What is English now? The construction of subject English in contemporary textbooks for Australian secondary schools
Date of Award
Master of Education (Research)
School of Education
Dr Brian Moon
Australian educators are currently engaged in widening debates about the performance of the nation’s schools, teachers and students. Perceived literacy deficits among secondary students have fuelled the debate, and this has precipitated reforms to English curricula at both National and State levels. The newly revised curricula attempt to improve student achievement through more systematic teaching about the English language and language skills. In response to the changes, major education publishers in Australia have released revised textbooks for English that purport to engage with the new curriculum.
This research study considered whether such new resources offer genuinely fresh and effective approaches to English, or whether they reproduce established conceptions and methods in new packaging. Guided by Michel Foucault’s concepts of social technology and discursive practice, and Ian Hunter’s detailed historical-theoretical analysis of English, this inquiry used a combination of content analysis and theorisation to identify the models of English embodied in textbooks. Five recent publications were studied to expose both the content and the underlying ideas and pedagogical assumptions about English contained within. Hunter’s historical matrix was applied to categorise the content and quantify the overall proportions of rhetorical, ethical and aesthetical instruction evident in the resources. The findings were interpreted according to Hunter’s genealogy of English and its prevailing discourses, in an effort to offer some clarification about the assumptions that shape school English, and its direction now and in the future.
The findings suggest that despite attempts to reconstruct English around the teaching of language skills, established conceptions of English have resurfaced, pulling the subject back toward the ethical domain and distorting the overall balance of content. While the data appears to reflect an apparent prominence of rhetorical skilling, analysis of the content demonstrates how this initiative is obscured by a superficial and mechanical treatment of language and a subsequent preoccupation with the ethical. The oscillation between rhetoric and ethics further reveals a visible circumvention of aesthetics, which is unvaryingly the most neglected category. The thesis concludes that change in English is likely being impeded by teaching materials, conceptual frameworks and assumptions that continue to frame English as a primarily ethical activity, in which linguistic skilling is subordinated to self-formation.
Wells, S. L. (2017). What is English now? The construction of subject English in contemporary textbooks for Australian secondary schools. https://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses/1963