Video Resource: Introducing Context and Genre

October 30, 2014

Used under licence: Stockfresh

Zombies and a Social View of Language

Here is a link to a video that you and your students will love.

Through the story of Jack, a young man caught up in a zombie apocalypse, the video introduces students to the idea that language changes according to the context of use. This concept is central to the Literacy General Capability underpinning all learning areas of the Australian Curriculum.

The video is meant as a fun introduction, but also deliberately encourages students to read rather than just listen.

See the video here:

The video was produced using Videoscribe by Sparkol.

Engaging Students in Wide Reading

November 24, 2012


This is the third and final post in a series exploring ways of engaging students in literacy learning. The first post emphasised the importance of understanding the strengths of students and the communities in which they live. In the second post, I discussed ways of using that understanding to teach literacy in ways that really matter to students. In this final post, I will explore why reading for pleasure is important and suggests ways of promoting reading.

Why Wide Reading is Important

The 2009 PISA report concludes that: ‘In all countries, students who enjoy reading the most perform significantly better than students who enjoy reading the least’ (p13). Furthermore, ‘In all countries, boys are not only less likely than girls to say that they read for enjoyment, but they also have different reading habits when they do read for pleasure…[the gender gap in reading performance] could be predicted to shrink by 14 points if boys approached learning as positively as girls, and by over 20 points if they were as engaged in reading as girls.’ (p13). And finally, the report concludes that ‘While factors such as predisposition, temperament, peer pressure and socialisation may contribute to boys having less interest in reading than girls, boys could be encouraged to enjoy reading more and to read more for enjoyment.’ (p14)

So, it is clear that encouraging students to read fiction and non-fiction for pleasure is important. Moreover, with a good understanding of students and their communities, the many possible barriers to reading for pleasure can be overcome.

Practical Strategies for Promoting Reading for Pleasure

While working with Shawyn Jenkins (2009), a 9 year old, African American male third grader, drew up the following recommendations for his teachers:

  • Teamwork helps my dream work, i.e. it helps when there is a group of diverse and trusted adults all working towards helping students achieve their goals
  • Build on my past successes
  • Connect book reading to my world
  • Allow me to help select books, topics and activities
  • Provide me with a variety of texts on a single topic.

This set of recommendations is derived from a very small sample, of course. However, much of what this student suggests is echoed in more extensive research. It’s easy to see connections with Jeff Wilhelm‘s research, for example, and it also resonates with the work of Parris, Fisher and Headley (2009:157-167) who recommend that engaging reluctant readers involves:

  • selecting student texts on the basis of students’ interests and needs
  • building relationships between students and adults
  • giving students choices through such strategies as literature circles, sustained silent reading, and alternative assessment methods
  • making text relevant
  • connecting fictional experiences to students’ lives
  • establishing inquiry-based literacy projects
  •  frontloading students with background knowledge and comprehension strategies
  •  modelling good reading and thinking behaviours through read alouds and think alouds.

These last two points are vital. There is a substantial body of research that demonstrates the lack of effectiveness of sustained silent reading by itself (see for example Hattie 2009: 138). Where this strategy is employed in isolation, the reading comprehension ability of reluctant and disengaged readers do not improve. Therefore, any wide-reading program for enjoyment needs to be run in parallel with explicit teaching of reading comprehension skills and strategies (see Rose and Martin 2012 for a particularly effective pedagogy), i.e. frontloading.

In short, we are talking about teaching reading comprehension explicitly, but also establishing a school culture in which reading is valued by all members of the school community. This involves all teachers across all subject areas (and other school personnel) working alongside students as fellow readers and writers. Moreover, any reading program needs to make the most of the social world of students: opportunities need to be provided for students to share their reading (and writing) with other students. My own experience is that students pay most attention to other students when it comes to reading recommendations. In addition, schools could try:

  • providing students with access to books at home, including conducting ‘summer’ reading programmes
  •  publishing brief interviews with members of the local community about their reading and writing habits
  •  exposing students to real writers through writer-in-residence programs
  • conducting and participating in reading and writing competitions and festivals – by the way, give out trophies as prizes (just like a sporting competition)
  • publishing student writing, e.g. through readings on assembly; posting work on bulletin boards in the school office, the school website, yearly anthologies, mini-books for class or class library, ebooks and audiobooks.

The ubiquitous nature of technology affords an enormous range of outlets for celebrating and sharing reading and writing. So, be creative!


Literacy is one of the greatest gifts that we can give students. The suggestions in these three posts have contained ideas on how to engage students and help them appreciate the power of reading and writing in their own lives. However, the lives of most teachers are extremely busy and they need help keeping a focus on promoting literacy. This post, in particular, points to the need for someone in the school whose central role is to promote reading and keep students and teachers informed of new opportunities for reading and writing. Sounds like a teacher-librarian to me. And yet, in a short-sighted move to save money, the role is being phased out of many schools. In the medium to long-term, this will have a negative impact on school’s ability to promote and improve literacy. There is no doubt that technological advances have changed the role of librarians and libraries. However, schools (particularly state schools) need to take a long hard look at universities and public libraries where the role of librarian is still recognised as crucial. Why, then, are schools eliminating the role?


Jenkins, S. (2009). How to maintain school reading success: Five recommendations from a struggling male reader. The Reading Teacher. 63(2). pp. 159–162.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

OECD (2010). PISA 2009 results: Learning to learn – student engagement, strategies and practices (Vol III).

Parris, S., Fisher, D. and Headley, K.  (eds) (2009).  Adolescent Literacy, Field Tested: Effective Solutions for Every Classroom. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Literacy teaching so that it matters

November 12, 2012


This is the second of three posts about engaging students in literacy learning. While this is a big topic, the first post focussed on the power of knowing students’ strengths and understanding the ‘funds of knowledge’ embedded in communities. In this second post we’ll examine how to use these understandings to teach literacy so that it matters to students, is connected to the their world.

The suggestions in these posts are about engaging students, getting them interested, nurturing motivation. Unless students are engaged, the best pedagogy in the world is not likely to make much difference to student results. However, student engagement is a starting point only; by itself it is not enough. In the final post in this series, I will explore this point in more detail.

Literacy teaching so that it matters

Jeff Wilhelm (2007) describes five actions required for transformative teaching:

  • Teach so it matters: what is a real problem worth solving and connects to student interests and concerns?
  • Help students how to think and act like experts
  • Shift your stance to show-how (as opposed to know-how)
  • Recast yourself as a co-collaborator
  • Teach for understanding

For the moment, we will focus on the first of these.

Like others, Wilhelm argues for connecting school learning and the teaching of literacy to concerns in the world of the students. One way of doing this is to organise units around ‘big’  enquiry questions. So, for example, when teaching Romeo and Juliet, Wilhelm and his students seek to find answers to a question such as: What makes good relationships and what screws up relationships?

Other such questions (for a variety of curriculum areas) might include:

  • What is the significance of Barack Obama’s presidency for Australians?
  • Why does it matter that aborigines are not recognised in the Australian constitution?
  • What can we do to help people in need (e.g. victims of drought)?
  • Do voters elect the Australian Prime Minister?
  • Why was the World Cup important for South Africa?
  • Why do organisms die?

I once visited a high school in central Queensland that was located in a very small town. Facilities for students were virtually non-existent. In the planing stages for a persuasive writing unit in Year 10, the English teacher asked his class what would make a difference to them as teenagers. The general consensus was the building of a skate bowl in the local park. Through a bit of research, the students discovered that this would require agreement from the local shire council. As a result, the ‘big’ question for the unit became: How can I convince the shire council to take my views seriously? To cut a long story short, this was an extremely successful unit with a real life focus that really mattered to the students. And while the outcome might seem trivial, it involved students in developing a deep understanding about the workings of democracy, using language effectively to promote change, and communicating with those who held more power and whose value systems were not necessarily aligned with their own. As a part of the unit, they made an official presentation to the full shire council and ultimately the skate park was built. So, while the unit started from the students’ interests, it led them on from there, developing deeper understandings about the world and their place in it. In this sort of transdisciplinary unit, of course, for English teachers the trick is to keep the focus on language, literature and literacy outcomes.

Once a ‘big’ question is in place, all the reading, writing, viewing and so on in a unit is focussed on discovering answers to that question (and related sub-questions). In other words, literacy tasks in the unit come to have a clearly defined purpose. An understanding of purpose is an important element in students’ reading and writing success (Beuhl 2009, Fisher, Frey and Lapp 2012 and Hattie 2009).

‘Teaching so that it matters’ is evident in other approaches used with disadvantaged students. For example, my wife encouraged me to watch a movie called Freedom Writers. It’s the type of inspirational movie that Hollywood does so effectively. If you look past the simplifications and keep your cynicism in check, however, it is based on the true story of an English teacher, Erin Gruwell, who gave disadvantaged students a second chance through encouraging them to tell their own stories, and through the promotion of diversity. There was also a strong focus on projects with tangible, real- world outcomes. The Freedom Writers Foundation which she established still operates today, promoting her positive and inclusive approach to internal motivation.

Gholnescar Muhammad (2012) also reports on the success of a program in the United States designed for black adolescent girls: ‘The instruction was designed to charge the girls to use their pens in powerful ways. We wanted the girls to tell their stories to ensure their voices are heard’ (p204). One girl, Iris, speaks of ‘how the writing institute provided a safe space where she could openly express ideas without judgement’ (p209) and this contrasted with her school experience where writing instruction ‘that could help nurture her identities lacks depth or complexity of thought’. Muhammad goes on to observe that: ‘Often, teachers may select literature or writing topics that are relevant to the ethnic identities of students but fail to respond to other strands of their lives, such as their home life, culture, environment, language, or economics’ (ibid).


These examples demonstrate the importance of connecting school learning with students’ lived experiences, of teaching literacy in ways that truly matter. Moreover, the tasks undertaken and the text used must go beyond a superficial notion of relevance. This is not some simple, magic bullet approach and may require lots of persistence and sensitivity. Finally, as these examples also make clear, teachers may need to start where the students are, but it is important to move students on, to show them how to develop sophistication and independence in their use of language. With effective, mutually-respectful relationships in place, this can be achieved much more easily.


Beuhl, D. (2009). Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Fisher, D., Frey, N & Lapp, D. (2012). Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Muhammad, G. (2012). ‘Creating spaces for black adolescent girls to “write it out“‘. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 56(3). pp203-211.

Wilhelm, J. (2007). Engaging Readers and Writers with Enquiry: Promoting Deep Understandings in Language Arts and the Content Areas with Guiding Questions. USA: Scholastic.

NAPLAN Persuasive Writing Preparation: Built-in or Bolt-on?

November 9, 2012

When it comes to the NAPLAN writing task, what is best: to build preparation into the normal curriculum or bolt it on as an added extra? My answer is that a bit of both is required.

Learning how to write persuasively is part of the Australian Curriculum: English. For example, listed below is just one relevant content descriptor from each of Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

  • Year 3: Examine how evaluative language can be varied to be more or less forceful (ACELA1477)
  • Year 5: Plan, draft and publish imaginative, informative and persuasive print and multimodal texts, choosing text structures, language features, images and sound appropriate to purpose and audience (ACELY1704)
  • Year 7: Understand that the coherence of more complex texts relies on devices that signal text structure and guide readers, for example overviews, initial and concluding paragraphs and topic sentences, indexes or site maps or breadcrumb trails for online texts (ACELA1763)
  • Year 9: Understand that authors innovate with text structures and language for specific purposes and effects (ACELA1553)

Although the last two are not specifically about persuasion, they point to the need for students to be able to write well-structured and linked paragraphs and being able to move beyond a generic formula such as the ‘five-paragraph essay’. All of these descriptors indicate that students need to be learning the skills required for the NAPLAN writing task as a normal part of their day to day classroom learning. In other words, the majority of preparation needs to be built-in.

On the other hand, there are aspects of the NAPLAN test which would not necessarily be a normal part of lessons, especially for younger students. A sample list might include:

  • producing extended writing under time pressures and to a previously unseen topic
  • generating ideas for arguments using images as stimulus
  • needing to substantiate arguments without access to resources such as books and the internet
  • knowing that when they are invited to write for ‘a reader’, they will receive better marks if that reader is more distant and less familiar (i.e. not family and friends).

No doubt there are further items that could be added to this list. The point is, students do require particular instruction to make them test-wise and this instruction needs to be bolt-on preparation that students recognise is specifically aimed at helping them with NAPLAN. As a part of this bolt-on preparation, students also need to review learnings from the normal curriculum that are relevant to persuasive writing.

So, should preparation for persuasive writing be built-in or bolt-on? Students need explicit, built-in preparation that includes plenty of joint and collaborative writing. However, in addition, they require an intensive burst of bolt-on preparation that makes them test-wise and keeps relevant learnings from the normal curriculum fresh in their minds.

Improving Writing (and Reading) Part One

November 3, 2012


Currently, I am conducting workshops about how to improve student writing. In some cases, strategies for doing this have been developed to a high degree of sophistication; Reading to Learn and Scaffolding Literacy are two outstanding programs. One of their strengths is the way they integrate and relate the teaching of reading and writing. Both, for example, use special approaches to structured, explicit guided reading as a precursor to writing similar types of texts. Both approaches also seek to re-engage students by providing them with success in literacy rather than reinforcing and perpetuating literacy failure.

Whatever approach schools decide to adopt, there is no doubt that (re)engaging struggling and reluctant students is essential to success. Although this is a multi-faceted issue, in the next few posts, I will explore some of the research in three areas related to engagement and success:
• challenging a deficit approach to student improvement
• connecting teaching to the ‘real’ world
• the importance of wide reading for enjoyment.
In this first post, we will explore problems with the deficit approach.

A common way of approaching literacy improving is to identify student weaknesses and problems. Then, various school personnel set to remediating and fixing the student problems. This is the deficit approach. Some researchers have sought to challenge the assumptions underpinning this approach. Luis Moll and others, for example, have proposed the metaphor of community “funds of knowledge” and Pat Thompson the metaphor of “virtual schoolbags”. These metaphors were used as the basis of work carried out by Barbara Comber and Barbara Kamler (2005) in developing teaching methods aimed at ‘turning-around’ student failure and disengagement. ‘These positive metaphors’ the researchers say, ‘allowed [teachers] to see their students as resourceful.’ (p5)

Funds of Knowledge

According to the metaphor of ‘funds of knowledge’, all communities have resources that often remain invisible and under-valued in the school context, e.g. knowledge of mechanics, building, gardening, natural medicines, animal husbandry. Communities often have networks of practice that allow them to manage and solve such matters as care for the young and the old, financial assistance, transport, management of everyday life with meagre income and assets, organising and running large scale events (e.g. netball carnivals). According to Comber and Kamler, ‘if teachers knew more about communities’ funds of knowledge, this might inform teachers’ curriculum designs, build their respect for the community and thereby enhance children’s educational experience. Consequently, ‘an important first step [is] teachers learning to be ethnographers of communities in order to learn about the specific cultural resources of communities and how they functioned.’

Take two minutes now to write down everything positive about the local community in which you teach. Include such things as:
• available resources (human, knowledge and material)
• networks of practice.
Now consider:
• How did you go?
• What use could you make of the resources and practices that you’ve identified?
• What more do you need to do and/or find out?

Virtual Schoolbags

The second metaphor is that all children come to school with ‘virtual school bags’ that are full of various cultural and linguistic resources. However, only some children get to open their bags and make use of what is inside while many children’s knowledge, experiences and practices remain invisible and unused at school.

For example, a literacy researcher once told me about professional development that she and a colleague were conducting in a school. After a while the staff had become quite restless and inattentive. The presenters were forced to stop and discover what the problem was. “This is completely unrealistic and won’t work in our school”, they were told. So, knowing they were to return again in a week or so, they set the staff a challenge. “Who is the dumbest kid in the school?” they asked provocatively. With very little effort, the staff were unanimous in naming a particular student (let’s call him Josh). “Okay, our challenge to you is to find out as much as you can about Josh before we return. That includes visiting his home and speaking to his parents.” A week or so later, the view of Josh had completely turned around: the researchers were told that he was actually gifted and talented. His father was a jazz aficionado and Josh (in the time before ready-made blogging software and YouTube) had developed a comprehensive, on-line database about 1950s jazz, including biographies, discographies and the like. The problem wasn’t so much that he was dumb, it was that nothing at school connected with his life away from school, nor made use of his skills.

An interesting finding of Comber and Kamler’s work was that ‘Many teachers observed that when they reworked the curriculum to re-engage alienated students, their entire class became more motivated and committed to the newly negotiated approach. The turn-around effect extended beyond the ‘targeted’ students.’ (Comber and Kamler, 2005)

The success of this assets-based approach has also been demonstrated in other projects. One very interesting one occurred in the Central Community Development Center (USA) with their positive youth development program (Wright & Mahiri 2012). At the end of a real-life project involving disaffected and troubled youth from local schools, Pepe (a 13-year-old, second generation Latino boy) who could not even decode simple words such as date and age, was interviewed:

Dana (researcher): I noticed that, in the beginning, you didn’t read out loud at all, but then it seems now you read out loud. Why is that? Is that because you’re getting help outside of here, like at school?
Pepe: No, it was because of this project.
Dana: is it? Do you have a tutor, though, at school? [Pepe shakes his head no.] Do you read or write with teachers?
Pepe: No. Well, I write, but read? Not really.
Dana: OK. So, you say that it was because of this project that you read out loud more. Why do you think that is?
Pepe: Here, I learned to not be scared and [not to] hold in your voice – to just speak out.

As a result of their experiences, the researchers recommend that student success relies on:
1. create a safe space for learning.
2. using engaging team-building strategies.
3. using pedagogical approaches that identify and build on youths’ assets
4. employing youth literacy-development apprenticeships by adults and by young people.
5. connecting learning to the real world.

To get started on this approach:
What to look for: evidence of children’s capacities, interests, strengths and cultural investments
How to find it: speak to students, visit classes where s/he excels, watch him/her playing sport, visit home, make time to see parents after school
Then, think about how this information can be used to design ‘pedagogies to connect them to the literacy curriculum’.


Comber, B. & Kamler, B. (2005). Turn-around pedagogies: Literacy interventions for at-risk students. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association.
Wright, D. & Mahiri, J. (2012). ‘Literacy learning within community action projects for social change’. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 56: 2. pp. 123-131.

NAPLAN Tip 1 for Persuasion: Know Your Genre

October 6, 2010

The official NAPLAN website advises that the 2011 Writing Task genre will be persuasion and the sample task ( students to respond to the topic:

Books or TV.

Reading books is better than watching TV.

What do you think about this idea? Write to convince a reader of your opinions.

There are two points to make. Firstly, persuasion is not actually a genre – it’s a purpose. In fact, narratives (short stories, novels etc) can be persuasive which is why Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World as a novel and George Orwell wrote 1984. They believed that their arguments would reach a wider audience if presented as stories. What the NAPLAN sample task seems to be asking for is a hortatory exposition – in other words an argument with the following basic structure: Thesis and preview of arguments^Arguments elaborated and exemplified^Reinforcement of thesis.

The second point relates to a confusion in NAPLAN’s own instructions: they invite students to think about if they agree or disagree or see both sides of the argument. The last part of this invitation suggests that the discussion genre (Issue^Arguments for^Arguments against^Position)  might also be acceptable. While this might seem reasonable, research demonstrates that students who do best in demand writing tasks write with authority, take a definite position. The discussion genre, on the other, encourages students to take a more neutral position – at least until the conclusion. This has the potential to result in a mid-range grade.

Consequently, teachers would be advised to encourage students to write expositions.

Note: ^ in the summary of genre stages means “followed by”.

Student writing: Making a real difference

May 24, 2010

The following is the script of a video sequence I shot for Education Queensland, the state’s education authority. The video is currently being used as a part of their literacy training for Middle School teachers throughout the state. For more information, email

Script: There’s been some really interesting research done into what makes a difference in writing that gains a mid or a high range grade in the Queensland Core Skills Test Writing Task for year 12.  Commonsense might suggest that accuracy in spelling, punctuation and grammar would be the distinguishing feature. In fact, the work of students receiving high and mid-range grades showed no significant difference in these so-called basics. However, other features of the work  did appear to make a difference. Students with high grades

  • Made an effective and appropriate match among the chosen genre, the register and language. Moreover, this was done at a macro-level (i.e. the best language for the genre and audience) and at a micro-level (i.e. the best language for both stages of the piece, and phases – the mini stages within each big stage).
  • They wrote in depth, elaborating their writing through the use of extended noun groups and embedded clauses.
  • They wrote authoritatively, taking a strongly positive or negative point of view.
  • They made careful selections in their choice of evaluative words. For example, the use of ‘exquisite’ instead of ‘very beautiful’ or the use of ‘slunk’ or ‘strode’ instead of ‘walked’.
  • They used figurative language, including similes and metaphors.

In addition, students receiving high grades generally avoided first person – under test conditions, if you use first person there’s probably a greater chance of slipping into everyday, colloquial language that isn’t highly regarded in demand writing tasks. Moreover, work with a high grade tended to draw on ‘exotic’ knowledge – that is, knowledge about the world that went beyond the students’ immediate, adolescent experience.

What is particularly striking, though, is that similar features can also be found in sample work published in the report on the 2008 NAPLAN writing task, albeit at a less sophisticated level. It is interesting to note, also, that although the high achieving younger students did tend to use first person, their subject matter went beyond everyday lives and allowed these students to demonstrate a broad vocabulary and quite sophisticated grammatical features.

A couple of other features have also struck me as I’ve read through both the Year 12 Writing Task and NAPLAN examples. Firstly, students who wrote narratives and achieved high grades tended to write stories that were very compressed – the whole story jumped straight into the action at a crisis moment in a character’s life, that is ‘in media res’ – and the problem was one that could unfold and resolve itself in a short period of time, probably 5 to 10 minutes of real time.

In students achieving high grades, there was also evidence of grammatical metaphor (especially nominalization – turning verbs into nouns) in even younger students, and in both narratives and expository pieces. This supports a finding by Bev Derewianka and Fran Christie that grammatical metaphor should be emerging between the ages of 9-12. Where this doesn’t occur, students continue to struggle with the demands of academic writing throughout their schooling.

By immersing students in the language features outlined, through explicit modelling, joint construction and guided practice, teachers can help students not just ‘fall over the line’, but also add significant value to their writing – for both demand writing tasks and for writing more generally.

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.

Improving student writing: modelling

September 21, 2008

Do you need some help with improving your students’ achievement in writing? Here is one strategy  for modelling the requirements of particular genres that will contribute to student success. The sample document below is intended to be put on a school’s intranet for ease of student access.

Model exposition (OpEd piece)

Further details about how this model can be used are provided below.

Contextual information

Preparing students to write effectively in a particular genre (or text type) involves a range of activities, including:

  • understanding the purpose of the writing
  • generating and developing subject matter to write about
  • understanding the roles and relationships involved in the writing, i.e. what is the writer’s role and for whom are they writing?
  • explicit teaching of the structure and language demands of the writing task
  • explicit teaching of the thinking processes involved in composing within a particular genre.

This knowledge and understanding is commonly developed through strategies such as:

  • immersing students in examples of the required style of writing
  • modelling and joint construction
  • guided and independent practice
  • peer and self reflection.

Background information

The interactive document attached is an example of one on-line resource that teachers can make available to students. It is based on an analytical exposition meant for older students – but the idea can be adapted for any age (pre-school upward) and any genre. While the model could be printed out in hard copy form, it is designed to by read on screen.

Some teachers claim that the document is too long and complex. However, a few things need to be kept in mind. Firstly, it is not designed as a standalone document. It assumes that students have been participating in a variety of activities to develop their knowledge and understanding of the required genre. Thus, it acts as a summary of information already taught and, hopefully, learned. Secondly, it is not meant to be read in one sitting. The hyperlinks are provided so that students can move directly to those bits of information they require at a particular moment in time. It is, therefore, more like a resource package that provides just-in-time information for students. Finally, the model provided relates to work done in the last couple of years of schooling when the length and depth of written tasks has increased. For younger students, the model could be much shorter – because the length of writing tasks is also shorter.

Need help?

If you want to know more, or would like help developing some of these models, contact:

Improving literacy results in Queensland schools

September 14, 2008

Queensland students have not done as well as their counterparts in other states when it comes to literacy – at least on the raw data. There are a number of unavoidable reasons for this, including:

  • the later school starting age for student
  • the number of  students in living in remote and isolated areas.

However, there is no doubt in my mind that lack of educational leadership from the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA) has much to answer for in this regard.  In pandering to the prejudices of politicians, journalists and a small but vocal minority of academics, the QSA has ensured that there has been no statewide syllabus for English since 1987 (yes, 1987 – that’s not a misprint!).  To make matters worse, the QSA no longer employs experienced English Heads of Faculty in order to provide advice about teaching English to schools and, recently, a Physical Education teacher was given the task of re-writing the Senior English syllabus.  A number of consequences have flowed from this situation:

  • a lack of a coherent, educationally sound approach to teaching English and literacy
  • confusion in many teachers’ minds about what is the right way to teach English and literacy – with the result that they have often fallen back to outmoded teaching methods.

The situation has been worsed by funding cuts to the QSA by the state government – according to reports, all work on new syllabuses in the early and middle years has stopped until the next financial year due to a redirection of funds to the health system. Providing lists of essential learning targets is only partly helpful.

So, what are teachers to do? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you have a good knowledge of English grammar (traditional and functional), and can apply that to practical strategies for helping students read and write?
  2. Do you understand the range of factors that will assist students to undertake reading and writing tasks, including cultural knowledge and understanding, knowledge about language, thinking processes and attitudes?
  3. Do you consistently and effectively use all aspects of the teaching-learning cycle: modelling, guided practice and independent practice?
  4. Do you understand the various roles of the reader (code breaker, meaning maker, text user and text analyst) and do you understand the implication of these for teaching individuals and groups of students in your care?
  5. Do you structure your teaching of reading effectively with appropriate pre, during and after reading activities?
  6. Do you structure your teaching of writing effectively with appropriate pre, during and after writing activities?
  7. Do you effectively and explicitly model all significant written tasks that students are required to undertake?
  8. Are your students trained to reflect effectively on their own work and that of others?
  9. Is your approach consistent with the approach taken by other teachers at your school?
  10. Are you part of a professional learning community that seeks to strive for constant improvement?

Next Page »