Introduction to literacy in Geography

This section is focused on literacy in Geography.

The information and resources address the reading and viewing, writing, and speaking and listening modes across the Geography curriculum.

Geographical literacy and literacy in Geography

As a discipline, Geography has many different aspects and draws on a wide range of concepts, subject areas and skills. Because of this, students require a range of literacy skills to develop their understanding of Geography (Balderstone, 2006).

Literacy in geography involves students developing their reading and viewing, writing and creating, and speaking and listening skills. They use this to explore, interpret and evaluate geographical phenomena and issues, and communicate their ideas geographically. It also involves students working with a variety of print, oral, visual and digital texts to gather, synthesise and analyse information, and present and justify ideas, conclusions and opinions across a broad range of geographical contexts.

Geographical literacy refers to the ability to build and apply geographical knowledge, understanding and skills to explore, discuss, analyse and communicate geographical information, concepts and ideas in a variety of ways.

Literate demands in Geography education

To understand and communicate geographical ideas effectively, students need to acquire:

  • geographical language
  • visual literacy skills
  • spatial literacy skills.

 Languages have vocabulary (the terms) and grammar (the rules, concepts and procedures for the construction of meaning). The geographical language is a unique way of thinking about the world. Geographical vocabulary comprises subject-specific words and terms, but also everyday language. The grammar of geography is its 'big ideas', which help us organise and attach significance to the vocabulary. Some of these 'big ideas' include space, place, scale, and interdependence (Geographical Association, 2009).

Learning a geographical language is as much about learning the meaning of words used by geographers as it is about learning the geographical lenses through which the world is viewed. For instance, the word 'relief' in everyday language refers to the alleviation of pain or need. However, in geography, 'relief' refers to the height or slope of the land, and often requires students to be able to read and interpret contour lines on a map. Understanding geographical language also means that students understand how language is used and modified for specific purposes, and question attitudes and assumptions embedded in texts.

Maps are a key text used by geographers (Butler, 2014), but other visual modes like photographs, moving images, graphs and cartoons also feature heavily in geographical texts. Geography students also need to develop visual literacy skills as they make meaning of information communicated through various visual modes. Importantly, since space is a key concept in geography, geography students also need to develop spatial literacy skills, which includes the understanding of spatial relationships and awareness of how geographical space is represented, and analysing issues and developing solutions within a spatial framework.

Another way to categorise the literacy elements that are most relevant to geography education is:

  • Receptive mode: Listening and Understanding Texts
    Students use a range of literacy skills to access and interpret a range of texts, including spoken, audio, written, visual and multimodal. These texts are both primary and secondary sources.
  • Productive mode: Interacting, Speaking and Creating Texts
    Students enact a range of literacy skills to compose and produce a range of texts, including spoken, written, graphical, visual and multimodal. These texts employ geographical language and include informative and persuasive genres. In addition, students create maps, diagrams and photographs, and also interact verbally to create formal and informal texts (e.g. presentations and debates). (ACARA, n.d.)

Literacy in the Victorian Curriculum: Geography

Literate practices are embedded in the aims of the Victorian Curriculum: Geography. The curriculum aims to make sure students develop:

  • a sense of wonder, curiosity and respect for places, people, cultures and environments throughout the world
  • deep geographical knowledge of their locality, Australia, the Asia region and the world
  • the ability to think geographically, using geographical concepts
  • the capacity to be competent, critical and creative users of geographical methods and skills (VCAA, n.d.).

The literacy demands of Geography draw on the inquiry skills embedded in the critical and creative thinking capabilities. Students develop their disciplinary knowledge by

  • investigating geographical questions through reading, viewing, writing
  • speaking about and listening to a variety of texts
  • collecting data and constructing their own texts in Geography.

The Geographical Concepts and Skills strand emphasises the subject-specific nature of language and literacy requirements as part of a geographical approach. Within Geography, students draw on literate practices of reading and viewing, writing, and speaking and listening to:

  • collect and record relevant geographical data and information
  • select and represent data and information in different forms, including by constructing appropriate maps
  • analyse maps and other geographical data and information to develop identifications, descriptions, explanations and conclusions that use geographical terminology (VCAA, n.d.).

Students apply these literate practices to develop and communicate their understanding of the content covered in the Geographical Knowledge strand.

References

ACARA. (n.d.). Literacy learning progression and Geography. Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. Retrieved from https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/media/3654/literacy-geography.pdf.

Balderstone, D. (Ed.). (2006). Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield, UK: Geographical Association.

Butler, J. (2014). The literacy of Geography. Interaction, 42(2), 37–43.

Geographical Association. (2009). A different view: A manifesto from the Geographical Association. Retrieved from https://www.geography.org.uk/write/MediaUploads/Support%20and%20guidance/GA_ADVBookletFULL.pdf.

VCAA. (n.d.). Victorian Curriculum Foundation-10: Geography. Retrieved from https://victoriancurriculum.vcaa.vic.edu.au/the-humanities/geography/introduction/rationale-and-aims.