Stewart Riddle’s bizarre claim that improving the literacy levels of indigenous children, especially in remote communities, might not be a good thing should not surprise. Ever since English sociologist Basil Bernstein in the early 1970s described working-class children’s speech as “restricted” and the speech of middle-class children as ‘‘elaborated’’, teacher educators have disagreed over what it means to be literate and how literacy should be taught.
One approach, represented by Riddle’s argument that there are multiple definitions of literacy as definitions change over time and differ across cultures, is that the language children bring to the classroom must be valued in preference to teaching Standard English.
As a 1970 publication by the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association argues: “A kid will only have a restricted language code if the school insists on using a dialect of its own, not the kid’s. The restriction, in other words, comes from the school.”
This view, prevalent in many teacher-education departments across Australia, argues that the language code or dialect a child brings to school must be respected. Imposing middle-class ideas abut “correct’’ English is an imposition as there is nothing superior about standard English.
In opposition to the view that there are multiple definitions of literacy and that each must be valued is the argument that if children are to be empowered and able to enter society on some basis of equality, they must be taught standard English.
The quickest way to further disadvantage indigenous children, working-class children or those for whom English is not their mother language is to deny them the language on which further education depends.
This second view about what counts as literacy also favours a more structured, systematic and teacher-directed approach to classroom interaction. It also rests on the assumption that learning to read, unlike learning to talk, is unnatural.
As noted by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky: “Written speech is a separate linguistic function, differing from oral speech in both structure and mode of functioning.”
Vygotsky also argues that children must be taught grammar explicitly, on the basis that it will not arise spontaneously and because it is of “paramount importance for the mental development of the child”.
Characterising direct instruction as “skilling and drilling students to the point of exhaustion”, as Riddle does, ignores the evidence that explicit teaching is more effective than fads such as discovery learning, where teachers are guides by the side and children are knowledge navigators.
A multi-million-dollar longitudinal US study Project Follow Through — after evaluating the efficacy of different pedagogical models — concludes that direct instruction is more effective than progressive, student-centred models.
As noted by Rhonda Farkota, a researcher at the Australian Council for Educational Research, the US research demonstrates that “student-centred learning has consistently more negative outcomes than those achieved in traditional education on all measures of basic skills, cognitive development and self-esteem”.
Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and is co-chairing the review of the Australian national curriculum.