Multimodality in Perth

September 16, 2011

Just back from a trip to Perth to do some PD for Pearson Professional Learning. It’s a long flight but certainly makes you realise how big (and empty) Australia really is. Flying directly over Lake Eyre in full flood was definitely worth the trip alone.

I spent a really enjoyable day with a group of Western Australian teachers doing PD on an aspect of the new Australian Curriculum: English which seems to have barely registered with teachers yet: the reading and creation of multimodal texts. While it’s great to see this being advocated, the curriculum is less impressive in the support it offers to teachers in the implementation of multimodality. In fact, in some places, it’s almost embarrassingly timid and limited in its scope. In Year 10, for example, the elaborations suggest website creation as a possible project for English students. What about creating a digital story, a chapter for a digital novel (google Inanimate Alice), a book trailer….or really any number of more interesting genres?

The other problem is that the document offers pretty good advice on specific aspects of grammar that need to be taught, but there’s really not a lot of useful advice about multimodal grammars. There is some recognition of work that’s been done on the visual, but there is no evidence that the writers are aware of van Leeuwen’s work on typography and sound, Stenglin’s work on 3D space, or Martinec’s work on action – just to name a few.

The teachers in Perth found these grammars a useful addition to their toolkits for teaching. After discussing the context-text model and approach to grammar that underpins the new curriculum, we then used the multimodal grammars to analyse magazine advertisements and an excerpt from a Dave Hughes comedy performance. We also looked at the way multimodal resources are used differently in various modes. Specifically, we looked at the way lyrics are transformed when music and singing are added, and then the changes that occur to the text when it’s converted to a video clip. Ways of refreshing the teaching of a classic novel such Pride and Prejudice were also explored. Did you know that it has been converted into a hypertext, board game, choose your own adventure book and newsfeed, and Jane Austen even has her own facebook page and twitter account!

If you want to know more, get in touch with

Grammar in the National Curriculum

May 10, 2009

teens-studyingLast week, The Australian newspaper again set its sights on the teaching of English, particularly grammar. In its usual manner, the paper made inaccurate comments about the use of Functional grammar in the classroom. The paper’s sentiments were echoed in a letter to the editor on Saturday 9 May. By coincidence, the letter was written by my former, Senior English teacher.  Printed below is the response I sent off to that letter. (At the time of posting, The Australian had not chosen to publish my response – but, then, given that they don’t like people disagreeing with their own, misinformed educational views, I would have been surprised if they had).

“Enid Duncan (Letters, 9-10/5) claims that traditional grammar is the most suitable for schools as it is simpler than one of the alternatives, functional grammar. Now, Enid (or should I say Mrs Duncan!) was my Senior English teacher in 1978 and 1979. Since then, I have gone on to a 26 year career as an English teacher. Regretfully, I can only give my former teacher’s letter 11/20. While I also welcome a renewed emphasis on teaching grammar, like most critics of functional grammar, Enid has her facts wrong.

Numerous research projects over many decades have demonstrated consistently that traditional teaching of grammar does NOT raise literacy standards. For example, the 2007 WritingNext report commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York concluded that the “teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences had a negative effect [on student achievement] which was small, but…statistically significant, indicating that traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’  writing…However, other instructional methods, such as sentence combining, provide an effective alternative to traditional grammar instruction…a recent study (Fearn & Farnan, 2005) found that teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of writing…produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing” (p21).

Enid states that traditional terms such as ‘noun, verb, adjective and verb’ (sic) are better compared to the functional grammar terms ‘ideational, interpersonal and predicator’. However, despite the impression given, these terms are completely unrelated to the traditional set; they do not refer to the same aspects of language. In fact, all of the traditional terms listed are found in functional grammar textbooks. Moreover, I have never heard any proponent of functional grammar suggest that ideational, interpersonal and predicator are suitable terms to use with young students. As with any specialist field, knowledge of grammar must be introduced in age appropriate ways, often using simpler terms and definitions initially.

Thanks for the kind offer to act as a ‘valuable resource’, Enid, but you’ll be happy to hear that, despite very real gaps in grammar knowledge for some teachers, there are also many very skilled and knowledgeable English teachers. The bottom line? A functional grammar can do everything traditional grammar purports to do, but also a great deal more. I hope that those of us who are literacy experts and have used a functional approach to grammar very successfully for many years will not be hamstrung by requirements to use inferior methods dictated to us by the well-intentioned, but mis-informed traditionalists.”

Challenges for English teachers in 2009

February 6, 2009

Here are some challenges that face English teachers across all years of schooling.

Marshalling the local community

As media generated concern about falling standards and the quality of schooling in general increases, local communities continue to express their support for the teachers of their students and the schools their child attends. It is one of the strange paradoxes of the last couple of years. Whilst there are certainly real challenges facing students, parents and schools, the fact is the so-called crisis is, in many cases, exaggerated. There is no general crisis in education-there are problems in particular communities and with particular groups of students. With the media focus on the ‘failures’, the community forgets that around 83% of students are performing satisfactorily to very well. There is also evidence that by Year 9, Queensland students are catching up with their southern counterparts.

The first challenge, then, for teachers is to marshal the support of their local communities, to make sure the good news is heard through the braying of the negative, politically motivated often narrow attacks. Invite parents into classrooms, get stories in local papers, talk to the P&C. Tell the stories of your successes, encourage parents to take a positive, proactive role in their children’s education. And work collaboratively for improvement where improvement is warranted.

A ‘return’ to the basics

There is no doubt that a return to ‘the basics’ is underway. Once again, some renewed focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar is no doubt both warranted and welcome. Grammar workshops run by Wordsmart in 2008 were very popular, and there does seem to be a realization by many English teachers that this is an area requiring their personal and professional attention. However, the danger is that the use of grammar (in particular) in the classroom will revert to a simplistic identification and labelling of parts. This is the view of grammar encouraged by the 2008 NAPLAN testing-and it is a limited view that has the potential to constrain the development of students’ literacy skills.

The challenge for teachers is to encourage students to understand grammar (and spelling, and punctuation) as a resource for making meaning within particular social and cultural contexts. Put simply, it means being most interested in the function played by words, their forms and arrangements. As the draft Framing Paper for a national English curriculum puts it: ‘The goal of teaching grammar and textual patterns should go beyond students’ labelling of various grammatical categories; it should centre on goals such as clearer expression of thought, more convincing argumentation, more careful logic in reasoning, more coherence, precision and imagination in speaking and writing, and knowing how to choose words and grammatical and textual structures that are more appropriate to the audience or readership. The goal here centres on the gradually more powerful conversion of ‘knowledge about’ language into a resource for effective reading, listening, viewing, writing, speaking and designing.’ (page 6)

Balancing the books

In the face of falling enrolments in University literature courses, some academics are calling for English teachers to focus on encouraging a love of reading-especially a love and appreciation of ‘the classics’. Once again, I am yet to meet an English teacher who does nor believe in exposing students to a selection of quality writing from the past. Nor have I ever met an English teacher who believed that students should not be encouraged to love reading.

The challenge here will be for teachers to maintain a balance – between students’ immediate needs and interests (which have, perhaps, overly influenced our resources selections at times) and the wider needs and interests of the broader community. Teachers will need to expose students to the Australian and Anglo-European literary traditions (dead white males, by and large), but a sole or even primary focus on that tradition would be a disaster. The fact is that this tradition is exclusionary-lots of worthwhile and quality writing has been produced outside the tradition and students should be exposed to that as well. Moreover, a modern English classroom has to make space for the potential of digital storytelling. Getting the balance right will never be easy, but giving in to some narrow, backward looking agenda should not be allowed to happen.

Critical Literacy goes underground

In my memory, there has not been a more sustained and vicious attack on an educational idea as the Murdoch media campaign against Critical Literacy. Look, there is no doubt that the philosophy behind Critical Literacy was applied in narrowly defined, mechanistic ways in some schools by some teachers. There is no doubt that some teachers did not get the balance between aesthetic and critical approaches to text right. However, the basic ideas of Critical Literacy remain as relevant and urgent as ever: there is a relationship between the word and the world, between language (and how it’s used) and the distribution and maintenance of power.

The challenge for teachers is to resist the urge to ‘dump’ Critical Literacy for a return to approaches to language, literacy and literature that encourage unreflective and uncritical appreciation and worship at the altar of the ‘gods of writing’.


Let’s not be educational Pollyanas: there are genuine problems and challenges facing how we teach English and literacy. However, the answers do not lie in a return to past practices, practices that were often abandoned or reconstituted for valid reasons supported by qualitative and quantitative research. There has never been a more important time for English and Literacy teachers to be well informed and professionally involved.

NAPLAN literacy testing: what’s wrong with it?

October 31, 2008

Close up of colourful alphabet


The following is written by a Year 3 student. While there are lots of positives about the piece, I want you to read it carefully and think about what follow-up is required to help the student to write (even?) more effectively.


Frogs jump and croke a lot. Ther skin is slippery and wet. They hide sometimes and ther big eyes blink. I no some poepel who are scerd of them. I am not scerd of them. I think they are vere cute. Thats what I think.

So, what did you think?

Spelling is an obvious area of continuing need – and we could identify some possible patterns in the misspellings. For example, while there seems to be a fairly good awareness of sound-letter relationships, the student does not always make the correct choices (e.g. croke instead of croak, vere instead of very, scerd instead of scared). Use of apostrophes is another immediately identifiable area of possible need – see ‘Thats’ in the last sentence.

However, as important as these aspects of language might be, they are surface errors easily fixed. More significantly, the student appears uncertain about his purpose in writing about frogs: is it to inform readers about ‘the facts’ or to reflect on how he feels about them? Consequently, he is uncertain about the genre in which he should be writing, and subject matter is chosen and organized seemingly randomly. Additionally, at a more micro-level, the student has difficulty in choosing the appropriate person (first or third?) and with patterning his sentence beginnings (Theme) and endings (Rheme). The result is a piece that demonstrates competent control of basic sentence structure, but a need to develop competence in stringing sentences together so that they create a cohesive, coherent text.

This brief example illustrates two important points about teaching grammar in schools. Firstly, while it is important for student to get ‘the basics’ of spelling and punctuation right, it is not sufficient to enable students to become competent writers. Secondly, teachers require a deep understanding of language and how it functions within particular contexts in order to help students reach their potential – as readers, as well as writers.

So, what’s wrong with NAPLAN?

In the preamble, I indicated that, while the student did indeed have some problems with spelling and punctuation which require some improvement, these were not the main problems with the piece. Rather, the student really needs explicit help in identifying the purpose of his writing and then choosing appropriate genre, structure and language features in order to achieve that purpose.

It is an issue that Dr Lenore Ferguson (2001) has raised in her analysis of 700 samples of the work produced as part of the Queensland Core Skills Test Writing Task. Although she was examining work produced by Year 12 students, she discovered that many students still needed help (after twelve years of schooling) in the ‘matching of micro-text features with the socio-cultural elements of a discourse’ (p277). Furthermore, a recent research-based policy on writing commissioned by the National Council for Teachers of English (2008, p4) declares that: ‘Students need to understand how language works in order to become effective writers, and this is best accomplished by instruction that focuses on a context based functional approach that illustrates how parts of language work together to create meaning.’

It is disappointing then to turn to the NAPLAN Language Conventions Test (2008) and find that of the 50 multiple choice questions:

  • 28 focus on spelling
  • 9 on punctuation
  • and only 6 on matters that are properly grammatical.

(The other questions are focused on a strange mix of identifying poetic devices, graphic elements in text and vocabulary choice).

The six grammar questions ask students to simply identify:

  • tense
  • first, second or third person
  • and word class (verb, noun, adverb, adjective).

While students should be able to identify these aspects of grammar, with enough time you could probably train a monkey to answer most of the grammar questions on the paper. A token gesture is made towards contextualizing the questions by relating them to a short piece of text. The real problem here is that students (and teachers preparing students for the test) are encouraged to believe that labeling and identifying a few, isolated and basic grammatical concepts is enough. At no point are students asked to consider why particular features are being used or how they are functioning within the text.

That has not stopped the media becoming hysterical about student results on the test, with at least one commentator devoting almost an entire article to bemoaning the inability of people she knows to identify a noun! No doubt a shared language about language between teachers and their students is important. However, as Ilana Snyder (2008, p32) points out: “even though there exists a substantial body of experimental research evidence demonstrating that there is little value in the formal teaching of grammar as a mean of improving students’ writing, many people continue to believe that knowledge of traditional grammar is essential to becoming a good writer.’  And this is the real problem in the current public debate – a debate which has the potential to encourage teachers to return to a superficial and largely discredited approach to teaching grammar. We need to remember that, actually, the NAPLAN language conventions test doesn’t tell us much at all and it probably masks what may be a bigger problem: can students use a wide variety of language features in a range of contexts in order to achieve particular purposes and effects.

Note: This is an extract of a much longer article to be published by the Queensland branch of the Australian Literacy Educators Association. (Click here to read more: down-and-dirty-with-grammar).


Curriculum Corporation (2008). National assessment program literacy and numeracy: language coventions Year 9 2008. Australia: Curriculum Corporation.

Ferguson, L. (2001). Revealing knowledge in Year 12 writing: an archaeological exploration. [Unpublished Ph. D. thesis]

National Council of Teachers of English (2008). Writing now. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English

Snyder, I. (2008). The literacy wars: why teaching children to read and write is a battleground in Australia. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

More myths about Critical Literacy

September 21, 2008

Myth two: It’s too hard for high school students

There are some academics (especially literature professors) and a bunch of nongs in the media who claim that critical evaluation of texts is (or should be) beyond the reach of students at high school. This comment is almost universally applied to the study of (‘serious’) literature. That is, the job of high school teachers is to give students a love of books and reading. Only after students are ‘hooked’ are they then capable of evaluating literature critically – under the expert guidance of university academics.

It is a regular criticism that really makes me laugh. Part of the trouble with the claim is it is just so hypocritical and applied so narrowly.  These same people never claim the same for media studies, for example. Why is it that students are to love literature in a completely unqualified way, but they are not encouraged to love the media in an unqualified way? Where are the voices crying against critical evaluation of media products? Where are the voices crying for teachers to encourage students to just ‘love’ advertising whilst at high school and let the academics worry about making them critical once they reach university? The notion that literature should be granted a special status is errant nonsense.

More to the point, where are the same voices saying that students should not be considering ‘politics’ when it comes to subjects such as Media Studies, Modern and Ancient History, Economics and even the Sciences (where the ethics of science is a significant component)? If students at high school are too young to consider the ‘politics of texts’ in English, why aren’t they equally unprepared to study the same thing in other subjects?

Finally, what about the students who will never go to university? Does that mean that they will never learn the skills of critical evaluation? Are high schools to contribute to a system that formalises the notion of the critically empowered Alphas and drone-like Epsilons?

Students in high school (and younger) are much more capable of independent, critical thought than what the whining academics and media commentators understand. It must surely be a core requirement of schooling to produce students who can take their place as active, informed and critical citizens. English can play its role in this. It just requires balance and commonsense on the part of English teachers. Appreciation and critique of literature are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they should be seen as the yin and yang, and a good education system (primary, secondary and tertiary) will encourage both – in ways that are appropriate for the age and maturity of level of students.

Myths about Critical Literacy

August 2, 2008

Over the past few years, there has been much written about Critical Literacy – most of it, unfortunately, misleading and even mischievous. Here is the first of a number of myths that I’ll write about in this blog.

Myth One: Critical literacy is sludge, using mumbo jumbo jargon.

No doubt over-enthusiasm for the power of critical approaches to texts has resulted in some ill-advised practices, including the over-loading of students with technical language. And, in some cases, this has resulted in some torturous language in some student produced writing. Most English teachers (including those who practise Critical Literacy) would agree that these isolated instances of poor language use quoted in the media do not deserve top marks.

However, syllabuses can hardly be blamed for that. Take the much maligned Queensland Senior English syllabus for example. According to the objectives on page 7, readers will find only four terms that students need to know: constructedness; discourse; representation; and position. This is a very small set to be learnt over a two year course. Any other terms introduced by teachers are an imposition being placed on students by teachers and in most cases, the concept captured by these terms can be handled adequately by everyday synonyms, e.g.: ‘what’s been left out?’ for gaps and silences; ‘what does this remind you of?’ for intertexuality. Neither critical literacy or syllabuses can be held to account for any apparent ‘sludge’ or ‘mumbo jumbo’ in use in schools. Thoughtful, on-going professional development is the real answer here – and a bit of common sense on the part of some teachers.

Finally, unlike every other area of knowledge, if the conservatives have their way, subject English could be denied a technical language for sharing knowledge about its discipline in a rigorous manner that will promote deep understanding. Where are the similar calls for Maths to remove references to ‘quadratic equations’, legal studies to abandon ‘misrepresentation’ or Physics to remove references to ‘vector operations’ to name just a few, isolated examples.

The point, of course, is that critical literacy is neither sludge nor mumbo jumbo as claimed on a monotonously regular basis. Like every area of human knowledge, it has its own set of concepts expressed in specialist ways. However, only a very small set of technical terms is required by syllabuses or by a classroom teacher implementing critical approaches in a thoughtful manner that takes account the age and maturity of students.

Much ado about grammar

July 15, 2008

Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) is the latest evil to be inflicted upon the long-suffering students of Australia – at least according to some well publicized commentators.

As someone who came to SFG in the early nineties, has used it extensively and successfully with students and in teacher professional development, I strongly disagree with the recent media reporting. While various newspapers and commentators no doubt want the best for students, their negative reactions to SFG are invariably based on limited understanding of the grammar and even less actual experience with using it in the classroom. In at least one case, I suspect that professional jealousy also plays a part: “Boo, hoo! Functional Grammar is so much more popular than the grammar that I have come up with”.

So, let’s bust a couple of myths.

1. SFG replaces traditional grammar.

Wrong – SFG builds on traditional grammar. In fact, familiar terms (e.g. noun, verb, adverb, pronoun, subject, clause) can be found in Functional Grammar. The difference is that SFG places an emphasis on not only identifying and labeling grammatical categories, but also on describing how that grammatical element is functioning within a sentence and whole text. Consider these three examples.

  • The cat sat on the mat.
  • The cat woman left her entire fortune to the local animal refuge.
  • The cat sat on the mat. It licked its paws.

Being able to identify that ‘cat’ is a noun (a typical traditional grammar-type activity) might is a useful first step, but is actually of limited value. However, SFG provides a framework for discussing how that noun is functioning in each sentence. In the first instance, it is a participant in the action of sitting; in fact ‘cat’ is the actor in this sentence (as opposed to the mat – another noun -which indicates where the cat is sitting). In the second sentence, the noun is acting adjectivally, describing the woman. Moreover, it is acting in a special way to classify the type of woman – the cat woman (in contrast, for example, to ‘the dog woman’). In the example three, we could describe the way that the noun ‘cat’ is acting as part of a lexical chain to establish links between the two sentences. That is, cat is picked up by the pronoun ‘it’ in the second sentence and is also linked through the use of whole-part relationships (i.e. a paw is a part of a cat).

A disappointing aspect of the recent National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing was its dumbed down approach to language. Unfortunately, the nature of the questions have the potential to encourage teachers to undertake simple category and error identification training with students, rather than rich and engaging explorations the possibilities of language and how it can function effectively in a variety of contexts.

2. SFG is too complicated for teachers and students.

Look, the English language is huge – it’s complex and cannot be fully described in any succinct manner. However, just as science teachers are trained to communicate complex scientific concepts in age (and ability) appropriate ways to students, so English teachers are capable of extracting core concepts from the grammar and applying them in the classroom to a close study of language. Anyone willing to put in a bit of intellectual effort can learn the basics of the grammar in a fairly short period of time. The idea is not to turn teachers or students into full blown linguists; it’s to give them an informed, working knowledge about how language operates in order to improve reading and writing texts of various kinds.

In a future blog, I’ll explore some more myths about Functional Grammar and demonstrate its worth with further, practical examples.