Literacy within, across and beyond the curriculum

Lorrae Ward

Literacy sits at the heart of all learning and of all human interactions whatever their purpose, mode or context. Literacy is both how we learn (a tool, something to use) and an essential skill (something to learn).

The simplest definition of literacy is that it is about being able to read and write. In reality it is much more than that. Literacy is needed in order to create, access and share information, knowledge and wisdom. Without literacy we cannot engage with the world around us, or make sense of it.

This PETAA Paper considers the idea of literacy beyond the curriculum, literacy that is developed and used in the world outside the school gates. The background for ideas presented here can be found in research underpinning the publication of Collaboration in Learning (Lee & Ward, 2013) and other research-based literature (Mizuko et al., 2013; Sharples et al., 2012). It also has its foundations in learning theory, particularly the work of Vygotsky (1962): the Zone of Proximal Development, and Valsinier (1997): the Zones of Promoted Action and Free Movement.

The theories of Vygotsky and Valsinier on how and when young people learn are critical for understanding the importance of context, social interaction and literacy to learning and as such they are introduced in the following section. It also has links to the idea of cultural repertoires: the norms of behaviour and the social tools that people acquire through the groups they belong to. Individuals do not, generally, belong to just one group, nor do they have only one way of doing things. Expected norms of behaviour at home can be very different to those at school, for example.

‘To ignore the rich learning experiences beyond the school gates and outside the curriculum is to trivialise the world young people inhabit and risk making school irrelevant.’

The purpose of this paper is to promote reflection and to challenge. It does not offer a recipe for the development of the diverse literacy skills needed in the twenty-first century. Rather, I hope, it provides food for thought. The Australian Curriculum talks of the ‘literacy-rich situations’ that arise across all curriculum areas. But, there are also literacy-rich situations beyond the school gates. There are also many teachers who influence the development of the young, beyond those employed by schools. If, after reading this, you begin to look beyond the school gates for resources and contexts that can enrich your students’ learning experiences then it will have achieved its purpose.

Sociocultural theory in a networked world

We live in a networked world, a world in which communication is no longer bounded by time or space, and in that world we have many choices about how and when we interact with others, with the physical world and with information. Vygotsky (1962), the Russian teacher and psychologist, examined how social environments influence the learning process. He argued that learning takes place through the interactions students have with their peers, teachers and others; that it is a social construct. He also argued that culture is central to how individuals access and define knowledge. In his view, the interaction between society and individuals is dynamic — just as society affects individuals, so do individuals affect society.

Text in Figure 1:

  • Friends and their families
  • School friends, peers, teachers
  • Drama, Music, tutors, peers, friends
  • Sport, coaches, peers, friends
  • Home, parents, siblings
  • The Community, bus drivers, shop assistants, doctors, dentists, etc
  • Virtual world, friends, family, experts

Bubble diagram with text version in caption adjacent/above

Figure 1: Aspects of a range of interactions a student has with peers, teachers and others

What would Vygotsky make of the breadth and diversity of the social world many young people now inhabit? How would he view the potential of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to name but a few digital interaction tools? How would he adapt his view of learning to include the potential of the virtual world? Or would he need to? Perhaps it is simply a matter of redefining and extending our definition of the environment within which students learn and of accepting that their learning is influenced by an increasingly wide and diverse range of people, activities and contexts, both within and beyond school. The society with which young people interact is potentially much more nebulous, flexible and intangible than that of any other generation. Further, the way they interact with and make sense of things within and across this extended environment can vary greatly.

Vygotsky (1962) also argued that learning occurs within the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD emphasises the importance of adults, of teachers, in enabling young people to learn. The ZPD is the difference between what a child can do alone and what is beyond their current developmental capacity. It is what they can do with appropriate scaffolding and support from a ‘teacher’.

In the twenty-first century, young people learn 24/7/365 (allowing for sleep). As discussed in Collaboration in Learning (Lee and Ward, 2013), teaching and learning do not occur only within schools. Teachers can be found among peers, parents, grandparents and sports coaches to name a few. Many young people are self-taught as they use the knowledge and information readily available to them in the digital world; they provide their own support to move beyond their current capabilities. They are continually interacting with the world around them, submitting and decoding messages, drawing inferences from what they see and hear. They use a wide range of media and many are adept at choosing the most appropriate medium for a particular message or activity. The ZPD is, in a sense, much larger than it has ever been, and certainly is not limited to the school or the teachers within the school.

There are many possible examples of using other teachers, teachers not employed by the school to deliver formal education (for some examples see Lee and Ward, 2013). As a classroom teacher, you can set inquiry tasks that require students to engage with adults in their wider worlds. Give them opportunities to learn from others, be they grandparents, family friends or experts from the ‘real world’. We should not dictate with whom they must communicate or how the learning must occur when they are completing projects or assignments. Set the scene, provide the motivation and then allow students to manage their own learning experience. Ask them to interview people or to tell a story from their family history (a good way of recognising different cultures and heritages). Perhaps they can talk to a local ‘hero’ and retell their story, emphasising the value of the local area and the people within it. Do not treat such activities as an ‘added extra’. Ensure that you discuss their work and that they are given chances to present it — show you value it as part of the curriculum, that it is important learning for everyone.

Also look for ways to bring the outside into the classroom, using guest speakers and experts. Those with authentic stories to tell can provide valuable learning experiences. Many will not charge for their time, particularly if they are retired or linked to the school. Look out into your community and see what resources are available. There may be a writer, an artist, a graphic designer or someone who has a story to tell. There may be grandparents or parents willing to come in and work with students.

There is more evidence of the importance of recognising the potential for learning beyond the classroom in the work of Valsinier (1997). Valsinier also used the idea of zones when talking about learning. He too argued that children develop through their relationships with their environment and those within it, that learning is a social construct and as such requires and uses literacy skills.

Valsinier’s theory is based on the existence of two zones: the Zone of Free Movement (ZFM) and the Zone of Promoted Action (ZPA). Essentially, Valsinier argues that children learn both through independent interaction with their environment (the ZFM) and through more directed activities (the ZPA). The role of adults and teachers is to ensure that the environment of young people, whether within the ZFM or the ZPA, is resource rich, that it enables self-regulated and independent learning. The role of a teacher is not always to control the learning. That is not to say children do not need guidance, do not need to be ‘taught’ the basics. That is essential, but they also need to be given opportunities to explore, to interact with others and to extend their own passions and interests. Think about your classroom and the learning experiences of your students. To what extent do you, and they, operate within a ZPA rather than a ZFM? Do they only get to work independently, to make choices and to follow their interests, when the ‘real work’ is finished? Or have you set up a resource-rich environment within which it is safe for children to explore and to learn, to make choices and to discover new things. Is the guidance offered relevant to their current developmental needs, to their ZPD?

As with Vygotsky’s theory this idea of zones is extended and enriched by the networked and digital world of the twenty-first century. For young people, the world extends far beyond their immediate surroundings. They no longer need accept physical boundaries of time and space. For school to be relevant, the same ideas apply. To ignore the rich learning experiences that occur beyond the school gates and outside the curriculum, to suggest that young people are not developing literacy skills beyond the classroom, is to trivialise the world they inhabit and risk making school even more irrelevant than it already is to many of them.

If one thinks of culture as the ‘way things are done’, as the norms of behaviour, than the culture of young people outside school is often very different to that within. Just as it is increasingly acknowledged that culture and heritage are important, that teachers need to understand the backgrounds of their children, it is also important that schools value and acknowledge the way the young of the twenty-first century communicate and interact with their worlds.

‘The knowledge, attributes and skills students develop through their social interactions beyond school have the potential to enhance their learning within school.’

An example from a recent experience of my daughter might help to show how learning can be enriched through an extension of the learning environment and recognition of the importance of others as teachers. For a project on war she emailed a very close friend of her grandfather’s and asked him about his experiences in the Malayan Emergency in the late 1950s. Not only did she learn about this war, she also spent time talking to her grandfather about his own experiences of compulsory military service and looking at old photos.

Everyone gained from the experience, the learning was richer because it involved people she knew, and it was more real. The role of the formal teacher? He set the original task: to interview someone who had been involved in the New Zealand armed forces.

What does this example have to do with literacy beyond the classroom? My daughter was developing and extending her verbal and written literacy skills in a number of authentic contexts. She used both verbal and written skills, as well as information literacy. She had to email her grandfather’s friend a set of questions, she researched the Malayan Emergency and spoke with her grandfather about what she had been learning and about his life. She did all this using her personal literacies, her cultural repertoire. The social environment within which this learning occurred extended well beyond the immediate classroom. More recently, she asked me to buy a book for her set in the Malayan Emergency — a fictional story. School and home learning and recreation boundaries firmly blurred!

It is true that not all students have access to a resource-rich home life but that should not deter schools from looking beyond their gates when designing lessons, when engaging with families and the wider community. Indeed, supporting the development of rich learning opportunities in the home can be of benefit for all. The next time you are planning a lesson or unit of work, think about both Vygotsky and Valsinier, and ask yourself whether you have the balance correct between the ZPA and the ZFM. Also ask yourself whether you are recognising and using all the other teachers in your students’ lives to extend their ZPD.

Literacy beyond the curriculum

The central argument being posited in this paper is that literacy should not be confined by academic boundaries, or be viewed as something that is predominantly learned in school for school purposes. Few, if any, educators would deny the importance of students developing the knowledge and skills needed to ‘access, understand, analyse and evaluate information, make meaning, express thoughts and emotions, present ideas and opinions, interact with others and participate in activities at school and in their lives beyond school’ (ACARA, 2013). Most would clearly recognise the importance of developing literacy skills across the curriculum, of ensuring that students become familiar with and find out how to use the languages, texts and literacy practices of the different subject areas they encounter at school.

Less evident may be the importance of literacy beyond the curriculum, of the value of the myriad ways young people communicate, participate and interact, share ideas and emotions outside school, and the range of people they interact with. Yet, the knowledge, attributes and skills students develop through their social interactions beyond school have the potential to enhance their learning within school, to provide new contexts, new meanings and diverse media. Just as teaching and learning can be defined as being broader than the traditional, formal notions of school-based teaching and learning (Lee and Ward, 2013) so too can literacy be defined as broader than that which enables students to engage in school-based learning. Think of the many individuals and groups your students interact and communicate with and the many opportunities they have for learning (both good and bad!). 

As early as 1990, Resnick discussed the importance of literacy practices outside schools as a solution to the ‘literacy crisis’ in America. She argued that ‘schools are too isolated from everyday ways of using the written word to serve as the only source of literacy competence in society’ (p. 169). Rather than the situation improving, one could argue it has worsened. The last thirteen years have seen incredible changes in the way society communicates and interacts outside educational institutions, in the way information is accessed and new knowledge is created. However, as the world outside school embraces the twenty-first century, schools seem increasingly nervous about allowing ‘disruptive technologies’ into their classrooms, technologies that have the potential to change how students experience, and more importantly, gain access to learning (Halverson and Smith, 2009).

In their 2011 report, Innovative Teaching and Learning Research, SRI International suggest that education today ‘faces several critical gaps’ related to a lack of innovation in education compared to the wider world (SRI international, n.d.). They argue that, as technological innovations continue to flourish and develop in the world and as the knowledge economy grows, students remain largely consumers of information. This is despite the growing ability of schools to use the vast resources beyond the gates to enhance, extend and enrich student learning opportunities. Their research found huge variations within schools regarding the level of innovative practice. This was also true of individual activities and teachers. What they found was that learning activities incorporating a combination of innovative practices were ‘quite rare’. Further, the learning activities they did see offered few opportunities for students to develop ‘21st century learning skills’. Using a four-point scale (4 = strong) to rate learning activities, they found that the mean score across all learning activities was 2. Examples given were children working in pairs, but not sharing responsibility for the work as collaborative partners, or children repeating information rather than building knowledge. Both are examples of limited interaction, either because the teacher retains too much control (think Valsinier and the ZFM) or the student is incapable of the level of interaction expected and needs more support (think Vygotsky and the ZPD).

The place of digital technology

‘The virtual world enables interactions with people and information that previously were not possible in bounded learning contexts. It has also led to the development of new literacies and new identities; new ways of knowing and understanding the world around us.’

It is true that digital technology is at the forefront of changes to society and continues to influence how we interact with each other and with information. However, while education is now ‘inextricably tied to technology’ (Sharples et al., 2012, p. 7) it is not the only form of interaction and participation. Literacy beyond the curriculum is about more than digital technology, it is about all forms of communication and all forms of interaction.

That is not to understate the extent to which digital technologies have enabled the creation of new and exciting learning contexts, contexts that can be rich in resources and opportunities.

Nor is it to underestimate the power of increasingly mobile, sophisticated and accessible digital tools to disrupt our view of education. Learning is a social construct, it requires interaction with others.

Think of the way many young people — and I mean young — communicate through digital technologies. It bears little resemblance to the way previous generations communicated — but that does not mean it is wrong or inappropriate — it has just evolved. We must not underestimate the depth of understanding, of sense-making and knowledge development that young people experience through digital media. Just because the communication is different does not mean it is invalid. We need to use the passions and interests of our students to motivate their learning. Have you thought about using virtual communities to provide rich literacy contexts? There is any number of examples of these, where young people are able to work with others around the world on projects, to engage with experts and to develop new literacy skills. One example is The Global Classroom Project.

Multiple worlds, multiple literacies, multiple identities: Building bridges through and for learning

Let us turn now to understanding the very different worlds students can occupy through their lives; the worlds that literacy can connect, and the worlds that require different literacies. It is through literacy, through language, that young people are able to articulate their identity and culture, it is also through literacy that they present their different cultural repertoires: the tools, behaviours and values they are building as they explore the world around them.

We all have different identities and operate in different cultures within and across our lives. In some instances these change as we transition across different life stages, assuming different roles: student, child, parent, worker and so on. We can also have different identities within a life stage (for example, school student, athlete, musician, friend). In each of these worlds, the dominant discourse will be different to some extent from that in other worlds. Sometimes the differences are large, as when new immigrants first experience a western-style education system. In other instances they will be virtually non-existent, such as when family values and norms closely mirror those of the school. Recognising and, where appropriate, valuing different discourses is important. Also important is understanding and using the many different worlds and influences that have created the unique individual who is also a student.

Around the world young people participate in what are essentially isolated communities of practice (Wenger, 1998). These communities can be described as island states with their own rules, infrastructure, systems and processes. Some are governed by adults, others are more independent. Across these islands young people assume different roles and different identities, and interact with others using appropriate languages and symbols. This is their immediate environment, a microcosm of activity and people that forms and constrains their social, educational and emotional development. In some instances there are bridges between the islands, but most operate independently of each other. This microcosm is repeated many times around the globe; with parallel and intersecting worlds.

Connecting these communities, using literacy to build bridges, can provide powerful learning experiences. These bridges can also provide opportunities to make school-based learning more authentic, more real, for students. They can enable you as a classroom teacher to be responsive to different cultures and discourses, to individual needs and interests. 

Looking beyond the immediate: New ideas of learning

Increasingly, there is an understanding of the potential for learning that extends beyond the immediacy of a particular lesson or classroom setting or even group of people. Dependent on the authors of a particular piece of literature, there may be different names or slightly different foci but all acknowledge the breadth and depth of the world beyond school and the richness and importance of the learning experiences within it. If you are interested in learning more, the following publications are a good starting point. While the examples given are generally for students beyond the primary years, they can be readily scaffolded and adjusted.

  • Innovating Pedagogy 2012 (.pdf 1.3 MB). In particular, look at the sections on Rhizomatic Learning and Seamless Learning.
  • Connected Learning, where case studies are ‘in-depth profiles of established programs, organisations, and educational institutions that demonstrate real-world application of connected learning principles’. 

Each of these models of learning has one important ingredient in common. They recognise that learning occurs as a social activity and that it should not be bounded by the immediate classroom. They recognise that young people are continually learning and that learning is a collaborative and collective activity involving diverse communities. In recognising this, they are also implicitly acknowledging that there are now myriad ways to access information and learning, to make sense of the world and to communicate new knowledge.  

What does this mean for schools?

A central idea is focusing on home learning, not home work. Ensure that the tasks you require students to complete outside the classroom are not simply extensions of what they do in the classroom. Provide opportunities for them to engage with others, to learn through these interactions and to focus on what interests them. Rather than having parents act as compliance monitors as they sign reading logs, test spelling words or ensure their children complete worksheets, enable them to be active participants in their child’s learning. Set tasks that require collaboration and interaction, that enable the home culture and experiences of the children to be recognised.

Be flexible during inquiry-based project work. Do not always dictate how learning should be accessed or presented. Allow room for individuals, for personalising the learning and its articulation. Some project work should occur within the ZFM. Focus on the higher-order learning you require, not the detail. Does it matter how a student demonstrates her or his learning if you are not teaching a specific literacy or presentation skill?

For example, you may be doing a writing activity about writing for an audience. Many older primary students enjoy developing children’s books. Does it matter if that book is written in English or their first language if it is a language other than English? If they can demonstrate to you that they understand the techniques and skills you want them to learn, think of the added benefits to their learning and that of others if you allow a broader set of literacies than the dominant one in your school. You have shown them — and their family — that you value their language, culture and identity. You have also enabled them to show their peers their bilingual capabilities — and potentially those same peers have been given the opportunity to learn about another culture and language. Perhaps their parents or grandparents could come to the school and talk about how they shared stories and what those stories were about. This could be a very exciting lesson about culture, about the use of language to demonstrate culture, and about how our identities develop over time through the people we interact with.

In conclusion, as was stated at the start of this discussion, the purpose of this paper is to challenge, to provide some ideas worth further exploration. Its message is simple, the world beyond school is a rich learning resource, and the literacies used within it are as valid and as important as the ones used in the school.

About the author

Dr Lorrae Ward has an extensive and varied background in education. Starting as an English teacher, her career includes university lecturer, professional development facilitator, educational evaluator and researcher. Her interests lie in the area of school reform and in extending the boundaries of teaching and learning to enrich the learning experiences of children. While much of her work has been in the area of digital technologies, her vision is wider than that. Dr Ward is currently working as an independent researcher and author and is the director of Cyperus Ltd, a consultancy firm providing evaluation and professional services to a wide range of private and public organisations. Dr Ward is co-author of Collaboration in Learning; Transcending the Classroom Walls.


How this content relates to AITSL teacher standards

Standard 1: Know students and how they learn

  • 1.1.2 Proficient Physical, social and intellectual development and characteristics of students. Use teaching strategies based on knowledge of students’ physical, social and intellectual development and characteristics to improve student learning.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Creative space for speaking and listening

  • 1.1.3 Highly Accomplished Physical, social and intellectual development and characteristics of students. Select from a flexible and effective repertoire of teaching strategies to suit the physical, social and intellectual development and characteristics of students.
  • 1.2.1 Graduate Understand how students learn. Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of research into how students learn and the implications for teaching.
  • 1.2.2 Proficient Understand how students learn. Structure teaching programs using research and collegial advice about how students learn.
  • 1.2.3 Highly Accomplished Understand how students learn. Expand understanding of how students learn using research and workplace knowledge.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Questioning for student generated learning

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Scaffolding thinking skills

Standard 2: Know the content and how to teach it

  • 2.5.1 Graduate Literacy and numeracy strategies. Know and understand literacy and numeracy teaching strategies and their application in teaching areas.
  • 2.6.1 Graduate Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Implement teaching strategies for using ICT to expand curriculum learning opportunities for students.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Responding and composing using digital texts to support content knowledge in Science Years 5 and 6

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using ICT to develop student presentations to demonstrate scientific understanding

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using digital tools to investigate our Indigenous nation

  • 2.6.2 Proficient Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Use effective teaching strategies to integrate ICT into learning and teaching programs to make selected content relevant and meaningful.

AITSL Illustration of practice: Using ICT to create and present multimodal texts in English

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using ICT to develop social media profiles to develop content knowledge and demonstrate understanding in Geography

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Developing peer assessment through peer evaluation of digital presentations in Science

  • 2.6.3 Highly Accomplishedstrong. Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Model high-level teaching knowledge and skills and work with colleagues to use current ICT to improve their teaching practice and make content relevant and meaningful.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Supporting colleagues to use ICT effectively to increase student engagement

Standard 3: Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning

  • 3.3.2 Proficient Use teaching strategies. Select and use relevant teaching strategies to develop knowledge, skills, problem solving and critical and creative thinking.
  • 3.7.2 Proficient Engage parents/carers in the educative process. Plan for appropriate and contextually relevant opportunities for parents/ carers to be involved in their children’s learning.

Standard 6: Engage in professional learning

  • 6.2.2 Proficient Engage in professional learning and improve practice. Participate in learning to update knowledge and practice, targeted to professional needs and school and/or system priorities.
  • 6.4.2 Proficient Apply professional learning and improve student learning. Undertake professional learning programs designed to address identified student learning needs.