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.

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One Response to “Literacy teaching so that it matters”

  1. Engaging Students in Wide Reading | The English Teacher Guru on November 24th, 2012 8:05 pm

    […] 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 […]

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