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.

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