From reading to literacy
So where there is now an area named as ‘literacy’ in 1972 there was reading and English. What then was ‘reading’ education and research at that time? In their useful reviews of theories and research in reading and reading research published in the leading research journal in the area, Reading Research Quarterly, in 1972, Samuels and Williams identified four recurring themes in the terrain: assessing readiness for reading, visual and auditory training as a co-requisite of reading development, the predominance of word lists in research and professional practice, and a small but growing interest in reading what was termed ‘meaningful prose’ and later ‘extended discourse’. 1
In 1972 the reading education world was in the middle of a feisty and at times entertaining digression that we now think of as the ‘whole language’ versus ‘phonics’ debate. 2
In some places this was re-worked as ‘top-down versus bottom-up’ processes, and so on. While a moment’s reflection does now what it could have done then — dissolve this spurious dichotomy — it is clear that this debate in reading was a proxy for, or maybe a leading edge of a broader set of ways in which 1970s educators were trying not to be 1950s educators. This larger debate divided the world into, on the one hand, ‘content-oriented’, instructionally explicit, ‘teacher-centred’, letter and word-directed theory and practice, and on the other, their opposites: ‘process-oriented’, instructionally implicit, ‘student-centred’, sentence- and extended text-directed theory and practice. 3
The former program was staffed by more conventional psychologists with interest and experience in students with ‘special needs’ diagnosis and testing, and an orientation to the benefits of psychology in the more ‘basic training’ aspects of early education. The latter by people interested in the emerging forms of cognitive and humanistic psychology, many of whom saw a focus of their work to be issues related to equity and cultural and linguistic diversity that were increasingly facing Australian teachers. 4
This dichotomy was more handy than productive: it simplified debates about complex problems, it presented us with teachers, students, and activities that were, and were most righteously one-dimensional, and it provided product-badging for the rapidly emerging and lucrative market in commercial reading and language education packages for parents and teachers.
There are sites in which the territories and tribes of literacy continue to be demarcated in this way, but this was a map that, in my view, enjoyed a longer life than it deserved, due largely to its connection to the burgeoning market in reading education products, and the ease of over-relying on the classroom scripts provided in many of these products (Shannon 1983 and 2001 expand eloquently on the effects of these trends and ways to resist them).
A key feature of the last 40 years, and one that educators with special interests in English and literacy must factor into their understanding of the professional and media churn around them, is the massive increase in this commercialisation of education, again, most dramatically felt in the area of language and literacy learning. Many primary English teachers have come to see their responsibilities as being about the integration of the preoccupations of both English education and literacy education. Many have long known, some of whom appear even in the review of primary literacy and language education conducted by Edmund Huey in 1908, that primary English education, including the ‘English language arts’, is charged with preparing students both for secondary English studies, and for the language and literacy demands of pretty much everything that we could imagine at the time as laying in wait for young Australian students. 5
The state of English
While these things were happening in reading / literacy education at the time of PETAA’s inception, much was afoot in English as well. Perennially, indeed long before formal schooling in English language and culture became a feature of English-speaking societies, there has been a tussle between the technical-rhetorical and the cultural-heritage wings of English studies (Freebody, Barton & Chan, in press 2013). The contesting claims for territory were devoted to, on the one hand, the study of the structures of a range of spoken and written language uses, and, on the other, ‘belles lettres’. 6
Crawford (1998) has argued that there were two crucial moments in which a redefined notion of English was recruited as a solution to cultural crises. The first of these was the unification of the crown in 1707 — the production of ‘Britain’. This event fairly suddenly introduced the need to cater culturally and thus educationally for linguistic and literary differences in the process of establishing a ‘united kingdom’ across speakers of different language and dialects.
The problem was particularly acute in the case of the
relationship between England and Scotland (a matter that seems almost
resolved a mere 305 years later). Hence, the first university department
of English language and literature was established in Edinburgh, a fact
proudly announced on the first page of their new website (University of Edinburgh,
2012). It embodied the Scottish ruling class’s determination to access
the valued language and cultural codes of their powerful southern
neighbours, as a step along the way of sharing in their economic and
military expansion. Languages and dialects were lost along the way, and
others almost lost, as a result of this ‘education in English’.