The permanent panic…

Pretty much how it seems to me as I read yet another story in today’s Sydey Morning Herald: ‘We can use the word illiterate’: The writing crisis in Australian schools. Perhaps aside from being a CRISIS it is UNPRECEDENTED?

Most year 9 students are structuring sentences at a level expected of those two years their junior and are using punctuation like children in year 3, which leaves them struggling to meet curriculum standards and unprepared for senior high school or life beyond it….

Punctuation standards

Year 3: Students should use capital letters to start a sentence and a full stop or question mark at the end. They may be able to use commas and apostrophes.

Year 9: Students should be able to use complex punctuation such as colons, semicolons and dashes to clarify meaning.

Students were better at punctuation in pen-and-paper tests and better at paragraphing in online tests.

I have never been a fan of the nitpicking that passes for writing assessment in NAPLAN and similar bureaucratic pursuits of the measurable. For example in my South Sydney Herald days I wrote:

Former Rosebery resident Jim Belshaw draws in his blog on his years high up in the Australian public service at the level of policy and administration. Jim notes: “One major sub-text in the My School debate is the old question of performance measurement and the linked question of key performance indicators. I have been banging away at this one for a number of years in both my public policy and management writing. Indicators are not bad in themselves, but they can become quite pernicious when they become the central objective, crowding out other things.”

How true!

Be honest; when did you last use a semicolon? And was my use of one just then correct or not? Does this make me more or less literate in any meaningful way? How about looking at what I wrote? Is it perfectly punctuated crap, with really cool paragraphs, and does it matter what I said?

I have been banging on about literacy and the teaching of writing for decades now — at least five of them! As I said in this 1998 essay I submitted as part of my Grad Cert TESOL at UTS:


My mind and my teaching practice are archaeological sites. Some exploration of those sites seems a good way to focus the development of my present approach to literacy education, primarily but not exclusively in English in secondary schools. So far as this article has a thesis it is this: that, despite the sometimes combative rhetoric of those advocating one model or pedagogy or another (as when Martin [1993:159] pillories whole language approaches as ‘benevolent neglect’), an informed, dynamic eclecticism is a viable stance. (Compare Anstey and Bull 1996:52-53, Brock 1998:11 on the ‘either/or myth’.)

Thirty years have deposited approaches beginning with the very traditional mainstream English teaching of 1966, not much changed from the 1950s.


Throughout these thirty years literacy has apparently been in a state of crisis. In the late 1950s and early 60s certain Science professors at the University of Sydney lamented the ‘illiteracy’ of their students. In the 1970s, even before any rational person could have detected any impact on school leavers of the various ‘progressive’ developments of the early 70s, many commentators (such as Professor Crisp of the Australian National University) discerned a rapid decline in literacy and numeracy between 1970 and 1975 (Watson 1994:1).

And see also this 2011 post: “NAPLAN risks ‘repeating US mistakes’”–The Australian. And this one also from 2011: Everything old is new again.

Perhaps a sure sign one is getting old is when the latest debates – in this case on education – are so eerily similar to the debates of thirty and forty years ago that one constantly experiences deja vu!

In 1979 I was the main organiser of a residential conference at Ranelagh House in Robertson. The topic was “English into the 80s!”

Now of course we didn’t anticipate IT, about which see this: “Australia and New Zealand have come equal second to Korea in digital literacy among 15-year-olds, according to a new Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report examining how students use computers and the internet to learn…”  But we were contemplating CCTV as a teaching tool, and video, and of course OHP – overhead projectors, in case you’ve forgotten already….

So there was an outbreak on my Facebook feed in the past few days, starting on Sunday night. in response to a proposal to alleviate teacher workloads through a bank of resources, or as one report put it “shared lesson plans”. I bridled somewhat at that:

To quote one of my first mentors at Cronulla High in 1965 when I was a student teacher: “I take professional pride in my unplanned lessons!” And I will confess — I would put a lot of time into prepping a unit of work but extremely rarely in all my years teaching ever did a detailed lesson plan. Too many variables to predict. Sure I would have my materials — text, handouts, and so on — but the lesson was always something of a happening.

What happened was not just dependent on me after all. Up to 30 other people were (hopefully) involved. And if they were not I would goad them one way or another until they were, Or I would employ group work — often did.

I always had a hard time conforming to requirements to write up lesson or unit plans, or keep lesson registers. I am afraid they were ofren works of fiction really, though lessons did in fact take place and quite a lot of the time kids learned and even passed exams…

I am not sure about the ideas proposed here. There is something just a bit chilling and neat about it.

Some of my best lesson ideas at SBHS came to me while smoking a cigarette or two (sadly) out in Moore Park, or while half-awake in the morning…. Or even in dreams…

That still applies (but not the cigarette part) to blogging, come to think of it…

The next day I softened a little when I read another report on The Conversation: ‘I feel guilty about not being good enough’: why all Australian schools need teaching material banks. My Facebook comment led to an interesting dialogue with 1970s colleague Rosemary.

Me: I posted at some length on this last night and should point out that it applied to native speaker English classes mostly where over-prescriptiveness and zany definitions of accountability can be a curse! Freewheeling and bouncing off one another is often the best pedagogy there. But in my experience not only there but in other subjects. And in ESL/EFL situations too.

However a BANK of teaching materials would indeed be useful…. As long as what the teacher does with them is open.

Rosemary: I can see some merit in a bank of teaching materials as a potential resource. However I have real concerns and reservations about formulaic lesson plans even though the pressures, the expectations and demands have all increased exponentially in recent years and teachers are finding less time to devote their energy and enthusiasm to accessing and sourcing materials. I always had difficulty with the idea of formalised lesson plans as much I struggled with the writing up of registers at the end of each term. Ideas for lessons were gleaned from staff room chats,random thoughts, dreams, a walk on the beach, whilst cooking dinner, watching tv…….and even then actual lessons could take a direction tangential to a plan but end up in some wonderful incidental learnings and insights enjoyed by both students and teacher. Whilst there can be benefits from a commonality of materials available to schools unless there is a dynamic connection between a teacherand a class lessons from a teaching materials bank are not worth a hill of beans. Such lesson plans and materials cannot be prescriptive. To be of value they should remain as a resource that teachers can modify or adapt to meet the diverse needs of their students.

Me: Pretty much what I said last night. I may make a blog post of all this tomorrow, Too tired or too much Shiraz at the moment….

I had lunch at the Club yesterday you see….

PS or P.S. if you prefer

Twitter has been active. This one attracted my notice:

When was the last time you or your students submitted an unedited, unproofed, 1st attempt at writing created in a limited amount of time ANYWHERE? A: Never.We always revise.

‘We can use the word illiterate’: The writing crisis in Australian schools

That is by Katina Zammit, Deputy Dean and a Senior Lecturer in English K-6 pedagogy and curriculum with research interests in creation of texts – written and multimodal, using a rap get of technologies to support student engagement in learning and improve literacy outcomes for students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. She is on a number of editorial boards for international journals. She has worked in primary schools, as a literacy consultant and provided advice on literacy and mulitliteracies to ACARA.

See this 2017 post: NAPLAN only tells part of the story of student achievement.

NAPLAN cannot measure creativity or engagement

Despite all that NAPLAN can measure, it only tells part of the story of literacy and numeracy achievement. Results may not show growth of learning in schools with students from low socio-economic backgrounds or culturally and linguistically diverse students, because it only measures a narrow skill set on one particular day of the year. It does not represent student achievements across the year, nor across the breadth of the curriculum which schools use to evaluate their programs.

BTW this is the 18th revision of this post, mostly correcting typos….

Now I take you back 20 years to March 2002!

Thanks to the Internet Archive where such ancient blog entries go in the end… I hope the first choice is not some kind of omen.

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Waking at about 5 am (Daylight Saving has just ended) I turned on the radio and heard the Queen Mother had just died. Not unexpected. I offer this as a tribute.

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

I was searching for information about Moises Kaufman and Gross Indecency, as PK, Colin, Sirdan, the Model and I will be seeing it on Saturday in Newtown. On the same bill is an all-male production of The Importance of Being Ernest.

Gross Indecency is a dramatisation of the trial of Oscar Wilde. The mode of presentation is somewhat Brechtian or even post-modern, I am told. One point worth thinking about is made by Kaufman in an interview:

QSF:The play makes obvious that the birth of a new art form is what is at stake and on trial in Victorian England, much more so than one man’s homosexuality. Homosexuality was just a vehicle through which the state could attack Wilde and his philosophy.

KAUFMAN: Absolutely. Wilde was not tried for being gay as much as for being a threat to the way in which Victorian culture operated. Wilde was saying in Victorian times that a man did not have to be the cold Imperialist; rather, he was putting forth this discourse of sensitivity and beauty–to humanize the world, not conquer it. This was, of course, very radical. Many times, the act of being gay calls into question society’s values–and this is a good thing, but it is also why queer culture is so very threatening.

(No, you will not be required to write one thousand words on that after the performance!)

Reviewers (this sample is from the UK) have had various views on the play, as one might expect. A friend whose theatrical judgment I respect tells me he has read it and it reads well. The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer was kind to Gross Indecency (the production we will see) but thought the Ernest very bad. Still, we have tickets to both, so I will let you know later what we felt.

Thursday, March 21, 2002

Cecily. Well, I know, of course, how important it is not to keep a business engagement, if one wants to retain any sense of the beauty of life, but still I think you had better wait till Uncle Jack arrives. I know he wants to speak to you about your emigrating.
Algernon. About my what?
Cecily. Your emigrating. He has gone up to buy your outfit.
Algernon. I certainly wouldn’t let Jack buy my outfit. He has no taste in neckties at all.
Cecily. I don’t think you will require neckties. Uncle Jack is sending you to Australia.
Algernon. Australia! I’d sooner die.
Cecily. Well, he said at dinner on Wednesday night, that you would have to choose between this world, the next world, and Australia.
Algernon. Oh, well! The accounts I have received of Australia and the next world, are not particularly encouraging. This world is good enough for me, cousin Cecily.
Cecily. Yes, but are you good enough for it?

That is of course from Act II of The Importance of Being Ernest and still got a good laugh from an Australian audience on a warm night when there was hardly a neck tie in sight!

Particularly when Cecily was played by a six foot tall Australian male in a fetching Edwardian summer frock.

Yesterday was a sheer delight. I met the Model for lunch where we discussed some matters of mutual interest. We then remembered that a rather important horse race was being run that day, or at least the Model did, so we went in search of a betting shop, managing to walk straight past the nearest one. However, we found another and the Model made a small investment on our behalf, which (it turned out) confirmed my ambivalence about gambling…

Then to the New Theatre where we met up with PK, Sirdan and Colin. The first play, Gross Indecency was Moises Kaufmann’s docudrama on the trials of Oscar Wilde, and is quite a splendid play. Peter Flett as Wilde was convincing in appearance and I was moved, I have to say, particularly by the speeches of Wilde towards the end as his life descended into chaos and the prison house beckoned. The Marquess of Queensberry, on the other hand, was just a bit too caricatured. There was a delightful sequence where Queen Victoria was literally wheeled in to sign into law the Act forbidding “Gross Indecency” (except between women).

One could not but be struck by echoes of the past week in Australia (the Justice Kirby issue).

The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer had damned the second play, The Importance of Being Ernest out of hand. It is, admittedly, Barry Lowe’s transformation of the text: we find ourselves at the beginning in Reading Gaol, the prisoners (including Wilde) circling in the exercise yard. Then we move to Wilde’s memory of the performance of The Importance of Being Ernest with Wilde sitting to one side of the stage. Twice he appears within the play; after the interval we enter the theatre and see Wilde talking to Cecily, who addresses her first lines to him. Then near the end, Wilde makes a short speech just before the last few speeches of the play. I thought it worked very well, particularly when you had just seen Gross Indecency.

The play itself was fresh, funny, well-paced, and the audience loved it. Sirdan had never read the play before or ever seen it, and he really enjoyed himself. The fact all parts were played by men was not at all disturbing. In fact it added to it, in my view. They did not camp it up outrageously but stayed in character and respected the text; the disjunctions, when they occurred, were delicious. I loved it. So did the Model, and PK, who is a bit of a purist when it comes to theatre.

We concluded the Herald reviewer must have been to another play!

Between plays we had the most delicious African food in a restaurant in King Street.

It was a really beautiful afternoon/evening.


I had fun rereading The Importance of Being Ernest at various times during the day.

Then, this evening at 7.30 SBS showed the first episode of the PBS series on the reign of Queen Victoria. I certainly learned something from it. Next week it deals with India–must watch.

On suffering at university?

05 Mar 2002

My own apprenticeship is the field of literary theory (semiotics, post-modernism, post-colonialism and so on) began twenty years ago when I was sharing the editorship of Neos, a young writers’ magazine,with younger people who were studying such things. In a way that time was the high-water mark of Theory in the English-speaking world and it was either worshipped or desperately rejected as barbaric twaddle. My initial response was to regard it as barbaric twaddle.

I began to write an article for The Teaching of English in order to demonstrate what twaddle it was. Naturally I had to read what I was refuting, and indeed I had few problems finding barbaric twaddle enough and jargon fit to make anyone with any love of language throw up.

But that is not all I found; I found some of it actually made sense, and raised questions that needed to be raised.

Today’s students are marginally luckier, since there exist a number of introductory texts that cut through the jargon and make things much plainer. One such text is Beginning Theory by Peter Barry (Manchester University Press, 1995, new edition 2002); another is The English Studies Book by Rob Pope (Routledge 1998, with a second edition in process right now.)

It would bore my readers to go into depth, but I quote a little advice from Peter Barry:

…I want to assure you at the outset that the doubts and uncertainties you will have about this material are probably not due to:

1. any supposed mental incapacity of your own…or not possessing the kind of X-ray intellect which can penetrate jargon and see the sense beneath, or
2. the fact that your schooling did not include intensive tuition in, say, linguistics or philosophy, or
3. the innate and irreducible difficulty of the material itself…

Rather, nearly all the difficulties you will have will be the direct result of the way theory is written, and the way it is written about. For literary theory, it must be emphasised, is not innately difficult. …On the contrary, the whole body known collectively as ‘theory’ is based upon some dozen or so ideas, none of which are themselves difficult…

But the frame of mind I would recommend at the outset is threefold. Firstly, we must have some initial patience with the difficult surface of the writing. We must avoid too-ready conclusion that literary theory is just meaningless, pretentious jargon (that is, that the theory is at fault). Secondly, on the other hand, we must, for obvious reasons, resist the view that we ourselves are intellectually incapable of coping with it (that is, that we are at fault). Thirdly, and crucially, we must not assume that the difficulty of theoretical writing is always the dress of profound ideas-only that it might sometimes be, which leaves the onus of discrimination on us… Do not, then, be endlessly patient with theory. Require it to be clear, and expect it, in the longer term, to deliver something solid. Don’t be content, as many seem to be, just to see it as ‘challenging’ conventional practice or ‘putting it in question’ in some never quite specified way. Challenges are fine, but they have to amount to something in the end.

I should add that, on another front, I am finding reading Ulysses does ‘amount to something in the end,’ though it is cruel to expect students to process it in a semester, especially when there is much more material to read in the course.

I have also bought Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence (on which the movie is based), and can now see very clearly through Peirs Akerman’s game last Sunday; he is right from a pedantic viewpoint, and the film-makers have been disingenuous; but there is nothing to aid and comfort Akerman in the book, so far as I can see at the moment. Probably the reverse.

Ten to fifteen years ago — my English/ESL blog

It began on Angelfire, Tripod and Geocities as the Sydney Boys High English and ESL pages, but on moving to WordPress it became, on my retirement, Neil Whitfield’s etc. In fact that was pretty much how I told the Boss, Dr Jaggar, that I was retiring! It continued supporting my Chinatown coachees through to the 2010 HSC, and was of interest to teachers and others, not only in Australia. “A great resource for all students and teachers…” — Frances M, N.S.W. English Teachers Association Bulletin Board, Mar 25, 2005.

As you can see, it was well visited between 2007 and 2012 — still attracts some visitors.

This blog has retired — read this for more

18 January 2010

After eight years at my various addresses, beginning on Angelfire then Tripod as my class page and then morphing into the Sydney Boys High School English/ESL site (to 2005) and then on my retirement to its current mode, I am at last ceasing to update this blog, though I will be back to update some of the existing posts and pages and to deal with comments. Thanks to all for the support over the years.

Now some samples from 15 years ago!

NSW school visitors, welcome back!

29 JAN 2007

Yes, a new school year has just started here in NSW, my 41st since becoming a teacher!

If you go to Workshops you will see that all the workshopped essays have now moved over from Tripod, most to this site, but two to Geocities, because formatting issues prevented their being hosted here. At least on Geocities they tend to appear more quickly than they do on Tripod.

The site has been redesigned for the new year too. I hope you find it useful, and keep coming back as new content is added.

I do take requests, so if there is something you would like me to post about, let me know via comment (provided I haven’t closed it against spam), the guestbook, or email.

Tutoring, reality, and results

12 FEB 2007

I have written on coaching before. As you will see if you check the “About” page, I do tuition in Chinatown here in Sydney — one-to-one only — and have for some time. Tuition is meant, in my opinion, to supplement what the school might be doing; it certainly does not substitute for the school, nor does it circumvent the student’s own work. There is no magic about it. The tutor tries to tune into where the student currently sits, tests formally or informally for the student’s weaknesses, and attempts to lift the student’s performance accordingly through carefully chosen practices and explanations. “Anything happening at school you are not sure about?” is always a good opening question. I have sometimes been in the happy position of being able to coordinate my tuition with what the student is doing at school because I have been able to talk to the student’s teacher.

What tutoring must never do is replace the student’s own authentic efforts. Doing a student’s homework for them or drafting their essays is not tuition: it is cheating.

The outcomes of tutoring therefore vary. Without wishing to appear rude, no tutor can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but a tutor can enable a student to progress more than he or she may have done without tuition.

Last year I had five HSC candidates, and currently know the results of three of them. The fourth, I imagine, got a respectable result in Standard English: I must try to find out. The fifth dropped out of tuition after August; the problem there was doing the wrong course — forced to do Standard when ESL was the most viable option. One candidate I do know about would have been disappointed as the band result was not the hoped for outcome, although only one or two marks short. In that case tuition began a bit too late. It is always best to begin at least in Year 11. Nonetheless, that student did make substantial improvements, but was not what I would call a natural humanities student. The student’s approach tended to rely too much on memorisation, and consequently lacked the flexibility needed to rework what was known to suit new circumstances. The other two, by contrast, did really well. In one case the aim was to achieve Band 6 (the top range) and that was achieved (92%). Of course the student had the potential already, but tuition helped to ensure that Band 6 as the student was able to develop examination and study skills more effectively through the practices and through our reflections together on how the system works. The other was an interesting case, as the student’s language skills were behind the one who ended up disappointed. This student achieved Band 5 (and a UAI of around 93), but would almost certainly have attained Band 4 or even less without tuition. However, the student was a more natural humanities student, able to make the necessary adjustments and critical decisions. As a tutor I can enhance that, but I can never teach it.

So I am afraid that paying the money does not in itself guarantee a result, but then that extends to all private education, doesn’t it? Students are not blank slates on which anything may be written.

I should add that all my students are of East Asian background, mostly Chinese, and English is their second language.

All your own work

01 MAR 2007

Student Guide to Avoiding Plagiarism

I posted that on the old Tripod blog on Friday, 10 June 2005.

New writing workshop page

26 FEB 2007

I am building a new page in the Writing Workshop and you can join in. See Creative writing Year 10 age level, six months in Australia.

You may for the next little while read the original essay and make comments or suggestions. In a week or two I will complete the workshop with an annotated version of the essay and a final draft. If any of your suggestions have helped, you will be acknowledged.