Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate

2.1 Teachers plan for effective learning

What range of learning opportunities does the teacher provide so that all students are able to achieve optimum success and recognition for their performance in language and literacy?

In what ways does the teacher provide all students with opportunities to participate in literacy learning that is personally and culturally meaningful to them?

  Letters to the Editor
Year 8
John Elliot

Fact 1: Our English Department has long had a policy that any piece of student writing that is published in an 'outside-the-school' publication receives an automatic 'A' and can be included in the student's assessment folio.
Fact 2: Letters to the Editor in the Brisbane newspaper The Courier-Mail, including 'Briefs' (very short letters), can now be e-mailed to cmletters@qnp.newsltd.com.au.
Fact 3: My 1999 Year 8 English class is very lively, particularly after lunch, and needs a settling down activity before beginning the main work of the 75 minute period.
Fact 4: The class contains a number of computer-literate students who do not always perform well in written tasks.

As a result of Fact 3, I got into the habit of bringing the day's newspaper to class and reading selected news stories to them, initially mainly to preserve my sanity. I gave background, I read the article and possibly some letters to the Editor on that topic, they commented, and a lively debate usually ensued.

The two issues that we examined over about a week were "Should Howard have used the word 'sorry' (instead of 'regret') to aborigines?" and "Should young people receive equal pay (to over 18's) for equal work?"

During the second lesson we noted the characteristics of letters to the Editor, and of 'Briefs'. I set the writing of one such letter for homework, gave them the e-mail address, and reminded them of Fact 1 (guaranteed 'A').

The very next day we had a hit. One of the students, a boy noted for his succinctness in written expression, was there in 'Briefs' - in black and white in a mass circulation paper. Great excitement. The day after there were two (Master Succinct again and another). On day three, Succinct was in again. Three 'As' in three days, and instant fame. Needless to say, his mum and dad were very pleased with him, and, importantly, in these days of client focus, with me.

The Messages

Information technology can be a friend to the English reacher. In my 14 years of English teaching, I'd only ever had one student letter published prior to these four.

Students respond well to current issues, real purposes and a real audience, especially when the text can be short and the rewards great. Labour-saving, sanity-saving ideas are often the best.

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Australian Association for the Teaching of English A L E A ~ Australian Literacy Educators' Assoication
Department of Education & Training (Victoria) Education Department of Western Australia