Introduction to literacy in English

This section is focused on literacy in English. The information and resources in this section address the reading and viewing, writing, and speaking and listening modes across the English curriculum.

Literacy and English

Being literate means having the skills to be able to read, write and speak to understand and create meaning. While becoming literate is a central aim of English in secondary schools, the subject English and literacy are not the same.

There are long standing debates about the differences between English as a subject and literacy (Green, 2018). In simple terms, and broadly understood, the subject English:

  • is interested in meaning making through a study of language and texts (Gannon et al., 2009)
  • is intended to support students’ personal growth (Reid, 2016; McLean Davies et al., 2018)
  • expands students’ understanding of cultures (Atherton, 2005)
  • empowers students to meaningfully contribute to societies (MackenIn-Horarick, 2014).

Through English and the study and production of texts, students learn to read and write about themselves, their communities and the world (Green & Cormack, 2008). Accordingly, over time, the texts we have included in the subject English have expanded from literary texts to include multimodal, media and everyday texts (Beavis, 2013).

Literacy on the other hand, refers to the development of literate practices that allow students to understand how meaning is made through language and texts, in all subject areas.

Literacy is the means through which the English classroom operates. For students to ‘do’ English, they must develop literate practices integral to learning English as a subject in the 21st century.

Literacy over time

Literacy, like the subject English, has also changed over time. Where literacy in English was once considered the ability to read and write print texts, this understanding has expanded to include ‘multi-literacies’, which encompasses print, digital, visual, audio, gestural and spatial forms of communication, in both English and additional languages (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009; New London Group, 1996).

The literate practices needed to make meaning in 21st century English classrooms include an understanding of the meaning making (or semiotic systems) of multi-modal, visual and embodied texts (Beavis, 2013; Bull & Anstey, 2010; Cloonan, 2008; Cope & Kalantzis, 2015; Unsworth 2008).

In addition, students’ development of literate practices includes an emphasis on critical literacy, which can be understood as a practice that assists students to understand the social nature of language and how texts position readers in relation to represented ideologies (Misson & Morgan, 2005).

The role of language in English

Our understanding of the role and knowledge of language in developing literate practices continues to change overtime.

The explicit teaching of English grammar was part of school English until the 1960s, but by the 1970s, knowledge of grammar became less of a focus (Snyder, 2008). However recent research shows that explicit teaching of knowledge about language (Love et al., 2015) enhances students’ understanding and production of the texts explored in the English classroom. It is therefore important for students to develop a metalanguage—a language for talking about language (Clark, 2019). The development of this metalanguage is vital across all curriculum areas.

Traditionally, the teaching of literacy and knowledge of language was considered the responsibility of English teachers (Medway, 2005). It is now commonly accepted that all curriculum specialists need to have knowledge of literacy and to draw on a range of literacy strategies to support students across the curriculum.

All teachers have a role in the development of student literacy practices, with English teachers playing a key role in supporting the development of a whole school approach to literacy, and the adoption of a metalanguage for talking about texts and language across the curriculum.

Literate demands of English

The demands of English require students to use a range of complex literate practices. One way to think about these practices is through Bill Green’s 3D Model of Literacy (2012). The 3D Model brings together the core understandings of literacy and acknowledges that literacy activities are multifaceted and interrelated, and can be categorised as operational, cultural and critical.

 Bill Green’s 3D Model of Literacy (2012)

Green (2012)

Operational dimension

The operational dimension involves the ‘how to’ knowledge, or the mechanical aspects of literacy, including:

  • deciphering words
  • understanding the different language resources needed for different types of text – such as visual images.

Cultural dimension

The cultural dimension focuses on:

  • making meaning
  • making use of written, spoken and electronic texts in social contexts.

This includes engaging with knowledge about the text and using texts to participate in communities of learning.

Critical dimension

The critical dimension emphasises

  • reflecting on, questioning and interrogating views and beliefs embedded in texts
  • activities that challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about the texts and the worlds from which they come.

These dimensions are interconnected and equally important.

Students are likely to be operating within multiple dimensions at the same time, but it cannot be assumed that all secondary students are able to bring the necessary operational skills to the English classroom. It is important that all students develop these operational skills, so they can access the other literacy dimensions.

Using targeted literacy teaching strategies enables teachers to:

  • support students to develop knowledge and understanding about the texts of English
  • communicate their knowledge and understanding to create texts and explain how they operate.

The diversity of texts in English provides unique challenges for students. Not only must students understand the language contained within these texts, and how that language works, they must also be able to work with increasingly visual and multimodal texts and demonstrate how a range of semiotic resources (colour, sound, movement) contribute to meaning-making.

Understanding texts is always accompanied by responses to texts. Producing written and spoken responses in English prepares students for the communicative demands of life. For this reason, it is essential that literacy strategies are implemented that support students to create a range of genres, including analytical, imaginative, informative and persuasive texts.

Selecting texts in English

Selecting texts for learning in English is a vital part of this subject.

The texts teachers select for study, both for analysis and as models for writing, represent important knowledge and understanding in this subject (Yates et al 2019). The selected texts, as well as classroom pedagogy, will impact on the ways in which teachers can support students to access the different dimensions of Green’s 3D literacy model, and the richness with which this model is experienced.

It is important to remember that English in the 21st century is not the same as it was when introduced in the 19th century, when studying English was closely linked with developing a strong British notion of citizenship. Australians are diverse, and the texts selected for study should reflect the diversity of voices present in English, and the form and modality of texts introduced.

For many years, there has been an under representation of diverse Australian texts in the English curriculum, particularly texts by migrant writers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and women (Bacalja & Bliss, 2019; McLean Davies & Buzacott, 2018). This is one of the reasons that Australian literature is mandated in the Victorian Curriculum.

The texts selected directly impact on the literate practices students develop, and the cultures, sense of nation and world that students will join beyond the school years (McLean Davies et al., 2017). This toolkit uses a range of text types to illustrate key literacy strategies.

Teachers are encouraged to audit the texts they are using and consider how these texts support, develop and extend students’ textual experiences and knowledge. It is important the teachers select texts that align with the literacy strategies and outcomes (drawing on the 3D model) they are intending for their students.

Literacy in the Victorian Curriculum: English

Literate practices are embedded in the aims of the Victorian Curriculum: English. Students learn to:

  • listen to, read, view, speak, write, create and reflect on spoken, written and multimodal texts across a range of contexts
  • appreciate, enjoy and use the English language and understand its potential to communicate for a range of purposes
  • understand how Standard Australian English works in spoken and written form and in combination with non-linguistic forms of communication to create meaning (VCAA, n.d).

While Literacy is one of the Strands of the Victorian Curriculum F–10: English, each of the three strands address various literate practices that students must develop and demonstrate:

  • the Language strand aims to develop students’ knowledge of the English language and how it works
  • the Literature strand aims to engage students in the study of literary texts of personal, cultural, social and aesthetic value
  • the Literacy strand aims to develop students’ ability to interpret and create texts for learning in and out of school, and for participating in the workplace and community (VCAA, n.d).

As students progress from Level F to Level 10, the literate practices and demands become more specific and targeted to English. In other words, the literate practices develop from general literacy in the early levels to disciplinary literacy in the later levels.

The literacy strategies outlined in the toolkit span all three strands. As literacy is the core focus of the toolkit, the literacy strategies have been organised according to the sub-strands within the Literacy strand:

  • texts in context: Interpreting, analysing, evaluating texts
  • creating texts: Interpreting, analysing, evaluating texts
  • interacting with others.

The strategies also incorporate the different language modes (Speaking and Listening, Reading and Viewing, and Writing). The dominant language mode that each literate strategy engages with is indicated.


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