Literacy across the school curriculum


Literacy across the curriculum

Freebody believes that the different ways in which literacy is put to work in different curriculum areas is the real issue for secondary literacy education. He investigates four areas of James Heckman’s research on human learning as well as other research and offers some practical tasks that school leaders, teachers, parents and interested community members could initiate or intensify. (In three parts, totalling 18 minutes)

Video 1: Part 1


Literacy across the curriculum

Professor Peter Freebody

Part 1:

In this session, I discuss the idea of literacy across the school curriculum. My aim is to convince you, with ideas and research from a range of sources, that the main point of literacy education in school is students’ access to the powerful bodies of knowledge made available through school curriculums – developing active, competent, industrious, adaptable and informed citizens, community members and workers.

What it is that schooling has to offer contemporary youngsters in terms of personal development, cultural heritage, preparation for work and citizenship, and so on, it offers via texts – spoken, printed, imaginal and digital – and the contents and expression of these texts become less like ordinary commonsense communication as the school years advance.

What that means is that, far from literacy education being done and dusted by the middle of the primary school years, the real literacy journey is just beginning in middle and upper primary school, and that it is the different ways in which literacy is put to work in the different curriculum areas that is the real issue for literacy education.

But let’s start with some economics. James Heckman, an economist, won the Nobel Prize for his research on human capital and skills formation. In one of his papers, he summarised the “big lessons” that the research on human learning tells us.

Four of Heckman’s big lessons especially concern us here because they relate to any substantial discussion of literacy education in schools. The first is that both individual abilities and environments matter educationally. And for Heckman, literacy is the arch “skill that begets other skills”, a set of capabilities that shape and enrich the development of our intellect, our cognitive skills, our knowledge of the world, and our understandings.

Heckman’s second lesson is that our abilities are made up of multiple components. One of Heckman’s concerns in this regard is that for our skills to be useful to us and to the society we live in, we must have the social adaptability and social motivation to put them to use appropriately and creatively. We don’t just ‘have’ them, like a coin in our pocket that we never spend. Part of developing literacy capabilities is developing social understandings and skills, because so many aspects of our lives are literacy-dependent, and because being good at literacy, in the end, is about dealing more effectively and creatively and in a more informed manner with the problems and challenges that face us as individual and communities.

Thirdly, Heckman points out that there is a large body of research that confirms the commonsense idea that heavy educational investment in the early parts of people’s lives – their learning and their social development – pays off big time. This is a lesson familiar to educators, especially those with a special interest in literacy development, and it points to the need to support parents and early childhood programs that provide youngsters with fun, relaxed but uncompromised ways of engaging them in literacy activities, and in the beginning of their journeys in a literacy-saturated school system.

Heckman’s seventh lesson is in fact the other side of the early-investment coin. Heckman points to the research that also confirms the point that unless early years’ investment is followed up with similar support and development, it will be largely wasted. If strong, early starts are critical, then a lack of strong maintenance through all the school years will waste them. What does this mean for us when we consider how literacy needs to be maintained through the school years? A fundamental fact about literacy for school is the significant change in demands over time – textual, cognitive and social demands. That is, how to manage, use and produce all the different kinds of texts that students face as readers and writers, texts that reflect the increasing distinctiveness of each of the disciplines of school knowledge.

From their extensive study of language across the school subjects and the school years, Fran Christie and Beverly Derewianka in 2008 concluded that it’s useful to outline four stages of school literacy that emerge over the school years. Students, they summarised, are faced with managing and producing literate language in these stages:

• First, students in the early childhood years encounter simple commonsense knowledge that is expressed in congruent language – language in which the form of the words reflects the simple structure of the actual activities (e.g., the ‘do-er’ of the activity is in the subject position of the clause, and the verb is the ‘do-ing’) with simple expressions of attitudes and/or evaluations.

• Second, for students in middle childhood, the commonsense knowledge becomes elaborated as their language resources expand; grammatical complexity emerges with expanded attitudinal and evaluative expressions.

• Third, for students in early-mid adolescence, knowledge begins to become more ‘uncommonsense’, grammatical complexity and increasingly non-congruent language emerges, with expanded attitudes and evaluative expressions.

• Fourth, for students in mid-late adolescence, ‘uncommonsense’ knowledge is expressed in highly non-congruent language, with abstraction, generalisation, and increasingly sophisticated expressions of judgment and opinion.

Christie and Derewianka made two further, crucial observations: Firstly, they showed how these developments took different forms in the literacy demands of the different subject areas in school; second, they observed that, in students’ writing, it seemed clear that many students failed to make progress across Stages 2–3 – into uncommonsense and grammatical complexity.

Looking back to Heckman’s lesson number 7, we can see that ‘maintaining’ early literacy learning, as far as schooling is concerned, must engage the particular demands each subject area places on students’ reading and writing, as these develop through the school years.

Several of my current research programs aim to address these issues. The more recent of these programs are located in the senior years of schooling because I wanted to get as clear a look as possible at these distinctive literacy demands that the curriculum areas present to students. By the senior years, we expect to see many students and teachers moderately well-versed in the classroom talk, reading, and the writing that’s characteristic of more specialised forms of curriculum-specific communication. The lessons and student work samples my colleagues and I have studied include the curriculum areas of Biology, Chemistry, History, Music and Physics.

Video 2: Part 2


Part 2:

So, what are some lessons we have learned from these studies? The first is, to put it bluntly there are two kinds of Year 11 classrooms. On the one hand, we see lessons in which the teachers do a considerable amount of talking to the whole class and, less often, to groups, and that talk comprises variations around the academic discourse of the curriculum area – if you like, the ‘text-book language’. We see plenty of lecture-style talk from the teacher with occasional interactions with students, who spend a lot of their time listening. We see some hands-on practical work, that is discussed a little, but that does not form the centre-piece of the teaching-learning environment. The students in these classrooms tend to do well on formal school assessments.

On the other hand, we see teachers organising practical activities of various kinds, often in small group settings, and sometimes with a ‘project-work’ or inquiry focus. We see busy classrooms with not a lot of academic teacher talk, but a lot of organisational teacher talk and student activity; students talk, they do things, make things, usually together rather than individually (e.g., musical pieces, DNA models, liquid mixtures, and so on). In these settings, students rarely hear extended talk or discussion in ‘text-book-like’ language. The students in these classrooms tend to do less well on formal school assessments.

We can debate questions of pedagogy and learning and, more particularly, which of these two stereotypic types of classrooms you prefer. But most syllabus guidelines indicate that students should experience a strongly related mix of the academic and the applied, the knowledge and the inquiry, and so on in their classrooms (and their music-rooms, laboratories, excursions, and so on) with each supporting, informing and motivating the other. We have found relatively few that fall into this mixed-and-integrated. The issue seems to be that some students have entered the intellectual and knowledge domain of the curriculum area, can handle and expand on the distinctive ways it uses language, literacy and images, and are not looking for ‘hands-on’ or ‘relevant’ experiences to motivate their continued learning. Other students not so; And, by Year 11, not many betwixt and between. So these classroom studies give some support to Christie and Derewianka’s concerns about students not having developed the capabilities they need to meet the curriculum-specific demands they face in the senior years.

Attending to the generic, ‘basic’ literacy needs of students in all classrooms is critical and one of the shortcomings of our current school practices. As any secondary school teacher can attest, too many students need more explicit teaching, modelling and basic literacy support well into their secondary years and this help is not always easy to find in a secondary school. Students in both of the types of classrooms I have outlined need this support on a regular and routine basis. But the journeys that lead to these two kinds of Year 11 classrooms probably start in the middle years of schooling, as the curriculum areas begin to become more distinct from one another in what they expect learners to be able to read and write.

Video 3: Part 3


Part 3:

So we come to a significant conclusion here. When we talk about literacy across the curriculum, we need to distinguish between two meanings of this expression: First, supporting ‘generic literacy skills’ as they are applied across the different curriculum areas – fluency and accuracy in reading and writing, comprehension, making meaning clearly and appropriately in writing, and so on. Second, developing and supporting literacy capabilities that are specific to each of the curriculum areas – curriculum-specific literacy capabilities – getting better at the different ways in which different bodies of knowledge and forms of thought put literacy to work in their own image. Supporting these curriculum-specific literacy capabilities means having answers to a number of key questions about reading and writing and how these processes build knowledge through the middle years:

• What are the ‘heavy duty’ genres or text types in the various subject areas? (– explanations, persuasions, descriptions, recounts, and so on)

• To what extent are you and your students explicitly aware of the overall structures and the key features of these heavy duty genres?

• What are some of the specific features of these genres that could be, and maybe should be, systematically introduced, modelled and consolidated at the year levels you teach?

• How might these curriculum-specific literacy capabilities be validly and productively assessed in ways that also can guide your teaching towards more effectively building knowledge and understanding?

The answers to these questions should inform how you and your colleagues assess literacy beyond the early years. Students, teachers, schools, communities, parents, systems and governments should all want to know about students’ comprehending, appreciation, use, and production of texts that have actual validity of use – ecological validity – both in and for school, and in and for their developing experiences as members of our society.

The textbook definition of ‘ecological validity’ is, according to Cohen, Manion & Morrison, “to give accurate portrayals of the realities of social situations in their own terms, in their natural, conventional settings”. For students in our schools these ‘realities’ are the curriculum areas they study; in secondary schools, these areas, and the distinctive literacy demands they embody, change about every 50 minutes. It’s a complex and demanding environment for all students, but especially for those whose generic literacy skills are not being adequately supported or whose curriculum-specific literacy capabilities have not been systematically and attentively developed.

If I’ve convinced you that there is, or maybe just that there might be, some validity and urgency about these issues, then there are some practical tasks that school leaders, teachers, parents and interested community members might initiate or, if these are already happening, perhaps consider intensifying:

1. develop shared understandings of the key literacy demands of each of the subject areas

2. plan together to maximise continuity (of terms, ideas, strategies) from year to year and across the subjects in secondary school

3. describe, for yourself, your colleagues and students, the language and other modalities that receive heavy duty in the different curriculum areas, and the way each area uses interactions among these modalities

4. develop school-based policies that emphasise curriculum-based literacy capabilities as well as the ‘old basics’ – that is, make this expression a regular, taken-for-granted part of your talk about literacy, with teachers, parents, students

5. collaboratively develop in-school, in-class assessments that reflect the recognition that the middle years are critical in the beginning apprenticeship into the curriculum areas as domains of language and literacy development

Our students go on, not only to be assessed for school, but to become family and community members, citizens, workers and voters. A full-blooded literacy program recognises the significance of all of these roles. Literacy, done well, can provide an entrée into literate engagement with domestic, civil and vocational life; it can afford us a belief in the understand-ability and the change-ability of the world around us. In societies such as ours, effective and broadly-based literacy education is a setting for our individual and collective effectiveness and agency.

And finally, in democratic societies in which complex matters concerning our environmental, economic and physical wellbeing are political issues, contested on every front, every day, the role of schooling is hugely consequential: Schools are charged with offering a literacy education that can help build the knowledge that makes our political and moral judgments meaningful.