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Literacy in its place: Literacy practices in urban and rural communities

William Louden
School of Education
Edith Cowan University

The Literacy in its Place project[1] 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.


The Literacy In Its Place project found relatively few differences between urban and rural schools with regard to literacy practices. There was, however, much more substantial variation among families' home literacy practices. The diversity of home practices reflected differences in language and social class shared by both rural and urban communities. Although there were many exceptions, there was evidence of educational disadvantage for children from some working class homes, and some homes where English was a second language or dialect. The National Plan's commitment to early intervention with children who are identified at risk of not making sufficient progress in school English literacy may lead to over-representation of some social groups among children identified for early intervention. For this reason, it is encouraging that the National Plan acknowledges the need for early intervention programs to 'take account of the diversity of student needs' (DEETYA, 1998, p. 20).

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.


Two key professional development priorities may be identified form the conclusions of Literacy In Its Place.

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 National Plan is an ambitious program of intervention, leading to a range of significant changes in school education in Australian states and territories. In the context of Literacy In Its Place, five years after the data were collected, it is important to explore the impact of the National Plan on school English literacy in urban and rural communities.

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:

The second research priority concerns the effectiveness of the National Plan in achieving the goal of literacy for all. Research questions include:


The National Plan has focused resources on literacy, and is learning to significant reshaping of support programs, professional development, and assessment in all Australian states and territories. The evidence of family literacy studies such as Literacy In Its Place draws attention to the variability of home literacy practices and their impact on differences in school achievement of children. For this reason, it will be essential to study the impact of the National Plan on groups of children who have traditionally been over represented in at risk groups, as well as groups of children who have traditionally performed well in school assessments.


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


  1. Breen, M.P., Louden, W., Barratt-Pugh, C., Rivalland, J., Rohl, M., Rhydwen, M., Lloyd, S. & Carr, T. (1994). Literacy in its place: Literacy practices in urban and rural communities (Vols 1 & 2). Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1994_place.html

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
Email: w.louden@ecu.edu.au

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

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 6 Jan 2005. Last revision: 7 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/louden1.html