Australian Curriculum: Languages – a first impression

The introduction of new curriculum requirements always involves a time of uncertainty, adjustment and reworking. Changes are not always easy to accommodate and cynicism can set in about the writers of the curriculum and how far removed they may be from the day to day experience of the classroom. The publishing of the draft documentation for the Australian Curriculum is likely to be no different.

When I first glanced over it the day after its release, I must admit to feelings something akin to panic and dread. How on earth can we manage to have all students achieve that?! What must be expected if the glossary alone is 15 pages?! If that’s what they think Second Language Learners of Chinese can do I dread to think what the Japanese draft will look like…!

BUT having had time to give it some proper attention (what else was I to do as a passenger across the Hay Plain?! Not the best area for playing ‘I Spy’…) I am now much more optimistic and looking forward to the documents for my particular languages so i can delve into the detail. While I still have numerous questions and concerns, there is much I approve of within the Languages general documents, particularly the Preamble, Rationale and Aims.

Firstly, the document recognises and values ALL languages. At a time when some languages are disappearing from focus very much due to political and economic trends, the ACARA document validates them and the benefits any experience in a second language and culture brings to the overall education and well-being of our young people. By insisting on language specific documents rather than just one or two (alphabetic and non-alphabetic as in the past in some States) the ACARA document recognises that each language and culture has similarities and yet differences, for which a curriculum must cater specifically or allow for variations by the language teacher.

Secondly, I like the statement on Page 3 that “it is not the case that the relationship between the two languages is ‘one plus one’, where each language stays separate and self-contained”. The learner’s first language, and any others they have experience in whether at school or home, are now seen as coming with them into the classroom and adding value to their learning experience, rather than needing to be shut off in favour of the target language. I know in some circles this will be seen as a move possibly leading to reduced use of the target language, but as a learner of 3 languages, I know I move constantly between them, learning more about each because of connections I make with the others.

On Pages 4 and 5, in the section entitled “Diversity of language learners” and in the Rationale, are a number of points about the changing face of migration and our indigenous students. They have not been interconnected in the document, but I believe the arguments and key points for one support those for the other and support and validate the work and passion of language teachers in general. The document states in one section that there is an increasing variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds and proficiencies in Australian classrooms and follows in the next with the centrality of language and culture for the learning and identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. I would argue that language and culture do this for all our students.

“…learning their own language is crucial to their overall learning and achievements. It enables them to achieve a secure acceptance of their own identity and helps them develop a widerrecognition and understanding of their own language, culture, land and Country. This contributes to their well-being.”

This statement is specifically included for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, but I believe applies in general. Our education system has a responsibility to nurture and develop the first languages of all our students, regardless of what those languages are, whether an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language, Vietnamese, Greek, Hindi… The list goes on! If we don’t work with families to build literacy in the first language these students risk becoming semi-literate. If we don’t build on their understanding of the place their culture has within their identity, we devalue it and by extension them and the contributions they make to our society and culture as a whole. Thus, there is material in the new curriculum document to support language departments which may be having to justify the continuation of some language programs which may be at risk given the focus of funding, and therefore in-school support, likely to switch to the ‘big 4’ following the recent White Paper.

Finally, for now anyway, I am grateful that the draft of our new curriculum allows for teachers to make adjustments to the learning programs of individual students to support their needs, whether students with disabilities of any degree or students identified as gifted and talented. It also notes that our classes are likely to consist of different learner groups and that individual schools and teacher will still retain autonomy as to how to implement the curriculum and design our programs. Importantly it does not yet state the Achievement Standards as being fixed, required outcomes but rather as “learning that students are likely to demonstrate at particular points. This is important given that, for a few years at least, many of us will have students on both the F-10 sequence at the same time we have students on the 7-10 sequence in the same class. For those of us in States where Year 7 is still in primary school, we will have the added challenge of playing catch up, given that most primary school language programs have less contact hours than those of secondary schools.

So why, on the whole, am I positive? In my experience so far, language teachers are passionate, energetic and willing to share their experiences, ideas and resources not just within their individual language communities but between them. The Australian Curriculum: Languages encourages us to continue to advocate for the need for Australians to broaden their horizons, to explore ways of thinking, being, doing and expressing. With the new curriculum pushing us for more creative use of language and authentic audiences and interactions for our students, we will need to draw on and build our existing networks, and that can only be a good thing for us and our students!

More in future posts, I’m sure…

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