The role of literature in language and literacy learning.
Article Type:
Children's literature (Study and teaching)
Children's literature (Forecasts and trends)
Whole language learning (Methods)
Matthews, Lynley
Pub Date:
Name: Practically Primary Publisher: Australian Literacy Educators' Association Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Australian Literacy Educators' Association ISSN: 1324-5961
Date: Oct, 2011 Source Volume: 16 Source Issue: 3
Event Code: 010 Forecasts, trends, outlooks; 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Market trend/market analysis; Company business management
Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Literature plays a pivotal role in supporting, sustaining and developing literacy and language learning. As teachers we know that it is impossible to separate language or literacy learning from literature. Students learn language that is relevant and meaningful for their current and future social interactions through talking, listening, reading and writing.

The Shape of the Australian Curriculum: English (ACARA 2009) deines literature as:

"Understanding, appreciating, responding to, analysing and creating literature: an enjoyment in, and informed appreciation of, how English language can convey information and emotion, create imaginative worlds and aesthetic and other significant experiences."

Teachers, parents and the greater community promote varying aspects of language and literacy development through exposure to a range of texts. The Shape of the Australian Curriculum: English (ACARA 2009) describes literature for students as inclusive of poems, films, stories, websites, plays and a range of other literature forms. Enthusiasm in literature is a crucial milestone, and is also one of the hardest to teach. Having a diverse range of items classed as literature ensures that the greatest possible range of students can find a type of literature that suits their personal, cultural and social needs.

Diverse forms of literature presented to students can engage and appeal to a vast range of learner types and levels of appreciation. In understanding how children develop an appreciation of and understanding of diverse forms of literature I looked to the children I work with. What I discovered was children were easily engaged in complex computer-generated, multimodal literature (including e-books). I also discovered that the 'love of books' exists for paper and electronic literature, even in very young children who were more than happy to share their thoughts about their favourite stories with me. Their literature included an array of visually appealing, bright, interesting, humorous and unusual forms of text that were well read and obviously well loved. Some texts focus on social issues and concerns, whereas others focussed on literacy development, numeracy, science knowledge and other key areas.

On the specific recommendation of one child I read Young's 1996 Big Dog and Little Dog Visit the Moon. I read the story with a view to analysing how this piece of literature played a role in developing language and literacy skills whilst being relevant to the reader. The story dealt with the idea that it's important to help someone who is sad. It dealt with complex ideas such as identifying when someone isn't happy, developing a method to approach the individual and a means to engage the individual to make them happy. Throughout the book the reader is presented with an array of cleverly chosen verbs and adjectives, supported by large, brightly coloured pictures with speech bubbles to reinforce text. About half way through the book I realised I had stopped trying to analyse language and I was engaged in the cute pictures and activities of Big Dog and Little Dog. It was at this point I realised that children (and adults) identify with characters, seeing them as aspects or individuals within their own lives and identifying and sharing their concerns, hopes, dreams and fears. Big Dog and Little Dog modelled problem solving skills that children learn as a side effect of enjoying the amusing antics of the pair. Literature can be used as a method to show, model, illustrate and outline key literacy skills, but in saying this, it is important to understand that children's literature is more than just reading text. Children can and should learn a portion of their literacy and language skills indirectly through literature. What is more obvious and apparent are the social and personal lessons that are learnt. Children's literature should be engaging, interesting, relevant and aim to improve or challenge the individual.

Adults can play a crucial role in igniting children's passion for literature in its many forms. Texts that aren't engaging, interesting or relevant can be easily put aside by students. There's a balance between engaging literature and focussing on children's language and literacy development. There have been comments that indicate that the Shape of the Australian Curriculum: English paper tends towards a more traditional view of the importance of grammar, spelling and pronunciation. I don't believe that these changes will inhibit teachers' ability to define and select engaging literature to meet Australian standards for their students. There is a wealth of excellent literature for students to choose from. The freedom to choose their own literature increases children's appreciation of it. Literature can be selected to enhance the learning of a range of curriculum areas. Literature that is well chosen and contextual enhances the understanding of a topic whilst developing and improving language skills and it provides useful opportunities to enhance and cement literacy skills. Linking a syllabus topic to the choice of literature, to increasing language skills and to enhancing literacy skills increases the success of both learning the topic and learning life-long English skills.

An understanding of children's literature and relevance of the literature to the individuals concerned plays an important role in the success of the literature's appeal. Appealing literature directly impacts language and literacy development. Miller (2011) describes how to truly discuss literature with students, it is absolutely essential for a teacher to be familiar with the stories to gain a deeper insight into what the students feel when they read a text. Allowing students to choose from a selection of predetermined texts provides a structured framework for language and literacy development. Ensuring that a variety of literature forms are presented increases the range of children's vocabulary, the use of complex vocabulary and children's language fluency. Literature can be presented in a range of meaningful, interactive and interesting ways that enable teachers to model, assess, and build upon literacy skills.

Well-chosen literature develops knowledge of self, knowledge of others and social interactions and knowledge of the world around them. Texts can be used to develop students' language skills regarding the world around them. Well-chosen literature builds and develops vocabulary and grammatical skills, as well as develops children's confidence and fluency in English (ACARA 2009). Language and literacy development relies on literature as the means to present language and literacy skills. Texts can and should be selected based upon students' backgrounds, environment and interests to develop a consistent level of literacy and language skills.

Modern literature is extremely diverse and encompasses a broad range of areas that prepare children for their future interactions. Well-chosen literature needs to be just as diverse to meet the growing need for digital and multimodal literature. As our society develops, so does our reliance on technology and technology based communication. Creating adults of the future requires an understanding and appreciation of the workplace and lifestyle requirements that people could reasonably be expected to have.

Digital literature plays a key role in workplaces now and most likely will play a greater role in the future. Numerous research articles argue that digital technologies have had and will continue to have an enormous impact on literacy, literature and language development (Robinson, 2010; Coslovich, 2010; Sebastian, 2010; Sydell, 2010). Whilst digital literacy should be promoted in children, it is important that children have the opportunity to engage in non-digital literature. Turning pages, discovering new and exciting images and reading text in a structured manner are more likely to occur in hardcopy. Skimming, licking between pages and reduced engagement is more likely to occur with digital literature (Pradeep, 2010). Computerbased technologies allow new methods for children to engage with text in a visually relevant way. If we consider for a moment what our professional practices look like: our reports are digital, newspaper and journals are online, even some of our professional development courses are online. There is a need for children to be able to access and make meaning from digital literature.

Digital literature whilst similar to traditional literature can have several key differences in the role of literature in developing language and literacy skills (Anstey & Bull, 2006). Digital reading has been noted to take longer (Sydell, 2010), users are more likely to skim or scan material looking for information of interest (Pradeep, 2010), and users may not engage with the non-tactile aspects. Digital literature plays a huge role in developing unique language and literacy skills that are not relevant or even existent in non-digital literature. Digital literature is an essential component of language and literacy development that has direct applications to the real world.

Given the unique language and literacy aspects found in digital literature, I was surprised to discover the minimal coverage of digital literature in the Shape of the Australian Curriculum: English (2009); especially when compared the significance of technology in the Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Science (2009). In fact there seems to be an unusual focus on historic skills rather than coverage of more modern literature accessibility skills. Spelling and handwriting have managed to make the Shape paper and these skills could be argued as aging and of little use when compared with digital literacy skills such as typing speed, text to speech recognition skills and mouse finesse in accessing modern literature. From a personal perspective, I can't remember the last time I picked up a pen. I fill in forms online, I read digital text, I engage with colleagues via email, I have an online diary, and I use a telephone and Skype to contact family. With Dictionary dot com (2011) and Word spell checking, spelling doesn't play a crucial role in accessibility of literature. Digital literature is also appealing to young audiences because of its very nature. It's visual, kinaesthetic literature that is multimodal and accessible. The culture of generation Z is digital. Limiting the focus on digital literatures could reduce the accessibility and desirability of English. Acknowledging that all types of literature can appeal to, enhance and develop English skills is fundamental in choosing a variety of forms of literature to embrace and develop.

The role of literature in literacy and language development is crucial, just as literacy is essential in developing literature skills and language is the doorway to literacy and literature. The three play linked roles where skills in one area develop another and cannot (and should not) be teased apart in the classroom. Literature is the ultimate enabler, the ability to communicate, interact and be understood and plays a critical role in children's lives now and in their future.


ACARA (2009) Shape of the Australian Curriculum: English. Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Publications. / publications.html

ACARA (2009) Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Science. Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Publications.

Anstey, M. and Bull, G. (2006). Teaching and Learning Multiliteracies: Changing times, Changing literacies, International Reading Association, Newark, Delaware, USA.

Coslovich, G. (2010) 'E-books lack the magic of the real thing' Sydney Morning Herald. 8 January 2010. Accessed 4 March 2011. ebooks-lack-the-magicof-the-real-thing-20100107-lwpw.html (2011) LLC.

Miller, Donalyn (2011) Catching Fire. The Book Whisperer. Web-blogs. 7 February 2011.

Robinson, H. (2010) Et Tu, Libraries? Save Those Books--They May Soon Be Collectors' Editions. 12 July 2010. Extra Space Storage News archives. Accessed 4 March 2011. Those-BooksThey-May-Soon-Be-Collectorse28099-Editions.aspx

Sebastian, P. (2010) 'The browser's ecstasy: And then there were digital books.' The Deccan Herald. 13 July 2010. books.html

Sydell, L. (2010) 'Reading a book on an iPad or Kindle? It might take longer' NPR. All Tech Considered. 8 July 2010. book-on-an-ipad-or-kindle-it-might-take-longer

Young, S. (1996) Big Dog and Little Dog visit the Moon. Mammoth, London.

Lynley Matthews is a qualified NSW secondary science teacher with a passion for multimodal literacy. Her work focuses on developing learners' creativity and self-expression through a variety of mediums; providing unique opportunities for all learners to engage in meaningful literacy learning.
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