Continuities since 1972
The significance of literature in Primary English has been one continuous thread since PETAA’s inception. In one of the first Primary English Notes (PENs), in 1973, Barry Smith writes of the ‘centrality of literature’ and notes the characteristics of literature as ‘the expression of emotional response … communication through imagery, and the use of the language of the “spectator”’ (p.7), which links the young reader and the author/illustrator/artist. Forty years later, literature is at the heart of the English curriculum, centre stage. And if we look through the Australian Curriculum: English content descriptions for the Literature strand (and these are directly linked to the new NSW Syllabus, English K-6) we see the ‘expression of emotional response …’ and ‘communication through imagery’ featured, as well as attention to the role of literary language as the link between child and the author as literary ‘artist’.
As a second continuity I would suggest that there have been a series of moments in PETAA’s history that have developed the way literature has been approached in the primary classroom. Forty years ago, as I have noted, the emphasis was to bring literature to the centre of the reading curriculum. The start of what has become known as ‘the reading wars’ (Ewing, 2006) occurred then as teaching reading using ‘whole texts’ — frequently literary texts — began to gain precedence as a teaching method over a phonics-based approach, which featured isolated words and sounds and limited language resources. Reading for meaning was the priority over decoding. Children’s literature was a natural source of texts for reading for meaning and many picture books became ‘big books’ as the whole language movement gained momentum in the 1980s. In Australia, in my experience, phonics was always a component of teaching reading with ‘real’ texts using strong rhythm and rhyme acted as the ‘basal readers’ in many classrooms — and this was a major stimulus for Australia’s now flourishing and highly regarded picture book industry.
A third continuity lies in the notion of intertextuality. The whole language movement highlighted the intertextual relationships between reading and writing and studies were conducted to observe how the reading of literary texts impacted on the creative writing of primary-age students (Cairney, 1992, 2010) amongst others. The more recent attention to critical literacy and knowledge about language have added impetus to ways of considering intertextual relationships in literature (Sipe, 2000), and when writing narratives (Pantaleo, 2010), with the unique intertextual qualities of postmodern picture books receiving special consideration (Sipe & Panteleo, 2008).
A fourth continuity is evident in Luke and Freebody’s cohesive model of the four reading resources (for example, Freebody, 1992, 1997, 2004; Luke & Freebody, 1999). Here the traces of the past are present in the present, as they always are. The resource model is a recognition that students need to develop a range of reading resources and that teachers need to teach explicitly a comprehensive range of reading strategies. The practices of breaking the code develops reading fluency and accuracy; participating in the text develops reading comprehension and insight into the ideas and nuances of a constructed literary world; using the text develops awareness of the meaningful relationships between context, the text and its grammar; while analysing the text develops critical reading through awareness of alternative viewpoints and the possibilities of social action.
Discontinuities since 1972
On the other hand, the resources model could be seen as the first discontinuity: while the four reading resources are a clear rejection of the notion that there is one clear and single path to follow when teaching reading, not everyone in the field accepts this — as we see from media reports almost daily. There is much attention directed at persuading teachers there is only one way to teach reading, often from those attached to one of the phonics-based ‘coding’ approaches.
A second discontinuity is our current testing regime. Given the new curriculum, it is conceivable that literature-based programming could again become a feature of classroom planning, but the current emphasis on system-level assessment through NAPLAN would change the way teachers engage their students with literary texts — the ‘reading wars’ have now become ‘assessment wars’ as thoughtful teachers consider how the repercussions of high-stakes testing and reporting, such as the My School website, can influence learning language and literacy through literature.
While I have not talked about what children’s literature is concerned about — another topic in itself — a third discontinuity could be the changing forms and styles of children’s literature, which have moved in very different directions to what students were reading in the 1970s. Postmodern picture books, graphic novels, manga and multimodal digital narratives are part of the literary landscape at primary level, while nudity and scatological terms are now presented in picture books and popular novels, virtually unremarked. The shift to a digital world is the most extreme discontinuity here, and Wyatt-Smith’s (2012) argument that ‘[i]n a real sense, technologies and human kind are both shapers of culture and makers of the future: just as users shape technologies through their realms and practices, so, in turn, technologies are shaping and reshaping those practices and identities …’ pertains to literary texts as much as to learning to be literate. PETAA has stepped into this new moment with many publications available online, as well as presenting particular resources, such as those in Global Words (World Vision Australia, 2012) as only accessible in digital form, putting instantly downloadable materials and links at teachers’ fingertips, and more recently PETAA joined forces with other English teaching associations to create English for the Australian Curriculum (ESA, 2013) .
A fourth discontinuity is the appreciation for the role of explicit attention to how verbal meaning is constructed. In 1972, the intention was to move away from the narrow rule-based teaching of ‘correct’ grammar in isolated units — which was viewed as limiting students’ creativity. As noted above, a functional model of language offers a meaning-based grammar that supports students in creating purposeful, coherent and cohesive texts. Various writings for PETAA have been crucial in disseminating this knowledge with regard to reading and writing (for example, see Derewianka, 1990, 2011; Humphrey, Droga and Feez, 2012).
A fifth discontinuity is the current focus on how visual and multimodal/digital texts are constructed. With the surge in multimodal texts, in the 1990s principles of how visual images are constructed became available (for example, in A Literature Companion, I have demonstrated one model of a visual ‘grammar’, based on Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006) work). Paying attention to how meaning in visual images is constructed, and the verbal-visual relationship, have now become an accepted ways of thinking about both literary and factual texts in primary classrooms. Having said that, reading images and multimodal texts is a comparatively new area of pedagogy and many teachers struggle with the subtleties of how the construction of meaning can be explored with their students (see Callow, 2011).