My Girragundji – quality Aboriginal literature for the Australian classroom


Cover of My Girragundji, written by Meme McDonald and Boori Monty Pryor in 1998

My Girragundji is an 84-page novel written by Meme McDonald and Boori Monty Pryor (McDonald & Pryor, 1998). It tells the story of how a young Aboriginal boy overcomes his fears of visits from the hairyman at night, of approaching his first girl friend Sharyn, of migaloos (white people), and of dealing with the bullies at school. In the course of the story, the boy develops a special relationship with a little tree frog called Girragundji that helps him connect to his Aboriginal ancestors and to build a positive sense of self

Boori Monty Pryor was the Australian Children’s Laureate during 2012-13, along with Alison Lester. Meme McDonald is a founding member and stage director of the WEST Theatre Company, children’s book author and recipient of the 2012 Ros Bower Award  for an outstanding, life-long contribution to community arts and cultural development.

The book trailer above includes paragraphs that describe the first encounter between the first-person narrator and the frog in what is the central transition between paralysis and courage.

Selection criteria and Australian Curriculum connections

In the Australian Curriculum (AC), Literature is one of three inter-related developmental sequences or ‘strands’, together with Language and Literacy. The explicit aim of the Literature strand is to provide students with “access [to] a broad range of literary texts and develop an informed appreciation of literature” (National Curriculum Board, 2009, p.5). In the latest iteration of the AC v8.2, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) describes quality literature as satisfying some of the following criteria and enduring values (ACARA, 2016a):

  1. Artistic value
  2. Personal value
  3. Social value
  4. Cultural value
  5. Aesthetic value
  6. Attract contemporary attention
  7. Potential for enriching students’ lives and expanding scope of experience
  8. Represent effective and interesting features of form and style

These criteria are developed in further detail in the literature companion for teachers published by the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PEETA) (McDonald & Walsh, 2013).

Enduring artistic value can be defined as the quality that writers develop in their work and how this resonates with readers over time (e.g. Walmsley, 2012). My Girragundji is a popular book with young Australian readers and has recently been turned into a stage play and film script (McDonald, 2013).

Personal values relate to personal resonance, emotional connections, empathy and inspiration developed in the reader by reading a book (e.g. Carnwath & Brown, 2014). Students are likely to be drawn into the first-hand narrative of the boy and main character in My Girrragundji and empathise with his challenges. Students might also become inspired by the idea of developing strength from a relationship with a pet or totem.

Social values relate to social benefits such as civic engagement. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians states the imperative for all young Australians to become active and informed citizens and to develop reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians (Barr et al., 2008). The cross-curriculum priority (CCP) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures (ACARA, 2016b) applies this contemporary goal by placing attention on advocating and teaching Indigenous perspectives and understanding for all students to engage in reconciliation. In My Girragundji, some passages directly address reconciliation, such as “That’s our special place where the river meets the sea. It’s their place really, my Aunty Joyce and Uncle Arthur’s place. But they reckon it’s our place, and Dad doesn’t argue with that ‘cause he reckons that’s right. They’re white and we’re black and I don’t know whose place the Bohle is, it just is, and they’ll always be our aunty and uncle.” (McDonald & Pryor, 1998, p.43-44). In 2012, Pryor was made the inaugural Australian Children’s Laureate for his stories that “[…] create positive visions of the future for both Indigenous and all Australians” (Australian Children’s Literature Alliance, 2016).

Cultural values relate to the process of producing and negotiating value between different cultural organisations and expressions (Carnwath & Brown, 2014; Agha, 2003). Inclusive teachers must make an effort to embrace diversity and include literature that portrays the full range of ethnicities, cultures, languages/dialects, religions, family structures and socioeconomic statuses within the classroom (Boyd et al. 2015; Harrison, 2016). My Girragundji provides an authentic contemporary window into a socioeconomically disadvantaged Indigenous community, describing the challenges and demands on an age peer in an engaging and at times humorous way that will expand the scope of experience for many mainstream class students. In the face of adversity, the first-person narrator develops resilience and a proud sense of self, based on connection to country and culture. The book provides insight into local Aboriginal culture and helps to build empathy, recognition and support for Indigenous students from similar background in the class. For Indigenous students, My Girragundji can express and reinforce cultural identity and a pride in Aboriginal English, thereby enriching all students’ lives.

Aesthetic value has been described as the “benign capacity” of quality literature to be experienced and appreciated as something cohesive, harmonious in form, content and symbology, and as a capacity to emotionally move the reader (Beardsley, 1981, p.240). My Girragundji is emotionally engaging, the language original and fresh, with photos and illustrations of high standard. The creative use of fonts and Aboriginal English, including terms such as jalbu (young woman or girl), migaloo (white-skinned person), wirrell (shell fish for eating), creates a text with many effective and interesting features of form and style.

The English curriculum advice for every year level is to work with a range of literary texts, including “Australian literature, […] oral narrative traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, as well as the contemporary literature of these two cultural groups, […]” (ACARA, 2016c). The State of Queensland, Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCCA) provides additional guidelines for embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in schools, recommending five criteria for evaluating the quality of a teaching and learning resource (QCCA, 2010):

  1. Authenticity
  2. Balanced nature of the presentation
  3. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander participation
  4. Accuracy and support
  5. Exclusion of content of a secret or sacred nature

My Girragundji is an authentic text, co-authored by Indigenous writer Boori Monty Pryor. Pryor was awarded the Promotion of Indigenous Culture award from the National Aboriginal Islander Observance Committee in 1993. The story is written in the first-narrator perspective of an unnamed ten or eleven year old Aboriginal boy, closely modelled on Pryor’s childhood memories. It can therefore be considered accurate and  balanced in nature of the presentation, illustrating contemporary non-‘exotic’ aspects of Indigenous culture and perspectives other than representations of male adults. By concluding in a chapter ‘How My Girragundji was written’, the authors acknowledge the participation of the Yarrabah community. The acknowledgements make it explicit that the local community was actively involved in taking photographs and reviewing the story, guaranteeing that no content of a secret or sacred nature was included. My Girragundji specifically addresses the CCP organising ideas OI.2, OI.5 and OI.6 (ACARA, 2016b) and focuses on Indigenous perspectives such as ways of valuing, being, doing and knowing, as opposed to potentially problematic indigenised content (Lowe & Yunkaporta, 2013).

The topic and language of the book, as well as the similar age of the main character make My Girragundji most suitable to Years 5 and 6 students. A strong link to the year-level English curriculum description is evident, as readers are to explore a range of non-stereotypical characters and texts including junior and early adolescent novels that explore “themes of interpersonal relationships and ethical dilemmas within real-world and fantasy settings” (ACARA. 2016c).

In Year 5, the most applicable CD from the Literature strand in ‘responding to literature’ is ACELT1609 “present a point of view about particular literary texts using appropriate metalanguage, and reflecting on the viewpoints of others”. The students could reflect on Indigenous viewpoints, experiences and opinions expressed in the book, possibly in a format where they are required to create their own text on a hairyman exploring what keeps them awake at night. Alternatively, students could develop a script for a stage play on episodes of the book presenting one or more perspectives of themes in the book such as growing up, family conflict, friendship, bullying and spirituality (see also link to Literacy CD in ‘creating text’ ACELY1714) (ACARA, 2016).

In Year 6, the most applicable CD from the Literature strand in ‘literature and context’ is ACELT1613 “make connections between students’ own experiences and those of characters and events represented in texts drawn from different historical, social and cultural contexts”. This CD can be applied to build the field knowledge on contemporary Indigenous communities at the beginning of the unit. The ‘responding to literature’ CD ACELT1615 “identify and explain how choices in language, for example modality, emphasis, repetition and metaphor, influence personal response to different texts” is well suited to engage students with the unique style of writing and Aboriginal English, followed up by a closer examination and analysis using ‘examining literature’ CD ACELT1617 “identify the relationship between words, sounds, imagery and language patterns in narratives and poetry such as ballads, limericks and free verse”. Students could extract sad and funny passages from the book and discuss how the authors play with language features to achieve particular purposes and effects (see also link to Language CD in ‘text structure and organisation’ ACELA1518) (ACARA, 2016).

Current debates about the use of quality literature in Australian classrooms

The Australian Curriculum only defines types of texts that need to be studied from Foundation to Year 10 and provides the set of criteria discussed above on what quality literature looks like. The English curriculum recommendations further highlight the importance of incorporating Australian literature, including oral narrative traditions and contemporary literature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as classic and contemporary world literature, in particular texts from and about Asia. As for what makes and who selects the best literature for schools, three debates are particular pertinent to the current situation in Australia:

  1. The extent to which the English curriculum is balanced or distorted by emphasising Indigenous Australian and world literature, and the value of a classical Western literature canon for Australian students
  2. The competition between teachers, schools, states, and commercial publishing houses for the authority to choose classroom literature
  3. The value of print-based literature versus digital media and its impact on reading

In the 2014 review of the Australian Curriculum by the Australian Government, Department of Education and Training (DET), a number of reviewers such as the Institute of Public Affairs objected to the emphasis on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ literature and its literary heritage, calling for a greater focus on Western literature in the English classroom, (DET, 2014a; Riddle & Honana, 2014, Forrest & Schodde, 2014). This view was supported by specialist consultant Spurr, appointed to make recommendations to the federal government’s review of the national English curriculum. Spurr remarked that “[…] in the three points on which all curriculum subjects must be focused – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples; the Asian region, and sustainability – mandating priorities that could be a distraction from the core work of the curriculum, bearing no direct relation to the educational and disciplinary purposes that the curriculum for the study of literature in English is designed to facilitate and fulfil. ” (DET, 2014b, p.4). Spurr has since resigned from his professoral post following the exposure of a series of personal inflammatory emails that included derogatory references to Aboriginals, Asians and women casting doubt on the integrity of the review (Alcorn, 2014). On the other side of the debate, the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) supports the CCPs as important issues that need to be addressed in a national school curriculum at this point in the Australian history (AATE, 2014). This view coincides with a progressive understanding of the role of education in a pluralistic society, which affirms students’ understanding of their home and community cultures while helping them to participate in today’s multi-cultural and globalised world (Banks, 2013).

Closely related to the debate on English literature versus world literature is the question about the nature and value of teaching a classic literary canon, and the role that new literature and media should play in the classroom. Kevin Donnelly, the conservative education critic appointed to co-head the 2014 Australian curriculum review, strongly advocates Harald Bloom’s concept of a Western literature canon. He is of the opinion that English as a subject should focus on “enduring literary works that are part of the Western tradition” including “seminal authors such as Shakespeare, Swift, Dickens, Austen, Orwell, Lawson or Malouf”, as opposed to the AC “exploding the definition of literature to include “multi-modal texts”, and suggesting that students should spend time studying “tween mags, avatars, social networking and manga”” (Donnelly, 2010). Harald Bloom’s concept of a Western canon (Bloom, 1994) had sparked “canon wars” in the late ‘80s in which traditionalists advocated a curriculum focusing on classic works of predominantly British literature, while progressive academics promoted teaching an expanding body of works and a focus on modes of inquiry and interpretation (Donadio, 2007). In reference to the current “literacy war” in Australia, Ilana Snyder describes the position of teachers that argue for a dynamic repertoire of literature, reflecting the rapid changes in our society and world of ideas (Snyder, 2008).  This position is supported by the AATE, who advocate that until Year 10 individual schools are in the best position to implement the curriculum with texts that their English teachers assess as most suitable for particular classes and communities. AATE explicitly rejects the idea of a literature canon stating “[…] we consider it would be inappropriate for any specific texts to be mandated for use” (AATE, 2014).

The idea that teachers choose the most appropriate texts can however be undermined by a more prescriptive implementation of the AC at state land school levels, and by schools buying into commercial reading programs. In Queensland, the DET provides state schools with comprehensive electronic curriculum planning and resource materials, referred to as Curriculum into the Classroom or C2C. The English C2C units include digital and print-based texts as teacher resources and classroom sets (DET, 2015). While DET explicitly states that it supports schools in applying flexibility to “adopt or adapt the materials to suit the learning needs of their students and local contexts” (2015), its sample teaching episodes are often implemented with minimal modifications. The C2C writers therefore are in a powerful position to promote particular works of literature. Many schools purchase a core reading program, conveniently packaged as sets of identical books for students, including a teacher’s edition of the book with worksheets and assessment tasks. Some literacy teachers are favourable of basal reader programs, suggesting that these schemes provide a convenient backbone for their lesson planning and free time up to provide better differentiation, including the provision of supplemental reading for more advanced readers (Reisboard & Jay, 2013). On the other side, many academics and educators point out that commercial reading programs have a number of limitations compared to teacher-selected quality literature. These include that the textbooks are often repetitive, less engaging, fail to build on prior student knowledge and do not develop metacognitive thinking (Dewitz & Jones, 2013).

Reading programs are increasingly integrating children’s books with digital multi-media content for computers and iPads, such as the Reading Eggs products (ABC Reading Eggs, 2016). Recent research suggests that in particular struggling readers are more likely to engage in reading on digital platforms that can support their reading experience with rich features, such as multi-modal content, interactive navigation, animated images and adaptable font sizes (Hughes, 2013). Teachers that like to curate their own quality literature for digital devices can face a number of technical challenges and limitations, such as a more limited range of digital children books and small screens (e.g. Mardis & Everhart, 2013).

While literacy teachers are navigating shifting policy directions and experimenting with the promises and limitations of engaging students in digital texts and reading apps (Hutchison et al., 2012), it is perhaps instructive to highlight one aspect of quality literature which is not explicitly stated in the AC criteria and often missing in the public debate: reading enjoyment.  By selecting literature that is interesting, relevant and moderately challenging, students are most likely to engage in reading and develop an intrinsic reading motivation (Gambrell, 2015). If reading enjoyment is one of the strongest predictor for educational success (Kucirkova, Littleton, Cremin, 2015;  Clark & De Zoysa, 2011), debates on classroom literature canons and formats, should perhaps be placed into the hands of the students, coached by their teachers and the school librarian (Strauss, 2014).


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Six interrelated communication processes or language modes

The fundamentals of language learning can be divided into six interrelated communication processes or language macro skills. Listening, reading and viewing are the receptive language macro skills, and speaking, writing and presenting are the productive skills (Barrot, 2016). All six are explicitly addressed in this teaching and learning episode:

listening to texts

Listening is easily overlooked as a passive skill in literacy pedagogies (Bozorgian, 2012), but essential for students to understand and follow explanations and instructions, and to socially participate in the class. The provision of visual support, paralinguistic cues and talking with clear pronunciation and emphasis are important means to support aural language comprehension in literacy learners (Vandergrift, 2015).

reading texts

Reading is the skill where the reader creates meaning from written text. In the the early primary school years, students are “reading to learn” while in upper primary years are increasingly expected to “read to learn” (Duke et al., 2003). This requires critical literacy skills that go beyond developing decoding competence in what Peter Freebody and Allan Luke refer to as the four roles of the reader (Freebody & Luke, 1990; Luke & Freebody, 1999; Luke, 2000): code breaker, text participant, text user and text analyst.

 viewing texts

Viewing is a recent addition to the traditional four language macroskills on account of the increasing importance of visual media (Barrot, 2016). Viewing is making meaning from non-print multimedia and visual images and can be used as tool to develop cultural knowledge. As the receptive mode addressing multi-media and digital literacies, it has been included in a reconceptualised version of the ‘four resources model’ (Serafini, 2012; Hinrichsen & Coombs, 2014).

speaking texts

Speaking is the productive skill in which students convey their ideas and understanding to others. Academic oral communication shares many features with written communication (Barrot, 2016). Oral competency is based on the knowledge and practice of vocabulary, pronunciation and functional grammar (Nation & Newton, 2008). Literacy students need opportunities to develop and practice English phonetic and phonological skills. These include the pronunciation of new words based on speech sounds, sound patterns, word and sentence stress and intonation patterns (Brown, 2014). Further, students need to develop fluency in speaking in applied social contexts by participating and engaging in task-oriented classroom conversations (Williams, 2001; Gibbons, 2008; Gibbons, 2015). In particular mixed-ability group work provides all learners with the opportunity to practise speaking in socially-meaningful task-oriented context (Gibbons, 2015; Im & Martin, 2015).

writing texts

Writing allows students to capture and document their ideas and understanding. It provides knowledge to both writer and reader (Barrot, 2016), which is why it is often the preferred active mode for summative assessments. For over thirty years, Australian schools have been following the genre-based approach towards teaching writing which informs the Australian Curriculum (Hammond, 1987; Derewianka, 2012).


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QAR – Exploring Question-Answer Relationships

Question-Answer Relationships (QAR) is an explicit reading comprehension instruction model for teaching students about reciprocal question-answer relationships. Most recently popularised by Sheena Cameron in her book Teaching Reading Comprehension Strategies (Cameron, 2009), the QAR model is based on a reading strategy developed by Taffy E. Raphael at the University of Illinois in the early 1980s (Raphael, 1982). The idea of QARs is to engage students in thinking about and discussing what they read, progressing from literal text evidence to text synthesis and inference.

In the original concept, students were taught three types of questions that can be asked about texts and ways to find answers. The students need to locate the response information, which shifts with the type of question from a particular sentence, to multiple passages across a text, to drawing on prior experiences and background knowledge about similar or related texts and genres.

Original QAR model by Taffy E. Raphael (1982, p. 188)

Original QAR model by Taffy E. Raphael (1982, p. 188)

Taffy Raphael called the three type of QAR questions:

Right There: Right There questions are answered by pointing to a literal reference. Students are required to “… find the words used to create the question and look at the other words in that sentence to find the answer” (1982, p.187). The students learn how to find information by looking for key words. I call these questions On the Line questions, because the answers generally require pointing to one line in the text.

Think & Search: Think & Search questions are answered by synthesising different passages of a text. Students are required to integrate literal information “… , so students must skim across text segments to find the question and response information” (1982, p.187). The students learn how to find and integrate information based on their prior knowledge about text structures and by applying reading strategies such as skim reading. I call these questions Across the Lines questions, because answers generally require pointing at multiple paragraphs (or lines) in the text.

On My Own: On My Own questions demand thinking beyond the text and “… require the student to determine what background knowledge can be applied to the question” (1982, p.187). The students learn to think beyond the provided textual information, to question texts and to develop critical literacy skills. I call these questions Beyond the Lines questions, because they can be answered without referring to the text at all.

Taffy Raphael subsequently expanded her original model to include Author & You questions (Raphael, 1986): Author & You questions require inference from the students, who learn that some answers “... must come from the readers’ own knowledge base, but only in connection with information presented by the author” (1986, 519). Students learn how two very different resources of information, those that must e acquired from the text and those that are based on their prior knowledge and understanding, must be considered to answer some questions. These questions support reading strategies such as inference. I call these questions Between the Lines questions, because answers require to “read between the lines” by integrating the author’s text and the readers’ existing knowledge.

The revised QAR taxonomy is divided into two major categories: In the Book with the answer resources Right There and Think & Search, and In My Head with the answer resources Author & Me and On My Own (Raphael, 1986).

Updated conceptual QAR model now including four types of question-answer relationships (Raphael, 1986, p.517)

Updated conceptual QAR model now including four types of question-answer relationships (Raphael, 1986, p.517)

The QAR model provides a practical literacy resource to develop three comprehension strategies: (1) locating information; (2) determining how text structures convey information and can be synthesised; and (3) determining when inferences are required or invited. Students learn that depending on the type of question, answers may involve both literal and referential comprehension, references to the text as well as their interpretations that rely on their personal knowledge bases.

It is instructive to align the QAR model with the Four Roles of a Reader model, originally developed by Peter Freebody and Allan Luke (1990). This model emphasises the four interrelated essential roles of a reader: (1) decoding text as a ‘code-breaker’; (2) developing semantic meaning as a ‘text-participant’; (3) developing functional meaning as a ‘text-user’; and (4) critically analysing text as a ‘text analyst’.

The Four Resources of Reading by Freebody & Luke (1990) as compiled by the Barefoot Literacy Project

Right There questions operate at the level of key words and Code Breaking. Think & Search questions require text comprehension strategies that build on knowledge about language and genre conventions required to Make Meaning. The Author & You questions asks readers to respond and connect to the texts, to bring in their prior knowledge and “communicate” with the text as Text Users. Finally, On My Own questions demand critical engagement from readers in the form of Text Analysis. Readers are asked to draw on other texts or use the text as a stepping stone into inquiries that go well beyond the read text.

Early QAR Resource packages, such as that developed by the Irish National Behaviour Support Service (NBSS) are using four quadrants that are very similar to the Four Roles of a Reader model.

QAR teaching resource by NBSS (p.4)

QAR teaching resource by NBSS (p.4).

Since, a plethora of teaching resources based on the QAR model have been developed, including such some useful tools that include example questions such as QAR bookmarks by Sheena Cameron (2009). Deb Lawrence from Queensland wrote a useful four-step instructional guide detailing ideas on how to introduce QAR in the classroom (Lawrence, 2015), including:

  1. Introducing the question types
  2. Teaching about clues for identifying the question types
  3. Modelling how to think aloud
  4. Teaching about text organisations

The last step is about unpacking literature genre convention and nicely links with a number of functional grammar-related content descriptors (see below).

QAR bookmark

Photo copy of QAR bookmark as part of the comprehensive digital resources developed by Sheenan Cameron (2009).


  • Cameron, S. (2009). Teaching reading comprehension strategies. North Shore: Pearson.
  • Freebody, P., & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: Australian Journal of TESOL, 5(7), 7-16.
  • Lawrence, D. (2015). Why use Question-Answer Relationships (QAR) as a comprehension strategy?. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 23(1), i-vii.
  • Raphael, T. E. (1982). Question-answering strategies for children. The Reading Teacher, 36(2), 186-190.
  • Raphael, T. E. (1986). Teaching question answer relationships, revisited. The Reading Teacher, 39(6), 516-522.

Relevance to Australian Curriculum content descriptors:

  • Foundation: Use comprehension strategies to understand and discuss texts listened to, viewed or read independently (ACELY1650)
  • Year 1: Understand that the purposes texts serve shape their structure in predictable ways (ACELA1447)
  • Year 1: Use comprehension strategies to build literal and inferred meaning about key events, ideas and information in texts that they listen to, view and read by drawing on growing knowledge of context, text structures and language features (ACELY1660)
  • Year 2: Use comprehension strategies to build literal and inferred meaning and begin to analyse texts by drawing on growing knowledge of context, language and visual features and print and multimodal text structures (ACELY1670)
  • Year 3: Identify the point of view in a text and suggest alternative points of view (ACELY1675)
  • Year 3: Understand that paragraphs are a key organisational feature of written texts (ACELA1479)
  • Year 3: Use comprehension strategies to build literal and inferred meaning and begin to evaluate texts by drawing on a growing knowledge of context, text structures and language features (ACELY1680)
  • Year 4: Use comprehension strategies to build literal and inferred meaning to expand content knowledge, integrating and linking ideas and analysing and evaluating texts (ACELY1692)
  • Year 5: Understand how to move beyond making bare assertions and take account of differing perspectives and points of view (ACELA1502)
  • Year 5: Investigate how the organisation of texts into chapters, headings, subheadings, home pages and sub pages for online texts and according to chronology or topic can be used to predict content and assist navigation (ACELA1797)
  • Year 5: Understand how texts vary in purpose, structure and topic as well as the degree of formality (ACELA1504)
  • Year 5: Recognise that ideas in literary texts can be conveyed from different viewpoints, which can lead to different kinds of interpretations and responses (ACELT1610)

Book Creator for iPad literacy resource review

In 2008, the Australian Education Ministers declared a principal educational goal for young Australians is to be successful learners by developing “. . . the essential skills in literacy and numeracy and [becoming] creative and productive users of technology, [. . .], as a foundation for success in all learning areas” (Barr et al., 2008, p. 8). Consequently, the national English syllabus (AC:E) designed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) defines literacy as “. . . the ability to read, view, listen to, speak, write and create texts for learning and communicating in and out of school” (ACARA, 2017a). These six receptive and productive language macroskills (Barrot, 2016) are emphasised across all key learning areas (KLA) with the general capability ‘Literacy’ as interrelated elements essential for comprehending and composing texts (ACARA, 2017b). The AC:E further draws attention to the social and multimodal nature of language learning (ACARA, 2017a). Consequently, the demands on twenty-first century literacy teaching and learning resources are different to those developed for the twentieth century industrial model of schooling (e.g. Seely Flint, Kitson, Lowe, & Shaw, 2014). Here, the educational app ‘Book Creator for iPad’ (Red Jumper Ltd., 2017a) is critically reviewed in context of the AC:E from multiple perspectives, including literacy development theories, language macroskills, the six guiding principles for teaching reading and writing in the twenty-first century (Seely Flint et al., 2014), and the four-resources model of reading (Luke & Freebody, 1997) as applied to multimodal texts (Serafini, 2012) and creative writing (Heffernan, Lewison, & Henkin, 2003). The author concludes that Book Creator for iPad is versatile and age-appropriate literacy resource that can be employed to teach and learn critical and multiliteracies in Australian primary schools, across KLAs including English.

Resource description

Book Creator educational app

Book Creator educational app

Book Creator is a best-selling educational software running on Windows, iOS and Android platforms, with a browser extension in development (Kemp, 2017). It was launched in 2011, with the current release version 5.0.2 available on the iTunes app store for iOS 9 and above. The iOS app is priced at AU$ 7.99 per licence, with a 50% discount offered for schools through the Apple’s Volume Purchase Programme (Red Jumper Ltd., 2017a).

Book Creator supported media formats

Book Creator supported media formats

The Book Creator app is designed for school-aged children to create and publish multimodal ebooks. The core functionality includes widgets that allow adding text, images, drawings, shapes, audio and video to virtual book pages. Individual pages and final ebooks can be read out aloud, supporting twenty-seven languages, including thirteen English speaking voices and four Australia dialects. In reading mode, spoken words can optionally be highlighted and the speech rate adjusted. Book Creator supports publishing ebooks in multiple formats, including ePub, PDF and as as a video file with spoken text. Ebooks can be saved locally, or in the cloud (e.g iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive) to support access-controlled sharing of student work with parents and school community. Alternatively, ebooks can be locally shared in the classroom using the AirDrop iPad functionality. As a result, Book Creator supports distributed content creation, where multiple students can work collaboratively on individual chapters that can be combined at a later stage (Hallett, 2013).


Critical evaluation and discussion

Most educational literacy software is designed with a narrow focus on developing and practicing particular skills such as phonemic awareness (e.g. Oz Phonics (DSP Learning Pty LTd., 2015)), sight words and spelling (e.g. Reading Eggs, (Blake eLearning, 2016)). In contrast, Book Creator is designed to be open-ended and to be used in creative ways across various KLAs to support the development of critical and productive multiliteracies. The developers of Book Creator value creativity, collaboration, cross-curricular integration, and “app-smashing”, i.e. the ability to seamlessly integrate other apps as part of the workflow (Red Jumper Ltd., 2017b). The company also prioritises dialogue with educators by offering free webinars and comprehensive customer support.

Book Creator excels as a top-down literacy development resource. The core intention of the app is to support students in creating ebooks. Multimodal ebooks are a whole-language product. Book Creator supports socially-situated learning through purposeful collaboration and dialogue, editing, and publishing. The app can be used in inquiry-based teaching and learning across all KLAs, for example in activities involving journaling and reflection. Perhaps the greatest value as a literacy resource is the ease-of-use with which all receptive and productive language macroskills (Barrot, 2016) can be meaningfully and seamlessly integrated into a single authentic product. Books are not just written but created, by seamlessly integrating text with images, audio and video recordings. The productive language skills are even expanded into the often neglected aspect of publishing for audiences (Jaakkola, 2015). The student experience between reading, listening (or being read to), and viewing the story as a movie is fluent. The app can be used to explore intertextuality, the links between different texts, personal experiences and outside knowledge. The students are invited to construct meaning by linking multimodal sources and developing the three schema-building connections: text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world (Fountas & Pinnell, 2006).

The app can also be employed for critical literacy development. For example, Book Creator can be used to construct comic books with social justice themes (Stone, 2017), perhaps making use of speech and thought bubbles to explore multiple perspectives.

Basic Book Creator shapes

With the ability to publish in ePub and video formats, Book Creator lends itself as a tool to express opinions and take social action. The four-resources model (Luke & Freebody, 1997) is perhaps the most widespread model based on critical literacy theory in Australian schools. Originally developed by Peter Freebody (1992), it emphasises the socio-cultural practices and four interrelated essential roles of the reader: (1) decoding text as a ‘code-breaker’; (2) making semantic meaning as a ‘text-participant’; (3) making functional meaning as a ‘text-user’; and finally (4) critically analysing the text. This model is aligned with the four language cueing systems (graphophonic, semantic, syntactic, pragmatic) of the whole-language approach (Seely Flint et al., 2014). Frank Serafini (2012) expanded the original print-based model to address multiliteracies. Accordingly, the literate reader-viewer of multimodal texts acts as a :(1) ‘navigator’; (2) ‘interpreter’; (3) ‘designer’, and; (4) ‘interrogator’. Book Creator is designed to develop all four interrelated skills, with a particular focus on productive language skills. Lee Heffernan and co-authors adapted the four-resources model of reading to a four-resources model of writing in a primary school context (Heffernan et al., 2003). This model is used to support students in better communicating ideas, improving text composition, drawing on background experiences to construct meaning, and becoming more explicit and reflective in the representations and positions argued in the text. The simplicity with which students can add their voices (i.e. record audio) and perspectives (i.e. record photos and videos) makes Book Creator a great tool to develop critical and creative writing that addresses all four resources.

Ultimately, Book Creator as literacy resource is not limited to any particular theory of literacy development. Some creative teachers have used the app to support bottom-up literacy development through activities such as multimodal vocabulary practice (e.g. Dodds, 2015).

Another approach towards evaluating Book Creator as literacy resource is to critically assess ways in which this app can be used to address the six guiding principles for teaching reading and writing in the twenty-first century (Seely Flint et al., 2014):

1) Literacy practices are socially and culturally constructed. Book Creator encourages social interaction by offering multiple ways of collaboration between students, teacher, parents and the school community (Hallett, 2013). Cultural and linguistic diversity in the classroom is supported by offering few limits in terms of languages and genre conventions. However, the default page flow from left to right does not support languages that use right-to-left scripts, such as Arabic or Urdu.

2) Literacy practices are purposeful. Writing and publishing books is a purposeful form of literacy practice, in particular if the task design is inclusive and responsive to the students’ lives, and encourages cross-disciplinary learning. The simplicity with which text can be integrated with photos, audio and video recordings provides numerous opportunities for students to express themselves, organise and document their learning through journaling, support design thinking and prototyping (Holland, 2017), even playing interactive learning games (Dodds, 2015). The app can be used to support and complementing reading activities, for example by creating audiobooks of class readers. The sharing and publishing functionality offers opportunities to create ebooks for both enjoyment and assessment.

3) Literacy practices contain ideologies and values. Book Creator supports a range of literacy practices in virtually limitless social and cultural contexts. On the iPad, the app is portable and can even be used outdoors in nature for many hours. Shapes, such as speech and thought bubbles superimposed on images, can be used to communicate perspectives (Baker, 2015) and allow individual book characters to speak and think for themselves, perhaps juxtaposed on facing pages.

4) Literacy practices are learned through inquiry. The starting point of a new Book Creator project is a blank canvas, which can be customised. All content needs to be developed, the ideal starting point for student inquiries. The app is explicitly designed to support students in the drafting, composing and publishing processes. At each stage, students can work individually or in groups, and share their work for discussions, assessment and reflection (Vasinda, Kander, & Redmond-Sanogo, 2015).

5) Literacy practices invite readers and writers to use their background knowledge and cultural understandings to make sense of texts. Book Creator supports multiple ability levels and prior experiences with texts through inbuilt scaffolding tools such as the read-aloud function. Options to adjust the speed and dialect of the voice, and the ability to highlight spoken words make this app a powerful tool for supporting students struggling with unfamiliar aspects and practices around literacy development, e.g. EAL/D students. Emerging writers will enjoy the ability to creatively express themselves through multiple media to complement their writing (Rowe & Miller, 2016).

6) Literacy practices expand to include everyday texts and multimodal texts. Book Creator supports any type of genre and register, and can complement literacy practices across multiple contexts and KLAs. Multimodal texts are the core function of the app, supporting written, visual, auditory and spatial modes in any possible combination.

While all this demonstrates that Book Creator can be applied to a wide range of literacy teaching and learning scenarios, one fundamental question remains: to what extent does the app transform literacy learning compared to traditional, non-technological alternatives such as scrapbooking? A practical framework to critically evaluate educational technology and software is the SAMR model by Ruben Puentedura (Romrell, Kidder, & Wood, 2014).

Accordingly, Book Creator is reviewed in terms of its ability to Substitute, Augment, Modify and Redefine literacy learning experiences compared to traditional scrapbooking. The answer to the question above depends on how the teacher and students are employing the app. Book Creator can be used to simply substitute paper-based story writing through activities that are limited to individual writing exercises, perhaps allowing students to include pre-selected images. However, once students make use of the camera and microphone on their iPads to include spoken words, photos and videos, Book Creator will augment scrapbooking by functionally improving the possibilities. In order to modify the traditional resource, the app will need to be used in unprecedented and novel ways. This is for example the case in the area of collaboration. Book Creator enables easy duplication and sharing of documents, instant contextual feedback through annotations, and process documentation for assessment (e.g. Sample, 2014). Finally, traditional scrapbooking is only truly redefined when the app is used in ways inconceivable without technology. Arguably, workflow integration between Book Creator, other apps and cloud services is the area that establishes Book Creator as a transformative literacy resource. Examples include the ability to import any student-generated content, such as stop-motion movies, student images in front of a customisable backgrounds, and the novel ways that content can be shared and published to reach new audiences (Sample, 2014).

Book Creator comes with a price tag. Although reasonable in comparison to other educational resources and technology, it will require a purchase plan that can limit its appeal for teachers that plan to use the app only for a single project. The software is also limited in terms of editing images, audio and video. Advanced editing functionality will require integration with other apps that often need to be downloaded. Other useful functionality, such as the ability to automatically save the history of drafts, and to protect shared documents with passwords requires integration with a cloud service. Finally, as with any educational software, there is a learning curve for teachers and students involved, especially for lower year levels. All this suggests that the appeal of Book Creator as a literacy resource will depend on the IT environment of the school, and the intention of the class teacher to use the app for multiple projects and across multiple KLAs.


Book Creator for iPad is a literacy resource with the potential to transform traditional writing activities. It designed to enable primary school children to create and share multimodal texts in the form of ebooks and videos. Book Creator can be compared to a digital scrapbook, or a white canvas that can be employed across a range of teaching and learning activities. While primarily useful in supporting top-down and critical literacy approaches, it can also make bottom-up skill development activities more engaging, and support emerging readers and EAL/D learners through scaffolding functionality like text-to-speech. Book Creator is a powerful resource to teach receptive and productive language macroskills. While supporting the creative integration of all forms of media, it remains rooted in the traditional format of a book, thereby emphasising the writing and reading modalities above all others. The app becomes a transformative resource if it is integrated into a broader app environment including cloud services. This aspect, as well as the initial purchase price and the learning curve involved for teachers and students to master the app, make Book Creator a more attractive literacy resource for the sustained use across multiple key learning areas, as opposed to a resources for a single teaching and learning activity.


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Developing lexical precision through semantic gradients

Lexical selection serves the purpose of isolating and identifying the single most appropriate word or item from a cohort of semantically related words. Semantic gradients are an excellent teaching and learning device to broaden and deepen students’ vocabulary, by developing awareness of the subtle connotations and differences between semantically connected or overlapping words. The fundamental idea of semantic gradients is to develop a continuum of related words between two gradable opposites such as antonyms. All the words are sequenced by order of degree through minimising semantic distances.

The idea for semantic gradients was developed by Camille Blachowicz in 1986, in her investigation of alternatives to vocabulary notebooks. Blachowicz developed a five-point strategy that stood the test of time:

  1. Prior knowledge activation
  2. Development of predictive connections
  3. Contextual reading
  4. Refining word meaning using cues
  5. Applying learned words in writing, additional reading

Blachowicz initially compared existing innovative strategies such as:

  • exclusion brainstorming – students discuss if stimulus words are likely, unlikely to appear in certain field or genre
  • knowledge rating – students rank words by difficulty or prior knowledge, e.g. can define, can make predictions, previously encountered, unknown
  • semantic mapping – students connect related words, explaining relationships
  • semantic feature analysis – tabular characterisation of words across different dimensions, e.g. shared features
  • concept ladder – relationships of focus word to other words and concepts, e.g. flute is made of wood, used to make music, …
  • predict-o-gram – cloze procedure in which students predict how author will use words from a word bank

It is easy to see how Blachowicz combined these ideas to developed the semantic gradient teaching and learning approach.

Original semantic gradient example by Camille Blachowicz (1986)

More recently, Scott Greenwood and Kevin Flanigan (2007)  picked up the idea of semantic gradients and combined it with context clues for each word, including:

  • formal definitions
  • antonyms
  • synonyms
  • inferences in full sentences

The authors also offer cloze activities where students consider “the best word for the job”.

In general words can be arranged along the semantic gradient as an array creating a horizontal “bridge”, or as a vertical “ladder”. A graphic organiser that combines the two approaches in a diagonal can be downloaded here.

The activity is best practiced in small groups, followed by a class-wide comparison of results. This is to encourage discussion around the subtle differences in meaning between the semantically related words.

There are a number of scaffolding approaches, such as providing students with a word bank of related words, establishing the antonyms and most neutral word to be placed in the centre, colouring the words using a colour gradient.

Semantic gradient with colour cues

Semantic gradients are best practiced in an authentic and meaningful context. While this could be choosing “the best verb for the job” in a narrative writing activity in English, the teaching and learning device is also ideal to explicitly teach academic language and connect abstract concepts in other key learning areas.

In Science students can be asked to sequence words describing temperature (e.g. freezing to boiling), rock-forming minerals by density (e.g. Calcite to Pyrite ) or hardness (e.g. Talc to Quartz), alkaline and acid solutions by pH value.

In Maths, Brook Giordarno presented how semantic gradients can be used to practices the terms describing different angles (e.g. acute, right, obtuse, straight).

Other examples could be to sort and name polyhedral by number of vertices, edges, faces and diagonals.

In Humanities, semantic gradients can for example be used to explore power relationships (e.g. Queen, Prime Minister, Premier, Lord Mayor, Mayor, Councillor, …)

History stimulus example: rank in a medieval estate-based society

Below is a step-by-step instruction for how to set up a semantic gradient activity adapted from Reading Rockets:

  1. Create multi-ability groups of maximum four students
  2. Select a pair of gradable opposites, avoiding complementary pairs such as ‘on/off’
  3. Generate at least five synonyms for each antonym
  4. Arrange each set of synonyms from most to least extreme
  5. Combine both sets of synonyms from most to least extreme, with the least extreme words in the middle, and the most extreme words on each end
  6. Discuss choices with a peers. Use reference sources to help settle any disputes.
  7. Make adjustments to your arrangement based on your discussion.


  • Blachowicz, C. L. (1986). Making connections: Alternatives to the vocabulary notebook. Journal of Reading, 29(7), 643-649.
  • Greenwood, S. C., & Flanigan, K. (2007). Overlapping vocabulary and comprehension: Context clues complement semantic gradients. The Reading Teacher, 61(3), 249-254.

Montessori grammar symbols and colours

In researching the conventions in functional grammar colour-coding, I came across Montessori’s grammar pedagogy. Montessori associated geometric shapes and colours with the building blocks of traditional grammar creating semiotically-rich classroom manipulatives.

In 1923, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky created a questionnaire that asks participants to fill out three geometric shapes (triangle, square, circle) with one of three primary colours yellow, red and blue. While concerns can be raised about presenting the “correct” order of answers, the primary colour-geometry relationship that came out proved very influential and can be found in all of Kandinsky’s paintings.

Kandinsky’s questionnaire. 1923. Bauhaus Archiv, Berlin

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recreated an online version of Kandinsky’s original questionnaire. This could be a great starting point and teaching and learning resource for getting student’s to think about colour-shape- and ultimately grammar associations.

Kandinsky’s student Monica Ullmann‐Broner took a step further in 1931 and associated additional “secondary” geometrical forms with secondary colours.

Monica Ullman-Broner’s secondary form-colour associations. 1931. Bauhaus Archiv, Berlin

Inspired by his contemporaries in Weimar, Maria Montessori designed objects to recontextualise formal grammar for pedagogic discourse. She came up with nine grammar symbols still used today in Montessori schools to represent “nine parts of speech” (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, article, pronoun, conjunction, preposition and interjection). Montessori further groups these into four “functional families” (‘noun family’ – noun, adjective, article, pronoun; ‘verb family’ -verb, adverb; ‘the servants’ – conjunction, preposition, and ‘special case’ – interjection). The system uses three variables: colour, shape and size. The resulting grammar symbols can be compiled into a chart. Differently-sized sets of grammar symbols can further be combined into advanced grammar symbols that facilitate semiotic discussion of more complex grammatical concepts.

Montessori ‘noun family’ grammar symbols (

Montessori ‘verb family, the servants, and special case’ grammar symbols (

Montessori advanced ‘noun family’ grammar symbols (

Montessori special ‘verb family’ grammar symbols (

Montessori advanced ‘verb family’ grammar symbols (

  • Verbs are depicted in red as circles or spheres. The verb is considered to be the central word (latin verbum) and to depict movement, actions, like a ball or the planets.
  • Nouns are depicted in black-blue as triangles or pyramids. The noun is considered stable like a pyramid. The pronoun is purple because it links the noun (blue-black) with the verb (red) (see Feez, 2007, p.361).
  • Modifiers reflect the shape and colour of their “parent element”, but are lighter in colours (blue for adjectives, orange for adverbs) and smaller in size.
  • Conjunctions are depicted as pink rectangles. The shape is considered to symbolise a hyphen.
  • Prepositions are depicted as green crescents. The shape is considered to symbolises a bridge.
  • Interjections are the special case, combining circle and square in golden colour.

It is fascinating to realise how much didactic thought Maria Montessori put into recontextualising abstract formal grammar into pedagogical manipulatives. One might ask why SFL did not adopt these semiotic colours in their transitivity system, making Processes red, Participants blue, and Circumstances … well I guess yellow/golden because they make situations special? However, as Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen conclude in their seminal analysis of colour as a semiotic mode: “Colour does what people do with it” (2002, p.350). So, perhaps it is then best to have children invest into their own grammar symbols and colours?


  • Feez, S. (2007). Montessori’s mediation of meaning: a social semiotic perspective. Learning to read with grammatics. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Sydney, 312-366.
  • Kress, G., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2002). Colour as a semiotic mode: notes for a grammar of colour. Visual communication, 1(3), 343-368.

Functional grammar Popplet

Popplet is an interactive app designed for the iPad and web browser and can be used by students to capture and organise ideas. Popplet offers an exciting information and communications technology (ICT) alternative to highlighting functional “chunk of meaning” as explored in previous print-based and kinesthetic activities.

In Popplet, the teacher can write a few sentences from children’s literature loved by the class (e.g. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, 1957) into boxes that differentiate the functional elements Participants, Attributes, Processes, and Circumstances.

Example of functional grammar Popplet task.

Next, the students on iPads or on the interactive white board are tasked to colour in the frames of the boxes (simple click) using the functional grammar colour key and to explain their choices.

Example of functional grammar Popplet completed task.

The original idea of using Popplet as an ICT approach for students to demonstrate understanding of functional grammar was developed by Krystal Laspas (2014). Krystal goes one step further by asking the students to look for “other words” that can replace those of individual boxes in linked black boxes. An alternative extension idea would be to allow students to change the original text, to ask them to make it more personal while remaining key features such as the rhymes.

Example of functional grammar Popplet extension activity.

Popplet is a great format for this extension activity. The words and phrases can be changed with a single click. At the end, the students are required to review any potential functional changes in their sentences. For example, the last part of the sentence has changed from “the winning-est winner” (Participant) “of all“(Circumstances) to “the most famous” (Attribute) “Australian” (Participant).

In reference to Luke (and Freebody’s) Four Resources Model (2000), this extension activity is designed to provide literacy learners with opportunities to progress from ‘code breakers’ and ‘text participants’ (semantic competence) to become ‘text users’ (pragmatic competence) and ‘text analysts’ (coding competence). In terms of the six guiding principles for teaching reading and writing in the twenty-first century (Seely-Flint, Kitson, Lowe, & Shaw, 2014), the extension activity provides authentic opportunities for students to work with multi-modal texts and student-led inquiry by creating their own meaningful adaptations. In conclusion, the students are asked to work with functional grammar to express themselves.

Any Popplet can be shared by creating a link, by inviting collaborators. Popplets can be duplicated for groups of students to allow for simultaneous and individual work and assessment.


  • Dr. Seuss Enterprises. (1957). Oh, the places you’ll go! Random House Inc., New York.
  • Laspas, K. (2014). Using literature and applications to demonstrate understanding of functional grammar. Website
  • Luke, A. (2000). Critical literacy in Australia: A matter of context and standpoint. Journal of adolescent & adult literacy, 43(5), 448-461.
  • Seely-Flint, A., Kitson, L. A., Lowe, K., & Shaw, K. (2014). Literacy in Australia: Pedagogies for engagement. John Wiley & Sons.

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Six guiding principles for literacy education

Amy Seely-Flint, Lisbeth Kitson, Kaye Lowe and Kylie Shaw set out to define guiding principles for teaching reading and writing in the twenty-first century (2014). The authors take a broad perspective of literacy development in Australia, and conclude with Six Guiding Principles. These principles are used to categorise my blog entries, further complemented by Peter Freebody and Allan Luke’s Four Resources (Luke, 2000) and ACARA’s Six Language Modes (2017).

The six guiding principles are also a useful tool for evaluating the quality of literacy teaching and learning resources. They are therefore summarised below.

Six guiding principles for teaching reading and writing in the twenty-first century (adapted by author from Seely-Flint, Kitson, Lowe, & Shaw, 2014)

1. Literacy practices are socially and culturally constructed

Literacy practices are developed through social interaction in groups of readers and writers. Cultural and linguistic diversity in the classroom is approached as a valuable resource for exploring multi-faceted interpretations of texts. Literacy practices develop skills for social purposes, where situation and group-specific expectations define the genre (social purpose) and register (field, tenor, mode) of language.

2. Literacy practices are purposeful

Literacy practices serve meaningful purposes and goals, in particular the expression and connection of ideas, interaction with others, and writing of cohesive texts. Purposeful literacy practices are inclusive and responsive to literacy learners’ lives. Literacy at school is practiced in a cross-disciplinary context, as emphasised in the Australian Curriculum general capability ‘literacy’. Literacy is required to make meaning from diverse texts, in “reading to learn”. Literacy enables learning experiences beyond the immediate circumstances in which students live. Literacy is a practical skillset that greatly facilitates and enables the organisation and documentation of learning. Finally, literacy is used in communication and for entertainment.

3. Literacy practices contain ideologies and values

Literacy practices are influenced by social and cultural context and practices. They are based on and reflect different axiologies, ontologies and epistemologies. Responsive literacy teaching must acknowledge and build on the values, ideologies and beliefs of the school community. At the same time, critical literacy approaches can empower learners to become responsible global citizens by investigating identity, gender, social and political structures.

4. Literacy practices are learned through inquiry

Literacy practices are developed through student inquiry and problem-solving, where meaning is made from stimulus material and observations, through documentation, text analysis and synthesis. This approach is in alignment with the four-tiered approach to early reading instruction widely practised in Australian schools (Luke, 2000). While literacy learners inquire, student explorations are strategically guided by the teacher and syllabus in ways that expand their knowledge, understanding and skills.

5. Literacy practices invite readers and writers to use their background knowledge and cultural understandings to make sense of texts

Literacy learners bring different funds of knowledge and experience to school, upon which literacy practices draw and build on. Literacy practices must acknowledge the cultural capital of all learners to support them in their process of building on existing knowledge, and to facilitate their engagement with unfamiliar aspects and practices around literacy development.

6. Literacy practices expand to include everyday texts and multimodal texts

Literacy practices makes use of environmental and everyday texts, including visual, auditory and spatial modes, either standalone or in any possible combinations. In the twenty-first century, texts are increasingly digital and interactive in nature and require different literacy skills to print-based texts. Modern literacy practices therefore involves six language modes: listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts (ACARA, 2017).


Functional grammar Silly Rainbow Sentences

Silly Rainbow Sentences is a common teaching and learning activity, where words or part of simple sentences are color coded. Students draw a full set of colour cards and align these according to the colours of the rainbow. They then write down the sentence and read it out loud. These sentences are syntactically correct, but semantically incorrect and often quite funny. Many examples and variations of this activity can be found on Pinterest.

The Silly Rainbow Sentences activity can be adapted to explore systemic functional properties and characteristics of language by using the colour-coded key for functional elements Participants, Attributes, Processes and Circumstances introduced in a previous post. A functional approach to Silly Rainbow Sentences works best if a particular language aspect or functions guides the construction of the original set of sentences.

For example, the topic could be clauses with relation processes. As part of a student-led investigation, the students are asked to write down their own set of sentences on coloured cards.

Original sentences written on colour-coded cards

The cards are collected, shuffled and distributed. The students create sentences following the same colour sequence, e.g.:

Functional Silly Rainbow Sentences

In some cases, the students will have to make informed decisions around verbs, singular and plural to create grammatically correct sentences (corrections in black).

This activity can be expanded by asking the student (or student groups) to trade cards in order to form semantically correct sentences. This promotes interaction and peer discussion, making the literacy activity socially more meaningful.

Further reading:

  • Exley, B., & Kervin, L. (2013). Playing with grammar in the early years: Learning about language in the Australian Curriculum: English. Australian Literacy Educators’ Association. (in particular Chapter 4, Colour coding: meanings in clauses)

Relevance to Australian Curriculum content descriptors:

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Mapping functional meaning and grammatical forms

Students need opportunities to develop knowledge, understanding and skills of the functional and the formal nature of language. In a previous post, we explored the idea of introducing young learners to experiential functions of text through the systemic functional linguistics (SFL)  metalanguage of Processes, Participants, and Circumstances.

These “chunks of meaning” (Derewianka, 2011, p.55) correspond to traditional grammatical forms. For example, Participants (people, places, things) correspond to nouns, noun groups and pronouns. Processes (actions) correspond to verbs and verb groups. Surrounding Circumstances that detail the ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ correspond to adverbs and adverbial groups. In a more advanced functional analysis, we can further differentiate Participant from its description, introducing the functional category of Attributes. Attributes take the form of adjectives and adjectival groups.

There are a lot of possible written text-based teaching and learning activities around mapping functional meaning and grammatical forms, some of which will be explored in coming posts (1, 2). However, these require some sort of legend or key. The following key is proposed, indicating traditional (mostly word-based) grammar forms by typographical emphasis (bold, italic, underline). This requires text formatting which can be performed by the teacher in advance. The functional elements, which often involve multiple words in a row, can be highlighted by the students using colours. This approach allows student to focus on mapping functional elements of language. At the same time, they are provided with an opportunity to develop an understanding of the formal nature of language.

Key for working with functional and formal grammar

Applied to the opening sentences of ‘The secret garden’, this would look like:

Mapping functional meaning and grammatical forms using typographical emphasis (teacher) and highlighting (students)

The developed key is an example for the practical implementation of a continuum in approaches to describing language. As proponents of functional grammar argue, it is important not to “abandon
traditional grammar but [… to] build on it” (Derewianka & Jones, 2010, p.10).


  • Derewianka, B., & Jones, P. (2010). From traditional grammar to functional grammar: Bridging the divide. NALDIC Quarterly, 8 (1), 6-17.
  • Derewianka, B. M. (2011). A new grammar companion for teachers. Primary English Teaching Association Australia.
  • Hodgson Burnett, F. (1911). The secret garden. Project Gutenberg EBook.

Further reading:

  • Exley, B., & Kervin, L. (2013). Playing with grammar in the early years: Learning about language in the Australian Curriculum: English. Australian Literacy Educators’ Association. (in particular Chapter 4, Colour coding: meanings in clauses)

Relevance to Australian Curriculum content descriptors:

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