne

With reference to the ‘communication ecology’ of the nation, Joseph Lo Bianco reflects on diversity and equity as critical features of literacy in Australia, in the fourth installment in a series of Project 40 essays supported by video interviews and key PETAA resources.

Video interview

The point of context

I was once told by an impatient Minister that he was tired of all this ‘context, context, context … what’s the point, really?’ he fumed.

I didn’t dare introduce the term ‘communication ecology’. Under the circumstances that would have been risky. But, as people prefer to say these days, there is always a ‘backstory’ and it is in the backstory (the dreaded context), where we must look to interpret well and accurately what literacy and communication effectiveness are, and how to improve them.

We can conveniently call this domain the communication ecology, meaning the totality of semiotic practices that make up the communication resources of what linguists have tended to call a speech community. This must then be extended to mean a community of communication, since speech, while central, is co-located with writing and other semiotic practices. When we examine the communication ecology of a community, and indeed of an individual child, we can identify the settings, purposes, skills and practices that each community deploys in its communication life, and by which it inducts all new arrivals (children, who are raised vertically within that community, and adult outsiders who are admitted horizontally). As researchers we now have available a repertoire of concepts and methods for analysing a communication ecology, and as teachers we draw on it to develop it further by honing the skills and capabilities of its members.

There exists a fund of concepts, skills and information to account for the communication environment children are from, in the here and now, and the communication environment teachers and teaching need to support them to acquire for the future. Even just knowing this can support teachers to come to grips with and become confident in their tasks.

The tasks of teaching are today more complicated and demanding than they have ever been. And while there is no one new environment of communication, of course, but many — the new communication environment (in the most general terms) that teachers must face and prepare learners for, is more complex in every way imaginable.

To explain ‘communication ecology’ practically I mean, simply, the complex of languages that students bring to schools. Languages are, to risk the ire of grumpy Ministers who might be reading this right now, not ‘just languages’ but forms of life, interpretations of the world, lenses that influence our view of and participation in the world. They have associated literacies. They contain preferred and privileged genres and literacy practices, as well as forms and traditions of reasoning.

Each language has a unique and distinctive stock of such inheritances. Each language has a hierarchy too, ranging from elite, privileged, canonical forms (such as its high literature, which parents and the institutions of the original society hold up as the ones to admire and to emulate) and demotic, local practical forms (which are the ones people actually use, and which are often stigmatised when they are used in the formal world of schooling).

Each language also has a particular tradition of dealing with differences like these, such as differences between dialects, sociolects, registers and popular forms of language compared to elevated and privileged ones. In some language and culture traditions the canon is utterly untouchable, signalled by major deviation between the high form and the spoken form. Often this is called diglossia, referring to a ‘speech community’ which simultaneously handles a ‘high’ and a ‘low’ form, and in multilingual settings we can see some communities in which one language is used for high forms and a different language for low forms.

Examples of a bilingual split include Paraguay, where the indigenous language Guarani is widely used for popular communication but people switch to Spanish for writing and educated expression. Within one language we can see a diglossic pattern in Tamil, which has an ancient literary and literacy tradition. The spoken form of the language differs from the written form in a much more pronounced way than what we find in the differences between ordinary colloquial spoken English and formal genres of written English. The principle, though, is the same, that of dividing sharply ‘high’ social functions and allocating these exclusively to one code, and ‘low’ social functions and allocating these exclusively to another.

The practical consequence here is that a child coming from such a community is the inheritor of a very marked and particular communication ecology and this will shape his or her expectation about what is normal in communication. A Tamil speaking child, especially one who has some level of inculcation into the literary and literacy traditions of his or her culture, would approach the steps required in Australian schooling that inculcate learners from ‘home’ language to ‘educated’ and literary language differently from his or her English speaking peers and probably also differently from his or her teachers. Such children will experience a much bigger gap than exists in English. They might be surprised about how much leniency is allowed in English. They might welcome it, or be alarmed by it, or simply not be able to make much sense of it. They would also, in all their learning, engage in a practice of thinking through language which is increasingly coming to be called ‘translanguaging’, meaning that as they accept the new norms and adapt to them they continue to mentally process information using both their original language and all its ‘ecology’ and their new language. So even when they might appear to be functioning solely in English, it is likely that many will be thinking through more than just English, deploying all their communication resources to make sense and meaning out of education.

Find referenced PETAA resources that together comprise an evolving conversation with classroom teachers in PEN 93: Aboriginal English (1993 and 2000) by Diana Eades,  PEN 120: Language tracks: Aboriginal English and the classroom (1999) by Lee Simpson, Geoff Munns and Sue Clancy, and PEN 150: Teaching students who speak Aboriginal English (2005) by Yvonne Haig, Patricia Konigsberg and Glenys Collard.

The national communication ecology in Australia — a backstory like no other

‘It is useful to reflect on what assumptions we make about the literate home, what our curriculum expects learners to do and know. Teachers should always try to know about the communication ecology of their learners, and will always find important information on which to modify, modulate and adapt their teaching.’


In Australia we have one of the most complex varieties of a national communication ecology on Earth.

Basically, we have the world’s dominant language, English, as our national language. Unlike other English speaking countries English in Australia is mostly geographically uniform, meaning that Australian English in its standard form varies relatively little across the nation. However, when we look to the spoken varieties of English in their popular forms, we see that Australian English is highly variegated. This means that while it is relatively geographically uniform, Australian English is strongly marked by variation according to social class and ethnicity. There are, for example a very large number of varieties of English spoken by Aboriginal people; there are many ‘mixtures’ of English and Englishes fused with the more than 300 other languages spoken in the kitchens and lounge rooms of Australian homes. The English backstory is very complex in terms of what is inherited, but what is validated in schooling is a major ‘reduction’ of this complexity. Schooling language, understood in the most general terms, and specifically schooled English, is a tight selection made from what’s available in the wider community. This can be called a ‘register’ and perhaps more formally the register of ‘educated, literate speech’ which is the decided form in which knowledge is organised, packaged and conveyed in schooling.

This is the form in which text books are written, formal announcements made, in which public discourse is conducted and education delivered. Actually, it is even more than this, since all these privileges accorded to standard educated literate speech give it a strong cultural, political and economic power and presence in the national society.

This kind of English is quite different from spoken language and ordinary everyday literacies, much looser, less consistent, and more free-flowing, that we see in the wider community. It is important to recognise that these varieties align much more closely with the used forms of some social sectors and populations than with others, conferring advantage on them and disadvantage on others.

So, both literate and spoken language forms favoured in schooling are highly selected from what’s available in the community, and it is these forms that all students encounter. Naturally they encounter these forms differentially. Some learners encounter these forms as a validation and confirmation of their home cultural life, and others encounter them as a significant marker of discrepancy, a challenge, and, unfortunately quite often, as a major obstacle to their prospects of accessing the curriculum and all its stocks of knowledge and skills.

But even this already complex story is only part of the total backstory because we must consider the many other languages, some 300 non-English, non-Aboriginal languages drawn from all parts of the world, that are spoken in the homes of learners in schools. These languages are of course as different from each other as it would be possible for languages to be. These languages are spoken within communities which are highly literate in the formal language literacy sense, though often using a wide variety of orthographic systems that operate with quite different assumptions and practices from the roman alphabetic system English uses. Not all learners and their families are inculcated in the literacy traditions of their language group. Some families share these backstories, others do not, some come from marked varieties of national languages and others might be highly literate and highly multilingual. It is useful to reflect on what assumptions we make about the literate home, what our curriculum expects learners to do and know. Teachers should always try to know about the communication ecology of their learners, and will always find important information on which to modify, modulate and adapt their teaching. We cannot ignore the cognitive and communicative worlds of people, children or adults, we are attempting to teach, even if we can’t ourselves be expected to be skilled in all of those languages and literacies.


So, here we see the expanding scope of communication ecology, a wide range within English, within literacy, within languages and among learners.

We know that communities in Australia who are connected to diverse languages are at different stages and in different relationships with those languages. Some are losing their language skills, experiencing subtractive bilingualism as the home non-English language is being replaced by English. Other communities, or single families, are experiencing additive bilingualism, a process in which they are retaining their first language as they acquire English. This process complicates the backstory because it locates it on a time continuum, a diachronic axis, rather than seeing the language, the family and the communication in the here and now, synchronically. We are here beginning to look at the communication ecology diachronically, over time. This of course is important to teaching, which is an investment in the future. Teachers produce the communication skills of the next generation, of the future, but they do it in the here and now. In relation to Indigenous languages, the very complex category of Australian Aboriginal languages, of which more than fifty are still spoken by children, subtractive bilingualism is widespread, and usually results not only in the cessation of use of the language by that family, community or individual, but of the world, since these are unique languages.

This forbiddingly diverse communication ecology is a backstory like no other. It is the foundation from which learners learn.

We can’t anymore sustain the fiction that learning begins at school and that the primary vehicle of learning is the teaching language, meaning English in Australia.

In translanguaging learners bring all their languages, all their semiotic resources, to the task of learning. In individual cases these might be a fading or a strong home language, a dialectal variety of a home language or a highly literate version of it, a variety of English that is stigmatised and is embarrassing for the learner, subjecting him or her to ridicule, a strong language other than English which is privileged in public esteem and rewarded by the admiration of school teachers.

The ‘equity’ agenda in Australian education and the founding of PETAA

‘We need to keep in mind that up until [the 1970s]  the selective nature of schooling was almost taken for granted by everybody, and many, perhaps most people simply made the operating assumption that the kind of background children brought to school was their inevitable life destiny.’


There is a fascinating and important dimension in the origins of PETAA because it coincides with the commencement of the diversity agenda in Australia. 1972 sees the coincidence of the creation of PETAA and the beginnings of the idea that communication ecology matters in education.

The symmetry of these two developments is interesting and important because in the early 1970s in Australia we had the beginnings of the idea of that we could describe some languages preceded by the adjective ‘community’. The idea that languages could be associated with a community that was local was intended to convey the message that not all languages other than English in Australia are ‘foreign’ to their learners. This is of course how languages had traditionally been thought of in education.

We can see that the scope of variation here is very wide, from a language being part of the wider context of literacy and communication in which the child is directly immersed; so that the shared knowledge that they have with their families is particular to them and is not always shared with teachers. If the language is a community language in a less direct and formative way, it might remain or even be accentuated as a language of identity, one supported by or distanced by the immediate family of the child. Here we have entered the realm of sociolinguistics of community and the effects of displacement or intensification that occur with migration, for newly arrived children, and of interaction with the dominant community, as might occur with indigenous children.

From the PETAA perspective what is most important is the level of dissymmetry that might exist. PETAA was founded at exactly the time that this kind of realisation began in Australian educational life, and not just in Australia but also in the United States with which Australian educators had a formative interchange during the 1970s.

The early 1970s also saw the beginning of Federal intervention in education, with the creation of the Schools’ Commission, the Disadvantaged Schools’ Program. These are immensely important, even foundational programs in the history of education policy in our country that enshrined the interventionist policy tradition that Australia still practices. By this I mean the sense that it is proper to education, far from assumed in many countries, to direct resources to schools and teachers with the express aim of changing the life chances of students. This idea which is so normalised today was not universally shared before the 1970s. During the 1970s and 1980s a new interventionist and optimistic ideal took hold, and produced what in retrospect was the dynamic productive policy turbulence of that time. We began to think about education in a different way. We began to think about language in a different way.

Teachers in general, and primary teachers in particular, become central to this new public project of optimism, this new experimental education policy aiming to minimise educational disadvantage and equalise opportunity. Language education in general, and access to educated English, specifically to its literate standard forms, so determinatively powerful in education and in the labour market, come to the fore as a result of this wider reorientation of the national political agenda in education. The coincidence of this politics, with the birth of PETAA and the simultaneous creation of a more sophisticated thinking about immigrant and Indigenous children and communication ecologies involves the circulation of knowledge and agitation for change. This gave rise to more consultative forms of policy making, which aimed to bridge the gap between educators and those they teach. Previous to this, teacher education, or training as it used to be called, worked on the assumption that learners were just younger than teachers, but otherwise were from the same national, ethnic, and linguistic grouping. Teaching these learners meant moving them into educated forms of behaviour and communication, complicated though this was, its greatest complications were individual differences, and questions of social class or geography. In the 1970s these formulations were greatly complicated by the addition of ethnic, national, cultural, religious and linguistic differences far greater than any previously experienced in Australia.


Impressively Australia rapidly developed strategies that became world leading in accommodating the background communication ecologies of its learners. PETAA played a useful and important mediating function, one which is worthy of admiration and celebrating. The coincidence of timing is very suggestive because of the likely intercommunication between them. This joint origin developed through the 1970s into the 80s and 90s with PETAA producing a regular stream of publications that informed teachers about new thinking and scholarship, findings from research and examples of good practice. With the steady aim of improving practice and informing teacher professionalism PETAA played a central and important role. This role applies to all teachers, including those who don’t teach minority students, because it alerts them to the new ways that language is being conceived. Even in completely monolingual situations language is always stratified according to social class and the differentiated opportunities that individual students have to read literature at home, to encounter different forms of expression, different vocabulary, different ways of making meaning in talk. All of these differences have the potential to shape and influence opportunities for individuals. I think the birth of PETAA and the birth of the equity agenda in Australia is a resonant coincidence.

Find related PETAA resources in PEN 162: Planning the learning environment for refugee background students (2008) by Pam Luizzi and Janet Saker and PETAA PAPER 183: Teaching EAL/D learners in Australian classrooms (2012) by Michèle de Courcy, Karen Dooley, Robert Jackson, Jenny Miller and Kathy Rushton.

English as a second language and PETAA

‘The concession that recruiting societies need to assist people to fit in and integrate, a pragmatic ethos for public policy that has stood Australia in good stead, is one that we have regrettably abandoned in recent years, yet is an ethos that has served us well.’


One of the key features of the equity agenda for language minority children is how they are taught English. This question opens up an interesting historical question, as well as a contemporary one. Australia has been a world leader in some areas related to the methods, assumptions, policy and research related to teaching English as an additional language, both for adults and children. Unfortunately this is a ‘primacy’ which has been lost in recent years. PETAA has an important role to play in future attempts to recover and reinvigorate Australia’s focus on quality minority language education. Consider that equitable language education policy began as an accompaniment to the 1947 nation-changing mass migration program. With the commencement of the Post War Migration Program whose express purpose was to recruit a population, to support the creation of a labour market that would be more productive than the pre-war Empire-dependent one, and which would yield a greater and nation-defending overall population, came a language learning program. Many immigrants did not benefit from it, and by comparison with pedagogical practices of today there is much to lament, but the Adult English program launched on the ships bringing new migrants from Europe to Australia in the late 1940s was an ideology of provision which has been a great pragmatic virtue of Australian policy on immigration.

The express purpose of the migration program to recruit settlers, not temporary arrivals, and the main purpose of actively taking steps to teach them English, was to assuage the concerns of people who didn’t want ethnic enclaves speaking languages other than English. That this also facilitated adaptation to their new land was a beneficial by-product. Australia was recruiting workers for its economy, but, as has been said by others, got people instead: people with families, children, languages, traditions, problems and aspirations. In creating the adult migrant English program, the largest adult English language education initiative in the world, Australia was pioneering in policy on language as well as in policy on immigration.

It wasn’t until 1972 that that initiative was extended to children, through the child migrant education program, coincidentally with the creation of PETAA. Australia kept this policy leadership going until the middle of the 1990s.

We can track the changes of thinking and the developments in underlying concepts, in the different names used for the field of second language English education. First we talked about migrant English or migrant literacy or Aboriginal English or Aboriginal literacy. This came to be displaced because it was seen to invoke a deficit or defective kind of standard language. Over time the title was extended to English as a second language. ESL acknowledges that children already have a language and that English adds to it, making it the child’s chronologically second language. This too has been replaced with the term that prevails today: English as an additional language which also acknowledges the existence of a prior or accompanying language, and seems to acknowledge that this language is a source of learning and socialisation, an identity for the child. In fact we should be speaking of bilingual learners, because this tends to bring to the fore something that the English fronted terms neglect, which is the process of translanguaging activity that we know a two-language learner enacts.

The literacy crisis

‘When the focus of policy becomes the urgently organised response to a crisis, all nuance is sacrificed to the overall cause, however credible or manufactured it might be.’


What occurred during the 1990s unfortunately was that Australia decided to have a literacy crisis. Our politicians took a critical look at the figures they had ignored for years, which we had pointed out to them repeatedly required national action to improve literacy outcomes, and they drew the wrong conclusion.

Instead of building a national literacy plan that acknowledged language differences, background differences, they applied rigid normalisation to literacy figures and imposed uniform measures of performance, insisted on singular pathways to attainment of improvements and deleted bilingualism from all consideration. To achieve their aims governments engaged in what they called ‘broadbanding’ of programs, collapsing all programs differentiated according to the needs of learners, many of whom were high literate performers, into a singular metric of ‘literacy’.

Unfortunately among the squeezed specific purpose programs were the EAL actions, shoehorned into literacy, submerged under a rubric that didn’t apply to many students many of whom, while they needed to learn spoken English, were already literate.

Also removed was the focus on the backstory, the communication ecology that explains so much about who learners are, communicatively and linguistically speaking, and that should always be a key basis for intervention, whether this be teaching, or psychological services of learners having difficulties, or assessment, or curriculum planning.

While connected to literacy, in obvious phonic and phonological ways, spoken language is a separate developmental process that needs to be encouraged by mainstream generalist teachers in primary schooling and in secondary schooling. All teachers are teachers of language in their disciplinary areas and right across the curriculum. All teachers even secondary school teachers are teachers of literacy, they’re teaching the kinds of literate practices associated with particular subject areas.

It was this kind of realisation to which PETAA made a big contribution in the 1980s and 1990s. I’m thinking now of the scaffolding work by Jennifer Hammond, Pauline Gibbons and Margery Hertzberg. This important work on English across the curriculum and the learning of content through language meant that nuance, focus and direct attention to the precise learning needs of cohorts of learners was brought directly to teachers, and it was this that was challenged so sharply by the reductive turn in our literacy as crisis period of the late 1990s.

All the languages and language ideas that a child has at his or her disposal are diagnostically, cognitively and sociologically part of the learning matrix of that child’s educational progress. In the 1990s we lost our way on some of this thinking because we decided to think of literacy more narrowly, in a more problem-based way. In retrospect we can see how seeing literacy as tied to the economy, the labour force, and seeing literacy performance as being in crisis, when objectively Australian literacy standards were high, but needed more focus on explicit teaching to improve overall achievement and to raise achievement for disadvantaged groups in particular, pushed policy makers into wanting simple solutions. The complex backstory that explains so much to teachers and researchers can be interpreted by policy makers as unnecessary complication, or even as obfuscation. The problem with simplistic interpretations of complex phenomena is that they are wrong. Specialist programs intended for immigrant and Aboriginal children have been progressively recuperated, far less than is required, but their recovery proves the need for responses that acknowledge the real world of complex communication ecologies that interact with what schools and teaching.

PETAA can play an important role in recovering a special role for specialist English in Australia. By specialist English I mean supporting teachers who can either be direct teachers of English as an additional language, or who can be resource teachers helping the mainstream generalist teacher to include particular kinds of responses to children with learning difficulties or with English language background, or who are growing into being bilinguals and need to learn English as a language of learning. We were very much more attuned to these kind of processes up until the middle of the 1990s.

Future teaching of English language and literacy in light of recent curriculum developments

‘Some nostalgics crave a return to a simpler past. I don’t begrudge them their right to desire change, though I disagree with it, what I do argue though is that the direction of the world, and our nation, is such that we will never see a return to normalised homogeneity.’


Australia is on the cusp of some major new developments in language education. One of these is what looks like now to have been a successful attempt to introduce a national approach to curriculum design. There have been attempts to do this going back thirty years, but all have failed, usually in the face of state interests. However, it now appears that a national curriculum development process has succeeded.

The curriculum will evolve, of course, but some of its present features will remain. The first of these that we should note, in light of our reflection on PETAA’s 40th anniversary, is the acknowledgement, centrally within the curriculum, that learners come from multiple language backgrounds. This rather simple statement is, as I have been arguing, very important as an essential, culturally democratic, and sociolinguistically accurate fact. It is important to be aware of a simple consequence of present day diversity in Australian communication, which is that it will never change. The diverse language backgrounds of Australians which used to be once far greater than most places in the world, are now the global norm. The vast mobility of populations in today’s globalsing world is so great in size and spread that all parts of the world are affected by it, in all directions. This means that our world is not only more intensely diverse. This diversity intensification has recently been baptised with a new name, ‘super-diversity’ (Vertovec, 2006), a term devised to account for the acceleration and deepening of human differences in single places.

The more profoundly diverse, more rapidly diverse, character of our society, every single year involving cities, countries and regions becoming multilingual, multicultural, multi-faith, in increasing numbers of ways, through global networks, forms of migration and mobility is now the normal condition of human life.

Technological innovation in communications, especially social media, are spreading instantaneous communications across the world and this too has an impact on literacy, communication, English and Englishes, languages other than English and on what constitutes a community and its relation to space. Teachers are deeply and permanently affected by this because communication is deeply and permanently affected by this.

Englishes have been adopted in all parts of the world and as the form that is our main national language is no longer the possession of English mother tongue countries and moves towards being a kind of worldwide basic skill its teaching and use is affected deeply. For PETAA this too will have deep consequences. I can’t imagine that the next 40 years won’t bring changes as momentous, if not more so, than the past 40.

In this context, we can see that PETAA’s distinctive function over the past 40 years will remain, and even strengthen. PETAA will be called on to alert teachers to the new communicative ecology of the nation, to its intensifying changes. PETAA will be in a position to inform and prepare teachers for the pedagogical consequences of the new world communication order. The national curriculum is an opportunity and a good initial instalment in establishing this role for PETAA.

We have seen how the English syllabus of the national curriculum has moved to resolve the ways in which literacy, language and literature are connected. PETAA has supported these developments. The support material for English as an additional language/dialect brings into play the diversity within English that we know is there and that all teachers have to deal with. It’s important to also keep in mind — even English teachers should do this — that the national curriculum makes compulsory for the first time in Australian curriculum history the study of a second language. Languages are no longer an option but are now compulsory. There are designated hours through the curriculum for different pathways that groups of learners will follow. For example, there are pathways of learners who start Chinese from a Chinese speaking background, those who start Chinese from an English speaking background and those who start Chinese from a dialect Chinese background. We can see here, within the languages-other-than-English curriculum — and this is true for languages other than Chinese — an acknowledgement of the diversity of learners within those languages, a claim and a fact equally true within English.

A deeply justified mission

The national curriculum is therefore a great opportunity for PETAA to continue the innovative work that it has done in the past, linking schooling and language according to diversity of background, as resources that students bring to the tasks we set them in class.

This is the most important way we can think about it. Outside of schooling people can argue about whether languages are a problem or a right, it is available to us to participate in such debate, but in schooling we’ve only got one way that we are brought to think about language in relation in schooling. This follows from our primary role as educators, delivering the primary function of schooling, which is learning. In relation to this central professional preoccupation we can only see language, and therefore language diversity, and the communication ecology of our nation, and its students, as a resource, a series of rich resources that learners already possess within their cognitive and social repertoires, available to them and to teachers collectively develop. Our job collectively with our students is to enhance, deepen and extend learning and, in turn, this means understanding the relationships between language, as the main semiotic mechanism for the production of learning, the shared product of learning, between teachers and learners and the act and outcome of learning itself. So language and learning: multiple languages and multiple ways to learn within different subject areas.

It has been interesting to reflect on the important role that PETAA has played over the past forty years. In this reflection it becomes clear that PETAA has a similarly challenging and important role to play in the future because the changes in communication and in education will be just as intense as they were in the past, if not more so.

The ‘equality agenda’, meaning the aspiration that we give ourselves to act within education in ways that make the life chances of students align better with their individual talents and interests, rather than being prejudiced by poverty, disadvantage, discrimination or ignorance, remains the great challenge of all education, of all mainstream schooling. That is where PETAA’s central role mediating between research and practice is located and where its primary mission is deeply justified.

Professor Joseph Lo Bianco AM FAHA

University of Melbourne
October 2013