Donnelly on Back to Basics

Kevin Donnelly is an advocate of traditional approaches to teaching, and prominent in public debates about literacy in Australia. Following is a op-ed article:

THE release of the national English curriculum initial advice paper will lead to Australia’s education progressives suffering apoplexy.

For years, groups such as the Australian Association for the Teaching of English have turned their backs on teaching formal grammar and literature.

While The Australian has led the campaign for a back-to-basics approach to English, as a result of falling standards and a dumbed-down curriculum, the AATE and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association have argued that talk of a crisis is a media beat-up.

Fast-forward to the new English curriculum and it appears that those in charge of developing the nation’s curriculum have sided with the critics. Teaching grammar, punctuation and spelling is back on the agenda.

Even better, literature (as opposed to the nebulous term “text”) is back in its own right as schools are told that all students need to be given a grounding in those works of Australian and world literature that have survived the test of time.

Since the mid-1970s, teaching reading in primary schools has been based on a new-age, whole-language approach. The assumption is that learning to read is as natural as learning to talk and that children should be told to look and guess when reading.

Research, both here and overseas, has proven that the whole-language approach is a disaster, especially for boys. To be able to read, children need to know the relationship between letters, groups of letters and sounds.

Phonics and phonemic awareness are based on the assumption that reading is decidedly unnatural and that it has to be taught in a structured and systematic way.

Thankfully, the reading wars may now be over as the recommendation in the paper is that children need to be taught with “systematic attention to phonological awareness and sound-letter correspondences”.

Notwithstanding the positives, there are a couple of red lights. The definition of literature includes “multi-modal texts” and teachers are told to include “graphic and other visual formats” in their English lessons.

Nothing should take away the primacy of the printed word. From the early years of primary school until the final senior school years, every student must learn to read with sensitivity and discrimination and how to use language to shape thoughts, emotions and ideas.

As the national curriculum paper suggests, while literature is important in exciting and shaping one’s imagination, of equal value is its moral and aesthetic importance.

Unfortunately, the national curriculum paper undervalues such a view and by defining literary criticism more broadly, there is the danger that students will still have to interpret literary texts in terms of feminist, post-modern, queer, post-colonial and neo-Marxist theory.


Kevin Donnelly, ‘English goes back to basics’, The Australian, October 17, 2008 | Link

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