What Are Teachers Being Taught?


When it comes to the debate about how best to teach English to kiddies, a false dichotomy of teaching philosophies stands in the way of constructive and rational debate: explicit teaching of language structure (including the use of phonics) versus the learn-by-osmosis "whole language" method.

The ideological battle based on this over-simplified view has waged for years between — very broadly — conservatives and progressives. Two weeks ago conservatives declared victory (with conditions) when the National Curriculum Board (NCB) — the body charged with writing a single curriculum in key disciplines for all of Australia — released its English Initial Advice Paper, a major theme of which was an increased focus on the mechanics of language, such as grammar and punctuation.

Newspaper headlines screamed that grammar was making a "comeback" to the classroom, implying that it isn’t in classrooms at the moment, and coming as a complete surprise to teachers who currently write and deliver grammar lessons based on their states’ curriculum documents.

But clearly something isn’t working. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that today’s students have an extremely poor understanding of English language structure, and this is backed up by the shocking news that Monash University has decided to teach remedial English to its first year undergraduates, only about 1 per cent of whom — according to a lecturer in the School of English — can correctly identify an adjective.

Opposition education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, applauded the "back to basics" focus in the Paper, but expressed trepidation about the NCB’s apparent commitment to retaining "critical literacy", described by the Board as "analysis of texts in terms of their potential philosophical, political or ideological assumptions and content". Critical literacy is seen by its detractors as nothing more than a tool for pernicious leftist indoctrination, but its supporters see value in helping students to understand the power of language and how to protect themselves from being adversely manipulated by it.

The NCB’s embrace of "back to basics" English education must come as a bit of a shock to those conservative commentators who last month predicted the end of the world, when the NCB appointed a leading literacy researcher and supporter of critical literacy, Peter Freebody, as an advisor on the English curriculum. The likes of Andrew Bolt saw the selection of "Peabody" as proof that communist educators would ensure that brainwashing of students continued, at the expense of the teaching of basic skills.

But as is often the case with all black/white arguments, the answer is somewhere in the grey. One cannot use language well unless one understands how it works, but there’s no point understanding language unless one plans to use it. The fact that the Board’s stance on the national English curriculum seeks to embrace all "sides" of the debate is promising.

The IAP flags three intertwined elements of English education that are of equal importance: language knowledge, language usage, and literature appreciation. The Paper emphasises the importance of explicitly teaching grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and sound-letter correspondence (phonics), but doesn’t abandon the best practice of the past couple of decades. Similarly, a renewed focus on classical text analysis (that is, To Kill A Mockingbird and not The Simpsons) is planned, while acknowledging the importance of pop-culture and the multimodal texts of the 21st century.

One trap that the national curriculum must avoid is the vagueness of many current state curricula. Most of them are extremely broad, leaving lots of room for interpretation by schools and teachers. While this flexibility is necessary — with each school and classroom containing a unique cohort of students with unique abilities and learning needs — it can also be a curse, with the vacuum created by the absence of specific detail often filled by piecemeal and ad-hoc planning and teaching.

For example, the Victorian English curriculum contains only a handful of sentences about written language structure in the section devoted to grades five and six. This is a typical excerpt: "[Students] identify and use different parts of speech, including nouns, pronouns, adverbs, comparative adverbs and adjectives, and use appropriate prepositions and conjunctions." As a teaching guide the sentence raises more questions than it answers. There’s some extra detail in associated documents, but not very much.

But overall, barring extreme vagueness in the final draft or last-minute sabotage by latte-sipping teachers, the proposed national English curriculum looks promising. So that’s the problem solved, right? Not really.

It doesn’t matter how good the curriculum is if teachers lack the training and understanding to implement it well. Conversely, the best teachers in the world cannot deliver a poorly written curriculum in a consistent fashion. This teacher completed his training only a few years ago and despite studying the teaching of English for four years, and having a good grasp of the concepts himself, felt extremely under-prepared to teach grammar, spelling and punctuation when he completed the course, while being capable of teaching a student to deconstruct a text backwards, forwards and inside-out. For some reason the balance is all wrong. No wonder new teachers who have poor basic English skills — and who are not explicitly required to teach them — tend to overlook the whole matter when writing work plans.

Today’s new generation of teachers are creative, enthusiastic and dedicated to their work, but there is no doubt that their English language skills as a whole aren’t quite up to scratch. Teenagers walk out of high school, many with substandard language abilities, and straight into teaching degrees. Four years later they’re standing in front of a class of kids and the cycle starts all over again. We can write huffy newspaper columns about the evil leftist indoctrinators, and demand greater accountability, performance pay and sackings for bad educators, or we can do something about the system’s failure to adequately prepare young people who are willing to do a job that not many people want to do, for a mediocre reward.

Universities have a responsibility to train teachers who can, to a high standard, deliver the curriculum of their state or (from 2010) country. If teaching students are indeed rocking up to university with extremely low English skills then perhaps it’s education faculties that should be going "back to basics", and not just schools.

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