Literacy, Learning and Teaching

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    Literacy, Learning and TeachingPaul Richardson aa Monash University , AustraliaPublished online: 06 Jul 2006.

    To cite this article: Paul Richardson (1998) Literacy, Learning and Teaching, EducationalReview, 50:2, 115-134, DOI: 10.1080/0013191980500204

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  • Educational Review, Vol. 50, No. 2, 1998 115

    Literacy, Learning and Teaching

    PAUL RICHARDSON, Monash University, Australia

    ABSTRACT By taking Australia as a case study site and with findings from the newliteracy studies and new theories of learning, this paper sketches a perspective oncontemporary issues in English literacy education. While research from a number offields and disciplines advises abandonment of traditional skills-based views ofliteracy and literacy learning, governments with neo-conservative agendas aremoving to institutionalise a model of literacy learning embodied by psychometricmeasures and benchmarks. Increasingly literacy, learning and teaching are beingseen by governments as too important to the state and the market to be left only inthe hands of teachers and literacy educators.

    Introduction

    Literacy would appear to be one of the few elements of education thateveryone agrees to be a necessity of modernity. The capacity to read andwrite is causally associated with earning a living, achieving expandedhorizons of personal enlightenment and enjoyment, maintaining a stableand democratic society, and historically, with the rise of civilization itself.(Swed, 1981, p. 13)

    From the post-modernist perspective these are exciting if unpredictable times. Theestablished discourses and grand narratives imbuing individual relations and socialorganisation have been progressively disrupted and displaced by the subjective andthe particular, to the point where our personal worlds are said to have becomeinherently unstable, fragmentary and insecure (Lather, 1991). Economic rationalism,economic restructuring, new information technologies and the emergence of globalmarkets have been instrumental in creating rapid, enduring social change. Whilethere have been new opportunities for some individuals in 'the new work order',many jobs and occupations in manufacturing and other industries have been lost orare increasingly marginalised as non-competitive. In the interests of internationalcompetitiveness and 'the market' governments across the globe have been revisitingtheir industrial relations legislation in order to loosen controls on working conditions,hours of work, the nature of work and remuneration. All of which have contributedto a sense of exponential change, social instability and fragmentation. In parallel withthese changes, literacy education and schooling have been harnessed to the task ofcreating a flexible, skilled workforce capable and willing of responding to changesin 'the market'.

    Three or four decades ago it would have been possible to approach the topic ofthis paper with some assurance and confidence. Life then seemed less fragmentary,

    0013-1911/98/020115-20 1998 Educational Review

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  • 116 P.Richardson

    more stable and predictable. There were established discourses and teachers, at alllevels of education, were confident of what the young needed to know, value anddemonstrate as an outcome of teaching and learning. Back then, programmes forliteracy development were often set down in prescriptive curriculum documentsand the learning and teaching of reading and writing were seen as essentially theprovince of the school. As we approach the end of the century academics,researchers and teachers are mostly attentive to the dimensions and complexity ofthe meanings carried by the word literacy. On the other hand, neo-conservativepoliticians and elements of the mass media insist on persuading the general publicthat state-funded schools are in crisis because an unacceptable proportion ofchildren attending those schools have serious literacy problems. Measurements of'literacy standards' and 'basic literacy skills' have become the barometer of thesuccess and well-being of schools, teachers, students, citizenship, democracy andthe political system.

    This paper will examine findings from new literacy studies research and newlearning theories as a cyclorama against which to sketch a perspective on contempor-ary issues in English literacy education coincident across a number of Englishspeaking countries. These issues will be weighed against developments in Australiaas a case study. I have chosen Australia, firstly, because I have followed events inthis country more intimately and, secondly, because Australians have, perhaps froma lack of self-confidence or insecurity, closely monitored 'overseas' developments inliteracy education and public policy and have been quick to graft these 'new' literacyteaching and learning practices on to home-grown root stocks. Australia's cultural,social and political history make it an ideal site in which to make visible 'global'concerns and issues in literacy studies and literacy pedagogy.

    Thirty years ago English literacy education in Australia was a silent partner inpublic policy, where it functioned as an important instrument of cultural assimilationof minorities into the majority culture. As a concomitant, little attention was givento the concerns, identities or languages of minorities (see Smolicz, 1971). Over thelast 20 years or so a succession of Federal, State and Territory governments havedisavowed assimilation in favour of more sensitive, less discriminatory policies,embracing diversity and plurality as desirable attributes of Australian social andcultural life. By insisting that one size does not fit all, public space was opened upto a range of discursive practices, identities and minority languages (see Ozolins,1993). However, English remains the national language and English literacy edu-cation a priority for State and Federal governments. As English becomes increasinglyglobalised it is apparent that countries other than Australia also seek to give priorityto English literacy education.

    Traditionally literacy has been associated with an individual's ability to read andwrite. In everyday contexts literacy is invoked in these termsa view which regardsliteracy as a set of asocial individual cognitive skills dislodged from their socio-cul-tural moorings in human relationships and communities of practice. By neglectingthe role and constitutive influence of situation, activities and participants, literacybecomes a set of skills necessary for individuals to undertake reading and writing.Thus it is implied that once these skills are acquired early on in a child's life theyare then seamlessly transferable without: impediment across contexts and situations.Brian Street (1984) has identified this as the 'autonomous' model of literacy.Regardless of context, literacy was seen to produce desirable changes in people:raised cognitive skills, a rational outlook, restructured thought processes and sus-

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  • Literacy, Learning and Teaching 117

    tained abstract thinking. Gee (1990, p. 32) neatly summarizes the claims that havebeen made for literacy founded on what Graff (1979) has called 'the literacy myth':

    The 'literacy myth' is seen to have produced claims that literacy leads to,or is correlated with, logical and analytical modes of thought; general andabstract use of language; critical and rational thought; sceptical andquestioning attitudes; a distinction between myth and history; the recogni-tion of the importance of time and space; complex and modern govern-ments; political democracy and greater social equity; economicdevelopment; wealth and productivity; political stability; urbanisation;lower birth rates; people who are achievement oriented, productive, cosmo-politan, politically aware, more globally (nationally and internationally)and less locally oriented, who have more liberal and humane socialattitudes, are less likely to commit a crime; and more likely to take therights and duties of citizenship seriously.

    In contrast, I begin with the premise that literacy changes and that these changes areintimately coupled with knowledge, ideology and context. Thus literacy is instanti-ated and infused with particular social, cultural and ideological ends. In this sensethere is not literacy and illiteracy, but literacies which are formed and function inparticular social contexts (see for instance Heath, 1983; Street, 1984; Shuman, 1986;Prinsloo & Breier, 1996; Edwards, 1997). This perspective has far-reaching implica-tions in the determination, measurement and testing of 'basic literacy skills' and'literacy standards'.

    Literacy is so enmeshed in our daily lives, coincident with cultural, ethnic andreligious identity, social and economic status, community mores, gender identity andpolitical beliefs that it inevitably becomes entwined with issues of national identity,national economic development, citizenship, language and culture. This is not justtrue for Australia or for English speaking countries. For instance, Tonnessen (1995,p. 244) has observed that in Norway, a country of some 4 million people, the'Norwegian language and culture are under continual pressure from foreign, mainlyAnglo-American, language and culture'. So much so, to be considered literate andcapable of functioning effectively in Norwegian society an individual needs amodicum of foreign language competence. Similarly, Hornberger (1992, p. 190)affirms that literacy in South America can only be understood 'against the backdropof the linguistic diversity' found there across 14 nations and territories in whichbetween seven and 200 languages are spoken, the only monolingual exceptions beingUruguay and the Falkland Islands, where only Spanish and English are usedrespectively.

    New Literacy Studies

    A feature of literacy research studies over the last couple of decades has been thediversity of research methodologies on which these studies have been founded. Bydrawing on a range of disciplines, cognitive dimensions, socio cultural groups andeducational settings a more intricate and elaborated understanding of literacy hasemerged (see for example Gee, 1990; Beach et al, 1992; Barton, 1994; Prinsloo &Breier, 1996; Street, 1997). Disciplines and fields such as sociology, sociolinguistics,post-structuralist criticism, social psychology, feminist critical theory and cultural

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  • 118 P.Richardson

    anthropology have all contributed to contemporary conceptions of literacy, althoughnot all have had the same impact on literacy pedagogy.

    The interdisciplinary roots of the new literacy studies can be seen, forexample, in the work of researchers who have demonstrated that children progressunequally towards literacy. The nature and extent of that inequality has beenrevealed through the work of Heath (1982, 1983), Scribner & Cole (1981),Lankshear & Lawler (1987), Wells (1986), Gumprez (1982), Michaels (1981,1985), Cazden (1979), among others. Similarly, studies by Graff (1979), CookGumprez (1986), Street (1984), Gee (1996) have brought to our attention twotenets: literacies are 'social practices' and the nature of language is 'dialogic'(Street, 1997).

    Taking into account the implications stemming from a social view of literacy,what practical differences might ensue? In compiling what follows I have drawnfreely on work by Ivanic & Hamilton (1989) (reported in Barton 1994, pp. 211-212)and Dombrey (1992), who have similarly attempted to distil some of the moreimportant points gleaned from a range of literacy research. In summary, the newliteracy studies provide good evidence in support of the following.

    There are important links between the processes of literacy acquisition andsocio-cultural background.

    All children do not uniformly or equally learn literacy. The nature and dimensionof inequality is now better understood.

    Literacy is not just cognitive skills which, once acquired, are endlessly transferablefrom one setting to another.

    Socio-cultural factors interact with cognitive factors in complex ways and are ofcritical importance in the achievement of 'academic' literacy.

    Literacy is imbued with the values of the social context that both surrounds andis shaped by it. Literacy is learned in specific settings, embedded in particularideologies. Hence, there are literacies; which are essentially social practices, butnot all literacies are of equal value. In everyday life reading and writing alwayshave a social purpose.

    Literacy learning is an active process, driven and shaped by the learner's inten-tions. Methods for learning literacy vary greatly. Literacy operates most character-istically on a number of different linguistic levels simultaneously and is not madeeasier by being broken down into simpler elements that are taught separately.

    Readers engage in complex, multi-level processes that involve knowledge ofsound-symbol relations, spelling patterns, vocabulary, sentence structure, preposi-tional meanings and realms of meaning at the level of discourse well beyondindividual propositions.

    School literacy is one of many forms of communication and should be developedalongside other forms, such as spoken, physical communication and graphics.Institutional and social networks are essential in determining the purposes literacyserves. Schooled literacy is a form of cultural capital; other forms of literacy donot necessarily carry the same cultural capital.

    Literacy practices beyond school are extremely varied and often quite differentfrom those in school. The purposes, effects and types of literacy for any groupmay be very different from those recognised and used in schools.

    Literacy learning is not simply and straightforwardly equated with teaching inschool. Schooling does not necessarily motivate children to learn and use literacy

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  • Literacy, Learning and Teaching 119

    simply because literacy may have little immediate importance or use in the livesof some children. Children do much of their literacy learning tacitly, implicitly.

    Children learn about literacy informally in their everyday lives. 'This sort oflearning does not follow any step-by-step pattern: people learn about uses,strategies and values simultaneously and haphazardly' (Ivanic & Hamilton, 1989).

    There is no substitute for watching how, when, where and why children learnreading and writing and responding to the efforts of adults to help them

    In short, research studies across disciplines have demonstrated the 'situatedness'of literacy, leading to the conviction that literacy cannot be defined, understood,learned, studied or acquired independently of a social context. Moreover, no longercan it be assumed that there are natural or 'naturalistic' conditions for learningliteracy or, indeed that literacy naturally follows on from oral language development(Luke et ah, 1989). The very constructed nature of all literacy practices and therelationship between literacy, personal identity, cultural identity and ideology under-mine claims that all children in all social and cultural contexts learn literacy in thesame way (Delpit, 1988; Edwards, 1997).

    New Theories of Learning

    A significant body of work of relevance to literacy studies continues to be reportedby a group of cognitive psychologists who have ventured out of controlled laboratoryenvironments in order to study thinking and problem-solving in natural settings(Rogoff & Lave, 1984; Lave, 1988; Brown, et ah, 1989; Newman et ah, 1989;Rogoff, 1990; Lave & Wenger, 1991). As a result of this ethnographic fieldworkthese researchers abandoned asocial individualist views of thinking in an effort tocome to terms with 'cognition in the wild' (Hutchins, 1995) or situated cognition.According to this view, cognition is located in the processes of community activityand is 'distributed' across the context in which it occurs. Lave (1988, p. 1) affirmsthat:

    Cognition observed in everyday practice is distributedstretched over, notdivided amongmind, body, activity, and culturally organised settings.

    Further, it is argued that thinking and knowledge are part of the activity, context andculture in which it develops and is carried out, distributed across people, tools,technologies and social settings. Thus activity, concept and culture are interdepen-dent. All three integrally contribute to learning (Brown et ah, 1989, p. 33).

    Becoming an experienced member of a community is integral to the transform-ation of roles that Rogoff (1994) sees as essential to learning. For both Lave andRogoff learning is active and accomplished through processes of co-participationbetween experts and novices in new situations. Central to their analysis is the viewthat mind and social interaction 'constitute each other' as the novice and the expertparticipate in activity together. 'Learning is a process of the transformation ofparticipation itself (Rogoff, 1994, p. 209).

    If knowledge is thought of as tools, then it is possible to envisage some of theimplications a situated view of learning might have for teaching and learning inschools. For instance, a set of explicit rules for using tools would be of little help ifthe practices for which the tools are used are absent. Members of a community

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  • 120 P. Richardson

    determine how a particular tool will be used, to achieve what end. Brown et al.(1989, p. 33) argue that:

    Because tools and the way they are used reflect the particular accumulatedinsights of communities, it is not possible to use a tool appropriatelywithout understanding the community of culture in which it is used.

    Just as a chisel is used differently by cabinet makers and builders, so it is withconceptual tools. Conceptual tools reflect 'the cumulative wisdom' of the disci-plinary culture in which they are used and 'represent intricate, socially constructedwebs of belief that determine how participants in the culture see the world anddeploy the tools made available by the community of practitioners. There areconsequences for students in schools who are often asked to use the tools of aparticular disciplinary community without being able to participate fully in theculture. Thus Brown et al. (1989, p. 33) argue that:

    To learn to use the tools as practitioners use them, a student, like anapprentice, must enter that community and its culture ... [In] a significantway, learning is ... a process of enculturation

    This perspective on learning has ramifications for the way in which we conceptu-alise teaching and learning, more particularly, the teaching and learning of reading,writing, speaking and listening. If cultural practices are best learned through anapprenticeship model, i.e. collaborative actions with more knowledgeable or capableothers, then Gordon Wells (1990, p. 402) succinctly describes what an apprenticeshipin literacy practices might entail:

    To learn how to engage with [written] texts in ways appropriate to thepurposes they can serve ... children need to see and hear enactments ofthose inner mental processes that are the essence of literate behavior, sothat they can appropriate them and deploy them themselves. And it isthrough collaborative talk about texts of varying kinds in the context ofmeaningful joint activities, undertaken with the assistance of a more skilledco-participant ..., that learning to be literate can be thought of as anintellectual apprenticeship.

    Unfortunately, students are often introduced to the tools of academic cultures buthave little chance to observe or participate in the way experts use these conceptualtools in authentic practice. Sadly, students are even adept at passing exams at alllevels of schooling and university without being able to successfully use theconceptual tools of a discipline or to engage with the world in authentic practice.Douglas Barnes (1971), having carefully read the early English translations of theRussian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), seems to have arrived at a similarposition. He insightfully observed:

    What children learn at school is not just the manifest subject-matter; theyalso learn latently what is expected, of them as pupils, how they fit in.... Ifpupils learn only how to fit in, and not how to use the leeway which exists,then their education is failing them.

    It is not only that in order to participate fully in adult life pupils willneed to have had experience of a wide range of speech roles. We cannotrigidly separate cognitive from social learning: classroom interaction is one

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  • Literacy, Learning and Teaching 121

    determinant of curriculum. If we constrict pupils' classroom roles weconstrict what they learn. If teachers genuinely want to develop in theirpupils critical habits of mind, or ingenuity in setting up new possibilities,they must put their pupils into situations which demand critical activity, orencourage freedom in generating hypotheses. To put it bluntly, too manychildren spend too much time vaguely listening and then regurgitating:throughout the curriculum they should be required to use language forplaying with stories or ideas, for exploring things and people, and some-times for organising thought and feeling explicitly. And this will requireteachers to use far more inventively the linguistic possibilities of theclassroom.

    Research studies from the new literacy studies and from situated cognition bothgive primacy to the social. They represent learning and knowing as participatoryactivities, not as abstract propositions transmitted from one head to another. Inrecognising the importance of the context of activity, they not only acknowledge thecomplexity of what is learned, they also appreciate the support to learning that istacit, when attention is directed away from the skills being developed. Engagementof novices with experts in authentic and meaningful tasks invokes a collaborativeparticipation model of teaching and learning. The chance for novices to observe andpractice the linguistic and performative behaviours of experts functioning as mem-bers of a culture provide rich opportunities for novices to 'pick up' not only thepractices, but also the jargon, relevant questions and an implicit sense of legitimatebehaviours without the need for didactic instruction. Classroom-based tasks can oftenfail to provide the essential contextual features that make an activity authentic, sinceschool tasks and activities are often just that, they apply only to the artificial contextof the classroom, without being embedded in authentic activity. As Brown et al.(1989, p. 34) observe:

    School activity too often tends to be hybrid, implicitly framed by oneculture, but explicitly attributed to another. Classroom activity very muchtakes place within the culture of schools, although it is attributed to theculture of readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, economists, geogra-phers, and so forth. Many of the activities students undertake are simplynot the activities of practitioners and would not make sense or be endorsedby the cultures to which they are attributed. This hybrid activity, further-more, limits students' access to the important structuring and supportingcues that arise from the context.

    For children who have not already been socialised into mainstream school-basedliteracy practices the only chance they will have to acquire these practices is to besocialised into them in school. Children who have not been exposed to thesediscourse practices may feel they have little need to acquire them in an explicitlydidactic, ruled-governed way. Engagement in the social practices provides thecontext for use of the skills and tacitly teaches about how, when, where and why,within the dimensions of the culture of practice.

    Similarly, work on the brain and on artificial neural networks challenges en-trenched assumptions that cognition and language are essentially rule governed.Linguistics, analytical philosophy and classical models of cognition have all assumedthat rules are somewhere to be located in our minds and that eventually we would

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  • 122 P. Richardson

    be able to uncover them using a variety of techniques developed over the years bythese disciplines (see also Bereiter, 1991; Churchland, 1995). Connectionist modelsare beginning to indicate, for instance, why 'no one has yet succeeded in working outa complete and valid set of grammatical rules for any language' (Bereiter, 1991,p. 10; Gee, 1992, provides a useful, readable introduction to connectionist theory).Classical models of logic, language and cognition have all functioned as if publicstandards of rationally, the rules of thought, are somehow mirrored in our individualcognition. Connectionist models suggest otherwise. Evers (1997), a philosopher withan interest in exploring the educational implications of research modelling neuralnetworks, makes the point that we have been persuaded to search for rules when theymay not exist:

    Once we move beyond linguistic evidence to the neurophysiology oflanguage processing, however, neural network representations of languageraise the possibility that tacit knowledge of language is not rule based atall. For neural nets are not rule based. If causal guiding representation isextensionally equivalent to rule based fitting, then language simply appearsas (fit were rule based, (p. 12)

    Churchland (1995) also succinctly lays out the problem for our consideration whenhe focuses on human language as the 'most spectacular of social skills'. An accountof language from the perspective of artificial neural network theory is diametricallyopposed to the account offered by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky and his colleagueshave for decades searched for the generative grammatical rules which they claim arebiologically innate and universal to all normal human beings. Churchland argues thatChomsky's approach to understanding language is founded on the assumption thatthe brain 'applies or follows ... rules in order to comprehend and produce actualsentences'. Such an assumption is in stark contrast to the model now suggested bythe results of neural network research, which has shown that the neural networkarchitecture does not typically apply rules in order to achieve a specific input-outputfunction. Here is Churchland's positioning of the problem; it is clear from whichquarter he believes the answer will come:

    The point at issue between the generative grammarians and the neuralnetworkers is simply this: in which of these two ways is languagecompetence realized in humans? (p. 135)

    What are the implications of this research for literacy education? Bereiter (1991),a psychologist, Evers (1990, 1994, 1997), a philosopher, and Gee (1992), a sociolin-guist and educationist, are just a few of the people who have begun to tease out theimplications of connectionist models for education. It is yet too early to claim thatwork in artificial neural networks will necessarily immediately radically alter whathappens in schools. What it does do is invite us to revisit questions and debates thathave been around since Rousseau. For instance, code-based, 'phonics-first' ap-proaches to literacy have critiqued whole language, 'apprenticeship' accounts ofliteracy teaching, calling for teacher intervention and explicit teaching of discourse'rules'. These appeals for explicit teaching are founded on the assumption thatlanguage acquisition is aided by the teaching of rules, particularly in initiatingstudents into the forms of schooled or 'essayist' literacy. Western culture has a longhistory of educational practice founded on the teaching of rules and rule-like

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  • Literacy, Learning and Teaching 123

    statements 'as instruments and objects of instruction'definitions, principles, ex-plicit premises and conclusions (Bereiter, 1991, p. 15.).

    While connectionist models do not allow us to immediately reject rules as'instruments and objects of instruction', they do suggest that rule-based teaching maymake learning more difficult, because students have no way of drawing togetherassociations and experiences which will assist them in making sense of what they arebeing explicitly taught. Connectionist theory would suggest that humans set upassociations (weight values across synaptic connections) from our experiences of theworld and that our networks of connections are constantly changing as a result of ourexperiences in the world and are entirely functional. Thus while rules may be usefulin the pragmatic sense, they often make more sense once students have alreadyacquired the competence that the rules have been designed to proscribe. Gee (1992)argues that social practices imbue different experiences in individuals from whichtheories of the world are generated. From a neural network perspective there arebillions of theories possible which might be formed out of the weight configurationsin our individual mental networks. Rather than simply relying on rules to instructlearners, Gee argues a case for richly textured social experience in conjunction withfocused attention, to nudge the neophyte towards a 'norm', i.e. those weightedconfigurations which are similar enough to constitute a given social practice. For Geethen, theories are not located in the head, rather they are embodied in the socialpractices which helped set the weight values across the synaptic connections in thefirst place 'and that keeps them (more or less) in line' (p. 49). He is surely right incalling for a rich dynamic environment mediated by an experienced 'master' whopossesses judgement and skill in highlighting and sign-posting appropriate connec-tions. In his view

    The only way to ensure that learners have the right experiences and focuson the relevant aspects of them is to apprentice them to the social practicesof sociocultural groups (Gee, 1990) in such a way as to ensure that theyhave certain experiences and have their attention focused in the right waysthrough interaction with 'masters' acting out their mastery. Thus, a socialcommunity (large or small) provides experiences and focuses the attentionthrough carrying out its social practices and apprenticing newcomers to it.(p. 48)

    A connectionist model of learning and cognition suggests that promoters of rule-based views of instruction and those who run the counter argument in favour ofholistic experienced-based learning may both need to rethink the evidence for theiradvocacy, if only in the interests of students.

    Controversies over literacy pedagogy

    On several continents researchers into the teaching of reading and writing (literacy)have been riven by persistent disputes, hostile wars and stand-offs (see for instanceFang, 1995; Kamil, 1995; Mosenfhal, 1995; Saks, 1995, for an extended discussionof these debates). Differences in research methodology, views of learning and whatcounts as literacy have all created unresolved dilemmas for those seeking pedagog-ical advice. What counts as literacy, a lingering argument, is by no means easilysettled. In her analysis of the questions involved in literacy assessment for UN-

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    ESCO's Section of Statistics on Education, Soares (1992) succinctly summed up thedifficulties:

    Any assessment procedure or statistical measurement requires precisedefinition of the phenomenon being assessed and measured, to be used asa yardstick. Undoubtedly, most difficulties in and controversies aboutliteracy assessment and statistical measurement stem from a failure todefine literacy properly and establish its boundaries clearly. This failure isdue to the fact that literacy covers an extremely wide spectrum ofknowledge, abilities, skills, values, social uses, and functions; literacybehavior, therefore, is characterized by subtleties and complexities difficultto account for in one single definition, (p. 4)

    Methodological differences between researchers have also spread contagiously intothe teaching profession and into the broader society as contrasting divisions in theway reading and writing are taught in schools. Over decades these methodologicaland ideological differences have been no more starkly played out than in the turbiddisputes over the teaching of reading, particularly beginning reading.

    A cursory glance back into history is sufficient to expose the enduring nature ofthe debate over the teaching of beginning reading. In one sense, the history of theteaching of reading and the history of reading is as fascinating and complex as theindividuals who have been engaged in it. According to Alberto Manguel (1996,p. 72), the great Italian humanist scholar Leon Battista Alberti, writing between 1435and 1444, advised that young children in the care of nurses and/or their mothersshould be taught the alphabet at the earliest possible age. At this time children weretaught to read phonetically by repeating the letters inscribed on a hornbook oralphabet sheet, with each letter being identified by the nurse or mother. The methodhas a long history. Manguel, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1948, educated thereand in London, comments in passing that he too was taught initial reading in thismanner by his nurse 'reading out ... the bold-type letters from an old Englishpicturebook', being made to repeat the 'sounds again and again'. The apparenttedium of these early reading experiences did not dissuade Manguel from becomingan avid reader. Indeed, his book is a testimony to his own reading life, scholarshipand delight in reading, reading to others and being read to.

    Just over 100 years ago, W. Swinton, in the introduction to the Swinton Primerand First Reader (1883) appealed to teachers to avoid method fetishes in teachingbeginning reading, preferring that they familiarise themselves with different ap-proaches and understand when, how and for what purpose they are to be deployed:

    The more successful you are in teaching primary reading, the less will yoube [sic] disposed to make a fetich [sic] of any so-called 'method'. Childrenhave been taught to read by every method and by no methodand it wouldpuzzle the wisest to tell exactly how a child does learn to read ouranomalous mother tongue, (p. 4)

    The publication of Rudolph Flesch's polemically provocative book Why JohnnyCan't Read (1955) re-ignited a debate that had smoldered since the turn of thecentury. Adams (1990), in an extensive review of the literature, observes that forFlesch the issue was not complicated: it was a matter of phonics versus look-and-saypedagogy. Yet, as she goes on to argue:

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    there is much more to skillful word recognition than the memorization ofthe alphabet and its letter-to-sound correspondences. Similarly, the issuessurrounding the proper development of comprehension are complex andextend vastly beyond the ways in which one might come to identify wholewords, (p. 25)

    Despite Flesch's anxiety, until the late 1960s the teaching of reading across theEnglish speaking world was dominated by what has become known as a 'bottom up'model, where reading instruction consisted of the gradual bringing together ofgraphemes to form words, words to form sentences, sentences to form paragraphsand paragraphs to form larger texts. Central to the whole enterprise was the initial'cracking of the code' by which graphemes represented the sounds of the language.

    Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Goodman (1967) and Smith (1978) developedwhat inevitably became known as the 'top-down' model of reading instruction. Theirview was that readers bring to texts linguistic knowledge, text structure knowledgeand knowledge of the world, which they deploy in the formation of expectations ofwhat texts will say. A major function of the reading teacher then was to help studentsacquire the appropriate knowledge (or schemata) and to develop strategies to bringthat knowledge to bear on the text.

    The 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' advocates were at logger-heads throughout the1970s and 1980s until a fairly general consensus emerged that learning to read (andwrite) is a developmentally complex, often unpredictable process involving a rangeof accomplishments which, as they are acquired, continue to develop exponentially.As a complex, interactive process reading relies upon both low-level and high-levelschemata (Stanovich, 1980; Oakhill & Garnham, 1988; Funnell & Stuart, 1995,provide accounts of the debate). Wray (1997) shows how, in a new political climate,these issues have re-emerged in England in the 1990s, sparked off by a debate overreading standards. Similar debates could be charted in Australia, Canada, SouthAfrica, Hong Kong and elsewhere. By way of illustration I will return later in thisarticle to examine in more detail aspects of the educational standards debate inAustralia.

    Just as Flesch in the mid-1950s succeeded in blurring the issues, polarising thedebate and diverting the research agenda, there is again a danger of being caught ina polarised debate in which, as Adams argues, on the one hand, the term wholelanguage is perceived as a 'thinly veiled push for look-say approaches to wordrecognition ... [and] is translated to mean an uninformed and irresponsible effort tofinesse necessary instruction with "touchy-feely" classroom gratificationandworse' and, on the other, where the term phonics is immediately translated 'into anunenlightened commitment to unending drill and practice at the expense of themotivation and higher-order dimensions of text that make reading worthwhile'(Adams, 1990, p. 26). Such a debate is fruitless and a diversion from ensuring thatchildren learn to decode, in the first place, and, secondly, that they find the processenjoyable enough to want to continue with reading to become competent, committed,perhaps even obsessive readers.

    From a review of a range of literature on reading research over the last 25years Wray (1997, p. 169) arrives at conclusions which parallel propositions con-cerning learning and teaching put forward by researchers involved in situatedcognition and connectionist research. In his view there are suitable practical guide-lines for teaching.

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    (1) Reading is a complex process. This means that 'simple' approaches to teachingchildren to read will probably have little chance of success. The approach of 'putchildren in a room full of wonderful books and they will learn to read' is just assimplistic as that of 'teach children to recognize and pronounce letters and theywill thereby learn to read'; neither are likely to be successful.

    (2) Teaching reading needs to build upon what children do well (look for meaning,attend first and foremost to functional aspects of print, learn through stories)before introducing aspects which they find more difficult (apply a range of cuessimultaneously, respond to text without relying upon its physical context to givethem its meaning).

    (3) Children need to be taught the technicalities of reading, but these must be setinto a context of meaning. Adams (1990, p. 422) signals what this means:'Neither understanding nor learning can proceed hierarchically from the bottomup. Phonological awareness, letter recognition facility, familiarity with spellingpatterns, spelling-sound relationships, and individual words must be developedin concert with real reading and real writing and with deliberate reflection on theforms, functions, and meanings of texts'.

    If the teaching of reading changed during the 1970s and 1980s, so too did theteaching of writing. In a previous article for this journal I outlined the trajectory ofdevelopment of process/whole language pedagogy and the emergence of genre-basedpedagogy in Australia (Richardson, 1991). In that article I predicted that the 1990swould be the decade in which genre-based pedagogy would succeed in dislodgingexpressivist process pedagogy in primary and secondary schooling. Indeed, theimpact of the Sydney genre-school has been profound. English literacy curriculumdocuments in all States and Territories unilaterally treat genres as unproblematical.English syllabus materials in the state of Queensland are founded on genre theoryand genre-based pedagogy, with the genres identified by Martin et al. beingprescribed for children to be taught. Curriculum and syllabus writers in the state ofNew South Wales were for a time influenced by the pedagogy, co-opting it into theState Government's wider political agenda. However, while the pedagogy remainsinfluential with teachers, it is again contentious following the election of a newgovernment in that state.

    Less contentious has been First Steps, from the Department of Education inWestern Australia (1994) and published in conjunction with Longman Australia,which has surreptitiously become a de facto literacy curriculum for hard-pressedprimary school teachers across the country. This literacy programme is an 'elaboratetechnology' which has been 'neutralised' (Lee, 1996, p. 13) as it has penetrateddeeply into the consciousness of teachers and their classroom practices in all Statesand Territories. Ironically, many classroom teachers no longer know of the originalresearch or the researchers who first proposed the theory of genre and developedgenre pedagogy. First Steps has become a transparent instrument of instruction, withthe text types, around which the curriculum is formed, being taken as givens withoutregard to context or need. Further, an unexpected outcome has been that classroomliteracy experiences for the various grade levels across the primary school years havetaken on a conformity and uniformity that might only have been expected to resultfrom a nationally agreed, prescriptive curriculum.

    While Australian genre theory and genre-based pedagogy have made enormousinroads into literacy curriculum and teaching at all levels, genre researchers on other

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    continents continue to grapple with fundamental issues. For instance, 'Can genres betaught? How do speakers and writers manage to produce outstanding texts ratherthan ones that are "generically correct" and merely adequate? How do speakers andwriters negotiate dissonances between their intentions and their developing texts inthe absence of an ideal or a correct textual model? How are texts and contexts relatedto one another? How do genres and communities constitute and reconstitute oneanother?' (Kamberelis, 1995, p. 165). More importantly, these researchers are sensi-tive to the way that becoming a competent 'speaker' or 'writer', acquiring newgenres, entails a process of identity reconstruction. New literacy studies have madeus aware of the ideologically constructive and constitutive processes of literacylearning. Similarly, North American genre studies highlight the fact that genrelearning and disciplinary socialisation foreground issues of power and authority inrelation to the formation of new subject positions, norms, values and beliefs (seeFreedman & Medway, 1994). On the other hand, Australian genre-based pedagogyhas been driven by what Lee (1996, p. 3) calls 'a largely unreflexive promotion ofa neo-liberal agenda of access and participation', to the point where proponents havebeen untroubled by the technical reductionist model of instruction into whichteachers and students have been socialised through teacher workshops, curriculumand syllabus documents and instructional materials.

    Part of the attraction for many teachers and educators of Australian genre-basedpedagogy has surely been the assurance that the model of instruction would empowerstudents with the linguistic resources for educational success and the promise ofsocial mobility. In attempting to teach marginalised target populations the 'powerful'school genres of report and exposition Australian genre researchers garnered supportfrom teachers who daily worked with students with few opportunities for a brightfuture. Critiques of process pedagogy by Martin (1985), Painter (1986), Gray (1987),Christie (1988) and Gilbert (1990) were important in broadening the range of writingchildren were being asked to undertake in classrooms in Australia and it must beacknowledged that teachers of primary school children no longer place the emphasison narrative writing they were encouraged to do a decade ago. Teachers now lookmore carefully at the writing, reading and assessment tasks they are asking theirstudents to undertake. However, the systematic typology of text types derived fromAustralian genre theory has built within it a linearity which appears to take care ofsequence and continuity in the development of literacy experiences. In framingEnglish literacy curriculum documents matters of sequence and continuity of literacyexperiences remain nagging difficulties. Genre-based pedagogy, with its emphasis ongenres as objects, in conjunction with competency frameworks and assessmentprogrammes, has been susceptible to co-option into instrumentalist governmentpolicies which promote simplistic notions of literacy and literacy acquisition.

    Political Dimensions of Literacy and Literacy Pedagogy

    Language learning, literacy and literacy teaching have become intertwined withpolitics, public debate and educational policy. Whether we like it or not, there arenow multiple public issues surrounding literacy and literacy education. Publicdebates over literacy standards are commonplace in many countries. A cursoryglance at major newspapers in the UK, South Africa, the US, Australia, and Asiaindicate the degree to which literacy and literacy education are positioned as centralconcerns in public policy. Indeed, literacy and numeracy have increasingly become

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    synonymous with education and schooling and have risen to very near the top of thepolitical agenda, together with health and welfare. In the multi-ethnic Australiansociety literacy pedagogy and schooling are identified as the equalising instrumentsin an otherwise complex, heterogeneous and unequal society.

    Moreover, it is argued that in such a society democracy and representativegovernment require high levels of literacy and numeracy if citizens are to participatefully in an increasingly complex information-based society and culture. Like othergovernments across the globe, Federal and State governments in Australia havesuccessfully sought to formulate policies which directly impact on the nature andsubstance of literacy teaching and learning in schools and classrooms.

    By the early 1990s literacy, literacy curriculum and literacy pedagogy were beingwidely discussed by thoughtful, caring people who were nonetheless frightened byclaims of a literacy crisis and declining standards in publicly funded schools.Persistent claims of a literacy crisis misled parents and care-givers, underminedcommunity confidence in the institution of the school and induced insecurities ineven the most experienced teachers. Many well-informed, thoughtful people becameanxious about their children's future and disconcerted about the future of the nation.Literacy standards have been continually questioned and have become a preoccu-pation of politicians of various persuasions. The news media often uncriticallypromulgated the claims that the community was in the grip of a crisis.

    How did it happen that literacy pedagogy and curriculum became such contestedand debated issues in our communities? Why was it that normally well-adjusted,thoughtful people were convinced that the schools to which they were sending theirchildren were not teaching literacy properly?

    As we have seen, while researchers from a number of fields have enriched ourunderstanding of literacy, literacy acquisition, learning and teaching, the 'auton-omous' model of literacy remains dominant in everyday conversation, in the newsmedia and among politicians. Despite the research findings, it would appear that thepolitical agendas of the national and state governments are now having a pervasiveand enduring influence on what counts as literacy and the nature of literacy pedagogyin publicly funded schools. Neo-conservative governments across the English speak-ing and non-English speaking world have formulated public policy and restructuredgovernment programmes founded upon the tenets of economic rationalism, a politi-cal agenda which positions education, and particularly literacy education, as centralin programs of employment and training, national development and internationaleconomic competitiveness. Horn (1993) explains that economic rationalisteconomists take a simple approach to education:

    They regard it as an investment, whose value is measured in terms ofmoney outlay with subsequent earnings as the private rate of return. Aseducation does not only give pecuniary benefits to the individual but alsohas national development advantages, they add those as social returns toeducation, (p. 162)

    According to Torres (1996) neo-conservative governments pursue very similarprograms which require shifting out of public ownership of essential industries andservices and the progressive dismantling of the welfare state. The bases of the model,writes Torres, are:

    the forceful privatization of state enterprises and large sections of public

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    property, loosening of regulations of the market and private enterprise,control of inflation rather than support for full employment, and thegrowing importance of the executive branch with the corresponding de-cline in the role of Congress or Parliament, (p. 281)

    Neo-conservatism looks upon the 'state' and the 'market' as diametrically opposedsystems. Unlike the sluggish bureaucratic meanderings of the 'state', it is argued, the'market' is capable of responding quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively to compet-itive pressures from technological change, innovation and commercial imperativesfrom new national and international markets. Indeed, it is the role of the 'state' toprovide an agreeable environment in which the 'market' can thrive.

    In terms of education, the neo-conservative agenda seeks to link employment andunemployment directly to the outcomes of schooling. Whether in Thatcher's Britain,Reagan's USA, Canada, Costa Rica, Brazil or Australia, it was argued that manystudents emerging from the public schooling system no longer met the demands ofthe 'market' and were unsuitable to employer needs. In order to improve inter-national competitiveness and to solve what is represented as a crisis in literacy andeducation a 'back to basics' literacy program was instituted founded upon a canonof classic texts. Canonical texts provide 'in common' literacy and cultural experi-ences as an antidote to the excesses of multiculturalism and pluralism. Curriculumreforms, comparative national testing and benchmarking of literacy, numeracy andscience achievement must be put in place. Invariably teachers are identified as beingessentially responsible for the poor employment prospects of students. In theinterests of flexibility, efficiency and cost cutting, administration at all levels of thebureaucracy is restructured, teachers' workloads, working conditions and functionsare immeasurably altered by the institution of new testing regimes and complianceis enforced through alterations to employment contracts and industrial awards.Carnoy & Torres (1994) provide an analysis of changes wrought on curriculum,textbooks and teaching following the election of a neo-conservative government inCosta Rica in the mid-1980s. Similarly, Spaull (1997) traces the impact on Stateschool teachers in Victoria, Australia, stemming from changes to industrial relationsand labour laws.

    In a book-length study Berliner & Biddle (1995) have examined the processesby which confidence was undermined in the North American public schoolingsystem, affirming that a crisis in public confidence had its origins in ideology anda political strategy founded on a public debating tactic which, inn essence,produced caricatures of educational tenets and practices. These 'straw man'political constructions were set up so that they could be thoroughly destroyed.While the authors' explication of the myths, frauds and attacks on the publicsystem over two decades does not simplistically propose a conspiracy theory, theiranalysis does highlight the degree to which conservative political forces in theUSA debased the image of public education by disengaging the 'state' in favour ofmarket forces, in an effort to fulfill a political agenda intent on diverting publicmonies from public institutions.

    Similarly, Wray (1997, p. 163) has charted the way the British press unquestion-ingly seized upon the issue of reading standards when the debate was ignited byTurner's claim that he had 'secret' evidence of a decline of reading standards inBritish schools. Turner (1990) asserted that the decline in standards was attributableto a move away from traditional reading schemes and 'phonics' and the adoption of

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    whole language, 'the real book' method, for teaching reading. According to Wray,Turner's hypothesis can be separated into two parts:

    (1) there had been a fundamental change in methods of teaching reading in Britishschools over the last 5-7 years;

    (2) this change in teaching methods had led to a decline in teaching standards.

    In Australia this same two part hypothesis has been run in various guises by thelikes of Susan Moore (1996). Not surprisingly, Moore has had links with the Instituteof Public Affairs, a conservative think-tank which over the last decade or so hasregularly attacked the public schooling system, persistently questioned literacystandards, teaching methods and the quality of teacher training, as well as calling forthe mass testing of literacy and numeracy throughout primary and secondaryschoolingan unoriginal agenda owing a considerable debt to Margaret Thatcher inBritain. In her article 'Literacy: the need for radical educational change' Mooredeploys the 'straw man' strategy and, importantly, illustrates how easy it is to createconcern and fear, even among the well-informed. Moore's rhetorical technique isfounded on polaritieson the one hand, there is the Spalding Method for teachingliteracy and literacy teachers and, on the other, there is the Whole Language method.There is nothing else. Children's literacy problems she asserts have been created byWhole Language's 'stranglehold on instructional programs' (p. 21) in schools andteacher training institutions. The Spalding method is characterised as 'systematic'and 'anchored in scientific research' (p. 20), while other approaches to literacy 'makeunsupported claims' (p. 19).

    According to Moore, literacy instruction in Australia has been 'controlled' for thelast 30 years by 'ideologues' (p. 21) who have ignored the cognitive research andhave exercised control by infiltrating professional teaching organisations like theInternational Reading Association, commercial publishers and teacher training insti-tutions. These same 'ideologues' have engaged in 'rigid' resistance to intellectually,long-range goals, camouflaged by unrelenting, programmatic opposition to"traditional" approaches to literacy', such that 'forms of instruction ... that dependfor successful completion on step-by-step, checked practice are anathema to them'(p. 21). Whole Language 'ideologues' have also been successful in preventingnational testing of literacy, which Moore argues would 'make sure' that early on ina child's education reading and writing strategies 'are in place' (p. 22).

    The neo-conservative agenda for education has been progressively put in place ina number of States and Territories, with considerable support from the FederalGovernment. As we have seen, what counts as literacy, literacy standards and whichliteracy pedagogy will be successful in teaching children to read and write have beenthe subject of considerable debate, particularly during Dr David Kemp's tenure as theFederal Minister for Schools, Vocational Education and Training. In the 1996 BertKelly Lecture Kemp perfectly articulated some of the themes and motifs of theneo-conservative agenda in which the 'state' must ensure that literacy educationservices the 'market':

    There are links between the low levels of literacy, behavioural problems inthe classroom, the likelihood that students will finish formal educationbefore Year 12 and the likelihood of being unemployed after leavingschool. Literacy problems are a significant contributing factor in youthunemployment.

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    Elsewhere in his speeches, press releases and reports Kemp kept up a mantra whichwas picked by newspapers and television programs. Schools were made to equalliteracy problems and unemployment. The Minister remained silent about the jobsthat are no longer available as a result of: structural economic change; structuralunemployment; massive privatisation of public enterprises, such as electricity, water,telephone and gas; removal of tariffs; legislative removal of industrial awards;decline of local manufacturing industry; dumping of cheap imports; the dominanceof the local market by multinational companies with budgets and power moresignificant than small countries; the movement off-shore of capital, production andlabour.

    While the Freierian critical literacy agenda, with its emphasis on equity and socialjustice, remains potent in Australia (Morgan, 1997), recent agreements between theStates, Territories and the Commonwealth, engineered by Dr Kemp as the FederalMinister, indicate that students, teachers and schools will have to cope with theinstitutionalisation of a view of literacy embodied by psychometric principles andbenchmarks. The Ministers have agreed: (i) that every child leaving primary schoolshould be numerate and be able to read, write and spell at an appropriate level; (ii)that every child commencing school from 1998 will achieve a minimum standardwithin 4 years. An outcome of these agreed goals will be the setting of agreedbenchmarks against which all children's achievement in Years 3, 5 and 9 can bemeasured. These results will be made available to parents and the wider community(Masters & Forster, 1997).

    Despite the maneuverings of politicians and 'the market', there is no doubt thatteachers will remain committed to creating critical, thoughtful readers and writersand that through their daily practice they will manage to appropriately support anddevelop individual children. Equally, many teachers will remain committed toensuring that poor, under-privileged and marginalised students have access toeducation. It remains to be seen whether the new 'national plan', agreed to by theMinisters, results in support for literacy teachers in helping children or merely addsyet more tension to the inelastic time frame of the school year. Policy makersmostly treat teacher time as an elastic resource. Already there are signs thatteachers are over-stretched and that time in the classroom is being displaced by'other requirements'. Teachers are being dispossessed of their hard-won expertiseand experience and are being expected to undertake duties for which they havelittle or no training.

    While it is easy to be wise in hindsight, it would seem that the debates which haveraged in literacy education over the last couple of decades resulting in acrimoniousdivisions, often publicised in the national press, have in part served to indicate to thewider community that literacy educators do not agree on much at all concerningliteracy education. In terms of the sociology of knowledge, debates and divisions arethe life-blood of a field or discipline. Unlike many other fields and disciplines,literacy education is embroiled in 'the state' and 'the market' and cannot avoidengagement. As the neo-conservative political agenda is progressed, the fall-out fromthe theoretical and pedagogical debates of the last two decades is becoming moredefined.

    Correspondence: Paul Richardson, Monash University, Gippsland, SwitchbackRoad, Churchill, Victoria 3842, Australia.

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