New Literacy Studies 1 – Is the damage already done?

One of my main areas of interest/despair is the way in which the National Literacy Strategy has led to a narrow conception of what literacy actually is and how it should be taught in schools. I regularly talk about the way the strategy has focused on the acquisition of print-based decoding skills, completely ignoring multimodal analysis/production skills (even speaking and listening), which has in turn led teachers to believe that the idea of ‘schooled-literacy’ is the correct one. Of course we know that children bring different ways of looking at the world into the classroom through their experience of home, school, friendships, technologies and understanding of the world and the domains in which they move. In their cultures they experience a multiplicity of meaning making systems through, for example, social networking systems, text messaging, blogging and online gaming – most of which are ignored in the school curriculum. The renewed framework for teaching literacy (2006) did try to fix some of this but I fear that lasting damage has already been done.

What has also concerned me is that the original National Literacy strategy led to the creation of packaged schemes of work or ‘strategies for immediate impact’ on attainment to meet national standards through the teaching of specific ‘parts’ of writing. Such approaches conceptualise literacy as a set of discrete skills that can be taught in isolation, regardless of context. These dominant frameworks originate from the discipline of educational psychology and translate into reductionist pedagogical frames which promote teacher-centred transmission models of literacy curriculua (Larson and Marsh, 2005). A far cry from the literacy that children experience in their everyday life.

I have been reading, with great interest, the theory of New Literacy Studies which conceptualises literacy as a social practice rather than a progression of technical skills. New Literacy Studies recognises multiple literacies, varying across time and space (Street, 1984; 1997; 2003). Street has used the term ‘autonomous literacy’ which he suggests sees literacy in a reductionist manner in which it can be taught in similar ways across varying contexts in a value-free form, despite the very different needs and experiences of learners (Larson and Marsh, 2005). While the dominant models of literacy are not completely context-free I believe that such models or ‘quick-fix’ strategies towards ‘improving’ writing attainment compartmentalise writing into discrete skills and represent an autonomous view of literacy. Furthermore such strategies, or indeed packaged curricula, can realign the teacher as a ‘deliverer’ in the classroom and significantly alter their conception of literacy (see Crawford, 2004).

Street contrasts autonomous literacy with the notion of ‘ideological literacy’ which recognises multiple literacies rather than one standard literacy and that use of these literacies creates engagement with the real world and wider networks (Hall, 1998). In this sense literacy is not a single, essential thing with predictable consequences. It requires students to be able to discuss the basic choices being made in the kind of literacy they are learning (Street, 1997). Within this paradigm the role of digital technologies is therefore not on technical skills or adding technology as a ‘bolt-on’ but rather the cultural and critical ramifications of technology in society (Pahl and Rowsell, 2005). As a result the notion of embedding technology into the literacy curriculum becomes central to NLS. Digital technologies bring with them new text types that are, like many other texts of popular culture, multilayered and multifaceted. Therefore their place in the literacy curriculum becomes central.

This all seems so obvious. However, New Literacy Studies has failed to move significantly away from theory. It still seems distanced from the classroom, perhaps even misguided. Can literacy be truly ideological? Researchers of NLS use the concept of literacy events and practices to look at what people do with literacy and how they can inform educational practice. Literacy events were established by Heath as an occasion where written text and talk around that text constructs interpretations, extensions and meanings (Health, 1983). Street then expanded this idea to suggest that all literacy events have literacy practices embedded within them. He defines literacy practices as cultural practices in which the use of reading and/or writing are associated with given contexts (Street, 1997). There is a call for literacy events in schools to be meaningful and linked to real-world contexts – but how meaningful can they be if they were constructed and designed by a class teacher? That surely removes an element of authenticity?

In my next blog post I will talk about how New Literacy Studies can be applied to the classroom and build on work I will present at the ESRC Seminar Series on Virtual Worlds in May.