The Literacy in its Place project aimed to describe, through a case study investigation, the similarities and differences in literacy practices between urban and rural communities. The study also reported on the impact of the language background and socio-economic status of families upon their children's use and development of literacy.
Data for the study were drawn from case studies of twenty-three families in six communities. These families were selected to represent, as far as possible, the linguistic, cultural, and social diversity of Australia. In addition to exemplifying the range of literacy practices in these families, the report also documented literacy practices in the nine schools attended by the children of the case study families.
One of the key strategies for improvement identified in the National Plan is benchmarking. Despite the relative uniformity of school literacy practices described in Literacy In Its Place, secondary sources cited in the report identified statistically significant differences in performance between students in urban and rural schools. Further investigation of this quantitative evidence has suggested that the reported difference in urban and rural scores could be explained by differences in social class distribution between the country and the city. When social class differences were taken into account, there was no residual urban/rural difference. Consequently, it is important to ensure that reports of benchmarking data do not mistake underlying social class differences for apparent urban and rural differences in school English literacy.
The National Plan identifies choice of schools as an 'important value in democratic society and an essential foundation for school improvement' (DEETYA, 1998, p. 6). Although the issue of school choice was not foregrounded in Literacy In Its Place, there was some evidence of the operation of school choice in small rural communities. One aspect of school choice which long predates the National Plan is the choice made by many rural parents to send their children to local primary schools and then to city boarding schools for secondary school. One of the families in the community called 'Yabby Creek' had always intended their daughters to go away for secondary school, and the other had always intended that they would travel by bus to the high school in the nearest town. The difference in the choice each family intended to make reflected relative differences in educational expectations in the families.
A second aspect of school choice concerns the possibility of 'residualisation' of some government schools through school choice. All three of the primary schools in the community we called 'Countrytown' were close enough for any child to attend any school. There appeared to have been some drift of middle class families from one of the government schools to another of the government schools, and the local belief was that one school was superior to the other. This belief was notwithstanding the fact that both of the schools qualified for special financial support under the Disadvantaged Schools Program. It may be that, if as a result of the National Plan parents had comparative evidence of school English literacy performance, the drift of students from one school to the other would increase.
The first professional development priority concerns the relatively narrow linguistic environment of schools described in Literacy In Its Place. Despite the wide range of home linguistic resources in the case study families, there were very few schools that acknowledged or built on these resources. In the case study schools there were large groups of children who spoke or read Kriol, Jaru, Malay, Indonesian, Cantonese, Hainanese or Arabic. However, with the exception of one school that provided a bilingual program for the Khmer-speaking students, the schools did not explicitly take account of these linguistic resources, or of the challenges children might have in working in a second or third language or dialect. Professional development should assist teachers to broaden the linguistic environment of schools, and to increase their understanding of the funds of knowledge in the communities that they serve.
A second professional development priority concerns the content and function of homework. In the case studies, the gap between home and school literacy practices was often played out in the context of homework. For children in the early years of school, even for children from families where English was not the first language, home reading was carefully supervised. The kind of supervision children received, however, varied from a tight focus on correct decoding in some families to careful scaffolding of children's knowledge in other families. In some families, parents worked alongside their upper-primary school aged children in school-like ways and helped their children to understand what parents took to be the teacher's expectations. In other families parents worked equally hard, but did not have the cultural or linguistic resources to provide practical assistance to their older children. In some of these cases, well-intentioned attempts to support children became a site of struggle between parent and child. For children in the Literacy In Its Place case studies, it would have been helpful if teachers had not set homework beyond children's or parents' resources to complete the work.
The first research priority concerns the impact of the National Plan program elements in urban and rural communities. The National Plan is built on some assumptions about the interaction between assessment, accountability, school choice and students' literacy performance. The interaction of these factors in a range of school communities will be of considerable interest to researchers and policy-makers. Research questions include:
|Contact details: Associate Professor William Louden|
Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Service
Edith Cowan University
Mt Lawley, WA 6050
Phone: 08 9370 6575 Fax: 08 9370 6664
Please cite as: Louden, W. (1999). Literacy in its place: Literacy practices in urban and rural communities. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 91-95. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/louden1.html