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The effects of discourses in regional contexts on the development of curriculum-based literacy standards for adolescents in schooling: A comparative study of South Australia and Ontario

Lisl Fenwick

Governments in countries around the world are applying standards-based reforms to education in attempts to achieve future economic prosperity and social cohesion (Levin, 2010; Rizvi & Lingard, 2010). The inclusion of more specific standards in curriculum and the implementation of testing programs are two strategies by which reformers are hoping to improve the outcomes of schooling (Hopmann, 2008; Spillane, 2004).

This study investigates how discourses operating within regional contexts affect standards-based curriculum reforms in literacy. A theoretical framework from Michel Foucault (2002) and methods of critical discourse analysis based on the work of Norman Fairclough (2003) are used to examine how discourses operating internationally intersect with those originating in regional contexts to produce curriculum. The study specifically investigates how discourses occurring at a regional level affect the content of curriculum associated with the setting of minimum literacy standards for schooling. Two cases of standards-based reforms are investigated in the study, including the province of Ontario, Canada, and the state of South Australia, Australia.

Within both Ontario and SA the setting of standards was presented as a solution by governments for a perceived crisis in education. It is within this broader context that minimum standards for literacy achievement in the final years of schooling were written into curriculum documents. Critical discourse analysis of the curriculum documents produced for ‘The Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course’ and ‘Literacy for Work and Community Life’ provides insight into how discourses operating within local institutions interacted to produce curriculum for minimum literacy standards for the end point of schooling.

to construct literacy as a complex set of knowledge, understanding and skills

The curriculum statements for ‘The Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course’ and ‘Literacy for Work and Community Life’ begin by presenting a similar discourse about failing school systems and the need for standards. However, in both curriculum statements, an alternative discourse is also present from the beginning. Within the text previews for both documents, the presentation of literacy as a basic competency is contested. Lexical cohesion, particularly in the form of substitution, is used, not only to suggest literacy is a basic competency, but also to construct literacy as a complex set of knowledge, understanding and skills. In both regions, the curriculum writers begin in the text preview to present literacy as a capacity to adapt and alter skills and understandings constantly in a range of contexts. A discourse about how literacy involves complex knowledge, skills and understandings then continues throughout the curriculum statements for both regions. A range of language choices are made to continue to challenge the notion of literacy being a basic competency at the end point of schooling.

The language choices made within the two texts ensure that the simplified way in which literacy is presented within a discourse about standards-based reforms to schooling is challenged. Foucault (2002) makes the observation that discourses that lack ‘coherence, rigour, and stability’ will be particularly susceptible to change and open to new ‘organisations of concepts’ (p.71). During text production, simplistic discourses may be included, but there is enormous potential for ‘interdiscursivity’ (Fairclough, 2003, p.35) to occur. During the development of the curriculum used to define minimum literacy standards for schooling in SA and Ontario, the institutions traditionally responsible for creating curriculum in each region construct discourses about literacy that contest the notion of literacy being a basic competency. Through this process, the curriculum developers in each of the two regions also construct literacy in two very different ways. The findings of this study suggest that a shared global discourse about standards-based reforms will be used to justify an emphasis on standards for general competencies, such as literacy, at a local level, but locally-generated discources will then significantly affect the way in which key competencies are defined and understood.


Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing discourse: textual analysis for social research. London & New York: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (2002) [1969]. The archaeology of knowledge. London & New York: Routledge Classics.

Hopmann, S. T. (2008). No child, no school, no state left behind: schooling in the age of accountability. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40 (4), 417-456. Doi: 10.1080/00220270801989818

Levin, B. (2010). The challenge of large-scale literacy improvement. School Effectiveness and School Improvement: an International Journal of Research, Policy and Practice, 21 (4), 359-376. Doi: 10.1080/09243453.2010.486589

Rizvi, F., & Lingard, B. (2010). Globalizing education policy. London & New York: Routledge.

Spillane, J.P. (2004). Standards deviation: how schools misunderstand education policy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.