When we talk about language and literacy education
in Australia we are always talking about English language
and English literacy education, and of course PETAA is
a key organisation in this field.
However, it occurs to me there’s a very complex backstory
to this situation and I was wondering if you might tell us
a little of that backstory today please, Joe?
Well, the backstory is the most important foundation
that I think teachers need to discuss and come to grips with
and the backstory is about what I would call the communication
ecology of the nation.
What I mean by that term is the complex of languages
that students bring to schools.
And I don’t mean even just languages but forms of language,
forms of reasoning in language and the practices of
thinking through language which is increasingly coming
to be called ‘translanguaging’.
And in Australia we have one of the most complex varieties
of this on Earth.
Basically, we have the world’s dominant language,
English as our national language and unlike other
English speaking countries English in Australia is mostly
We’ve got a pretty standard kind of English across the nation
at the level of the state distribution of the language,
but we’ve got a highly variegated language when it comes to
social class and also to ethnicity, for example a very large
number of varieties of English spoken by Aboriginal people.
And the mixture of English and Englishes as with other languages.
So, the English backstory is itself very complex,
and then we know that schooling language and schooling English
specifically here, is a particular selection from what’s
available in the wider community: it’s a register of educated,
literate speech which is quite different from spoken language
and the kind of literacy that we see in the wider community.
So, both the literacy and the spoken language forms that
are favoured in schooling are highly selected from
what’s available in the community, which is what
But, that’s only a small part of the backstory because
then we have the multiple number of other languages,
which are nearly two hundred and fifty non-English,
non-Aboriginal languages from all parts of the world,
and these are as different from each other as it would
be possible for languages to be.
We’ve got languages and communities that are highly literate
among themselves, others that are not, some that come from
marked varieties of national languages, etc.
So, there’s a very, very wide array of languages.
And then we know that the communities in Australia
who are connected to those languages are at different stages
and in different relationships with those languages.
Some of them are losing them so they’re involved in
what we would call ‘subtractive bilingualism’,
losing those languages as they’re replaced by English;
whereas others are involved in additive bilingualism,
they’re retaining their first language as they acquire English.
And then we have the complexity of the Aboriginal languages,
of which fifty are still spoken by children and we have
some hundred or so that communities identify with.
So, we have a very highly diverse communication ecology
as the backstory and of course this is the foundation
from which learners learn, I mean we can’t anymore sustain
the fiction that learning begins at school and that
the primary vehicle of that is the teaching language.
In fact students in translanguaging bring to the task
of learning all their language resources.
There might be a fading first language or a variety of English
or a strong language other than English.
And in PETAA’s own production of works in the past
I think there have been some very important PENs and books
that have been written by scholars and this is a great role
that PETAA plays mediating between the academic world
and the world of teaching practice.
I’m thinking of Diana Eades’ work introducing questions
of Aboriginal English to regular teachers in schools,
even ones that don’t teach Aboriginal children.
I think it’s very important for everyone to know this
because language is highly variable and it’s an important fact
of teaching and learning that we acknowledge that.
So, Diana Eades’ PEN is a very important one.
And there was also a later one on tracking language,
it was called ‘Aboriginal English in regular classrooms’,
which I think is also a very important document that teachers
should be aware of and PETAA should be commended for producing.
PETAA was established when a group of educators
came together in 1972 and I think has provided some
clear direction to the development of English language education
in this country.
Can you comment on this for us please Joe?
Well, I think there’s a fascinating and very important
coincidence here because the beginning of the diversity agenda
in Australia coincides with the foundation of PETAA around 1972.
I think the symmetry of these two things is really interesting
and important because in the early 1970s in Australia
we had the beginnings of the idea of community languages,
the idea that languages could be associated with a community
that they don’t have to be foreign.
Remember that’s how we used to talk about languages
as being foreign, so the terminology that starts to enter
the discourse at the time is of community languages
to replace this idea of foreignness.
So, if a community language is there it means that it’s
part of the community that a child, an environment that a child
is part of, so it might be in their homes, it might be in
the shopping district that they attend with their parents
on the weekend.
It’s part of the wider context of literacy and communication
that the child is part of; it’s part of the shared knowledge
that they have with their families and that not always
is shared with the teachers.
And this is a really important point of dissymmetry
that might exist.
And I think PETAA was founded at exactly the time
that this kind of realisation gets going, not just in Australia
but also in the United States where we had an interchange
during the 1970s.
But in the early 1970s we also had the beginning of
federal intervention in education, with the creation of
the schools’ commission, the disadvantaged schools’ program.
Really important, in fact foundational programs that started
to direct attention to the fact that schools could change
the life chances of students.
People didn’t really believe that before then,
we need to keep in mind that up until that period of time
the selective nature of schooling was almost taken for granted
by everybody, and people just assumed that the kind
of background you brought to school was really your destiny.
Whereas after this really dynamic, productive period
of turbulence of the 1970s we start to think about education
in a different way.
And teachers and primary teachers in particular are central
to this new project as it were of trying to equalise
educational opportunity and here language education
and access to educated English, to the standard forms
of English that are powerful in education,
powerful in the labour market, come to the fore,
and bridging to those from the background languages
and varieties of languages that students have and literacies
that students have is the role of teachers and of course
the mediating function of PETAA.
And I think that that coincidence is incredibly suggestive
because what it tells us is that the two things
must have had — it would be interesting to look into
the history of this — must have had some kind of
intercommunication between them.
And this develops through the 1970s into the 80s and 90s
with PETAA producing a regular stream of publications
that informed teachers about thinking and scholarship
and research that’s being done to inform and improve practice.
Even mainstream teachers who don’t teach minority students
just to think about the new ways that language is
Because even in completely monolingual situations
language is always highly differentiated according to
the backgrounds of learners in social class,
the opportunities that individual students have to read
literature at home.
All of these differences make a difference to
the opportunities for individuals.
So, I think the birth of PETAA and the birth of the
equity agenda in Australia is really a resonant coincidence.
How might the development of English-as-a second-language
teaching in this country exemplify PETAA’s leadership
in this field?
This question opens up a really interesting
historical issue as well as a contemporary one.
Australia’s been a world leader in some areas of English
as an additional language, both for adults and children —
a primacy that unfortunately we have lost in recent years
and that I think that PETAA has an important role in
trying to recover.
In 1947 with the mass migration program that was commenced
by the government at the time, the purpose was to bring
to Australia a large number of people who would support
the creation of a labour market that would be more productive
and a bigger population.
That was the express purpose.
And as people have said, what Australia was recruiting
was workers but it actually got people; people with families
and children and so on.
In response to this the governments at the time created
the adult migrant, what became the adult migrant
English program, the largest adult English language
education initiative in the world.
And that was a concession that you needed to assist people
to fit in and integrate, which is a very pragmatic kind of
public policy that I think Australia has excelled at,
not currently but has excelled at in the past.
But it wasn’t until 1972 that that initiative was extended
to children in the child migrant education program,
which was about the time that PETAA is created.
And we kept this leadership going really until
the middle of the 1990s.
And we can see it in the different names that
were used for the area.
First we talked about migrant English or migrant literacy
or Aboriginal English or Aboriginal literacy,
which was seen to be a kind of deficit or defective
kind of standard English or literacy.
And over time it was extended to English as a second language,
which acknowledges in the term that children already have
a language and that English adds to it.
And we now have the term that prevails which is English
as an additional language which also acknowledges
that there is already an existing language and that
that language is a source of learning and socialisation,
an identity for the child, and really should be acknowledged
and brought into the learning process in
translanguaging activities that we know we can do.
What happened was in the middle of the 1990s unfortunately
Australia decided to have a big literacy crisis,
because we looked at the figures and governments applied
rigid normalisation to those figures.
In other words saying that certain kinds of
literacy performance were unacceptably low and that
what should happen was that resources should be devoted to
explicit teaching of literacy.
Of course I support that very strongly.
But unfortunately one of the things that went along
with that was to mainstream EAL programs into
literacy programs, that is to submerge them under literacy.
And I don’t think that that’s right, it’s clearly
closely connected with literacy education, but spoken language
is a separate developmental process that needs to be
encouraged by mainstream generalist teachers in
primary schooling and in secondary schooling.
All teachers are teachers of language in their
disciplinary areas and right across the curriculum.
All teachers even secondary school teachers are
teachers of literacy, they’re teaching the kinds of
literate practices associated with particular subject areas.
So, it was that kind of realisation that I think PETAA made
a big contribution to developing through the 1980s and 1990s.
I’m thinking now of the scaffolding work done by
Jennifer Hammond and Pauline Gibbons and Margery Hertzberg.
That was very, very important work on English across
the curriculum and the learning of content through language.
And this must mean that all the languages that a child
has at his or her disposal.
In the 1990s we’d lost a lot of this way because we decided
to think of literacy in a kind of narrower way,
in a more problem-based way.
And I think that this forced policy makers to combine
specialist programs that had been intended for immigrant
and Aboriginal programs into literacy mode.
And I think that that was unfortunate.
We need to recover that.
And I think that PETAA can play an important role
in recovering a special role for specialist English.
By specialist English I mean supporting teachers who can
either be direct teachers of English as an additional language,
or who can be resource teachers helping the mainstream
generalist teacher to include particular kinds of responses
to children with learning difficulties or with
English language background, or who are growing into
being bilinguals and need to learn English as a
language of learning.
These kind of processes we were very much more attune
to up until the middle of the 1990s and I think we’ve lost
our way a little bit.
Can you consider the future of teaching of
English language and literacy in Australia particularly
in light of recent curriculum developments for us please Joe?
I think we’re on the cusp of some very major
new developments and one of them is what looks like
now to have been a successful attempt to introduce
a national approach to curriculum.
There have been attempts to do this really going back
thirty years, but all of them have founded on state interests,
but this time it appears to have succeeded.
And what we’ve got is a curriculum which of course
will evolve and develop over time, but it’s got some features
that I think will remain.
And the first one is that there is an acknowledgement
centrally within the curriculum that learners come from
multiple language backgrounds.
And it’s important to be aware of a simple fact about this
and that it will never change, it is never going to go back
to homogeneity of language backgrounds,
the world is getting more intensely diverse,
more profoundly diverse, more rapidly diverse every single year,
more countries are becoming multilingual, multicultural,
there’s a much higher rate of mobility of populations
than there’s ever been, globalisation is producing
instantaneous communications across the world.
Englishes have been adopted in all parts of the world.
And so the form that’s our main national language
that is English is already no longer the possession of
English mother tongue countries.
It’s a kind of worldwide basic skill to some extent.
And so in the context of this, with languages other than English
which remain essential we’ve got a basis for seeing that
what PETAA has been involved in for some years
alerting teachers to the new communicative ecology
of the nation, is actually going to intensify,
it’s not going to lessen up.
The national curriculum is an opportunity and is
a good instalment in establishing this.
And we have this through the English curriculum which I think
really opens up a good way to link up literacy, language
and literature in the way that it does,
and with the support material for English as an additional
language dialect which brings into play the diversity
within English that we know is there and that all teachers
have to deal with and will be increasingly dealing with.
But it’s important to also keep in mind — even English teachers
should do this — that the national curriculum makes compulsory
for the first time in Australian curriculum history the study of
a second language.
It’s no longer an option, it is actually compulsory.
There are designated hours all through the curriculum
for different pathways.
So, there are pathways of learners who start say Chinese
from a Chinese speaking background,
those who start Chinese from an English speaking background
and those who might start Chinese from a dialect
So, already you see within the languages-other-than-
English curriculum — this is true for languages
other than Chinese — that there is an acknowledgement
of diversity of learners within those languages,
so it’s equally true and even more so with English.
So the national curriculum is a great opportunity for PETAA
to continue the innovative work that it’s done in the past
in linking learning and language according to diversity
of background, as resources that students bring to learning,
because this is the most important way we can think about it.
Outside of schooling people can argue about whether languages
are a problem or a right, but in schooling I think
we’ve only got one way to think about it and that is learning
and languages are resources that learners already have
within their repertoire, that students and teachers
should collectively develop.
Our job collectively is enhancing learning, and
enhancing learning means understanding the relationships
between language which is the main mechanism for the
production of learning, the shared production of learning
between teachers and learners and learning itself.
So language and learning: multiple languages and
multiple ways to learn within different subject areas.
Thank you for your time, Joe.
So pleased you’ve told us so much about this complex field.
Thank you Robyn, it’s been a pleasure.
I think it’s been interesting to reflect on the important role
that PETAA has played over the past forty years,
but I don’t think it lessens the future role that PETAA
has to play because it actually will be just as intense
because the equality agenda is going to be played out
within public education, within mainstream schooling
and that’s where PETAA’s central role mediating between
research and practice is going to continue.