New Directions in Literacy Research

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  • New Directions in Literacy Research

    Mike BaynhamSchool of Education, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK

    Mastin PrinslooDepartment of Education, University of Cape Town, South Africa

    Introducing the CollectionThe papers collected here are, in the main, based on those presented in a sympo-sium New Directions in Literacy Research at the International Association forApplied Linguistics (AILA) Conference held in Tokyo in August 1999. Thesymposium brought together scholars in what can be broadly defined as theNew Literacy Studies and aimed to review research developments in the literacyfield across a range of research sites and to identify future directions and agendafor research. Earlier versions of the papers were published on the AILA ScientificCommission on Literacy Website ( earlier version of Gemma Mosss paper was published as part of the AILALiteracy SC Virtual Seminar series on the same website. In order to situate thepapers collected here, it is perhaps useful to start by considering both what theterm New Literacy Studies (NLS) has come to mean over the last decade or soand also the research conversation within which it has been developed.

    The New Literacy StudiesOriginally introduced in the early 1990s in the work of Gee (1990) and Street

    (1993), the term New Literacy Studies is increasingly used to characterise thework of literacy researchers who have taken both a social turn and a discourseanalytic turn (cf Gee, 2000) in their research. Prinsloo and Breier (1996), for exam-ple, situate the theoretical framework of their Social Uses of Literacy (SoUL)Project in relation to NLS, understood as a range of independently developed but(theoretically) supportive work, drawing on a number of disciplines (anthropol-ogy, sociology, sociolinguistics, psychology and discourse analysis). Gee (2000)explores this convergence of theoretical interests, across a range of work in situ-ated cognition, connectionism, sociocultural theory, ethnomethodology andconversational analysis, ethnography of communication, the sociology ofscience and technology, post-structuralist theory, arguing for a broad theoreticalcongruence based on social and discourse analytic perspectives used to investi-gate a range of phenomena, here literacy.

    What characterises this range of work is, first, the turn away from a priorispecification of categories of people, such as literates and illiterates and awayfrom the attachment of typical outcomes to membership of such static catego-ries. Second, the turn is to the theorisation of everyday social practice, based onthe premise that literacy practices are always and already embedded in particu-lar social forms of activity. Such literacy practices are fundamentally mutually

    0950-0782/01/02 083-09 $16.00/0 2001 M. Baynham & M. PrinslooLANGUAGE AND EDUCATION Vol. 15, No. 2&3, 2001


  • constructed, and are also shaped by both institutionalised and informal relationsof power.

    Barton and Hamilton (2000: 115) identify the characteristics of an NLSperspective on literacy as follows:

    Literacy is best understood as a set of social practices; these are observablein events which are mediated by written texts.There are different literacies associated with different domains of life.Literacy practices are patterned by social institutions and power relationsand some literacies are more dominant, visible and influential than others.Literacy practices are purposeful and embedded in broader social goalsand cultural practices.Literacy is historically situated.Literacy practices change and new ones are frequently acquired throughprocesses of informal learning and sense making as well as formal educa-tion and training.

    So, are we talking here about a banner or a movement? We think the best meta-phor for the interconnectedness of work in the NLS is that of network, a networkof inter-related theoretical interests, differently emphasised and inflected in thework of different researchers, but nevertheless permitting the continuation of anongoing theoretical conversation. This theoretical conversation is increasinglytaking place in print, but has its origins in research activity undertaken in the lasttwo decades around the world. (Denny Taylor gives a vivid flavour of this ongo-ing theoretical conversation in her account of a meeting of the Literacy ResearchGroup at Lancaster University in her foreword to Barton et al., 2000). The theoret-ical conversation has been dramatically facilitated over the last decade bychanges in access to electronic media, brought about by the Internet and e-mail.In considering the impact of e-mail and Internet access in developing theresearch conversation, it is important, as Snyder suggests in her paper, not tounderplay inequities of access to these new media. (The contours of the newmedia landscape create technological haves and have nots.)

    Research as Process/Research as ProductIt is perhaps unusual in an introduction to a journal issue to emphasise the

    process of research and the research conversation in quite the way that we have.The typical unit of the journal is the research article, where the research conversa-tion is formalised into references to and citations of other publications. Yet thework of those in the sociology of science and technology (Myers, 1990; Latour,1987)has alerted us to the importance of understanding the socialconstructionofknowledge, the contingent circumstances within which knowledge is produced,the importance of trailing historically the development of ideas and the microanalysis of their production within communities of practice. As Gee (2000) pointsout, this perspective is highly congruent with that of the NLS. By situating thepapers in this collection within a research conversation, we emphasise thecontingent, social nature of their production, their embedding in preceding andongoing talk, the structuring effects of the social institutions within which theywere elaborated and, of course, their history, both in terms of the life history of

    84 Language and Education

  • those participating and in terms of the sociohistorical moment that created theopportunities for their elaboration. Why literacy? Why now?

    A discursive politics of knowledge productionCentrally, we would want to situate these papers, and NLS work more gener-

    ally, within a discursive politics of knowledge production, asking what counts asknowledge, who is allowed to author it, whose interests does it serve, how andby whom is it contested? Again, work in the sociology of science alerts us to theagonistic character of knowledge production. Different theories vie for space inthe theoretical landscape. The research conversation can rapidly turn into argu-ment and controversy. This indeed is indexed by many of the contributions tothis collection, which demonstrate how contested notions of literacy can be,particularly in relation to policy formation.

    Topics of conversationSo what are the current topics of the research conversation in the NLS? Where

    is the research activity and where is it heading? This is the focus of the papers inthis collection. We can identify a number of areas where research effort has beenfocused:

    community-based literacy practiceshome-school literacy practicesliteracy and schoolingacademic literacy practicesworkplace literacy practicesliteracy practices and policy discourses on literacy

    These areas are informed by a number of issues which, in a sense, cut across allthe others: the impact of new technologies and media on literacy practices, thecontestation of what counts as knowledge, in an era of increasing globalisation(the new world/work order of Gee et al., 1996)the interactions of global and localin the shaping of literacy practices. We will consider each of these in turn.

    Community-based literacy practicesOne of the the major thrusts of the NLS studies has been the investigation of

    vernacular or non-dominant literacy practices, precisely those that are over-looked and ignored by the constructions of literacy elaborated by and withindominant institutions. Street carried out research in an Iranian village, at the timeof the national literacy campaign, and he found that there were literacies beingused in everyday life by people who were regarded as illiterate by the literacycampaigners including a religious Quranic literacy and an adapted literacyused in market-place transactions. He argued that local literacies were invisibleto or ignored by literacy educators who were concerned about widespread illit-eracy (Street, 1984).

    Heaths (1983) classic study can be understood as an investigation of vernacu-lar literacies in relation to the literacy expectations of schooling. Prinsloo andBreier (1996) examined the everyday and workplace literacy practices of margin-alised and educationally disenfranchised individuals and communities in thenew South Africa. Their work drew in part on Baynhams attention to the role of

    New Directions in Literacy Research 85

  • literacy mediators of local and dominant literacies, who assist communitymembers of linguistically marginal groups in dealing with the demands ofbureaucratic language and authority (Baynham, 1993, 1995). Barton and Hamil-ton (1998) in their ethnographic study of literacy practices in Lancaster, UKpainstakingly uncover and analyse the texture of the unobserved, daily literacyevents and practices of the community they studied.

    Homeschool literacy practicesA number of studies of everyday literacy practices in schools and in homes

    have argued that there is evidence of significant variety and cultural specificity tothe early literacy practices of children across different social contexts:

    Children from diverse sociocultural and economic backgrounds bring toclassrooms differing senses of the rules for using language and texts inparticular settings (Gee, 1990).The way meaning is built into text in school settings is more compatiblewith the way some children have learnt to make meaning and less compati-ble with the ways of knowing of children from other backgrounds (Heath,1983).Schooling itself may have contributed to a narrow and rigid definition ofliteracy, as something apart from social dialogue and defined as adecontextualised knowledge validated through text performances(Cook-Gumperz, 1986: 27; Dison, 1993; Street & Street, 1991).When schools teach literacy as a skill which is simply about coding andde-coding, they neglect to teach children how to construct meaningthrough texts in those particular ways that are favoured in schooling (Gee,1991).Misinterpretations of what children are doing and misrecognition of whatcommunicative resources they bring to schooling on the part of teacherstend to happen with reference to models of cultural deficit, where differ-ences are understood as absences (Freebody et al., 1995; Michaels, 1981).The traditions of literacy teaching the texts that we teach and the modelsfor interacting around texts that we set up and encourage are malleableand can be reshaped to include and capitalise on the kinds of differencesthat children bring to classrooms (Luke & Kale, 1997).

    Literacy and schoolingIn the UK context NLS researchers are concerned that the new commitment

    to teaching and testing literacy skills might become a new medium for natu-ralising inequalities, by setting in place, under conditions of economic reces-sion, and in post-Fordist and global market conditions, a more explicitframework which justifies differential wealth and opportunities by appealing toscales of attainment which rank and order school leavers (Bourne, 1999). InSouth Africa a proliferating list of unit standards is being generated by stan-dard-setting bodies. The unit standards are intended to be content-free andcontext-free descriptions of knowledge-skills which can be tested. The mostimmediately visible outcome is a massive uncertainty at the level of provision,evidence of teaching to the test, a dumbing down of learning content and

    86 Language and Education

  • curriculum overspecification. A similar pattern is described in Australia byFreebody (1999: 5):

    Educators are being required to teach and test ever more diligently themore obvious, quantifiable, generalisable and thus minimal features ofindividualist management of written script.

    Academic literacy practicesLiteracy practice in tertiary institutions ha been a significant focus in recent

    research (Jones et al., 1999; Lea & Stierer, 2000). Tertiary literacies is an attractiveresearch site for a number of reasons: there is an interesting relationship withresearch on disciplinary communities as well as on disciplinarity and knowledgeconstruction. The ethical and political commitment characteristic of NLSresearch is addressed in the contribution of such research to the development ofaccess for students, particularly from non-traditional backgrounds, into highereducation. Perhaps another attraction of tertiary literacies as a research focus isthat their scope is relatively well defined in contrast, for example, to communityliteracies, where the scope of the research can involve potentially any aspect ofthe subjects everyday life.

    Literacy and workWorkplace literacy practices have received attention in a number of places,

    most notably in Gowen (1992); Gee et al. (1996); Hull et al. (1996) in the USA; andin Australia in the work of Farrell (1997, 2000), OConnor (1994) and Black (1995,1998). Kathryn Jones of the Lancaster group provides an account of thework-based literacy practices in Welsh and English of Welsh hill farmers (Jones,2000a, b). A number of the contributions to Prinsloo and Breier (1996) areconcerned with work-based literacy practices.

    A crucial feature of these studies of workplace literacy practices is theembeddedness of literacy practices in particular contexts. They challenge the talkabout literacy in terms of basic skills and the urging of schools, vocationalprograms and adult literacy classes to teach the basics.

    Most work has been done around the so-called new workplaces of globalproduction, also known as high-performance workplaces, partly characterisedby the break-up of production and assembly work into relatively contained andself-monitoring cells or teams led by team leaders who are appointed from theranks of the workers and trained extensively in team leading and team-buildingpractices. Management literature describes these workplaces as sites whereconstant learning is said to be the central activity of the enterprise and talks ofenchanted workplaces, self-directed work teams and empowered workers.However, NLS studies of such workplaces in the USA (Hull et al., 1996),Australia(Farrell, 1997, 2000; Black, 1998) and South Africa (Scholtz & Prinsloo, 2001) haveshown that while these new workplaces can be characterised as literacy-richenvironments, where work has become increasingly textual, that the so-calledworkplace revolution is not about increasing the literacy skills of individualworkers. Processes of empowerment and skilling of in...


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