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.

  • http://thenewliteracyteacher.wordpress.com/ Julie Warner

    I think the point about the line of demarcation between what is "authentic" and what we have kids do in schools is what I grapple with most. Oftentimes teachers approach this problem by simply colonizing students' out-of-school/unsanctioned literacy practices which doesn't strike me as the best approach. I think the issue at the heart of this matter is the way in which school literacy teaching and learning is often decontextualized. The ultimate audience for student work is the teacher. Meanwhile the research being done on kids writing in web 2.0 environments shows that they value the feedback and the self-selected communities of practice.

  • http://www.changinghorizons.net Martin

    Thanks for your reply Julie. I would agree that the demarcation between 'authentic' and 'schooled' literacy is a challenging area for educators. While both are valid in their own right – some schooled literacy skills will always remain important; I feel that the 'authentic' aspect is something that is often misguided.  I have seen numerous projects planned that incorporate, for example, video games as a topic i.e. themed work across the curriculum. This to me does not represent authentic engagement with ideological literacy but rather encourages tenuous links between popular culture and traditional school literacy, which are neither meaningful or relevant to the children's learning. However, it is hard to bring children's popular culture into the classroom and create the 'authentic' literacy practices that Street describes since all classroom activities are going to be subject to teacher design and intervention. Can a literacy event be truly authentic in school? I've invented the term 'simulated literacy events' to describe literacy events designed and implemented by teachers which try to develop out-of-school literacy practices and take build on chilren's popular cultures (but are still subject to teacher design).

    However, I do believe that meaningful and successful projects can be planned that engage children and build on popular culture if it is at the core of the project rather than an add-on or theme. Children need to see the links to literacy in the real world rather than just schooled literacy.

  • http://thenewliteracyteacher.wordpress.com/ Julie Warner

    I like that you use "simulated literacy events". Your response makes me wonder what the value might be in having students design their own "simulated literacy events" based on their own favorite out-of-school literacy practices given a particular objective based out of some of the timeless/universally important schooled literacy objectives.

  • Beth

    Hi Martin.  Thanks for the nudge to read this post. I think your concerns are right on. The literacy situation is discouraging here in the US. More and more, funding for schools, and even pay for teachers, is tied to test scores and "the basics." The tests reinforce to the autonomous model. You can guess what gets taught, unfortunately.

    I see the separation between the NLS and what is happening in classrooms quite a bit. And here in the US, the pendulum in teacher education has definitely swung to valuing what happens in the classroom over what is debated or advocated in their methods courses. Young teachers learning their profession are far more persuaded by what they see in classrooms than by what they read about in course texts – which strikes me as ironic, since the "basics" seem to be so committed to the power of the written over the visual.  It is all a mixed up mess, I think.

    Of course, I do hear about educators doing wonderful things here in classrooms. They create spaces for critical inquiry and multiple literacies. I wish I could say they were becoming more the norm, but I don't see it that way. I hope I am wrong.

    My son is 12 and he hates school. He is painfully bored. I asked him the other day what could make school better. He talked about taking local trips and getting his hands into learning. He wants to "do learning," not just receive information. Why is that so hard?

    Beth (@librarybeth)

  • http://www.changinghorizons.net Martin

    Hi Beth, thanks for reading the post. I've been doing some research into children's perceptions of literacy and I have found (so far) that they have become incredibly influenced by the 'standard' view of literacy presented in curricula documents. The concerning thing for me is that some educators class this narrow conception of literacy as being the 'correct' definition and one that should be privileged. They see digital technologies as a frivolous add-on rather than communicative system. Unfortunately this has led to a transmission model here in the UK which sounds like what your son is experiencing too. It's sometimes hard to work against this when other people can comment that you may not be covering the basics. I would completely agree with you that it is all a mixed up mess! I will try and write the follow up to his post soon but I'm very busy with this research project over the next week or so!

  • http://www.yams.com MarkSpizer

    great post as usual!

  • http://www.lifelockreviews.org Armando Codina

    Finally have all the info I need for my research, great post!