Graham Little – things I didn’t know

In Graham Little and The Hunting of the Snark: for Graham I told you something of my friend and mentor who passed away in May this year. His partner Les has provided me with some other material, including an obituary written by Ken Watson (another former colleague, mentor and friend) published, strangely, on my birthday – and I missed it!

Little-200x0 Graham Little, 1930-2010

In 1971, Graham Little, as head of the English Syllabus Committee for years 7 to 10, helped turn English lessons in NSW schools from fragmented segments to a cohesive whole. He was described by one education historian as having had "the most profound influence on English teaching in NSW of anyone since the Second World War".

Little’s early life was hard. When he was very young, he was identified as a neglected child and put in an orphanage. He had rickets, and was still crawling at three because his legs seemingly could not support him. Things changed when he was temporarily placed with the Little family, who had children of their own but, in 1933, they adopted him and soon had him restored to health.

At about 10, Graham answered a radio station ad for a young actor and soon found roles such as the Lone Ranger’s little boy. In later life he recalled with amusement how he, from a far less privileged environment, won the job over boys from private schools. The money earned from a few years’ work was an immense help in his later education.

After five years at Sydney Technical High School, Little went to Sydney University on a teachers’ college scholarship, graduating with honours in psychology and completing his diploma of education in 1951. He surprised the NSW Department of Education by asking to go to Broken Hill High School, then regarded as one of the least favourable of postings, as an English/history teacher.

After three years there, Little joined the educational testing section of the department back in Sydney. Then, after completing English III at night, he decided to return to classroom teaching.

Anyone who had done three years in the far west was, as far as possible, given his or her wishes regarding following postings, so Little was able to get a position in the English department of Fort Street Boys High School, where he showed that he was an outstanding classroom teacher.

Then he became head of an English/history department in 1959, when he moved to Kurri Kurri High School. A few years later he returned to Sydney as head of the English department at Sydney Boys High School.

At the end of 1958, he married Rosemary Ryan, a physical education teacher.

The English Teachers’ Association of NSW had been founded in 1960 and was city-centred for a few years, but Little could see the value of such an association for isolated country teachers. He took the lead in turning it into a statewide organisation, and in time was elected president.

In 1967, Little had a year in London as visiting lecturer at the Commonwealth Institute. On his return to Sydney, he was appointed a member of the English Syllabus Committee for years 7 to 10. It was no surprise to anyone when, shortly afterwards, he was appointed to the English inspectorate, and asked to head the syllabus committee.

With the 1971 English syllabus for years 7 to 10, a document largely written by Little, what became known as "the new English" was given formal recognition in NSW.

Little’s subsequent career, once he had firmly established the "new English" with workshops for teachers throughout the state, involved a move to Canberra in 1975 to be the principal lecturer in curriculum studies at the Canberra College of Advanced Education, now the University of Canberra.

In his time there, Little also undertook a wide-ranging language-across-the-curriculum project, spanning English, mathematics, science and social science, for the Catholic education system, in the ACT and a further language investigation for the Tasmanian Department of Education.

In 1981, three years after the breakdown of his marriage, Little formed a partnership with Leslie Farnell, who was in the ANU school of chemistry.

Little’s book, Approach to Literature (1963), is still used in many schools. After retirement, he continued research in language development, particularly at primary level, producing, with Farnell’s help, a solidly documented study of the development of writing at that level.

In his final years, Little coped courageously with macular degeneration, which ultimately made reading impossible, and the onset of motor neurone disease.

Graham Little is survived by Leslie and his sons Stephen and David. Another son, Geoffrey, died in 1984.

Ken Watson


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