Australian Curriculum: Languages – Changes in a Nutshell Part 2

Understanding ‘Understanding’

In my previous post I explored the way language content is outlined in the Chinese and Italian drafts for the Australian Curriculum. As explained in the Language general draft Curriculum Architecture and Content Structure, the content is divided into two Strands, Communicating and Understanding. My reflections last post were only related to the Communicating aspects. I am far more overwhelmed by the Understanding component.

The terminology in itself does not relate to understanding in the way we as language teachers have used it in the past. To us, understanding has been largely concerned with the comprehension of texts in the target language, either real and live or adapted and recorded for language practice purposes. True, in recent years we have seen analysis of language added to senior curricula requirements around the country and have had to work at building towards these skills in the middle years. In the ACARA document, however, Understanding has nothing immediate to do with general comprehension of key concepts, ideas or messages within written or spoken texts. That is all covered under the Communicating umbrella.

Understanding now relates to how and why language is used, how language varies, how the target language is used in our local communities and globally and how language and culture are reflected in each other. It’s all well and good in theory and is in keeping with the ever present calls for students to be taught ‘higher order thinking skills’, but…

Some of the Content Descriptors take an adult language and culture geek quite a lot of thought and reflection! While I gather the discussions, exploring, teaching and learning around all of this can/will take place primarily in English, I have a number of related concerns. I have looked over these parts of the documents for the past 2 weeks and still feel much of it is beyond my students, even with carefully guided questions, modeling and the like. Why?

Firstly, the time factor. How can we cover this deeper level of language analysis in the time we already have? I can see it is possible to cover the Communicating side of things – we are pretty much doing that now. But while the Australian Curriculum gives so called ‘Time on Task indicative hours’ for subjects, it does not mandate the number of hours for each subject, nor in our case can I find any mention of Languages becoming compulsory to the end of Year 10, as implementation and provision decisions are left to schools. Looking at the indicative hours for the 7-10 Sequence, each Level (2 school grades) is 160 hours. So each year is assumed to be 80 hours. I am currently covering my course with slightly more time than that, without the heavy going of this Understanding. Of course we talk about these types of things as they come up, but in reality not all students are interested in things far outside their own experiences.

My only solution so far is to adopt aspects of the flipped classroom idea. In 2012 at my school we trialled it at various points by using podcasts and screen casts to explain and illustrate grammar and students were able to ask question and submit work via Edmodo. The pay off was more time for actual practice of the communication using the language introduced. My Year 8 and 9 students (we don’t yet have 7s) have 3×50 min lessons a week, a single and a double. They get homework both days. By using one homework slot for new language and the other for reflection on the language and tying this to student blogs, perhaps I can get through some of this new content… I am keen to hear from teachers in other subjects who have used blogging with their students!

My second concern though, is harder to fix. I can ‘do’ understanding systems of language, the building blocks (yes, these now come under understanding) but exploring how the target language is used by our local community, how it features in local media etc is far more difficult. If a school is in the city, it is plausible. If the language taught is connected with the heritage of a majority of the local population AND still used by them, it is plausible. But for many country schools, this will present a difficult challenge! In many a school the language program taught has depended solely on teacher availability.

So where to? My first step will be to explore blogging with my students in English about the target language and culture. If I pose some questions and engage them in these thoughts, are they able to think that far? If Chinese and Italian teachers give feedback that affirms the draft or if little changes in the final version (I said in my first post about the Curriculum that change can make one cynical… Now is one of those times) then we will all just have to get creative with how we use our time and build these skills up gradually right from the start in partnership with our colleagues in junior years!


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