Two Truths and a Lie: We’re All Teachers of Literacy

There are two times a year when a cohort of teachers is likely to be told “we’re all teachers of literacy”: at the start of Term 1, after the release of VCE and HSC results, and after NAPLAN results go public. It’s a line worn smooth with overuse, to the point where it is basically meaningless. It’s often accompanied by a mild aftertaste of disappointment, used when the aforementioned results aren’t up to scratch, or as an unsuccessful panacea to cure lagging literacy, particularly in boys.

“We’re all teachers of literacy” is, like many educational aphorisms, easy to say but incredibly difficult to implement. And yet there is some truth in the statement, and literacy outcomes for students can be improved in every classroom, not just English.

The Lie

“The lie” is inherent in the statement itself. We’re not all teachers of literacy: plain and simple. I studied English and American Literatures at university in the UK. We learned about the advancement of English literature from Beowulf to Mills and Boon, via the Renaissance, the Gothic, and science fiction. We learned about American slave narratives, the Beat Generation, and the impact of popular culture. Not featured: literacy. In my Post Graduate Certificate of Education, I learned methods for teaching English, Media, and Drama. We wrote short stories, made movies, scripted and acted in plays. Though we spent some time on the fundamentals of grammar – this was in the UK, remember – the majority of our time was spent on exploring, analysing, and producing texts. Teaching English is not about teaching literacy: it’s an Arts subject, and the lens through which we view everything from literature to rhetoric is a creative, skills-based one.

I am not a teacher of literacy: I’m an English teacher.

So if I don’t consider myself a teacher of literacy – with my fairly robust understanding of both traditional grammar and the preferred (and more effective) functional grammar which underpins the Australian Curriculum – then what hope does a non-English teacher have?

Sue Ollerhead at Macquarie University wrote a piece recently which articulates this issue very clearly. In response to the NSW NESA report that writing standards have fallen, the draft NSW curriculum piled a significant amount of additional grammar, punctuation and structural instruction into English. Ollerhead (and the NSW English Teachers Association) rightly points out that this places an unnecessary burden on English teachers. Why? Because we’re not “teachers of literacy”.

The First Truth

The truth of the matter is, as always, more complex than the easy-to-say aphorism. We’re not all teachers of literacy. In fact, outside of those who pursue extra studies or specialise in literacy, none of us are. We need to abandon the meaningless statement and replace it with something which better reflects reality: we’re all responsible for teaching the literacies relevant to our own areas, and we need to be taught the skills to do that.

Ok, so it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily as “we’re all teachers of literacy”. It also highlights the bigger picture issue: at some point, someone has to commit to teaching the teachers. New graduates coming through education degrees now are more likely to encounter literacy instruction. I have produced content for The University of Melbourne’s M Teach which explores literacy across many subject areas, from HPE to Maths, Science to Humanities. But much of the workforce didn’t come through university in the last five to ten years. And increasingly, due to staff shortages, people are being pulled into classrooms from non-traditional pathways, including preservice teachers on ‘permission to teach’, and former teachers who have been working in administrative, government, or leadership roles.

Disciplinary Literacy – the study of the reading, writing, and communication requirements across subject areas – is incredibly important. But that doesn’t mean we can skip straight over “the lie” and just expect teachers to focus on the literacies inherent in their areas of expertise. Someone has to step in to support teachers who are already busy enough working through the usual demands of the job.

The Second Truth

The second truth is even broader. Very few in education understand the full extent of the meaning of the word “literacy”. The narrow definition of literacy as “reading and writing” glosses over the complexities of other, often interconnected “literacies”: critical, media, digital, emotional and more. Without going too far down the Derrida rabbit-hole of “everything is a text”, the second truth is that we’re only all teachers of literacy because everything is literacy.

As an example, imagine following a student for just two periods. In period one, the student sits down in a science lab. The teacher plays a YouTube clip about the world in 2050 which includes video, text, and audio – two forms of reading and a requirement to listen to and comprehend the content. The teacher asks the seemingly simple question “what do you think?”, requiring both critical literacy, and the media literacy skills of analysing the source and determining bias. It’s a digital text, so let’s throw in some digital literacies such as an understanding of how digital texts are constructed and why they are so engaging. We’re 15 minutes into the lesson. The remainder of the time is dedicated to working through a lab report from a previous class experiment. Drawing on the specific disciplinary literacies of Science, the student needs to understand the structure, style, use of passive voice, and often complex vocabulary of a report. They need to do this whilst drawing on the typical literacies of reading and writing. The bell goes, and the student heads off to period two: English. Suddenly the student is confronted with another set of expectations, and another raft of “literacies”. They must shift to analysing persuasive texts, again drawing on media and critical literacies, but now with a much greater burden of reading print text and analysing visuals. Towards the end of the lesson, they begin working on their spoken presentations, always conscious of the impact of tone, pace, diction and oracy.

This is by no means an extreme example. I have followed students from class to class, observing over a day – six periods for us – the different literacy burdens faced along the way. The second truth inherent in the statement “we’re all teachers of literacy” is that we must be conscious of the fact that almost everything we do has some teachable literacy component, and that for students this can be an overwhelming amount of information.

So are we “all teachers of literacy”?

I’ve sat on the fence, stepped off the fence on both sides, and hopped back onto it again. Yes: we are all responsible for teaching the various literacies of our subject areas, and the broader literacies such as critical, digital, and media. No: we are not always equipped with the skills to do so. Ultimately, just saying something does not make it true: we need to do more to provide teachers with the knowledge and skills to address these complex literacies.

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