Language and Literacies with Equity

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

There is a small body of work that explicitly links equity with language and literacies (often packaged under the unhelpfully reductive ‘skills’ label; see Lea & Street, 1998; Lillis, 2001; Wingate, 2006 for critique of this description of language). However, disconnections between home/school and academic language and literacies (henceforth ALL), which create challenging conditions for participation and success, are a common finding throughout the literature that examines student experience, transitions and pathways. However, despite what some see as the centrality of language and literacies to the core work of the academy (Lea, 2013; Baker & Irwin, 2015), there is comparably lesser attention paid to these concerns in the context of equity when compared to other areas (such as access and aspirations) This is likely to be connected in part at least to policy orientations and funding priorities, although attention has been paid to the challenges that result from poor teaching and assessment practices, which – it could be argued – are intertwined with assumptions about language and literacies. Indeed, as Klinger & Murray (2012) contend, issues connected with students’ (lack of) language are generally ‘symptomatic’ of broader issues relating to views of acculturation, particularly for students who arrive with “a significantly greater shortfall in the kind of cultural capital successful study in this environment demands” (p.40).

There are two broad themes that run through this body of literature: a focus on academic discourses and literacies for native English speaking students (NES), and a focus on language proficiency for students who come from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE). Discussions on the latter theme tend to examine equity and domestic LBOTE students rather than international students; however, Simon Marginson (2011) has raised the question about whether equity agendas should be extended to international students (also see Ziguras, 2016). Given that international students now constitute almost a quarter of enrolments in Australian higher education, there is a compelling argument (as with other unofficial equity groups, such as students from refugee backgrounds, students from out of home care, and first in family students. 

There is relatively little attention paid explicitly to challenges experienced as a result of language and literacies with relation to NES students – in terms of a student’s proficiency and in the context of staff communication and assessment of learning. However, there are a small number of papers that specifically address the challenges that NES students – from equity groups in particular – face. Some of this literature uses the language of ‘academic discourse’, rather than specifically naming language and literacies (Devlin, 2011, Devlin & O’Shea, 2012; McKay & Devlin, 2014); however, despite this conflation of what are essentially different but related phenomena, they denote a connection with language and literacies, even if these are not made explicit. For instance,  in examining the impact of academic discourses on low SES students’ experiences of studying in higher education, McKay & Devlin (2014) draw on the idea that ALL need to be ‘demystified’ (see Lillis, 2001), because without explicit unpacking of academic discourses and practices, they risk being excluded from the knowledge community. Clearly, this argument can be extended to all student groups who are traditionally under-represented in university, and could also be extended to all students who start university studies; as Murray (2013) succinctly captures it, “few if any students, whether native speakers or NESB, domestic or international, will come adequately equipped with the specific set of academic literacy practices they require for their particular degree” (p.303; see also Briguglio, 2011). Writing about the challenges of introducing a Post-Enrolment Language Assessment (PELA) at the University of South Australia, Murray (2013) makes the case for embedding academic literacies into the curriculum, based on notion that

“…subject lecturers can reasonably be expected to have an implicit knowledge of the academic literacies and communication skills [of their discipline]… many will require professional development by English language and communication specialists to help them articulate and acquire a good understanding of [what they] demonstrate unconsciously on a daily basis, along with the associated pedagogies for their delivery” (p.304).

The call for embedding such supports – based on the assumption that all students could benefit from unpacking tacit assumptions about what constitutes ‘good’ disciplinary writing – is commonplace in ALL-focused literature (Wingate, 2006; Baik & Greig, 2009; Klinger & Murray, 2012; Briguglio & Watson, 2014; Murray & Nallaya, 2014; Stirling & Rossetto, 2015). However, embedding as a whole-of-institution effort (as described in Murray 2013) is likely to be both challenging and a long-term project, requiring significant cultural change. Stirling & Rossetto (2015) describe one attempt to embed supportive technologies and strategies (not solely restricted to ALL) in a transition program at the University of Wollongong. Their discussion works from metaphor of the palimpsest so as to “think through the complex layering between subjective responses of students to the demands of academic writing and the (con)textual product” (drawing on Yancey, 2004; p.16). Stirling & Rossetto argue that to judge students by the conventions around reading and writing imposed by the academy, “places important differences and the politics of identity inherent in diversity and social inclusion under erasure” (p.17), which can have significant impacts on students’ learning. Stirling & Rossetto contend that there are core tensions between teachers, equity students and ALL, arguing that the competing agendas of equity, widening participation, quality teaching and neoliberalism lead all agents (subject lecturers, equity students and ALL teachers) to “become entangled”, thus limiting the possibilities for the cultural change that is necessary to foreground more holistic and inclusive pedagogies.

There is a more intense focus in this literature that specifically relates to ALL on the experiences, needs and proficiencies of LBOTE students. Partly, this focus is a result of the debate around ‘slipping standards’, which have been levelled at the expansion of higher education to both ‘non-traditional’ and international/ LBOTE students. In her 2011 paper, Carmela Briguglio (2011) responds to the suggestion that raising English pre-entry requisites will help universities to ‘raise their standards’. She argues that rather than making entry more difficult for students (often for the most lucrative students in Australian higher education), which would provide “only a temporary panacea that hides important related issues” (p.317), universities need to engage in an ontological shift because “academics are looking at [English language] from old perspectives instead of seeing it with new eyes” (p.326). She takes issue with the notion of developing interventions in the name of equity, arguing that universities need to “move beyond the rhetoric of ‘equity’ and ‘access’ towards an internationalised curriculum for all students” (p.322), which would place language, literacies and interculturality at the centre of teaching and learning.

Cocks & Stokes (2013) also attend to the ‘wicked problem’ of language, but focus their attention to the other end of the spectrum, and explore the issues that occur when there are no entry requirements for a program of study. Taking the Foundation Studies enabling program at the University of South Australia as their case study, Cocks & Stokes discuss the challenges that students with low proficiency in Academic English have (specifically LBOTE) face with participating and succeeding in the program, which is itself designed to prepare students for the rigours of undergraduate study. In this context, authors make the argument that “minimal entry requirements for access… may encourage those with low English language proficiency to develop unrealistic expectations of undergraduate success” (p.32). Similar arguments are made in Baker & Irwin’s (2015) audit of enabling programs across Australia, noting that ‘open access’ (in the form of no entry prerequisites) can be as disabling as it is enabling, depending on the student’s confidence with and command of the language of instruction.

Similarly, Pitman, Koshy & Philimore (2015) note that domestic LBOTE students do not qualitatively differ from their international (in terms of visa status) counterparts in terms of performing/ controlling for selection into courses, which thus suggests “that literacy rather than cultural conditioning was a greater issue” (p.613). Daddow, Moraitis & Carr’s (2013) research offers similar findings; their description of efforts to embed academic language and criticality into two TAFE Diploma courses, which have many LBOTE students, suggests that students’ access and participation in the program is constrained by proficiency with academic and disciplinary discourses and literacies. These challenges at the TAFE level make transitioning into undergraduate studies – particularly directly into Year 2 – highly challenging. Their methodological and pedagogical approach sought to resist a deficit approach, and instead positioned students as ‘emerging participants in a new discourse’ (p.484) by making the writing practices of the discipline (community services and social work) explicit. They found that despite it requiring effort and time on the part of both disciplinary teachers and ALL experts, students responded enthusiastically to the initiative, and grades of assessed work suggest that it achieved its goals to increase participation and engagement with disciplinary knowledges. Testa & Egan’s (2014) research into the experiences of undergraduate LBOTE students (both domestic and international) suggests that beyond the challenges that English can pose, other barriers included “a lack of familiarity with local knowledge and values, a lack of grounding in Western conceptual frameworks and unfamiliarity with academic discourse” (p.234). Moreover, despite meeting the English Language proficiency requirements of their degree, Testa & Egan’s participants reported that they had difficulties with the English used in lectures, readings and in assessment requirements. These challenges are arguably the result of two compounding factors: the “traditional, individualistic teaching and learning pedagogy taught exclusively through the lens of a Western paradigm” (p.240) and the content of the curriculum, which often rests of assumptions of local knowledge, colloquial language and culturally-specific metaphors, fails to recognise multiple ways of learning and thus expects the students to adapt, or finds them deficient. Testa & Egan (2014) argues that the cultural and linguistic assumptions made by curriculum designers and teachers need to be unpacked and examined through the lens of LBOTE students. They propose that such actions could facilitate the kind of cultural change needed to recognise the centrality of ALL and generate more inclusive pedagogies; by focusing on LBOTE students, it would “challenge curriculum designers and lecturers to integrate [LBOTE] perspectives and experiences into the curriculum, thus providing alternative voices in the understanding and application of theories and practice” (p.240)


Baker, S. & Irwin, E. (2015). A national audit of academic literacies provision in enabling courses in Australian Higher Education (HE), Association for Academic Language and Learning. Retrieved from

Briguglio, C. (2011). Quality and the English language question: is there really an issue in Australian universities? Quality in Higher Education, 17(3): 317-329.

Cocks, T. & Stokes, J. (2013). Policy into practice: a case study of widening participation in Australian higher education, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 15(1): 22-38.

Devlin, M. (2011). Bridging socio-cultural incongruity: conceptualizing the success of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds in Australian higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 38(6): 939-949.

Devlin, M. & O’Shea, H. (2012). Effective university teaching: views of Australian university students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, Teaching in Higher Education, 17(4): 385-397.

Klinger, C. & Murray, N. (2012). Tensions in higher education: widening participation, student diversity and the challenge of academic language/ literacy. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14(1), 27-44.

McKay, J. & Devlin, M. (2014). ‘Uni has a different language… to the real world’: demystifying academic culture and discourse for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Higher Education Research & Development, 33(5): 949-961.

Marginson, S. (2011). Equity, status and freedom: A note on higher education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 41(1): 23-36.

Murray, N. (2013). Widening participation and English language proficiency: a convergence with implications for assessment practices in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 38(2): 299-311.

Pitman, T.; Koshy, P.; & Phillimore, J. (2015). Does accelerating access to higher education lower its quality? The Australian experience. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(3): 609-623.

Stirling, J. & Rossetto, C. (2015). “Are we there yet?”: Making sense of transition in higher education, Student Success, 6(2): 9-20.

Testa, D. & Egan, R. (2014). Finding voice: the higher education experiences of students from diverse backgrounds, Teaching in Higher Education, 19(3): 229-241.


Supporting literature

Baik, C. & Greig, J. (2009). Improving the academic outcomes of undergraduate ESL students: the case for discipline-based academic skills programs, Higher Education Research & Development, 28(4): 401-416.

Bailey, R. & Garner, M. (2010). Is the feedback in higher education assessment worth the paper it is written on? Teachers’ reflections on their practices, Teaching in Higher Education, 15 (2): 187-198

Briguglio, C. & Watson, S. (2014). Embedding English language across the curriculum in higher education: A continuum of development support, Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 37(1): 67-74.

Lea, M. (2013). ‘Academic literacies in the digital university: integrating individual accounts with network practice’. In Goodfellow, R. & Lea. M. (Eds). Literacy in the Digital University: Critical perspectives on learning, scholarship, and technology. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.137-148.

Lea, M. & Street, B. (1998). Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach, Studies in Higher Education, 23 (2): 157-172.

Lillis, T. (2001). Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire, London: Routledge.

Lillis, T. (2003). Student Writing as ‘Academic Literacies’: Drawing on Bakhtin to Move from Critique to Design, Language and Education, 17 (3): 192-207.

Murray, N. & Nallaya, S. (2014). Embedding academic literacies in university programme curricula: a case study, Studies in Higher Education, 41(7): 1296-1312.

Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with ‘study skills’, Teaching in Higher Education, 11 (4): 457-469.

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.