As literacy teachers, are we aiming for omniscience? (or, being everything to all people)

by Anne Kelly & Jean Searle (return)

It seems that adult literacy teachers have always been characterised by fluid role definitions. In some ways this has served us well. As a professional group, we have been open to change and, as a consequence, have acquired extensive skills in addition to those related to teaching, whether as managers, administrators, submission writers or curriculum developers. Conversely, in some cases, these varied and multiple roles have served to marginalise us or pose as a threat to other VET teaching groups. In this article we reflect on the scope of our work by addressing four aspects that appear to be impacting in a critical and imminent way on our field at this moment in time: the differing theoretical bases of our work; the complex relationships between literacy and communication fields; the multiple needs of our potential students; and the place of literacy within VET. Each of these factors is addressed briefly below.

The differing theories that inform our work

When the Australian Council for Adult Literacy was established in 1976, a number of different and in some cases, competing theories were evident. Early in the 1970s, Paulo Freire visited Australia and as a result some of his beliefs about literacy became principles for adult literacy practice. These included beliefs about the learner's ownership of the curriculum and the necessary transformative nature of literacy teaching. Simultaneously, however, an 'autonomous' view of literacy, as Brian Street (1984) called it, held sway. This encompassed a kind of foundational view of literacy whereby discrete skills could be identified and taught and this facility then could be used to handle the reading and writing of virtually any text encountered in life. Obviously these two approaches did not meld well together.

Since then, a number of other theories have impacted on the field. A progressivist stance posited once again that learners should be in control of the curriculum but in this case, the teacher would assume only a facilitative role and the learners would act individually. The scope of this curriculum was often narrow, limited to the production of personal recounts by learners. As an antithesis to this approach, Joan Rothery, Jim Martin and others reiterated the importance of the teacher as expert and the acquisition of skills by learners to produce the dominant, more powerful forms of written text. A socio-cultural perspective on literacy teaching was promoted by researchers such as Brian Street, Allan Luke and Peter Freebody. This approach recognised the differing literacies being practised among the diverse groups that comprise societies, and the historical as well as cultural bases for these literacies. Finally, a critical literacy approach has been espoused by Peter McLaren, Colin Lankshear, Peter Freebody and Allan Luke and exemplified by the work of Catherine Wallace in the UK.

It is probably true that those of us who have been teaching in the field for at least the past ten years would be familiar with these theories and use them as a resource to frame our work. However, they are not 'of a piece' and we must be aware that, by adopting such a broad eclectic approach, we are in danger of encouraging our students to 'sample' literacies rather than develop skills in depth.

The Adult Literacy and Communication fields

It might be perceived that literacy teachers have been encroaching on traditional communication ground for this decade. One example was the decision to name some literacy programs in workplaces as 'communication' programs, for the purpose of encouraging their acceptance by potential participants. A further example was the DEET (1994) publication of the report by Kristine Brown and Dianne Prince titled The pedagogical relations between literacy and communication whereby one aspect of the two discourses, pedagogy, was explored.

One reason why this relationship has not become more problematic at a time of increased threats to VET teachers' general viability, has been the high status that communication teachers have enjoyed. Within VET, communication studies have a long history and they have been integral to many, if not most, other courses. Furthermore, communication teachers have generally remained within institutional settings. However, a number of issues have become critical. If literacy continues to encompass 'speaking', 'listening', 'reading' and 'writing' within its ambit, then what remains of communication as it has been practised in VET? Are the theoretical bases that inform the two fields sufficiently different to ensure their separation? If pre-vocational provision continues to be eroded, and increasingly, employers opt for 'on-the-job' training, what implications ensue for both literacy and communication teachers? Finally, as English language, literacy and numeracy become integrated into VET, what are the ramifications of this for communication teachers?

The scope of the task

The definition of literacy that has become commonly used, for example, in WELL guidelines is reproduced below:

[Literacy is] the ability to read and use written information and to write appropriately, in a range of contexts. Literacy also includes numeracy, such as the recognition and use of numbers and basic mathematical signs and symbols within text. Literacy involves the integration of speaking, listening, critical thinking, with reading and writing.

This definition epitomises the problem of scope, that literacy teachers are now facing. The challenge for one group of professionals&emdash;to equip all learners to use and produce, in a competent manner, all the written information that they need&emdash;is overwhelming and some might consider, nonsensical. Yet, that is the role that we have assumed, at least in an abstract sense. As we move towards working more and more with digital texts, the implications of which remain largely unknown, should we be considering specialisation of roles, or indeed, limiting this scope?

The place of literacy within VET

Through the invaluable lobbying of a number of ACAL stalwarts, literacy has been given recognition within the VET agenda and in particular within the current training framework as exemplified by the identification of language and literacy criteria within Industry Standards. However, the danger remains that literacy will be constructed as a set of prescribed fundamental skills to be applied solely within workplace settings. So, while we might welcome the increasing awareness of literacy as an essential part of education and training, we must be wary that reductionist views are not taken by the writers of Training Packages. We also need to consider what roles we are now being required to play, in addition to what might be considered as our 'core business'. This could include advising the writers of Training Packages and assisting with their implementation in a range of settings.

Reappraising our roles

It is time to ask ourselves some questions. Are we spreading ourselves too thinly? Can we be all things to all people?

With respect to the first issue, we need to continue to take an eclectic approach, though mindful of its inherent dangers. Mary Kalantzis has suggested that we 'shunt' backwards and forwards between different theories. I'm not sure what she means by this, but each theory has proven to be useful to some degree, and it is likely that choosing selectively from this repertoire to meet particular purposes, will be effective. Perhaps we need more models to show how this can be done.

The relationship between the literacy and the communication fields is likely to be more delicate. The discourses with their inherent status and power positions differ substantially and it is difficult to foresee at this time, whether these might coalesce or separate even further. One course may be for the two sets of practitioners to work more closely together and this has certainly occurred, but this may not be a consistently viable solution.

The scope of our work continues to be problematic. We can however, make a start on critiquing this issue and talking together about possible ways of limiting this range.

Finally, extending the common perception of literacy as merely a set of specific remedial or foundational skills, is going to be very difficult to achieve. We have been working continually and generally on this for at least fifteen years and appear to have gained little ground. On the other hand, the VET domain, is smaller than the general community and the multiple roles we now find ourselves assuming may serve us well in effecting some change. There is also an unprecedented measure of acceptance at this moment of the power of literacy and the special skills that adult literacy teachers bring to VET.

As we enter the 21st century, although we face constant uncertainties and as a result seem to be in a continual state of angst, we must remember that we have reinvented ourselves before and can again, by working together to address the issues that are the focus of this article and others that impact on our lives as adult literacy teachers, however that position might be enacted.

Anne Kelly and Jean Searle

First published in 'Write On', the Queensland Council for Adult Literacy Newsletter, (15:4), pp. 9-11.