This introduction to the expanding field of literacy studies has been fully revised for the second edition. It explores recent developments and new research that has contributed to our understanding of literacy practices, reflecting on the interdisciplinary growth of the study of reading and writing over the past decade.
An introductory textbook on the growing field of literacy studies, fully updated for the new edition
Includes new sections detailing recent completed studies of literacy practices, and the use of new technologies
Distinguishes between the competing definitions of literacy in contemporary society, and examines the language and learning theories which underpin new views of literacy
Now features additional material on cross-cultural perspectives, US-based examples, and information detailing current educational policy.
is Professor of Language and Literacy and Director of the Literacy Research Centre at Lancaster University. His publications include Beyond Communities of Practice
(co-edited with Karin Tusting, 2005), Letter Writing as a Social Practice
(co-edited with Nigel Hall, 2000), and Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community
(with Mary Hamilton, 1998).
Talking about literacy
Metaphors for literacy
Like a germ that learns to enjoy penicillin, illiteracy consumes all the armies sent to fight it. No matter what we do about it - and we do a good deal, contrary to complaints from the literacy lobby - the condition persists. Depending on how you count them, adult illiterates make up anywhere from a tenth to a fifth of the Canadian population. We have no reason to think their number is shrinking, and some reason to fear that it is growing . social evil . illiteracy is caused . The remedy .
The metaphors are clear in this leader from the Financial Times of Canada on 4 July 1988. Ideas of disease and warfare come over in every word. The author of this emotive writing, Robert Fulford, then went on to make some interesting points about the illiteracy of the ghostwriting of speeches for politicians, thus stretching the term in a different direction.
Such metaphors are common in the media and in public discussion. In an interview on television the then Archbishop of Canterbury argued that the inner-city riots in Britain in 1991 were due to 'a matrix of illiteracy and delinquency and other wrongdoing'. Around the same time a leading British politician referred to a situation where there was 'not a high level of literacy so people were excitable and likely to be led astray'. Again the metaphors are clear, and especially revealing if you observe how literacy is juxtaposed with other negative terms suggesting weakness and crime.
The disease metaphor particularly is very pervasive. It can be used to damn the illiterate, as in the examples above, or it can be used to praise the literate. An example of the latter is to be found in Bruce Chatwin's novel Utz; referring to Prague in the mid-twentieth century, the narrator comments: 'The Soviet education system, I felt, had worked all too well: having created on a colossal scale, a generation of highly intelligent, highly literate young people who were more or less immune to the totalitarian message' (1988, p. 118). There is a great deal on literacy to draw out of this quote and I will return to it later on. For the moment, the idea that literacy is an inoculation, making one immune to brain-washing, is a further example of the disease metaphor.
Talking about a disease which has to be eradicated is also a common way in which literacy is discussed as a social issue. Powerful images can be built up with this metaphor, as in a recent newspaper headline: '12-year-olds caught in epidemic of illiteracy'. Further links are suggested by a cursory glance at other newspaper headlines: across the world illiteracy is often linked with criminality, with not being able to get a job, and with being a drain on the economy.
To move to another metaphor, a view of literacy which is at the root of much educational practice is that of treating it as a skill or set of skills. This has been very powerful in the design of literacy programmes at all levels of education. The acts of reading and writing are broken down into a set of skills and subskills. These skills are ordered into a set of levels starting with pre-reading skills and they are then taught in a particular order, each skill building upon the previous. Literacy is seen as a psychological variable which can be measured and assessed. Skills are treated as things which people own or possess; some are transferable skills, some are not. Learning to read and write becomes a technical problem and the successful reader and writer is a skilled reader and writer. As an educational definition of literacy, this view is very powerful, and it is one which spills over into the rest of society. It is often drawn on in government strategies for literacy.
It is important to realize that this idea of skills is a particular way of thinking about literacy; it is no less a metaphor than the disease metaphor. Everywhere there are metaphors for talking about reading and writing, some very graphic, others less so. Paulo Freire, for example, presented the idea of traditional literacy education as being banking, where knowledge is deposited in a person. It is a thing, almost an object which is given and received; shifting the metaphor slightly, empty people are filled up with literacy. He contrasts this deficit view with a view of literacy as a form of empowerment, as a right, as something which people do, a process rather than a thing.
Everyone has a view of literacy, and opinions on the subject are often held tenaciously. These views are expressed through metaphors. However, different metaphors have different implications for how we view illiteracy, what action might be taken to change it and how we characterize the people involved. For example, if illiteracy is a disease, then the people involved are sick, it should be eradicated, and experts need to be called in to do the job. If it is a psychological problem, then therapy or counselling are needed. Other metaphors call for training, empowerment, special education or social support. The participants might be construed as students, customers, clients or recipients. The blame, if it is blameworthy, might be attributed to fate, the individual, the school, the family, or the social structure. Note that some metaphors are within the education sphere, while others branch out into counselling, therapy and elsewhere. In all of them literacy has been socially constructed. Kenneth Levine discusses this (1985, p. 172) and has a tentative chart of different social ways of talking about illiteracy. Table 2.1 is an updated version of this.
Another approach is to view literacy in terms of access to knowledge and information. To be literate is to have access to the world of books and other written material. When viewed this way, the word literacy itself has become a metaphor which has been applied to other areas. This has happened with terms like cultural literacy, computer literacy, information literacy, visual literacy and political literacy. Here we see literacy loosely as understanding an area of knowledge.
The trouble with metaphors for literacy such as that of a disease or a set of skills is that they are limited in scope and do not capture the breadth of what is involved in reading and writing. I want to explore this, but first it is necessary to say some general words on metaphors and theories, in order to make clear the approach being taken in this book.
Table 2.1 Some ways of talking about literacy
Theories and metaphors
In arguing for a different way of thinking about literacy, it is important to be very conscious and reflective about this activity. We need to be very clear about the language we are using. Throughout, I will be scrutinizing and deconstructing many of the concepts which structure and scaffold the ideas of literacy. This will include notions of reading, writing, skill, illiterate. The discussion will also embrace many ideas and concepts which do not appear at first to be directly related to literacy, such as when we examine what is meant by terms such as learning, evolution, mainstream culture. In addition, in slipping from discipline to discipline it will be obvious that terms are used in different ways. What I am trying to do is to find a way of talking about literacy which can bring together insights from these different areas. What is needed is not exactly a definition of literacy; rather we need a metaphor, a model, a way of talking about literacy. What sort of activity is literacy?
Before addressing this set of questions, it is necessary to say a few words about metaphors in general, how they work and what their role is. The notion of metaphors used here is broader than the everyday use of the term. I will describe what I mean by metaphor, then I will look at some definitions of literacy and describe some of the ways of talking about the subject which are developing in the field of literacy studies. When this has been done I will move on to another metaphor for literacy.
As part of living we all make sense of our lives; we can talk about what we do; we explain and justify our actions, our feelings and our intentions. We construct theories to make sense of the world. Our theories affect our action, just as our emotions and our intentions affect our actions. We adjust and change our theories in the light of experience. This applies to literacy as much as to any other part of life. Everyone has a view of literacy; everyone in some way makes sense of it. Everyone who uses terms like reading has a theory of the nature of literacy underlying their use of the word. I am going to call these views of literacy people's everyday theories of literacy. They are sometimes called folk theories. I prefer everyday theories, as folk already has the idea in it that they are not really true and is therefore pejorative in some sense.
These points about everyday theories apply equally to the theories of the specialist, the professional, the researcher. These people have theories which they (we?) are often more conscious of. However, these theories, which I will call professional theories, are...