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[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]

Literacy at a distance: Language and learning in distance education

William Louden
Edith Cowan University

The Literacy at a Distance project[1] provides a descriptive account of the language and learning practices of distance education students in the middle years of their schooling. Data for the report included a language and learning survey and a set of narrative case studies, which describe the literacy practices of students and their families.

The study identified a set of textual strategies used by students in dealing with written distance education texts, examined the use of technology in the case study sites and explored the influences on achievement of children in Years 6-10 studying by distance education. The study also identified ten prospective areas of action for improvement.


The National Plan, Literacy for All: The Challenge for Australian Schools (DEETYA, 1998), identifies nine key principles that underpin the Commonwealth Government's literacy policies. For children, parents and teachers involved in distance learning, three of these key principles have particular relevance.

Providing the parents of primary school-aged children 'with clear information about literacy and numeracy outcomes' (DEETYA, 1998, p. 5) would require substantial changes to policy and practice of the distance education providers included in this study. Isolated parents and home tutors frequently mentioned their concern about the academic standards of their children. In particular, they were concerned about their children's academic ability to make the transition from home-based primary education to school-based secondary education. Schools, however, were reluctant to provide normative feedback about academic performance in the primary school years. Their reasons included concern about the impact of unfavourable results on isolated and inexperienced home tutors. Such feedback could be demoralising to home tutors, without necessarily improving their capacity to assist their children to improve their performance. Under the National Plan, some consideration should be given to the risks and benefits of providing normative information about student progress to the parents of isolated primary school aged children. This issue will be particularly important in regard to the commitment in the National Plan to early intervention.

Literacy for All (DEETYA, 1998) identifies choice of schools as an 'important value in a democratic society and an essential foundation for school improvement' (p. 6). Choosing among school-based education options is unpalatable for many geographically isolated families, especially families with very young children. The economic circumstances of many people in remote areas also provide firm limits to choice among school-based options. In this regard, it is not clear how the quality of education for isolated children can be improved through the principle of choice. A mechanism other than choice should be identified to foster the choice-related goals of educational improvement, increased involvement and commitment of parents and responsiveness of schools identified in the National Plan.

Literacy for All also identifies 'equal opportunity to learn' as a key principle underpinning the National Plan. There are several ways in which isolated children may be disadvantaged. The first issue is the narrow range of textual strategies children learn to use in processing their 'sets' of distance learning materials as a serious limit to learning. The second issue concerns the pivotal role played by home tutors of primary school aged children. These children rely on the knowledge and commitment of their home tutors - frequently their mothers - to bring to life the distance learning materials, to scaffold learning and to help them organise their time. For children working with the most committed, knowledgeable and experienced home tutors, distance education does not appear to limit their opportunity to learn. However, many home tutors need additional support to ensure that children learning at a distance do not have a reduced opportunity to learn. The third issue concerns the lack of remedial or extension material provided in the written materials issued to the isolated children.


At least three professional development priorities may be identified from the conclusions of this study. The first professional development priority concerns support for home tutors. The case studies published in the Literacy at a Distance report suggest that the most effective home tutors are not necessarily those who have the strongest personal educational background. Most of the higher achieving students had home tutors who understood their role to be greater than merely supervising children to complete set work. They worked alongside their children, helping them to understand how to read distance learning texts, as well as helping them with the substantive content provided in the text. For this reason, the most important professional development priority is to help home tutors to move beyond the limited role of supervising their student to get their 'sets' completed in time.

A second professional development issue concerns teachers' day-to-day support for students. The Literacy at a Distance project found that the most successful technological medium was two-way radio 'air lessons' provided by the schools of the air. In addition to their direct instructional role, these lessons play an important role in reducing isolation and increasing structure for students. For students without access to air lessons, contact with their teachers was infrequent and largely restricted to written comments on work returned after two or three weeks. Professional development of teachers and home tutors may increase students' access to day-to-day help through e-mail and telephone contact.

A third professional development issue concerns students' self-monitoring strategies. Many of the students studied in the Literacy at a Distance project had learned to complete their set work independently but few had learned to monitor their own learning. Perhaps the most serious gap in self-monitoring strategies concerned students' ways of dealing with distance education texts. Distance education students' considerable experience in using text-based materials made them very effective readers, if effectiveness is measured by the capacity to locate and act on the essential aspects of texts. However, many were reluctant to read slowly and methodically or to pay attention to the illustrative and supporting material that also forms part of the texts they use. Consequently, they failed to maximise the opportunities available in their texts. Consideration should be given to professional development which helps teachers help children to improve their self-monitoring and their reading strategi es.


The National Plan is built on some assumptions about the interaction between assessment, accountability, school choice and students' literacy performance. As work undertaken through the National Plan proceeds in states and territories, it will become clearer whether the hoped for improvements in children's literacy performances can by achieved through a combination of early intervention, national benchmarks and professional development for teachers. This, of course, will be a major area for research and evaluation.

In the case of special populations such as children studying through distance education, open learning centres or schools of the air, the National Plan may need to be realised in slightly different ways. For children learning at a distance:


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&numracy/publications/lit4all.htm


  1. Louden, W. & Rivalland, J. (1995). Literacy at a distance. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1995_distance.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 at a distance: Language and learning in distance education. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 97-100. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/louden2.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/louden2.html