Proposed changes to the New South Wales English curriculum reinforce the misconception that teaching language and literacy skills should be the primary responsibility of English teachers, leaving other teachers to focus more on the content of their subject.
The plan follows a report by the NSW Education Authority (NESA) which found that pupils’ writing standards had dropped sharply in recent years.
The Draft NSW English Curriculum includes specific language and literacy outcomes such as grammar, punctuation, paragraphs and sentence structure, unlike the Draft NSW Maths Curriculum which does not have specific language outcomes .
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Association of English Teachers said the changes “would place an unnecessary burden on them because literacy skills differ from subject to subject”.
Tying language and literacy achievement to the English curriculum with the aim of improving student writing in all subject areas is the wrong approach.
It ignores important research on what everything teachers need to know the language and prevent students from developing the different language skills they need in different subjects. It may also put students who are still learning English at a disadvantage.
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How does language work differently in different subjects?
Rather than learning vocabulary lists or abstract grammar rules, students learn best when they are actively involved in their classroom learning.
This means using many different language skills, such as listening to teacher explanations, taking notes and developing written arguments.
But not all of these language skills can be transferred to different subjects in the same way.
Take science, for example.
We often think of it as a hands-on, hands-on topic rather than a reading and writing-focused topic. But students must also read scientific explanations and write scientific reports. They must also use complex language skills to explain, present and test scientific ideas.
Qualified science teachers understand and plan for the elements of science language that students find difficult.
Confusion can arise when a word that means one thing in everyday language means something else entirely in science – such as ‘culture’, when we mean growing bacteria or cells, or ‘medium’, when we mean the liquid in which bacteria or cells grow. .
Students should also know that in science, unlike English, the subject of the sentence is not as important as the concept or process we are talking about.
So instead of saying “we saw the water droplets”, we would often say “water droplets were observed”.
We also tend to use more economical language in science than in English class.
So it’s “salt water solution” rather than “liquid solution containing salt” and “condensation” rather than “that thing that happens when water condenses”.
We cannot expect English teachers to anticipate these science-specific language challenges.
Mathematics is also often seen as a “languageless” subject, even though language is essential for understanding and communicating mathematics.
But mathematical language is best taught in the context of mathematics. Some everyday words like “product” and “domain” mean something very different in math, while different terms like “times” and “multiply” mean the same thing. It can be difficult when English is not your first language.
What about students who don’t speak English as their first language?
In NSW schools, 24% of pupils speak English as an additional language. They have to learn multiple facts, figures and skills in a language they are still learning.
They need their teachers to be able to understand their language challenges and provide them with subject-specific language support so that they can succeed in school like everyone else.
Yet many teachers say they don’t feel well prepared to teach English language learners. Teachers must have professional development opportunities available to ensure they are supported to meet the challenges they face in the classroom.
Read more: Language matters in science and math – here’s why
What does the research say?
Researchers argue that since all learning involves language, language and literacy should be taught explicitly in all school subjects. Language should be understood and learned in context, not outsourced to English teachers and taught as generic ‘skills’.
If we want to improve the writing of all students, we must give them lots of practice in using different vocabularies, grammars and text structures in their different school subjects. They can then learn the language at the same time as they discover new concepts and contexts.
This is especially important for students who are new to English. Simply dropping them into an all-English learning environment or giving them simplified English won’t work.
In Australia, the language challenges faced by students from different backgrounds are too often invisible to teachers. We need that to change.
If we really want to make education equitable and inclusive, then everything subject teachers should share responsibility for language teaching.