Text, register, text types and semiotic theory
The terms text and text types, drawn from linguistic theory, came into language and literacy education from the 1970s and 1980s on, as did an associated term, register, while one other linguistics term – semiotics – has appeared in educational discussions more recently.
When we use language, either in speech or writing, we create meaningful passages of language or texts. Language is not learnt as isolated words: rather, it is learnt from the earliest months of life as a tool for making meaning and it always involves the creation of texts. Hence, when children take even their first steps in learning to write, they learn to create meaningful passages of language that are texts. Many past and discredited practices for teaching writing tended to focus on teaching the young to write isolated words and phrases while they mastered the writing and spelling systems; this was held to be a necessary step towards learning to write, as well as to read. But later practices, supported by the work of PETAA, have recognised that young children learn to write most effectively when they are engaged in working on the construction of real texts, normally with the assistance of teachers and others who scribe for them, and later by working on texts of their own as they are also taught, and learn, how to shape their letters and master the spelling system.
The term register refers to the different choices we adopt in using language in different contexts of use, depending upon (i) the topic or experience involved, (ii) our relationship with out listeners or readers, and (iii) the role that language plays in creating meaning: does it express all the meaning, so that it is wholly written language, or is it also constructed in image or diagram via hyperlinks to new texts, as in so many multimodal texts? As we make these choices in language, so too we create different text types – sometimes also referred to as genres. Even when very young, children begin to recognise different text types, and they can enjoy playing with them, modelling their writing on them, exploring their meanings and taking pleasure in sharing them. The current Australian Curriculum: English makes frequent reference to texts and text types, for the terms have become part of the professional discourse of teachers of English language, literature and literacy. They were not part of the English curricula of 40 years ago. 6
The term semiotics refers to the study of signing and its meanings, and though the term was not used by teachers in the early 1970s, it is an interesting indication of the times that the term now appears in a PETAA publication by Jon Callow (2013), who discusses semiotic theory to explain how visual texts work or ‘make meaning’. A language is a signing or meaning system, though there are many other ways to sign, like dance, music, gesture and the large range of digital and multimodal text types available today. As children learn to read and write in the modern world, so too they engage with a multiplicity of text types, verbal and visual. 7
Among the themes that emerged in language and literacy education in the 1980s and 1990s was the significance given to language and literacy as social phenomena. Just as language is learned in the early years of life in interaction with others, so the increasing evidence has been that throughout life, and certainly in schooling, we learn to use language and literacy in social processes, shaping the meanings made depending on social contexts and purposes. I have already alluded to the work of Halliday, whose functional theory of language is social, and who has written extensively on language as a ‘social semiotic’ (Halliday and Hasan 1985), though many others have been involved in discussing language as social, working from different traditions of scholarship. They have included for example, other linguists such as Gee (1992, 2007), or ethnographers such as Heath (1983) or Street (1995). Furthermore, the influence of the Russian psychologist Vygotsky (for example, 1980) has been recognised, with his attention to the significance of mentoring and scaffolding children in the social activity of teaching and learning. 8
One other theme that emerged in language and literacy education over the last 40 years was the increased recognition of the needs of children from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB). The Commonwealth government introduced the Child Migrant Education Programme in 1970, bringing in educational provision for NESB children and for their teachers, who had not always received adequate preparation for teaching English as a second language (ESL). Though the needs of migrant children were not foregrounded in the early publications of PETAA, over time PETAA has taken a role. PETAA has sponsored several publications for teachers of ESL, including those by Pauline Gibbons (1991), Marjorie Hertzberg (2012) and Paul Dufficy (2005). All these publications address the language and literacy needs of NESB children. PETAA has thus acknowledged that in modern Australia all teachers are teachers of English as a second language. 9
To illustrate some of the steps in learning to write across the primary years I shall briefly examine a small sample of children’s texts, drawn first from the early years, then the mid years, and thence the last years of school. Such a sample represents only a ‘snapshot’, though it provides some guide to what is involved in the developmental journey. A more comprehensive account of writing development, K to Year 12, is available in Christie and Derewianka (2008).