Improving the teaching of English in Australia through language and literacy research

Fields of Research

  • 13 - Education

Socio-Economic Objectives

  • 93 - Education and Training


  • Literacy
  • English teaching
  • Professional development
  • School education
  • Curriculum change
  • Language
  • English curriculum
  • Curriculum implementation
  • Support materials
  • Practical application

UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • 4 - Quality education


Impact Summary

Language and literacy research at UOW directly informed and shaped Australia’s first national English curriculum reform. For decades the program of research in language learning, literacy and digital literacy has provided an evidence base for key changes to how Australian teachers teach English. Through the roles of writer, advisor and stakeholder consultant, the team was influential in national English curriculum development. Drawing on strong community links, they applied their research findings to develop a suite of high quality support materials and deliver innovative professional development to more than 500 educators. These initiatives improved teachers’ disciplinary knowledge and confidence, and supported practical application of the new curriculum across Australian jurisdictions.

Related United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:

4. Quality education

Read details of the impact in full

Details of the Impact

The impact period was a time of change in Australian schools with the development and introduction of the first-ever national English curriculum to 9393 schools in 2012. Curriculum consistency across Australia was driven by concern that state and territory control of curriculum frameworks, implementation and quality, was inequitable for Australian children. A national initiative, the Australian Curriculum: English (AC:E), was developed under the stewardship of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) through consultation with stakeholders.

UOW’s Language and Literacy researchers were not only involved in curriculum development from 2009, but also supported states, school systems and teachers from 2012 to translate the newly developed curriculum into effective practice; and to do so confidently with knowledge about language and literacy theory.

Our impact is evidenced in four main ways.

  1. Contributions to the national curriculum

Recognition of impact is evident in the appointment of UOW’s Language and Literacy researchers in formal roles of writer, advisor and educator representative during AC:E curriculum development.

Our most notable contributions to the AC:E are in the underlying philosophy of the ‘language’ strand and recognition of screen-based reading practices across grades. Fundamental to the curriculum is the functional language perspective promoting students’ use of language to perform literacy activities; a perspective that came from Derewianka’s and Jones’ work in genre and grammar theories. This results in Australian school children learning to be active language users across a range of contexts. With the introduction of new technologies, screen-based reading has become more common. The language strand is also shaped by Bennett, Maton and Kervin’s position on digital natives and Turbill’s early work on screen-based reading skills (extended by Kervin and Mantei). The result is explicit study of how print and screen texts are organised and structured (e.g. AC:E elaboration ACELA1433).

  1. Guiding curricular translation for implementation

The team supported many educators and jurisdictions in their implementation of the AC:E. For example, Derewianka’s consultancy roles during the impact period with the Department of Education in Tasmania, the Catholic Education Office in Melbourne and Wollongong, and the Association of Independent Schools in the Kimberley, has benefited systems and teachers with her focus on the AC:E. Through this outreach Derewianka guided thousands of teachers across Australia in their delivery of the language strand of the English curriculum to Australian children. Derewianka’s expertise is further evidenced by her international consultations on syllabus design and implementation to educational authorities in Singapore, New Zealand and the European Union. Kervin convened the 2012 national Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) conference where 600 teachers engaged in a focus on language, literacy and literature (the three organising strands of AC:E) – Pam Grosse (NSW Principal) stated, “It was the finest professional conference that I have ever attended.  Every detail was wonderfully implemented, providing key support for literacy educators throughout Australia”.

  1. Development of curriculum support materials

Recognition of UOW’s expertise in language and literacy led to commissions to create materials for teachers. These materials are designed to advance knowledge of the English discipline by being both research-informed and practical.

Jones was commissioned by NSW Department of Education and Training Multicultural Programs Unit and the NSW Teachers’ Federation to develop online professional learning resources focused on teaching language in context (encompassing K-12). In evaluations, participating teachers from 302 schools (urban, rural and remote) have identified greater confidence with teaching the AC:E.

Kervin was commissioned by ALEA to co-author a book with Exley (QUT) entitled ‘Playing with Grammar’ to support teachers with their teaching of grammar in the first years of school. This book provides 24 practical examples of how grammar can be taught (trialled by Kervin in 2 NSW schools) and 4316 teachers have a copy. Requests to ALEA from teachers resulted in the production of another book ‘Exploring with Grammar’ with a focus on the later primary years (adding Mantei as an author).

  1. Professional development for practitioners

We are committed to creating professional development opportunities to help practitioners translate their current research into practice.

We gave invited presentations (10 plenary and 46 keynote addresses) that made new knowledge available to large national and international educator audiences. Derewianka delivered 10 addresses to Australian teachers focused specifically on AC:E, particularly the language strand. Jones’ expertise in the genre pedagogy cycle resulted in invited addresses to teachers at the Indonesian University of Education and the University of Hong Kong. Kervin’s expertise in the teaching of writing was recognised through her co-sponsored ALEA and Primary English Teachers’ Association Australia address in 2015 to more than 800 teachers (viewed more than 460 times on YouTube).

We influenced professional development opportunities for literacy educators across NSW. Kervin as NSW State Director for ALEA (2008-15) planned and implemented professional development programs for NSW teachers to support curriculum implementation. During the impact period, this program facilitated 90 professional learning sessions across NSW with each session having an average of 95 teachers in attendance. Kathy Ferrari (Literacy Manager, Diocese of Parramatta) when reflecting on the program stated, “we couldn't have asked for anything better”.


  • School teachers
  • School students
  • Educational administrators
  • Language and literacy professional associations; Australian Literacy Educators' Association (ALEA), Primary English Teachers Association (PETAA)
  • Commonwealth and state governments
  • Australian curriculum regulatory authorities


Impacted Countries
  • Australia

Approach to Impact

Summary of the approaches to impact

Education research at UOW is driven by the challenges facing learners and teachers. We identify the knowledge gaps underlying these practical challenges and conduct rigorous studies that inform professional practice and advance disciplinary understanding in the field. This case provides an example of how researchers have worked directly with teachers as end-users through a considered approach underpinned by the system of support available within UOW.

This case study focuses on a longstanding commitment to research in language and literacy as a critical foundation for success in school, work and life. Specific examples are provided of how this research seeks to shape government policy and subsequent professional practice to improve student literacy and language development.

Read the full approach to impact

Approach to Impact

Language and Literacy has been consistently recognised as a key research group at UOW; with an average of 6 full-time academic staff since 1982, graduating more than 90 HDR students, with national and international collaborators. We have a deliberate strategy of building complementary expertise in literacy, reading, writing, linguistics and TESOL, enabling researchers to establish individual specialised expertise, while collectively pursuing a program of research into complex educational problems.

Our impact is supported by a workload and performance model that recognises and rewards professional service. This ranges from engagement in joint projects with local schools with time for professional development of local teachers, to roles in professional associations and representation on state accreditation and curriculum committees.

Our approach to achieving impact is underpinned by four complementary strategies.

  1. Research conducted in partnerships with schools

We have established a strong synergy between research and practice. Partnerships are initiated by schools or through research projects, and inform our key areas of investigation ensuring that we focus on issues that are most relevant to teachers, administrators and policy-makers and therefore most likely to have practical impact.

Example: We were among the first Australian researchers to investigate the incorporation of digital technologies within the subject English. Our research originating in school partnerships has put student use of digital technologies firmly on the national and international literacy research agenda. Turbill’s early focus on technology drew attention to the possibilities for technology in early childhood contexts. Kervin’s collaboration with educational technology researchers highlighted possibilities for technology in classroom literacy experiences. Further qualitative analyses of the processes children engage in during these pedagogical opportunities continued the focus in this area and marked the beginning of collaboration with Mantei. Critique of the digital native debate (Bennett, Maton and Kervin) is in the top 1% of papers in the Social Science field based on citations for the field and publication year.

  1. Shaping professional practice by integrating research

We seek to integrate our research and teaching to prepare the future teaching workforce. Our graduate teachers have a strong foundation in language and literacy, incorporating the latest research. Our professional development program for in-service teachers extends our influence through our established local and national network of schools.

Example: In 2008 UOW hosted the Australian Government Summer School for Teachers of Literacy and Numeracy funded ($3M) by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. As part of the 2007-08 Budget Package: Realising our Potential, a consortium of universities and professional associations collaborated to deliver the summer school, which gave 250 leading teachers from all Australian states and territories access to the latest literacy research. This at the time was the largest commercial research contract UOW had ever won. Teachers heard from internationally renowned literacy experts, followed by workshops with UOW academics (including Derewianka, Turbill, Jones, Kervin) where they designed classroom-based inquiries to examine their own literacy teaching practices. The teachers had access to a range of learning opportunities, which research shows is effective professional learning for teachers.

  1. Service to professional associations

All UOW Language and Literacy researchers are actively engaged with peak professional associations. For example, ALEA provides a reference group, enabling researchers to tap into multiple national perspectives and develop partnerships with policymakers, teachers and other researchers in the field.

Example: Turbill served as ALEA President for 8 years (2003-11). In that role she served on the reference panel for the Australian Government’s National Inquiry into Literacy; worked closely with Teaching Australia (now the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, AITSL); led projects for the federal government, including National Literacy and Numeracy Week and National Reading Day; and served as a member of the Advisory Panel for the AC:E.

  1. Engagement with government policy-making and public discourse

The relationship between literacy research, policy, and practice has been a major research focus. From 2002-16 key research contributions led to involvement and subsequent impact on the first major national English curriculum reform in Australia.

Example: Derewianka’s contributions to genre theory and systemic functional linguistics have influenced both national and international English curriculum. YouTube features more than 100 videos of Derewianka delivering presentations, being interviewed or teachers interpreting her work. Derewianka supported the Language and Literacy team to publically engage with this research agenda. For example, DP0771675 was motivated by concern that the fields of literacy research, policy and practice do not interact in productive ways, as evidenced in government literacy reports in Australia and internationally. Research findings argued for an inclusive forum where researchers, teachers and policy developers identify research gaps and priorities to help guide research towards supporting classroom practice and informing policy. This became embedded within the consultative process for national curriculum reform.

Delivering on these strategies consolidated our reputation, contributing to an award of $44M in Australian Government Funding in 2012 for a strategic teaching, research and community engagement initiative: the Early Start inter-disciplinary project. Opening in 2015, the facility positioned UOW as a leader in early childhood education (including language and literacy) through outreach to educators, families and children.

Associated Research

Associated research conducted from 2002 to 2016 demonstrates how language and literacy reciprocally support children’s study of English. This research has investigated: the nexus between literacy research, policy and practice; the teaching and learning of English and community languages; genre theory and a functional approach to grammar; digital technology to support literacy learning; and classroom language and literacy interactions.

Our connection to national reform is evidenced through investigation of the development, interpretation and implementation of disciplinary knowledge within the curriculum (DP1093826). Members of the team interviewed key national, state and local stakeholders about curriculum development and translation in NSW, and conducted 15 school case studies examining implementation. This built on previous research (DP0771675) and reported on the effects of the national curriculum in a specific state and associated jurisdictions.

‘Transforming Literacy Outcomes’, funded by UOW and the Australian Government (2014-2017), has examined literacy development at critical transition points. In partnership with the NSW Department of Education, Big Fat Smile Community Preschools and the Catholic Education Office (Wollongong) we have worked with over 30 educators and 70 students across 9 sites, filming and analysing more than 40 hours of literacy teaching to develop modules to support other educators.


1. Bennett, S. J., Maton, K. & Kervin, L. K. (2008). The 'digital natives' debate: a critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786.

2. Derewianka, B. M. (2003). Trends and Issues in Genre-Based Approaches. RELC Journal: a journal of language teaching and research in Southeast Asia, 34(2), 133-154.

3. Derewianka, B. (2012). Knowledge about language in the Australian curriculum: English. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 35 (2), 127-146.

4. Derewianka, B. M. (2011). A new grammar companion for teachers. (2 ed.). Australia: Primary English Teaching Association.

5. Harris, P. J., McKenzie, B., Chen, H., Kervin, L. K. & Fitzsimmons, P. R. (2008). A critical examination of the nexus between literacy research, policy and practice. English in Australia, 43(1), 57-65.

6. Herrington, J., & Kervin, L. (2007). Authentic learning supported by technology: Ten suggestions and cases of integration in classrooms. Educational Media International, 44(3), 219-236.

7. Jones, P., & Chen, H. (2012). Teachers' knowledge about language: Issues of pedagogy and expertise. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 35(2), 147.

8. Jones, P. T. & Derewianka, B. M. (2016). A brief history of genre pedagogy in Australian curriculum and practice. Sprogforum, 63 1-16.

9. Kervin, L. K. & Mantei, J. (2009). Using computers to support children as authors: an examination of three cases. Technology Pedagogy and Education, 18(1), 19-32.

10. Kervin, L. & Mantei, J. (2016). Assessing emergent readers' knowledge about online reading. The Reading Teacher: a journal of the International Reading Association, 69 (6), 647-651.