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Editorial: Australian research on children's literacy: An overview


When the Queensland Journal of Educational Research (QJER) replaced the Queensland Researcher in 1997 as the journal of the Queensland Institute for Educational Research (QIER), the announced intention was to continue to publish three issues of the journal per year. It was also decided that, where possible, one issue per year should be a special issue consisting of invited articles devoted to a single theme. In 1997, three issues making up volume 13 were published, including one on a special theme. In 1998, only two issues making up volume 14 were published (and these were very late). Achieving three high-quality issues per year proved very demanding within the available time and resources.

Accordingly, the publication policy has been changed so that normally, beginning with volume 14, 1998, only two issues of the journal will be published per year. One of these issues may, depending on circumstances, consist of invited articles on a single theme. I regret that there was no third issue for volume 14 but hope that the quality of the articles included in the two issues of volume 14 made up for the lack of a third issue. Also, this first issue of volume 15 is a bumper one, greatly exceeding the size of previous issues, thereby providing some compensation for the missing issue of volume 14.

This first issue of volume 15 focuses on a single theme, research on children's literature. The articles are the complete set of position papers presented at a special Researchers' Conference on Children's Literacy National Projects in November 1998. These position papers have been released for publication in this form by their respective authors. As editor of the journal I am pleased that the authors have agreed to make them available in this way. As a collection, the articles offer a more coherent and powerful profile of current research on children's literacy in Australia than would be possible if they were dispersed and published individually. I am also pleased that the journal is able to serve as the agency for making these articles publicly available.

The Researchers' Conference on Children's Literacy National Projects was held to bring together representatives of the sixteen projects funded between 1992 and 1996 by the Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA)[1] under the Children's Literacy National Projects Programme (CLP). The purpose of the conference was to present and discuss the findings and recommendations of these sixteen projects. The position papers included here are the papers presented at that conference, in some cases after further revision. They offer an interpretation by the author or authors of the import of the relevant research project and of its implications for possible future directions in policy development and research.

When CLP began in 1992, it formed part of the Australian Commonwealth Government's sponsorship of a nationwide effort to improve Australia's language and literacy standards. The CLP projects were research projects directed at identifying and understanding how different factors facilitate or impede the development of language and literacy performance among children in government and non-government schools. The sixteen CLP projects reported here took place between 1992 and 1996. In 1997, CLP became part of the Literacy Programme: National Literacy Strategies and Projects aimed at identifying, researching and implementing strategic national initiatives and developments in literacy and numeracy. This led in turn to the development of the National Literacy and Numeracy Plan (also referred to as the National Plan or simply the Literacy Plan) as enunciated in the monograph Literacy for All: The Challenge for Australian Schools (DEETYA, 1998). The National Plan includes a recognition that program development in literacy and numeracy should be founded on high-quality research and a commitment to a continuing program of national research projects.

The fact that the Commonwealth Government has recognised the relevance and importance of sound research as a foundation of sound policy development is something to celebrate. The Commonwealth Government funded all of the projects reported here and is committed to a continuation of research funding in this area in the future. It remains the most important sponsor of educational research in this field. At a time of scarcity in research funding in Australia, this is something to be prized. The success of research in this field in underpinning educational policy development can be a basis for arguing the benefits of educational research in other aspects of education as well.

Of course, the value of any research depends on both its quality and its interpretation. The research reported here is encouraging in this respect. The scope and the quality of these projects make them deserving of consideration in educational policy and program development at national, state and local levels. For maximum impact they should have a wide readership. The issues raised are of fundamental importance for education in Australia as it enters the twenty-first century. The educational community needs to attend to these issues and build upon them. It is hoped that by making these papers available through this journal they will indeed enjoy widespread readership and impact throughout the education community.

Most of the position papers have adopted a similar structure which makes comparison easier. This structure involves an explanatory introduction followed by sections with the headings: implications for the National Plan; professional development priorities; key research priorities; and conclusion.

The articles have been arranged here in a conceptual order to assist in moving from one article to the next. This conceptual order is as follows:

1-2Home and community factors in literacy development
3-7Literacy programs from preschool to lower secondary school
8-9Assessment issues in literacy education
10-14Literacy for students with particular needs
15Literacy demands in the post-compulsory curriculum
16Technologies and future directions in literacy development

However,this ordering is in terms of the main focus of the article. Many themes recur throughout and there are many other ways in which the articles could be ordered and grouped.

HOME AND COMMUNITY FACTORS IN LITERACY DEVELOPMENT

Articles 1 and 2, Developing partnerships: The home, school and community interface and Community literacy practices and schooling: Towards effective support for students (both by Cairney & Ruge) deal with the broader home and community context in which school operates and emphasise the importance of this wider context for the success of the teaching of literacy within the school. Cairney and Ruge point to an urg ent need for further initiatives in developing home/school and community/school partnerships, as well as systematic evaluation of these initiatives. They also point to the need for more research on the needs of different cultural and linguistic groups and on the different interactions of culture, family and gender in literacy development in order to build a curriculum that responds positively to the rich diversity of cultural, social and language experiences that children bring to school.

LITERACY PROGRAMS FROM PRESCHOOL TO LOWER SECONDARY SCHOOL

Articles 3-7 deal with literacy in the early and middle years of schooling. All of these articles stress the complexity of literacy, transcending narrow conceptions of reading, writing and spelling, involving new negotiations of meaning and new developments of capability in each new setting, and continuing as a lifelong and dynamic learning process. They also point to the need for preservice teacher education and inservice professional development of teachers to strengthen teachers' own understanding and discourse about literacy, to extend across the curriculum, to appropriate social and institutional support for change, and to provide teacher validated programs and materials.

Article 3, 100 children go to school: Connections and disconnections in literacy development in the year prior to school and the first year of school (Hill), reports on a study of the prior-to-school and first-year-of-school experiences of a sample of 100 children. It reports that, while most children make impressive progress in literacy development both before and after commencing school, others show different patterns or rates of development. These differences indicate the need for pedagogies that are sensitive to different family literacy backgrounds and 'funds of knowledge' as well as to the problem for some children of learning how to 'do school' and the role of literacy in learning cultural models of identity. It is suggested that teachers need to know about children's earlier literacy experiences and about how to develop responsive pedagogies and contextualised assessment.

Article 4, Literacy in the transition years (Cairney & Sproats), examines a different transition, looking at differences in literacy practices in primary to secondary school and the problems of transition these differences create for students. Whereas literacy is a dominant feature of both primary and secondary classrooms, there is a shift in secondary classrooms from teaching literacy to teaching how to use literacy to learn. It is noted that the perennial problem of helping students to make the transition from primary to secondary expectations remains largely unsolved and requires more deliberate attempts to bridge the gap between the understandings and approaches of primary and secondary teachers. What is striking about both articles 3 and 4, and later article 15, is that transitions pose an almost intransigent problem in education, whether it is from home/preschool to school, primary to secondary school or compulsory to post-compulsory education. The twin themes of the need for teachers to know what is on the other side of the divide and to use flexible and supportive pedagogies suggest the importance of examining what blocks the adoption of such pedagogies.

Articles 5 and 6, Classroom discourse in upper primary and secondary years (Cormack) and Now you're talking: The role of talk in thinking and learning in the middle years (Bills), deal with the role of spoken language as an aspect of literacy and as a facilitator of learning (including literacy learning). Both deplore the extent to which the importance of spoken language has previously been ignored or underplayed in discussions of literacy, including the National Plan which focusses on reading, writing and spelling. Cormack points out that talk is the principal medium of instruction and plays a large role in all learning. He argues that the research undertaken for this project supports the value of encouraging teachers to be researchers, engaging in critical reflection on their practice and continually seeking improvements, what Bills refers to as 'generative action'. Both articles also stress the important role of different discourses on literacy, Cormack stressing the influence of the way the teacher thinks and talks about students' capabilities and possible improvement and Bills stressing the importance of teachers being involved in public debate on literacy. Cormack also argues that successful improvement in literacy learning requires 'ensembles of strategies' which support each other and institutional change strategies which ensure a supportive environment of change.

Article 7, Reflecting on viewing: Supporting teachers to make judgements about students in the upper primary and lower secondary years (Simpson & Hancock), examines the role of visual texts and the development of critical viewing as a part of literacy. They stress both the value of visual texts in ensuring that all students experience success in literacy and the importance of this aspect of literacy in terms of emerging information technologies, with teachers needing assistance in managing the latter. Along with other researchers, they stress the importance of defining literacy as the province of all teachers, the need for whole school programs which provide opportunity for collaborative support among teachers, and the need to provide accessible resources and support for professional development in this area.

ASSESSMENT ISSUES IN LITERACY EDUCATION

The theme of whole school programs is continued in this section. Article 8, Assessing and reporting literacy (van Kraayenoord) is based on a study of literacy assessment, recording and reporting practices in primary and secondary schools. Article 9, Literacy and the key competencies (Mellor) reports the outcomes and implications of a study of the relationship between literacy and the key competencies proposed by Finn (1991) and Mayer (1992). Both are to some extent historical since the National Profiles and the Key Competencies are less enthusiastically embraced now than they were in the mid-90s. Nevertheless, the issues they raise remain important.

In article 8, it is concluded that teachers need, and feel they need, extensive professional development on literacy and its assessment if they are to fulfil their responsibilities effectively. Assessment is seen as a key component in effective teaching strategies. However, existing formulations of 'frameworks' and 'benchmarks' such as those proposed nationally are seen as problematic in their espousal of the 'one way' of describing performance. They can also conflict with and undermine the development among teachers of more sophisticated understandings of literacy and the development of more responsive and more inclusive teaching and assessment practices.

Article 9 emphasised the 'life-skill' and cross-curricula aspects of literacy, both of which connected strongly with the competencies relating to communication, especially where this involves 'oral literacy'. The integration of speaking and listening in oral literacy is seen as undervalued but fundamental to ordinary living. Although teachers felt challenged by the key competencies, they strongly endorsed and demonstrated the value of a whole-school approach and of collaboration with other teachers for dealing with this challenge. This is supported by other research as offering the best chance for any educational reform.

LITERACY FOR STUDENTS WITH PARTICULAR NEEDS

Articles 10-14 deal with literacy in urban and rural communities, in distance education, in Aboriginal communities, and for students learning English as a second language.

Article 10, Literacy in its place: Literacy practice in urban and rural communities (Louden), refers to a study of 23 families in six communities and attending nine schools. Family literacy practices were found to vary substantially but similarly in urban and rural locations. It was noted that other studies suggest social class dif ferences may explain country/city differences in literacy performance (though the mechanism which translates equivalent distributions of family literacy practices into different distributions of school literacy performance needs further investigation). As in other studies, key priorities for professional development are seen to relate to broadening the school linguistic environment and greater sensitivity to family cultural and linguistic resources. It is suggested that research should continue monitoring the impact of literacy policy on different social groups. Perhaps the research agenda could be extended to encompass the development of appropriate strategies to redress differential performance outcomes.

Article 11, Literacy at a distance: Language and learning in distance education (Louden), reports a study of the literacy experiences of middle-school children engaged in distance education and makes ten recommendations for improvement. Isolated children face limitations in interpreting their progress relative to their peers, exercising choice, and obtaining learning support. Priorities were seen to be home tutor training, better use of information technology, and strengthening students' self-monitoring strategies. Implementation of the National Plan is seen for these students to require special and more complex strategies.

Article 12, Desert schools: An investigation of English language and literacy among young Aboriginal people in seven communities (Clayton), overviews the outcomes of research into the compatibility of school aims and practices with the cultural and linguistic ecology of Aboriginal communities. It is emphasised that, in remote Aboriginal communities, lower educational participation and outcomes than elsewhere in Australia, having to learn English essentially as a foreign language, and higher functional value of oral rather than written communication all create challenges for implementation of literacy strategies. There is a need for 'specialised, culturally-appropriate and effective support' in such communities, building on 'learner's strengths and community funds of knowledge' and taking account of the 'matches and mismatches between the literacy practices of schools and their communities' - recurring themes of various articles in this issue, though here having to deal with particular 'linguistic and cultural tensions'. Specific and detailed suggestions are provided about how these issues should be tackled.

Article 13, Profiling ESL children: How teachers interpret and use national and state assessment frameworks (Rohl), brings together the two issues of teaching English as a second language (ESL) and assessing progress in learning English (against specifically designed assessment frameworks). The research reported involved 23 classrooms from Years K-3 with a diversity of characteristics and a variety of assessment frameworks. The findings point to the need for preservice and inservice training of mainstream teachers in teaching and assessing ESL children, for better systems of support in managing the workload involved, for professional development of teaching assistants (many multilingual), for 'bedding-down' of assessment frameworks to allow consolidation of teacher expertise in their use, and for more research into the most effective ways of teaching and assessing for bilingual linguistic competence. An interesting comment relates to the way in which all teachers do, and need to, adapt assessment frameworks to suit the local circumstances, mirroring at the level of the school and the classroom the necessity for adaptation felt at the state/territory level.

Article 14, The bilingual interface project: The relationship between first language development and second language acquisition as students begin learning English in the context of schooling (McKay), reports the outcomes and implications of an investigation of factors influencing the educational and literacy development of ESL children in schools. This article reinforces the previous article's concern for bilingually appropriate teaching and assessment. A strong case is mounted for the discriminatory characteristics of the proposed literacy benchmarks, especially their potential to label as 'failures' children who are making good progress in learning a second language but on a different timescale from native English speakers, and even though a high proportion of children targetted for literacy intervention are bilingual ESL learners. Detailed suggestions are provided for professional development of teachers and for further research on the 'bilingual interface'.

LITERACY DEMANDS IN THE POST-COMPULSORY CURRICULUM

Article 15, The literacy-curriculum interface: The literacy demands of the curriculum in post-compulsory schooling (Cumming, Wyatt-Smith, Ryan & Doig), reports an innovative 'multitheoretical and multidisciplinary' study of literacy demands across the curriculum in Years 11 and 12 in Australian schools. The findings indicate that; students must meet multiple and multimodal literacy demands in different subjects (referred to as 'curriculum literacies'); teachers need better understanding of the literacy demands of their own subjects; listening skills are critically important; doing and producing trigger higher levels of engagement; modelling and feedback are important for shaping linguistic performance; and assessment imposes its own linguistic expectations which often do not match linguistic performance in the classroom. A key point made in this article is that literacy development is not and can not be completed by the end of primary school and must be continued throughout secondary school in the contexts in which curriculum literacies are needed. Detailed recommendations are made for professional development of teachers and for further research, including the suggestion that similar studies with similar methodology could be beneficially conducted at other levels of schooling.

TECHNOLOGIES AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS IN LITERACY DEVELOPMENT

Article 16, Digital Rhetorics: Literacies and technologies in classrooms - Current practices and future directions (Lankshear), reports an investigation of the links between literacy and technology, emphasising information and communications technologies in classrooms. It points to the need for a 'multiliteracies' approach to literacy encompassing digital electronics with its implications for a different understanding of 'text' and with its new demands for operational, cultural and critical competence. This places new demands on teachers for dealing with the cultural dimension of literacy, teaching for assessing information not just acquiring it, managing the new technologies in classroom contexts, handling the difference between 'native' and 'immigrant' mind sets in technology use, and making classroom learning more naturalistic and 'authentic' through 'cultural apprenticeship' approaches. Teacher education programs which take account of these issues are seen as critically important for developing teachers of the future.

CONCLUSION

This remarkable set of articles covers a diverse range of issues and offers a diverse range of viewpoints on literacy and literacy development. However, various themes recur and thereby gain greater emphasis. These include the importance of: Of course, a brief summary of this kind fails to capture the richness of the analyses offered in these articles. For this it is necessary to read the articles themselves. Once you have done so, you may wish to explore the issues further. The reports on which these articles are based are referenced in two ways: as an endnote within the article; and as an alphabetical list [CLP Reports] at the end of the issue (cross-referenced to the articles). I commend the articles and their associated reports to your reading.

Graham Maxwell
EDITOR

REFERENCES

DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools. Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm

Finn, B. (Chair) (1991). Young people's participation in post-compulsory education and training. (Report of the Australian Education Council Review Committee). Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Mayer, E. (Chair) (1992). Putting general education to work: The key competencies report (condensed version). Canberra: AGPS.

ENDNOTE

  1. After the federal election in 1998, DEETYA (Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs) became DETYA (Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs). The articles in this issue were written before this name change.

Please cite as: Maxwell, G. (1999). Australian research on children's literacy: An overview. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 5-15. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/editorial15-1.html


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