Dr Maria Nicholas is not taking sides in the ‘literacy wars’

REDI member Dr Maria Nicholas is Senior Lecturer in Education (Language and Literacy Education) in the School of Education and Associate Investigator, Australian Research Council – Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child. She investigates students’ learning and education in pre-school, primary and secondary school settings, including high-ability and gifted teaching and learning, particularly as it relates to literacy development. Here she talks about her love of reading and her determination to rise above the ‘literacy wars’ for the benefit of young people and their teachers.

What is your background? Where did you grow up?

My family migrated to Australia from Italy just before I was born. I was the only member of my family to have been born here and was the first to go to university – it was a big deal. I’ll never forget seeing my dad practically leap from his seat in the audience when I was on that stage receiving my certificate. I think about that when our Deakin students graduate – it’s often very much a family affair.

I think the reason I eventually became a teacher and then started researching the topic of reading was due to my father. I grew up hearing stories told in our mother tongue – stories that my dad heard from his own father growing up (stories I still love hearing him retell to this day). It was always a real treat – often used as a reward, but also used as a teaching tool – and an amazing way to build strong, positive relationships.

What has been your career path up until now?

I grew up in Geelong, and I can’t recall ever questioning that I would go to Deakin University, Waurn Ponds campus straight out of high school (which is what I did). I didn’t start off thinking that I would be a teacher. When I first started at Deakin back in 1994, I thought I’d be an architect. Once that whim wore off, I realised where my true passions lay and made the change to the Bachelor of Education (Primary)/Bachelor of Arts. In 2013, I joined the academic team here in the School of Education and have never looked back. Given our long history, Deakin University holds a very special place in my heart.

When did you become interested in this area of research?

I always loved storytelling, from a very young age. I always had my nose buried in a book and I want everyone else to have the opportunity to enjoy, to learn from, to be surprised by, to share, to grow their compassion/empathy/understanding through the texts that they read and share with others. You can’t do that if you can’t read, or reading is too hard.

I also got so much satisfaction as a teacher from seeing the growth my students made in their reading and writing as the year progressed. As a teacher I was also always on the lookout to improve my own practice for the diverse students that I taught from year to year – that eventually led to a Master of Education (research). That then got me wondering about the history of reading development – what comes before school, which led to my PhD. And now I’m back to exploring different aspects of reading development and shared reading experiences in the school years, including in digital contexts through my work with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child.

What does this research mean for the community?

Literacy is the key to social engagement and personal growth. When someone can’t read or finds reading difficult, they’re excluded, or put on the periphery of their social community and their capacity to grow is limited. Not only is that a loss for them, it’s also a huge loss for their community. Through the capacity to read with proficiency, we not only gain access to more choice in terms of our future career paths, we also gain access to wisdom both past and present, we see things from different perspectives, we’re inspired, we wonder, we’re persuaded, we’re called to action – the list goes on. Excluding anyone from the capacity to fully engage with their communities of choice is a loss to everyone. We therefore have a duty to do everything we can to ensure that young people learn how to read with proficiency by the time they complete their compulsory years of schooling, for everyone’s benefit.

Is this work unique to Australia? If not how is this different to what others are doing?

This work is not unique to Australia, nor is it new! This is a long-unresolved, joint issue that we will all benefit from exploring together, across international contexts. While there have been so-called ‘literacy wars’ in English speaking countries on how to best teach reading over the years, I only see this as a positive. It shows just how passionate teachers, researchers and the wider community are in finding a way to ensure that no child, no person – young or old – is left behind. Perhaps that’s what’s different about my research – a war by definition requires that you pick a ‘side’ and put yourself in opposition to the ‘other side’. I go out of my way to be as objective as I can when looking at and learning from research into reading without questioning ‘which side’ of the debate the research is coming from. I’m a firm believer that we can achieve more if we work together as a research community, put young people first and have their best interests at heart.

What has been the biggest influence on your career?

I can’t say that any one thing was the biggest influence. It was a culmination of many things. My father got me started. My students (when I was a primary school teacher and even in the Higher Ed space) kept/keep me going, as did my young nephews and niece, and then my own children. I’ve had amazing mentors who believed in me – from Russell Matthews and Rod Maclean (my lecturers when I was an undergrad at Deakin) to my PhD supervisors Professor Louise Paatsch, Professor Dianne Toe and Associate Professor Bonnie Yim. My partner Jevon has been incredibly supportive every step of the way and there are numerous scholars and great storytellers who continue to inspire me. It’s been a collective endeavour.

What is your favourite aspect of your current role? What are the challenges?

My favourite part of my role is that I get to work with so many different people. Everyone I work with – whether they’re young children, students, parents, teachers, school leaders, government officials, researchers or any other member of the community – brings a fresh perspective that helps me to see the issue in a slightly different light. I’m always learning something new, and I love that.

My greatest challenge is making sure that my research doesn’t take over my life!

What are the next steps and what are the challenges?

I’ll continue to research in this space and continue to be open to new findings and new perspectives that may advance what we know about effective reading education. It will be a challenge not to be drawn into the literacy wars, but I’m confident that we can rise above this for the benefit of our young people and the amazing teachers who educate them.

News 23 October 2023