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[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]

Literacy and the competencies

Suzanne Mellor
Australian Council for Education Research

The Literacy and Competencies project[1] investigated the impact which the introduction of competency-based approaches might have on school-based literacy curricula and on assessment practices. The study analysed and demonstrated the ways in which literacy was related to the proposed competency-based approaches to education and training. Most of the research was conducted in 1993, before the introduction, in schools, of the National Subject Profiles.

The research methodology was one of a detailed survey of an Australia-wide sample of secondary schools, followed by interviews with individuals and groups of teachers and administrators. Teachers and schools were asked for their intellectual and emotional reactions to the central proposals of the study. Those who had direct experience of competency-based work, in schools where competencies had been adopted as a significant aspect of curriculum delivery, even if in a partial manner, were in a position to reflect on the impact of these approaches on their pedagogy and their curriculum development and assessment practices. The report also contained an annotated bibliography.

The companion report, Literacy and Competencies: Teachers' Perspectives, (Mellor et al., 1995) contained the interview extracts from teachers and administrators in 21 schools, arranged according to critical issues. These issues were each allocated a chapter in the Report: policy issues, support and implementation, curriculum and organisation, teaching and learning, the world of work, assessing and reporting. They demonstrated that some teachers did not have to speculate on the connections between literacy and competencies and the potential impact, but could report on them as actual practice. Three chapters were devoted to examples of teachers' current practice of competencies and literacy in action in their classrooms. The literacy findings of the study related to:


Teachers were emphatic that literacy was central to and underpinned, all learning. Literacy was embedded in the competencies. Teachers rejected the notion that literacy was in any way equivalent to a competency, regarding it as 'something larger, more overarching, or more important' (Mellor et al., 1995, p. 66)

In this, they supported the 1991 DEETYA definition of literacy and asserted that literacy only made sense to their constituents as a 'real life' capacity. They also reflected the views on literacy in Literacy for All (DEETYA, 1998, p. 7). The Key Competencies had enabled or obliged teachers to consider afresh the ways in which literacy presented in the lives of their students. This had been a revelationary experience for some teachers and had frequently resulted in radical alteration in teaching practice and consequently in student learning. It had also resulted in a changed working relationship for students with their teachers.

These attitudes to literacy were particularly referenced in this study to secondary students and their education. Such attitudes and meanings demonstrate that literacy is integral to effective living; to both work and play. Teachers embraced and advocated the notion that literacy learning is a life-long process, a point made most clearly in Literacy for All (DEETYA, 1998, p. 39).

The study explicitly endorsed a view of literacy as embracing a range of cross-curricula dimensions. The teachers interviewed were able to comprehensively exemplify how aspects of literacy uniquely presented in their classes/subjects/courses. This uniqueness was, in part, a result of the requirements of the curriculum area. Other factors were principally student-based, especially the importance of devising curricula for 'where the kids are at'.

The cross-curricula dimensions of literacy were related to and resulted from, the pedagogy employed to deliver the curriculum and to facilitate the learning outcomes. The pedagogic change most frequently mentioned was the diversity of teaching strategies required in order to meet both the diversity of student interest and need and the range of literacies being addressed. The competencies are part of how one learns as well as the subject of learning. It must be said that the teachers who were able to discuss these aspects of the interconnections between literacy, competencies and their pedagogy were those who systematically reflected on their professional practice.

The competencies/literacy nexus was seen to be particularly powerful in empowering oral language work in classrooms. Oral literacy was deemed to have been seriously undervalued in literacy curriculum in recent times, with a poor recognition by teachers of its validity and a consequent lessening of its appearance in the curriculum. Teachers spoke of the integration of speaking and listening in oral activity as the most fundamental literacy, if only because it is the one most commonly practised by most people.

The study strongly endorsed the importance of teachers learning from each other. The interview extracts in chapters 8-13 demonstrate how successfully teachers had been able to take on board new approaches (to curriculum and pedagogy). They had felt challenged by the competencies. Where there had been sufficient of them in a school, or where th e student need or administration leadership had been such that teachers felt obliged to implement the changes (pedagogic, curriculum planning, assessment, etc.), it had necessitated joint changes to practice. Teachers had been as successful as their collaboration had been effective. This collaboration had been better facilitated in some places than others. But virtually nowhere had there been external expertise to call on. Teachers, together, within and between schools, had achieved much.

The whole-school approach was emphasised by teachers as the only effective way to implement competencies and, by implication, any literacy program in a school. If each teacher has a role teaching literacy to students, then the need for a whole-school approach is obvious and essential.

This was a way in which 'doing school' could be open to all, not just the high achievers. It was a way in which 'doing school' was meaningful to all.


The teaching profession has, since this study was conducted, demonstrated it can accommodate the outcomes-based approach to teaching, learning, assessment and reporting. There is site variability in this, but nationally the profession has accepted, adopted and implemented outcomes-based approaches to education. Such was not the case whilst the Literacy and Competencies project was being conducted. Competencies may well have assisted in this massive change to practice, as they challenged teachers like nothing else had. Teachers recognised the competencies as 'real world' and even valuable in themselves and their students were deserving of these life skills. If teachers were not teaching the competencies, why were they not? Most of the interviewed teachers thought they were teaching competencies, but more explicit inclusion of competencies and literacies, in curricula development, assessment and reporting was required.

Special difficulties were anticipated in assessment and reporting. These may present as less of a difficulty for teachers in 1998, now that outcomes-based work in schools is more widely understood and practised.

Teachers and administrators were unanimous that support was required and that within-in school support of collaborative partnerships was best. This was considered particularly necessary, given the changed nature and context of schools in the 1990s.

Teachers are deserving of practical assistance to 'turn a theoretical framework into a practical program'. Exemplars, from teachers, were strongly recommended as useful to other teachers. The Companion Report was designed to provide insights into how some teachers had structured their thinking and practice; paradigms and ruminations on their practice abound in this volume.

NPDP and other DEETYA research since the early 1990s has strongly endorsed the view expressed by teachers and administrators interviewed for this study, that the most effective professional development for the implementation of education policy was that which was teacher and school based, conducted over the long term, involved networks of teachers and possibly between-school networks, and accommodated flexible delivery. It is essential that these models of good implementation be followed in the case of the National Plan.


Assumptions abound regarding teacher capacity to implement fundamental professional change. However, the pre-conditions for effectively implementing fundamental change in schools and classrooms, well as they are understood, need to be fulfilled before effective implementation can be achieved. Teachers and schools need to be supplied with the necessary resources. The chief of these resources is money to buy time to enable program development at a school level.

What knowledge and understandings do teachers need, in order to be informed and comfortable with the views of cultural and curriculum literacy as outlined in the Literacy and Competencies study and in the National Plan? The key requirements are that literacy be broadly defined, cross-curricula, and amenable to whole school approaches to literacy assessment and reporting. Will teachers across the nation recognise these are key requirements?

Investigation of the impact of the Benchmarks on teaching practice and school culture is essential, for there will be impact and it may not be positive.

Will teachers know how to teach to the Plan? Is it known which teachers have had professional training for effective literacy teaching, as prescribed by the National Plan, in their initial training? If not, then those who do not have the knowledge need to be targeted and effectively informed. They and other teachers (and administrators) will then need to have professional development offered to them.

Is it known what is taught in pre-service teacher-training courses, across Australia? An audit of the content - across the discipline areas - and of the pedagogies utilised in delivery of such courses would help identify needs.

The professional development models, for both initial training and subsequent professional development of teachers will need to be congruent with the appropriate NPDP and DEETYA research mentioned above.


The Literacy and Competencies project referenced literacy in the terms outlined in the earlier sections of this position paper. As noted earlier, the study endorsed the socially contextualised aspects of literacy as referenced in the National Plan.

It also referenced an implementation approach which has been repeated and vindicated by subsequent research. Similar conclusions were reached in the study reported in Lokan (1997). This research must not be ignored. Teachers (and their students) will require a fair and equitable implementation process of the Literacy Benchmarks.

Thus, there is a congruence between this study and the substantive outcomes of the National Literacy Plan. But some misgivings exist on the implementation methodology for the National Plan. The Literacy and Competencies project emphasised the critical importance of professional ownership for the effective implementation of education (especially school-based) policy. Failure to encourage this sense of participation and ownership will, predictably, result in policy failure.


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

Lokan, J. (Ed.) (1997). Describing learning: Implementation of curriculum profiles in Australian schools, 1986-1996. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Mellor, S. et al., (1995). Literacy and the Competencies: Teacher Perspectives, (Companion Report). Canberra: DEETYA.


  1. Lokan, J., Withers, G., Mellor, S., Batten, M., McQueen, & Carthy, I. (1995). Literacy and the competencies: Potential impact of competency-based approaches on literacy curricula and assessment in schools. (Vols 1 & 2). Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1995_competencies.html

Author details: Dr Suzanne Mellor
Australian Council for Education Research
19 Prospect Hill Road
Camberwell, Victoria 3124
Email: mellor@acer. edu.au

Please cite as: Mellor, S. (1999). Literacy and the competencies. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 83-89. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/mellor.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 2 Jan 20 05. Last revision: 2 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/mellor.html