Issues in Educational Research, 6(1), 1996, 115-117.

Book reviews

Putting it Plainly: Current Development and Needs in Plain English and Accessible Reading Materials (1996). Canberra: Australian Language and Literacy Council.

Three times I have approached the task of writing this report and twice I have retreated in a state of exasperation and frustration. The reason for such retreats is that, while there is much that of value in the report, what is of value will largely remain invisible; just as the Australian Language and Literacy Council is largely invisible, even to people who work in the area of literacy.

It is a report written in response to a 1993 Ministerial request of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training to provide advice on matters relating to Plain English policies and accessible reading materials. The broad ministerial brief given to the Board, and in turn the Literacy Council as its adviser in such matters, is partly the cause of the lack of clarity of focus and document cohesion. The genre of a government report is a further contributing factor, compounded by the format of publication adopted for such reports. Lack of clarity of focus and accessibility are not helped either by the wording and layout of the "Contents" page. The result is that the report is more likely to gather dust on library shelves than to be avidly read. This is a pity because there are sections of this report which would be of great interest to diverse groups in the community.

Chapter One covers the context of the Australian Language and Literacy Policy, takes up the question of what is Plain English, and outlines the Council's position on the subject. The second chapter provides a literature review of recent developments in the area at national and international levels. The national survey is limited to initiatives originating in NSW, Victoria and Canberra; though this will hardly surprise residents of other states. "Plain English Policy in Practice" is the subject of the third chapter and it focuses on:

Appendices II-V which relate to this chapter provide sound ideas on how to develop good practices, based on approaches adopted in both sectors. The fourth chapter focuses on "Plain English and the Law", and Appendix VI likewise provides valuable information related to the topic.

A change of focus is evident in the fifth chapter where the focus shifts to "Adult New Readers", the problems they encounter, their needs, and the significance of Plain English for such people. The final chapter contains the Council's recommendations which focus significantly on the public sector. While these are all laudatory the widespread adoption of Plain English practices will require a sea-change in other practices and moral standards. While governments, politicians, public relations experts and advertising companies to name a few, have a vested interest in concealing facts, in deluding, deceiving or misleading people, they will resort to language which obfuscates; the opposite of plain language. George Orwell in his brilliant essay "Politics and the English Language" outlined the principles of plain English (and practised it in his writing) decades ago, at the same time warning us of those who wish to use language for other purposes. The warning is still apposite.

Ken Willis
School of Language Education
Edith Cowan University

Australian Language and Literacy Council. (1966). Literacy at Work: Incorporating English Language and Literacy Competencies into Industry/Enterprise Standards. Canberra: Australian Language and Literacy Council.

The challenge for any policy in the area of incorporating English language and literacy guidelines into work-place competencies is to ensure that the language practices are seen to be appropriate to particular workplace contexts. This report was written by the ALLC, based on work undertaken in conjunction with one competency standards body and in co-operation with the National Adult English Language, Literacy and Numeracy Project.

The National Framework for Adult Language, Literacy and Numeracy Competencies (which builds on the Mayer key competencies), provides a framework for the difficult task of describing communicative competence. It uses the terms: aspects, to refer to the different facets of competence; stages to describe the developmental stages, and phases to refer to the way competence is achieved.

The purpose of the report is to provide a "model for incorporating English language and literacy competencies explicitly into competency standards." The report is in three parts. a statement of principles explaining the aspects of communication people need to be competent at work; a section on analysing the workforce which provides guidelines on how to obtain and analyse data in industry contexts; and guidelines on writing/rewriting the standards, which outline how to incorporate the findings of the above research into the industry standards.

The pilot study conducted was into the warehouse and distribution industry, and the second chapter focuses on this study and its outcomes. As well, this chapter includes a survey of recent developments in the area of integrating English language, literacy and numeracy competencies into vocational education and training. The third chapter then outlines the model for incorporating English language and literacy competencies into vocational education and training.

The information contained in the report will prove valuable to industries/firms and to TAFE college/secondary schools: the former when wrestling with the challenge of developing competency standards incorporating facets of language; the latter when looking at how to relate student outcome statements to industry competence standards. The model provides sound guidelines for an approach to these tasks, while the pilot study will remind anyone involved in such tasks of the need to remain flexible in approaching them.

Ken Willis
Edith Cowan University

Splitter, L.J. & Sharp, A.M. (1995) Teaching for better thinking.. The classroom community of inquiry. Melbourne: The Australian Council for Educational Research.

My first impression was that this is a book that espouses many of my own beliefs about education in a straightforward and practical way. In this regard I was not disappointed. There are more than glimpses of John Dewey's notions of democratic education but the notions are recreated in a form amenable to the needs of the teachers and students of today's society (and maybe tomorrow's as well). A number of themes emerges: learning and teaching in a cooperative and caring community, the use of dialogue and questions, developing procedures for inquiry, problem seeking and problem solving, perceiving conceptual relationships and making connections, metacognitive awareness and reflection. Laurance Splitter and Ann Sharp tackle not only the needs and the means but address some of the obstacles as well.

The first three chapters tackle the heart of the issue - thinking. The authors maintain that thinking is an enterprise that is "both affective and cognitive, personal and social" (p. 2) and the concept of the Community of Inquiry captures this essence very successfully. The chapters entitled, Thinking: The Classroom as a Community of Inquiry, The Dynamics of the Inquiring Community, and The Making of Meaning give the reader a clear view of the possibilities.

Given that Philosophy for Children is the other main element of the book it is perhaps surprising that philosophy is not specifically mentioned, apart from the Introduction, until Chapter Four. The word philosophy doesn't appear in the book title either. In the first pages of the book Splitter and Sharp note that the term Philosophy for Children refers to a sub-discipline of Philosophy and not "to a particular syllabus or set of materials" (p. vii). When Philosophy for Children is introduced it reads as if it is in terms of an existing curriculum or set of materials and that impression is hard to shake. For someone not familiar with the materials discussed, this section is also difficult to follow.

Philosophy is proposed as a means for implementing better thinking in the classroom community of inquiry. The authors argue philosophy enables students to learn,

not only to ask open-ended and inquiry-based questions, but to value such questions over those which seek to close down issues with pre-packed solutions... they come to see themselves as active participants in the construction of knowledge, ... and they internalise a self concept which can serve as a spring-board for active learning and inquiry, rather than one which denies their own intellectual creativity. (p. 111)

This quote seems to me to encapsulate a valuable aim of education, which is not necessarily the province of philosophy alone. The authors explore the relationship between thinking and philosophy, and between philosophy and other disciplines, and in this context make a strong plea for the inclusion of Philosophy as a school subject in its own right with its own curriculum as well as an integral part of teaching and learning in other disciplines. I find the argument for a separate subject less than convincing given the more general notions introduced and elaborated in the first part of the book. The authors do suggest that it is time to examine all existing school subjects "in order to elevate their value and meaning to coming generations of students" (p. 116). They feel sure philosophy would pass with "flying colours". The remaining chapters deal with issues related to recognising and developing philosophical inquiry in classrooms. The approach is both expansive and realistic.

The authors also present the classroom community of inquiry as an appropriate context for tackling many of the personal, social and moral issues confronting society today. Perhaps a necessary concomitant is the development of a community of inquiry amongst educators. In concert with the theme of the book, there are requests to re-examine educational policies and practices scattered throughout the book but they don't gather much momentum. If communities of inquiry are to come to pass in our schools this re-examination is crucial.

The notes at the end of each chapter are extensive, more than adequately clarifying points raised in the text and providing the reader with references for further investigation. Although I found the book easy to read with respect to its use of language, I found the physical text overwhelming at times. The font size is not too small but there is little white space in the book. There is minimal space between lines or at the end of sentences, no drawings or tables and only five diagrams or figures. Consequently the text is broken only by a heading every few pages, the occasional list of points, short quote or transcript of classroom dialogue.

Both the density of text and the structure of the argument mitigate against potential readers browsing through the book. It is a book that requires commitment to reading. But if you believe education is about developing better thinking, in the broadest sense of the term then the effort is worth while.

Judith MacCallum
Murdoch University

Ms Judith MacCallum is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, Murdoch University, Perth.

Mr Ken Willis is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Language Education, Edith Cowan University, Perth.

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