The power of literacy
Love of learning and literacy leads to Emeritus Professorship for linguist and educator
Asking for directions. Paying a bill. Filling out a job application. The minutiae of daily life that is taken for granted – until the tool of language is taken away.
It was that realisation that led to Professor Beverly Derewianka dedicating her life’s work to understanding and improving how language is understood and taught.
She was awarded an Emeritus Professorship at the November graduation celebrations in recognition of her contributions to language and literacy.
For her, the beauty and utility of language are connected. As is how teachers of language are themselves taught.
“Being immersed in the immigrant community helped me appreciate how hard it is for many migrants to learn a new language,” Professor Derewianka said.
“When I was young there was this attitude that everyone should just speak English.
"People are more accepting these days and we now know that language, particularly writing and reading, are very complex skills requiring those people who are teaching language to know a lot about it themselves.”
Professor Derewianka was an Italian teacher early in her career and later married a Ukrainian refugee who, at the age of four, had spent time in a German prison camp during World War II.
“When my husband came to Australia at age four, he didn’t speak a word of English. One teacher at his school really changed his life.
"He could he see there was a spark there and worked with him at lunchtime to help him improve his English.
“This man, from a poor migrant family, went on to become a lawyer just because of one teacher who wanted to make a difference.
"It’s the same story with many kids and that’s why our role as teacher educators is so important.”
Professor Derewianka joined the University of Wollongong as a research officer in 1985 and held a number of key positions in what was the Faculty of Education (now Social Sciences), as well as serving on a number of university-wide committees.
She was founding Director of the Centre for Language Education, and later, Director of the Centre for Research in Language and Literacy – enterprises that helped attract external funding and consolidated the reputation of UOW in the field.
She was promoted to Associate Professor in 1999 and in 2007 became Professor of Language Education. Since 2014, she has been an honorary Professorial Fellow, remaining involved as investigator, mentor and advisor on a number of literacy-related projects within the School of Education.
Her research into the language challenges that students face at different levels of their schooling has informed policy making and assessment at national and international levels and has led to improved outcomes for learners of all ages.
During that time, she has seen the fads, fashions and other changes in the way language is taught. What doesn’t bother her – is the advent of texting, emojis and other truncated forms of communication in the age of the smart phone.
“We’ve always had new innovations when it comes to language. Kids are very adaptable, they just incorporate these new things into their repertoire,” Professor Derewianka said.
“If they’re texting quite a bit of the time it makes sense that they’re going to do it in the most efficient way they can. But if they’re writing an essay they’ll think about the audience and they can write quite competently and elegantly with good teaching.
“People look at superficial indicators of literacy, such as spelling, and think that literacy is on the decline but I don’t think that’s the case at all.”
Professor Derewianka has overseen more than 25 PhD students, instilling in them a lesson she was given on her first day at UOW.
“I had very good mentors. When I first arrived, they got me out into the schools and said, ‘this is your focus. We don’t sit in our offices, we get out in the community and the classrooms where your research matters’.
“When I spoke with potential PhD students I would ask them to explain what problem they were trying to solve that will make a difference in kids’ lives.”
Professor Glenn Salkeld, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, wrote in Professor Derewianka’s citation: “Beverly cites one of her major life goals as being ‘to make a positive difference in people’s lives’.
“Through her prodigious contribution to literacy education and linguistics, she has in no small part aided educators world-wide and expanded the worlds of countless students, empowering them to develop independence over their own learning, which is a gift that pays dividends for a lifetime; and that alone represents a legacy of considerable heft.”