Literacy Studies in Education: Disciplined Developments in a Post-Disciplinary Age


Colin Lankshear

Published in M. Peters (1999). After the Disciplines. Greenwood Press.



This chapter investigates literacy studies with particular reference to educational theory and practice. The argument is constructed in four parts. The first sketches some key elements and stages in the emergence of an explicit and well-subscribed focus on studies of literacy per se from the 1950s. It describes developments in and across established disciplinary areas like history, anthropology, linguistics, sociology and psychology -- developments which, by the 1980s, saw a ‘sociocultural’ conception of literacy and literacy studies emerge in opposition to the ‘traditional’ conception.

The second part of the argument traces the related emergence of literacy as a focus of study within education specifically, revealing similar conceptual, theoretical, and normative tensions operating here as occurred in developments outside educational theory and practice. The discussion grounds the claim that what we count as literacy and, hence, as literacy studies, is contestable, and that choices and decisions must be made. Arguments are provided for the view that literacy and its study should be framed in terms of the sociocultural approach. What should count and be encouraged as literacy studies in educational and wider academic inquiry and practice is identified here as what has become known, variously, as ‘socioliteracy studies’ (Gee 1996); ‘sociocultural literacy’ (Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996), and ‘the "new" literacy studies’ (Barton 1994; Gee 1996; Street 1995).

The third part presents a current picture of literacy studies (thus framed) in education. This includes accounts of key goal statements, constructs, programmatic values, methodological approaches, and practical implications.

The final part looks briefly at critical literacy in relation to socioliteracy studies as a whole.


Part 1 General Background

Historical Studies of Literacy

Since the 1950s, the notion of literacy -- as distinct from ‘reading’, ‘writing’, ‘composition’, ‘grammar’, ‘rhetoric’, and so on -- has come increasingly to name a focus for theoretical, conceptual, and research activities across a range of disciplinary areas.

Much of the early work was done by historians. Harvey Graff (1991) argues that by the 1990s historians were entering a third generation of literacy studies. He identifies the first generation of historical studies of literacy as comprising work from the late 1960s and into the 70s by people like Stone (1969), Cipolla (1969), and Schofield (1968). This work was foreshadowed in the 1950s by that of Webb (1955) and Hoggart (1957) on British working class readers, and by Fleury and Valmary in France. The ‘first generation’ literacy historians made the case for the direct study of literacy as an important historical factor. It traced at a general level major chronological trends, transitions, and passages in literacy over periods, and identified factors tied closely to changes in the course of literacy across time, together with its dynamics, distributions and impacts.

Graff’s second generation of historical literacy studies comprised subsequent work by Schofield (1973) and work by Johansson (1977), Lockridge (1974), Cressy (1980), Houston (1983, 1985), Graff (1979), and others. These studies established and drew on the quantitative record of literacy -- mainly using census data, signatory sources, and the like -- in a closer and more detailed way than previously. Second generation researchers sought close evidentially-based historical interpretations of changing patterns of literacy, particularly in terms of the distribution of literacy and different literacy levels within given populations. They also related trends in literacy to economic and social developments including mass schooling, and to social class formation. Other work foregrounded literacy in relation to demographic behaviour, cultural development, social class stratification, family formation, and the like. It also considered literacy in relation to literary, cultural, and publishing issues and themes as, for example, in the various histories of the press and newspapers produced during this period.

Graff saw evidence of an inchoate third generation of historical literacy studies beginning to emerge at the beginning of the 1990s. This would involve work that moved from the more quantitative evidential base employed in the previous generations to embrace also critical questions concerned particularly with developing a cultural politics and political economy of literacy in history -- including literacy’s relations with class, gender, age and culture. Issues of conceptualisation and contextualisation of literacy within history would become central, benefiting from the insights of landmark studies in sociocultural approaches to literacy, such as those by Scribner and Cole (1981), and Heath (1983) -- and, indeed, from interdisciplinary perspectives and collaborations more generally. Potentially fruitful innovations like ‘historical ethnographies’ were in the offing, along with possibilities for comparative historical work. Graff envisaged increased interest on the part of historians in developing new conceptualisations of context in the historical study of literacy. This would, among other things, temper the earlier focus on literacy as an independent variable with a stronger sense of literacy as a dependent variable. In Graff’s view, the work of this third generation would be to make the shift from ‘historical studies of literacy’ to ‘histories that would encompass literacy within their context and conceptualisation’; that is, from ‘the history of literacy’ to ‘literacy in history’ (Graff 1991: xxii).

During the same period addressed by Graff, further important work, much of it with a broadly historical and cultural focus, was being done across other disciplinary areas and across a range of themes. Some focused on ‘the Gutenberg phenomenon’ -- the rise of the printing press as a decisive moment in human communication. Seminal works here included Davis’ Printing and the People: Society and Culture in Modern France (1975), Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979), and Joyce et al’s Printing and Society in Early America (1983). These studies mainly worked across history, sociology, and anthropology, typically from cross-disciplinary perspectives. Within the broad concern with the emergence of mass print in the context of social practice and change, a number of scholars focused more particularly on the significance of the printing press for the Reformation. Early studies like R. W. Scribner’s (1981) For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation, and Strauss’ (1978) Luther’s House of Learning, paved the way for numerous subsequent studies -- including some within education -- of the nexus between the Gutenberg press and Protestantism (e.g., Luke 1989).


Cross-disciplinary Treks to ‘The Great Divide’

The period from the early 1960s to the early 80s also brought landmark work by scholars working at various interfaces between philosophy, classical studies, anthropology, history and linguistics. This work profoundly influenced the development and direction of literacy studies from the mid 1980s. Eric Havelock, Jack Goody, and Walter Ong are widely recognised as most influential here (see Street 1984; Graff 1991; Gee 1996).

Havelock’s Preface to Plato (1963), Goody and Ian Watt’s 1963 paper ‘The consequences of literacy’, Goody’s The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977), and Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1982) identified literacy -- construed as the advent of the alphabetic system and writing -- as a major factor in epistemic, cultural and historical change. Their arguments are variations around the theme that ‘literacy makes for a "great divide" between human cultures and their ways of thinking … and modes of cultural organization’ (Gee 1996: 49-50). Literacy is seen as a key factor, if not the salient factor, that enables the transition from ‘primitive’ to ‘advanced’ culture.

Havelock, for example, argued that writing frees humans from dependence on memory, and from ‘emotional trappings’ necessary for purposes of recall. That is, a written text permits emotional detachment from texts and, with that, the possibility for objective reflection upon their content. New ways and possibilities for thinking, judging, synthesising, comparing and so on are seen to accompany the emergence of ‘an abstract language of descriptive science to replace a concrete language of oral memory’ (Havelock 1963: 209; Gee 1996: 50).

Goody and Watt’s variation on this theme was that important analytical and logical procedures like syllogistic reasoning and identifying contradictions seem to be a function of writing -- since writing permits expression of ideas to be ordered, manipulated and compared as visible artifacts. In The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Goody argued that the sorts of traits typically seen as distinguishing ‘advanced’ cultures from ‘primitive cultures’ are linked to changes in means and methods of communication, particularly, writing. Goody saw the development of writing as crucially linked to ‘the growth of individualism, the growth of bureaucracy and of more depersonalized and more abstract systems of government, as well as to the development of the abstract thought and syllogistic reasoning that culminate in modern science’ (Gee 1996: 51).

Further elaboration of this theme came from the work of Ong (1977, 1982), who argued that committing language to space profoundly increases its potential and restructures thought. Going still further than Goody and Havelock before him, Ong (1982: 14) argued in Orality and Literacy that literacy -- writing -- is ‘absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself’.


Across "The Great Divide’: Cross-disciplinary Contributions to Sociocultural Study of Language and Literacy

The contributions of scholars like Havelock, Goody, Ong, and others in similar vein promoted literacy within humanities and social science domains alike as a powerful independent variable which was instrumental in cultures moving from ‘primitiveness’ to ‘advanced’ states of development. At the very time this broad line of development was unfolding, however, very different work was underway across anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and socially-oriented domains of psychology. This work was highly diverse, whilst sharing a broad common interest in language and communication as social practice. The tradition it spawned soon came into direct conflict with the ‘great divide’/‘independent variable’ thesis. This conflict provided a key focus for Brian Street (1984) and others (e.g., Cazden 1998; Cook-Gumperz 1986; de Castell, Luke and Luke 1988; Edelsky, C. 1990; Gee 1989; Hodge and Kress 1988; Lankshear and Lawler 1987; Levine 1986; Luke 1988; Michaels 1981; Scollon and Scollon 1981; Stubbs 1980) who were involved throughout the 1980s in crystallising and making explicit a distinctively sociocultural paradigm of literacy studies.

This latter line of development was very complex, involving many strands of activity and influence, not all of which can be identified here, let alone described in the depth they warrant. The following selections are indicative, but by no means exhaustive.

In a recent paper James Gee (1998a) describes a broad trend in theory and research within social sciences and humanities dating from the 1970s, which he calls ‘the social turn’. This was a turn ‘away from focusing on individuals and their "private" minds and towards interaction and social practice’ (ibid: 1). Gee maps more than a dozen of the myriad discernible ‘movements’ which collectively made up the ‘social turn’. These movements included the emerging sociocultural approach to literacy and several which strongly influenced and were subsequently taken into the ‘new’ literacy studies (ibid.; Gee 1996: Ch 3).

Gee specifically identifies ethnomethodology, conversation analysis and interactional sociolinguistics; ethnography of communication; sociohistorical psychology based on the work of Vygotsky and his associates and Bakhtin; situated cognition; cultural models theory; cognitive linguistics; the new science and technology studies pioneered by the work of Latour; modern composition theory; connectionism (in cognitive science); narrative studies; evolutionary approaches to mind and behaviour; modern developments in sociology associated particularly with the work of Giddens; work in poststructuralism and postmodern social theory centred on ‘discourse’; and the emerging ‘new’ literacy studies (Gee 1998a).

Classic early work in sociocultural literacy studies with an explicit educational focus was, perhaps, especially influenced by developments in ethnography of communication and sociolinguistics spearheaded by people like Dell Hymes (1974, 1980), and by western adoptions of sociohistorical psychology and related work done earlier in the century in the Soviet Union by Vygotsky and Luria. Shirley Brice Heath’s major ethnographic study of language patterns and effects within community, home and school settings across distinct social groups in a region of the US owed much to -- and, in turn, contributed greatly to -- the ethnography of communication (Knobel 1997). Heath’s 1983 book, Ways with Words, is widely acknowledged as a seminal foundation study in the sociocultural approach to literacy and literacy studies.

Likewise, Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole’s 1991 book, The Psychology of Literacy -- itself very much an ethnographically-based study -- forced a major rethink of traditional approaches in psychology to the cognitive effects of literacy through its rigorous engagement with a problematic owing much to the earlier Soviet work in sociohistorical psychology (Street 1984; Gee 1996, 1998a; Wertsch 1985).

Besides these ‘social turn movement’ influences, other notable early lines of influence on the emerging sociocultural paradigm included the work of Paulo Freire in Brazil and other Third World settings from the 1960s, and work done in the ‘new’ sociology of education during the 1970s.

Freire’s ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ (Freire 1972, 1973, 1974) explicitly denounced psychologistic-technicist reductions of literacy, insisting instead that ‘Word’ and ‘World’ are dialectically linked, and that education for liberation involved relating Word and World within transformative cultural praxis. Freire asserted the impossibility of literacy operating outside of social practice and, consequently, outside processes of creating and sustaining or re-creating social worlds. For Freire, the crucial issues concerned the kinds of social worlds humans create in and through their language-mediated practices, the interests promoted and subverted therein, and the historical option facing education of serving as either an instrument of liberation or of oppression.

The ‘new’ sociology of education addressed processes by which and ways in which schooling and school knowledge contributed to reproducing sociocultural stratification along class, race-ethnic and gender lines. Some of this work focused more or less specifically on the workings of language within the larger historical ‘logic’ of reproduction. Work contributing to the ‘new’ sociology corpus by Basil Bernstein (1971, 1975) and Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (Bourdieu 1977; Bourdieu and Passeron 1971) is widely recognised as having provided important formative support for the sociocultural approach to literacy.

In 1984 Brian Street presented a telling statement of these two traditions and what was at stake between them. His book, Literacy in Theory and Practice can be read as the first explicit programmatic account of literacy studies from the sociocultural point of view. The conceptual heart of his book comprised the juxtaposition of two ‘models’ of literacy: the ‘autonomous’ model (based on the ‘traditional’ view of literacy) and the ‘ideological’ model (based on the ‘sociocultural’ view). Street’s account and endorsement of the ‘ideological’ model underpins his extended critique of theoretical and practical work in literacy based on the notion of literacy as autonomous.

Briefly, the autonomous model construes literacy as existing independently of specific contexts of social practice; having autonomy from material enactments of language in such practices; and producing effects independently of contextual social factors. Accordingly, literacy is seen as independent of and impartial toward trends and struggles in everyday life -- a ‘neutral’ variable.

The ‘ideological’ model rejects the notion of an essential literacy lying behind actual social practices involving texts. What literacy is consists in the forms textual engagement takes within specific material contexts of human practice. These forms, which Street calls ‘conceptions and practices of reading and writing’ (plus, we would add, imaging, keying, viewing, etc.), evolve and are enacted in contexts involving particular relations and structures of power, values, beliefs, goals and purposes, interests, economic and political conditions, and so on. Hence, the consequences of literacy flow not from literacy ‘itself’, but from the conjoint operation of the text-related components and all the other factors integral to the practices in question. The myriad literacies that play out in social life should be seen as integral components of larger practices, simultaneously reflecting and promoting particular values, beliefs, social relations, patterns of interests, concentrations of power, and the like. In no way, then, can literacy be seen as ‘neutral’ or as a producer of effects in ‘its own right’.


Part 2 Toward Literacy Studies in Education

Some Developments and Complications within Education

Theoretical, pedagogical, and research activity concerned with aspects of reading and writing have continued uninterrupted throughout this century within education. Much of it has been dominated by paradigms from psychology, and has aimed to understand reading, writing, spelling, and comprehension as cognitive and behavioural processes in order to improve teaching and learning approaches to mastering written texts. While this tradition is long and widely established, it tended not to be identified as ‘literacy’ work until quite recently. Those working in the field did so mainly under the rubric of ‘reading’, ‘writing’ and related terms, as reflected in the names of long established journals and professional associations: e.g., The International Reading Association, which publishes The Reading Teacher, and the US-based National Reading Conference, which publishes The Journal of Reading Behavior.

Nonetheless, enclaves of educational inquiry concerned explicitly with literacy per se did exist. For example, from at least the 1950s scholars concerned with the economics of education and educational development and planning, among others, were vitally concerned with social implications and efficacies of literacy. This concern was writ large, for instance, in the World Literacy Program of UNESCO from the 1950s. In addition, of course, within adult and continuing education, and extensions studies departments in countries like the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, there has been an interest in adult literacy for several decades, often associated with migrant populations as well as educationally disadvantaged individuals from the native-speaking mainstream. Certainly, ‘functional literacy’ has been a clearly and strongly defined area of research and pedagogical interest in the US and elsewhere since the Second World War. Nonetheless, until the late 1970s, an educational interest couched explicitly in terms of literacy remained quite marginal.

During the past two decades, however, talk of literacy in relation to school-based learning and teacher education has become increasingly common. The term has increasingly displaced references to ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ in policy statements and school learning programs, as well as in the names of courses, subjects, departments, schools, and divisions within teacher education institutions. ‘Literacy Studies’ has emerged as a generic name for diverse activities in research and scholarship broadly concerned with understanding and enhancing the production, reception, and transmission of texts. At the same time, ‘Literacy’ has become a major focus for teacher professional development and policy formulation within education systems. In many cases, the change in terminology has not been accompanied by any substantial visible change in practice (Lankshear 1993a). Familiar paradigms, questions, and procedures for inquiry remain intact, but now go under a different name.

In addition, important work has been undertaken at the several interfaces between literacy, English as a school subject, and curriculum theory and practice (Green 1993). From an historical standpoint, ‘English has been the site where literacy work has been done with regard to the school’ (Bill Green, personal communication). This work goes well beyond literacy work in the narrow sense of teaching basic literacy ‘skills’ as components of primary and secondary school programs in Language/English. It involves also curricular studies undertaken within English sub(ject) areas like composition, rhetoric, textual studies, semiotics, grammar and the like. Taking a still wider perspective on the relationship between literacy and curriculum studies in theory and practice, educationists and linguists alike have addressed diverse aspects of subject (specific) literacies e.g., (Green 1988, 1993; Lankshear 1993b; Lemke 1990; Martin 1989, 1992). Such work includes accounts of varying genres associated with subject-based modes of inquiry and production, as well as addressing aspects and issues of subject disciplines as discursive practices.

At an institutional level, surface manifestations of the emergence of literacy studies include the growing numbers of schools, departments, divisions, research centers, and other organisational units within teacher education faculties whose names profess a direct concern with literacy studies. Many of the larger teacher education faculties in Australian universities have Schools or Divisions of Language and Literacy Education, for instance. Other indices include the names of academic and professional journals, professional associations, categories within publishers’ lists and book series, etc. In some cases, these examples have involved name changes from earlier incarnations. For example, the former Australian Reading Association, which is affiliated with the International Reading Association, was renamed the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association in 1993 and its journal, formerly the Australian Journal of Reading became the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy.

Within education, then, the situation with respect to something called ‘literacy studies’ is complex - especially when we ask what counts as literacy studies and from what time can we talk about the serious emergence of literacy studies as a field of educational endeavour. At least four ‘tendencies’ are readily apparent in the period from the 1950s.


1. Long-standing studies of reading and writing processes, characteristics of written language, and the like, which were not thought of -- and whose authors did not think of themselves -- in terms of literacy.

2. Work in this same tradition which, from the (late)1980s onward, re-identified as literacy work, whilst remaining firmly within ‘non-social’ – e.g., psychology of individuals, literature and literary theory, physiology, etc. -- paradigms.

3. Studies grounded in larger study of social and cultural periods, milieux, processes, and changes, explicitly identified as studies of literacy, but where ‘literacy’ was broadly and unproblematically defined as (alphabetic) writing, ability to sign, or similar quantitative notions.

4. Literacy studies grounded firmly in an understanding of literacy as sociocultural practice. This tradition has made rapid and widespread advances since the mid 1980s, and today boasts an impressive literature and research base.


How we understand the emergence of literacy studies in education and the scope of the field will depend crucially on where we stand in relation to these broad ‘tendencies’ and on our approach to ‘literacy’ as a socially contested concept. It will also depend, of course, on what kind of questions we take questions about the nature and emergence of literacy studies to be.

For example, if we take a purely ‘operational’ approach, such that literacy studies is a matter of whatever is done within institutional settings or forums that self-define as departments, journals, or research centres concerned with literacy education, we will arrive at a view that takes in everything from theories about and methodologies for teaching children’s literature, to ethnographic analyses of computer-mediated communication practices, via approaches to teaching and learning the mechanics of encoding and decoding print, and surveys of literacy ‘levels’. By contrast, if we adopt some kind of prescriptive definition of literacy, the account we provide of the field will be much narrower and more focused.

If we focus on explicit reference to ‘literacy’, the emergence of a literacy studies focus within education has, then, been rapid. Of course, to the extent that literacy is understood generally and by implication in terms of reading, writing, transmitting and receiving texts, we might say that there has been a concern with literacy studies for as long as there has been a theoretical and research concern with education - it was just a matter of nomenclature. This accords with Gee’s (1990, 1996, 1998a and b) notion of the new literacy studies, based on his distinction between the ‘traditional’ conception of literacy as reading and writing (an ‘old’ literacy studies) and the more recently informed conception of literacy as sociocultural practice. From the perspective of literacy as reading and writing we can identify the great mass of educational work on reading, writing, and the like as literacy studies, even though it mainly did not fall under the rubric of what will be identified here as literacy studies. When we focus on literacy studies as the study of literacy as a profoundly social phenomenon, however, it is clear that literacy studies in education really only begins to emerge with anything like a critical mass from the 1980s.

There are, then, at least two related issues to be resolved which bear directly on further discussion of the nature and emergence of literacy studies from an educational point of view: namely, (a) what kind of questions are we asking in the first place (quantitative/qualitative; operational/normative; descriptive/prescriptive)?; (b) what stand are we to take with regard to radically competing constructions of literacy?

In education, as in other disciplines and areas of practice noted above, literacy has traditionally been thought of in terms of reading and writing - although with interesting variations. Educationists have mostly seen literacy as ‘a largely psychological ability -- something true to do with our heads’ (Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996: 1) and, to that extent, a somewhat private possession. This reflects the heavy domination of educational research and theory by psychology throughout this century. Being literate has meant mastering decoding and encoding skills, entailing cognitive capacities involved in ‘cracking the alphabetic code’, word formation, phonics, grammar, comprehension, and so on (referred to by Gee 1998b as ‘design features’ of language). Encoding and decoding skills serve as building blocks for doing other things and for accessing meanings. According to this view, once one is literate one can get on with learning -- by studying subjects in a curriculum, or by other print-mediated means. Once people are literate they can use ‘it’ (the skill repertoire, the ability) in all sorts of ways as a means to pursuing diverse benefits (employment, knowledge, recreational pleasure, personal development, economic growth, innovation, etc.). Of course, this predominantly ‘psychological’ view has been complemented in educational thinking by the more ‘external’ notion of literacy as a tool or technology. This is strongly reflected at present in notions of technological literacy as involving mastery of computers.

If we go along with this traditionally dominant view of literacy within education we can say that ‘literacy studies’ have been going on in educational inquiry as far back as we care to go, and that it matters little whether or not the activities have been named in terms of ‘literacy’ or not. The contingent fact that interest in literacy as such has escalated dramatically during the past 20-25 years within countries like our own might be explained quite simply by reference to successive pronouncements of educational ‘crisis’ and ‘falling standards’. These have attended growing awareness of the extent and speed of contemporary social, economic, technological, and demographic change, and fears of being ‘overtaken’ by other countries. This has been a period in which literacy has been ‘rediscovered’ locally as a key element of ‘human capital’ (Luke 1992) -- overlapping with numerous mass mobilisations around literacy (campaigns/crusades) in ‘Third World’ or ‘underdeveloped’ countries -- and where postindustrialism has been recognised as ‘upping the ante’ for literacy in the ‘developed’ world (Levett and Lankshear 1994: 28). In an intriguing parallel development, the notion of a critical mass of literate people being a crucial variable for economic take-off into industrialism (see, for example, Anderson and Bowman 1966), which was still playing out in the ‘Third World’, received a second generation replay for postindustrialism.

Within this context, ‘literacy’ came to name the most urgent educational tasks of the day and, correspondingly, a good deal of work which had always been going on under other names suddenly became ‘literacy’ work. As a leading educational theme and task, ‘literacy’ was ‘everywhere’ - in ‘functional’, ‘cultural’ and ‘critical’ spaces’ and at all ‘levels’ from ‘basic’ to ‘higher order’ literacies, by way of ‘technological literacy’ ‘scientific literacy’, and the like (Lankshear 1998). In Australia, the embrace was near to total. 1991 brought The Australian Language and Literacy Policy (DEET 1991). Schools, divisions, and departments of language and literacy education mushroomed within amalgamated (teacher) educational faculties. Entire research project programs devoted to literacy -- some of them falling within the prestigious Commonwealth Competitive Grants Scheme rubric -- emerged, generating impetus for research centres specialising in literacy research. Adult and workplace literacy became big business, enjoying exponential increases in funding. A National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia was formed with federal funding to play a strategic role in policy implementation.

The whole ‘shebang’ -- which serves neatly as a trope for literacy studies from the ‘literacy-as-being-about-reading-and-writing’ perspective -- accommodates pretty much anything and everything to do with the universe of written texts under the umbrella of literacy studies: from work on the most mechanistic approaches to diagnosing and ‘curing’ disabilities with encoding and decoding, to the most esoteric reaches of literary theory, via approaches to children’s literature, ‘big books’ pedagogy, planning and programming for classroom language and literacy education, critical approaches to reading, writing and viewing, and the theory and methodology of second/other/foreign language education. In this construction of literacy studies, it’s all (equally) a part of the mix. Proponents of the most decontextualised skills-based approaches to teaching and researching reading and writing co-habit with literary theorists, proponents of cultural literacy, genre theorists, and advocates of the ‘new’ literacy studies, among others.

This, however, is not the line I will take here. I do not accept the ‘traditional’ view of literacy’ but, rather, the sociocultural view. Neither do I accept an operational approach to the question of what constitutes literacy studies, whereby literacy studies includes what(ever) is undertaken in schools of departments of literacy education, or centres for literacy studies and the like. Instead, I share Gee’s (1996) view that ‘literacy’ should be recognised as a social contested concept Hence, I take the question of what constitutes literacy studies as a domain of academic practice to be normative.


Framing ‘Literacy Studies’ for Education: For a Sociocultural Paradigm

The kinds of questions we ask about literacy studies, and the issue of how we frame literacy are not minor matters but, rather, amount to nothing less than taking up a stance for or against particular discursive practices.

Building educational theory and practice on the traditional, autonomous view of literacy has undesirable consequences. By contrast, educational endeavour is advanced in progressive ways by taking seriously the questions of how literacy should be framed and what we should count as falling under literacy studies, and answering these questions in terms of a sociocultural perspective.

Gee makes two important points here. First, he identifies literacy as an example of a ‘socially contested term’, and argues that debate about literacy ‘ultimately comes down to moral choices about what theories one wants to hold based on the sorts of social worlds these theories underwrite in the present or make possible in the future’ (Gee 1996: 123). Second, he claims that arguing about what words (ought to) mean is not a trivial business -- it is not ‘mere words’, ‘hair splitting’, or ‘just semantics’ -- when these arguments are over … socially contested terms. Such arguments are what lead to the adoption of social beliefs and the theories behind them, and these theories and beliefs lead to social action and the maintenance and creation of social worlds. (ibid: 15-16)

This is the approach I assume here. Taking ‘literacy’ to be a social contested term clearly entails approaching the question of what constitutes literacy studies as a normative matter. Accordingly, we need to note the sorts of grounds and arguments advanced by proponents of sociocultural conceptions of ‘literacy’ and literacy studies. My stance is that literacy studies is best understood in terms of academic/scholarly/research activities that seek to understand literacy as sociocultural practice, to build on these understandings ethically, politically, and pedagogically, and to advance them conceptually and theoretically.


Toward a sociocultural approach to literacy studies

Understanding literacy as sociocultural practice means that reading and writing can only be understood in the context of the social, cultural, political, economic, historical practices to which they are integral; of which they are a part. This view lies at the heart of what Gee (1996) calls the ‘new’ literacy studies, or socioliteracy studies -- which is what will count as literacy studies (proper) for the rest of this discussion (see also Barton 1994; Street 1984, 1993, 1995). The relationship between human practice and the production, distribution, exchange, refinement, contestation, etc., of meanings is a key idea here. Human practices are meaningful ways of doing things, or getting things done (Franklin 1990). There is no practice without meaning, just as there is no meaning outside of practice. Within contexts of human practice, language (words, literacy, texts) gives meaning to contexts and, dialectically, contexts give meaning to language. Hence, there is no reading or writing in any meaningful sense of the terms outside of social practices, or discourses.

These elementary points are fundamental to the grounds advanced in support of a sociocultural perspective on literacy against the traditional view. Three main grounds can be distinguished in the literature. I will sketch these briefly by way of introducing a fuller account of (socio)literacy studies.


* We cannot make sense of our experience of literacy without reference to social practice


If we see literacy as ‘simply reading and writing’ -- whether in the sense of encoding and decoding print, as a tool, skills or technology, or as some kind of psychological process -- we cannot make sense of our literacy experience. In short (see Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996: 1-4 for the detailed argument), reading (or writing) is always reading something in particular with understanding. Different kinds of text require ‘somewhat different backgrounds and somewhat different skills’ if they are to be read (i.e., meaningfully). Moreover, particular texts can be read in different ways, contingent upon different people’s experiences of practices in which these texts occur. A Christian Fundamentalist, for example, will read texts from the Bible in radically different ways from, say, a liberation theology priest.

Learning to read and write particular kinds of texts in particular ways presupposes immersion in social practices where participants ‘not only read texts of this type in this way but also talk about such texts in certain ways, hold certain attitudes and values about them, and socially interact over them in certain ways’ (ibid: 3). Different histories of ‘literate immersion’ yield different forms of reading and writing as practice. The texts we read and write -- any and all texts we read and write; even the most arid (and otherwise meaningless) drill and skill, remedial session ‘readings’ -- are integral elements of ‘lived, talked, enacted, value-and-belief-laden practices’ engaged in under specific conditions, at specific times and in specific places (ibid.). Consequently, it is impossible to abstract or decontextualise ‘literacy bits’ from their larger embedded practices and have them still mean what they do in fact mean experientially. This, however, is what the traditional conception of literacy does, in effect, try to do -- and to this extent it is incoherent.


* The sociocultural model has necessary theoretical scope and explanatory power


The sociocultural model provides a proven basis for framing, understanding, and addressing some of the most important literacy education issues we face: issues which cannot be framed effectively -- let alone addressed -- from the traditional perspective on account of its individualist, ‘inner’, or ‘abstracted skills and processes’ orientation. These include issues of patterned differentials in literacy outcomes and learning achievements across social groups, and apparently anomalous instances of learners who demonstrate competence in diverse social practices and their embedded literacies, yet fail to come to terms with school literacy.

Burgeoning work in socioliteracy studies (Barton and Hamilton 1998; Barton and Ivanic 1991; Heath 1983; Knobel 1997, 1998; Moll 1992) highlights important inherent differences between characteristically school literacies and those integral to wider social practices. It also documents some of the ways in which and extent to which there is a closer ‘fit’ for some social groups between school literacies and their wider discursive experiences and acquisitions than there is for other social groups (Gee 1991; 1996). These differences ‘cut two ways’ within the context of school learning.

First, as Heath’s work (1982; 1983) shows, children from diverse social groups may learn to decode and encode print in the literal sense (i.e., be able to read words from a page and write words on a page) without being able to ‘cash in’ this learning on equitable terms in respect of ‘valorised’ school literacies. Heath (1982), for example, shows how working class children performed comparably with middle class children in entry level grades on literacy tasks, but fell progressively behind in subsequent grades. This, she argued, was a function of literacy in subsequent grades drawing on particular ‘ways’ of talking, believing, valuing, acting, and living out that transcend (merely) mechanical aspects of encoding and decoding texts, and that are differentially available within the social practices (discourses) of different social groups (see, e.g., Heath 1982; Gee 1991; 1996; Lankshear 1997). The traditional conception of literacy is powerless to get at these kinds of analyses and explanations.

Second, many learners who are highly proficient at certain text-mediated practices in out-of-school contexts come to grief with school literacy even, at times, to the extent of performing badly on what appear to be routine encoding and decoding tasks. (For a classic recent example, see Michele Knobel’s (1997, 1999) account of Jacques. For an equally graphic parallel from the adult world, see Kell’s (1996) account of Winnie TsoTso.) Pedagogical approaches which draw on the traditional conception of literacy and try to enhance -- or ‘remediate’ -- learning by focusing more explicitly and intensely on the ‘design features’ of literacy (Gee 1998b) often fail. A sociocultural approach offers fruitful ways of understanding and addressing what is going on here that are not available from the traditional approach to literacy. These include analysing ineffective pedagogies from the standpoint that they confuse ‘learning’ and ‘acquisition’ (Krashen 1982; Gee 1991; Lankshear 1997 Ch. 3), and/or that they do not differentiate between the ‘design’ and ‘function’ features of language and, hence, fail to build upon the distinction in pedagogically informed and effective ways (Gee 1998b). Many students may simply fail to grasp the point of school literacies on account of the gulf that often exists between school practices and the ‘real life’ or ‘mature versions of social practices’ learners experience in their larger lives. These ‘real world’ practices are typically a long way removed from ‘essayism’ and the ‘initiation-response-evaluation’ routines so prevalent in school discourse (Cazden 1988; Michaels 1981; Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996: Ch 1.

More generally, of course, sociocultural perspectives on literacy and learning provide powerful bases for pedagogical interventions aimed at ‘high quality’ learning. These are becoming increasingly influential in shaping learning approaches beyond school classrooms, and are exemplified by models of learning derived from work in situated cognition (e.g., Lave and Wenger 1991), sociohistorical psychology (Wertsch 1991), ethnography of communication (Heath and Mangiola 1991; Moll 1992), and cognitive science (e.g., Brown et al 1993; Bereiter and Scardamalia 1993); as well as from work based on cultural apprenticeship (Rogoff 1990), and various approaches to critical literacy, collaborative and cooperative education, and distributed cognition (e.g., Bizzell 1992; Bloome and Green 1991; Edwards and Mercer 1987; cf, Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996: Ch 3 for an overview).


* ‘Unwanted’ theoretical trappings and implications for social worlds


Proponents of socioliteracy studies identify a raft of theoretical tendencies and implications attaching to the traditional view of literacy which they argue are educationally, morally, and politically regressive. For example, they see the traditional view going hand in glove with quantitative approaches and worldviews like psychometrics, measurable levels of academic (dis)ability and (il)literacy, quantifications of ‘functionality’, and so on. These lend themselves to constructing learners who experience difficulties with school literacy as ‘deficit systems’ (e.g., as having inadequate or inappropriate home support for school learning; not enough books -- or the right kind of books -- in the home, etc.) or, in many cases, as ‘learning disabled’, ‘academically challenged’, ‘slow learners’, ‘ADD’, etc. Such theories and constructs support the creation of particular kinds of ‘social worlds’ (Gee 1996: 123). Policies and practices emphasising diagnostic assessment, remedial assistance programs, regular reporting against ‘profiles’, ‘standards’ or ‘benchmarks’, packages of special learning-teaching techniques, and the like are ‘natural’ concomitants of the traditional view. More subtle ‘affiliations’ include the creation of social worlds grounded in possessive individualism, commodification, and generalised logics of instrumental and measurable value (think: exchange values, comparative advantage, added value, competency portfolios, etc.).

Such theoretical ‘baggage’ and its implications for the kinds of social worlds we create (and don’t create) are writ large within the current education reform regime which, of course, gives very high priority to literacy (and numeracy) defined in thoroughly ‘traditional’ and ‘autonomous’ terms. Current education reform proposals construct literacy as individualised, standardised, and commodified in the extreme. They constitute standard English literacy as the indisputable norm, advocate the ‘technologizing’ of literacy to unprecedented levels, and tie the significance and value of literacy in increasingly narrow and instrumental ways to economic viability and demands of citizenship (see Lankshear 1998 for detailed discussion).

Not surprisingly, advocates of socioliteracy studies argue that their approach provides a more morally acceptable and humane basis on which to base educational practice and social reform’ than do theories, concepts, values, and practices coalescing around the traditional view of literacy (cf, Gee 1996: 123).


Part 3 Literacy Studies in Education: A Current Picture

Those working within literacy studies, as framed here, aim to enhance our conceptual and theoretical understanding of literacy as sociocultural practice, and encourage educational practices which build on these understandings pedagogically, ethically, and politically. This work involves multiple component tasks. These include:


i. providing theoretically informed accounts of sociocultural practice in general

ii. clarifying literacy as (an integral component of) sociocultural practice

iii. articulating a moral position and a political ideal to inform theoretical and practical work in literacy education

iv. researching and analysing literacy in use, and the outcomes and effects of instances of literacy in use under their particular conditions of social practice

v. assessing examples of literacy in use in relation to moral and political ideals for literacy

vi. advancing ideas for promoting literacy practices that promote these ideals, and for redressing literacy practices that impede them

vii. informing literacy pedagogy with insights gained from the above-mentioned work.


The corpus of work falling under these descriptions is already vast, and generalising from it is beyond the scope of this chapter. Contributions vary in scope as well as in their more detailed theoretical investments. For an ostensive definition of representative current work in literacy studies, we might reasonably look to Taylor and Francis’ series, ‘Critical Perspectives on Literacy and Education’, edited by Allan Luke.

Rather than attempt the futile task of reducing current work in socioliteracy studies to a list of accurate generalisations, I will simply identify briefly some ‘artifacts’ and ‘emphases’ which may be seen as typical progressive ‘moves’ within the discourse of socioliteracy studies and note some of their implications for literacy education. There are, of course, many besides those noted here.


i. A sociocultural definition of literacy

Any acceptable and illuminating sociocultural definition of literacy has to make sense of reading, writing and meaning-making as integral elements of social practices. Such a definition is provided by Gee (1996), who defines literacy in relation to Discourses. Discourses are socially recognised ways of using language (reading, writing, speaking, listening), gestures and other semiotics (images, sounds, graphics, signs, codes), as well as ways of thinking, believing, feeling, valuing, acting/doing and interacting in relation to people and things, such that we can be identified and recognised as being a member of a socially meaningful group, or as playing a socially meaningful role (cf Gee 1991, 1996, 1998a). To be in, or part of, a Discourse means that others can recognise us as being a ‘this’ or a ‘that’ (a pupil, mother, priest, footballer, mechanic), or a particular ‘version’ of a this or that (a reluctant pupil, a doting mother, a radical priest, a ‘bush’ mechanic) by virtue of how we are using language, believing, feeling, acting, dressing, doing, and so on. Language is a dimension of Discourse, but only one dimension, and Gee uses discourse (with a small "d") to mark this relationship. As historical ‘productions’, Discourses change over time, but at any given point are sufficiently ‘defined’ for us to tell when people are in them.

Gee distinguishes our primary Discourse from our various secondary Discourses. Our primary Discourse is how we learn to do and be (including speaking and expressing) within our family (or face to face intimate) group during our early life. It (we each have only one primary Discourse, although there are many different primary Discourses) comprises our first notions of who ‘people like us’ are, and what ‘people like us’ do, think, value, and so on. Our secondary Discourses (and we each have many of these, although they differ from person to person) are those we are recruited to through participation in outside groups and institutions, such as schools, clubs, workplaces, churches, political organisations, and so on. These all draw upon and extend our resources from our primary Discourse, and may be ‘nearer to’ or ‘further away from’ our primary Discourse. The further away a secondary Discourse is from our primary Discourse and our other secondary Discourses -- as in the case of children from marginal social groups who struggle to get a handle on the culture of school classrooms -- the more we have to ‘stretch’ our discursive resources to ‘perform’ within that Discourse. Often in such cases we simply are unable to operate the Discourse at the level of fluent performance.

Gee holds that any socially useful definition of literacy must build on the notion of Discourse and the distinction between primary and secondary Discourses. In part this is because the context of all language use is some specific social practice or other, which is always part of some Discourse or other. Gee defines literacy ‘as mastery (or, fluent performance) of a secondary Discourse’ (Gee 1996). Hence, to be literate means being able to handle all aspects of competent performance of the Discourse, including the literacy bits: that is, to be able to handle the various human and non human elements of ‘coordinations’ (Gee 1997; Latour 1987; Knorr Cetina 1992) effected by Discourses. To play a role, be a particular identity, etc., is a matter of both ‘getting coordinated as an element in a Discourse, and of coordinating other elements. Language/literacy is a crucial element of discursive ‘coordinating’, but it is only one aspect, and the other elements need to be ‘in sync’ for fluent performance -- literacy -- to be realised.

This idiosyncratic, but powerful sociocultural conception of literacy has much to offer education.


* It honours the reality of myriad literacies -- since there are myriad secondary Discourses.


* It takes the emphasis off ‘print competence’ (skills, inner processes), whilst retaining a contingent link with ‘print’ by virtue of the fact that most secondary Discourses (being non face-to-face/non kinship) involve ‘print’ -- which must now be extended to include digitally encoded language. This reminds us that literacy is never an end in itself, but always a part of larger purposes. To this extent, we may get various ‘language/literacy bits’ right, but to little effect, because of failures to get other elements ‘coordinated’. This is why so many pupils can learn to encode and decode print/digital texts and yet fail to ‘achieve’ in school and wider world Discourses.


* It denounces the misguided notion of ‘literacy’ being ‘foundational’ or ‘linked in a linear way’ to larger practices. It is not as if we ‘learn the print stuff’ and can then go on and ‘use it’ in straightforward ‘applications’ to ‘forms of life’.


* To this extent it puts the emphasis within education in the right places, insisting that literacies be acquired ‘whole’. This generates important issues of pedagogy, long silenced within education, but being increasingly recognised beyond formal schooling (Heath and McLaughlin 1994; Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996: Chs. 1-3).


* It provides a basis for questioning the narrow and peculiar privileging of characteristic ‘School Discourse(s)’, and the assumed relationships between school learning and wider domains of social practice (ibid).


* Similarly, it provides a basis for understanding patterned differentials in school literacy-mediated achievement -- in terms of the fact that many primary Discourses are far removed from school Discourse(s).


* At the same time it helps explain why bridging the gap between primary Discourse experiences and secondary discursive competence proves so difficult. As is evident in our primary Discourse, coming to acquire mastery of the various coordinations takes a long time, and much of the mastery comes by way of immersed acquisition rather than through instructed learning.


* It focuses our attention on the arbitrariness and injustice inherent in historically produced hierarchies of Discourses and, therefore, in the processes whereby schooling privileges certain literacies over others; thereby advantaging those whose primary and other secondary Discourses ‘fit’ more closely with the cultural selections of school and the wider social order (Gee 1991; 1996). This helps us ‘unmask’ simplistic and ingenuous models and rhetorics of empowerment (for elaborations see Freire 1972; Delgado-Gaitan 1990; Lankshear 1994).


ii. A three dimensional view of effective literacy

From a sociocultural perspective, literacy must, as Bill Green puts it, : be seen in ‘3D’, as having three interlocking dimensions - the operational, the cultural, and the critical - which bring together language, meaning and context (Green 1988: 160-163). An integrated view of literacy in practice and in pedagogy addresses all three dimensions simultaneously; none has any necessary priority over the others.

The operational dimension refers to what Green calls the ‘means’ of literacy (ibid: 160). It is ‘in and through the medium of language that the literacy event happens’. Control of the operational dimension involves ‘competency with regard to the language system’. When we speak of the operational dimension of literacy we ‘point to the manner in which individuals use language in literacy tasks, in order to operate effectively in specific contexts’. This is to emphasise ‘the written language system and how adequately it is handled’. When we address literacy from this perspective, we focus on the ability of individuals ‘to read and write in a range of contexts, in an appropriate and adequate manner’: that is, to focus on the language aspect of literacy (see Green 1988, 1997a, 1997b; see also Lankshear, Bigum et al 1997 vol. 1).

The cultural dimension involves what Green calls the ‘meaning aspect of literacy’, and ‘competency with regard to the meaning system’(Green 1988: 160). This is to recognise that besides being context specific, literacy acts and events are also content specific. In other words, we are never simply ‘literate’ (in and of itself) but, rather, always literate ‘with regard to something, some aspect of knowledge or experience’ (ibid). The cultural aspect of literacy is a matter of understanding texts in relation to contexts - to appreciate their meaning; the meaning they need to make in order to be appropriate; and what it is about given contexts of practice that makes for appropriateness or inappropriateness of particular ways of reading and writing. Take, for example, the case of a worker producing a spreadsheet within a workplace setting or routine. This is not a simple matter of ‘going into some software program’ and ‘filling in the data. Spreadsheets must be compiled - which means knowing their purpose and constructing their axes and categories accordingly. To know the purpose of a particular spreadsheet requires understanding relevant elements of the culture of the immediate work context; to know why one is doing what one is doing now, how to do it, and why what one is doing is appropriate (ibid; see also Lankshear, Bigum et al 1997 vol. 1).

The critical dimension of literacy has to do with the socially constructed nature of all human practices and meaning systems. In order to be able to participate effectively and productively in any social practice, humans must be socialised into it. But social practices and their meaning systems ‘are always selective and sectional; they represent particular interpretations and classifications’ (Green 1988: 162). If learners are not also given ‘access to the grounds for selection and the principles of interpretation’, we can say that they are being ‘merely socialised into the dominant meaning system’, and constrained from playing active parts in transforming it. Acknowledging the critical dimension of literacy is the basis for ensuring that participants are not confined merely to participating in established practices and making meanings within them, but that they can also ‘in various ways, transform and actively produce it’ (ibid).

This ‘3D’ model provides a very useful adjunct to the definition of literacy in terms of secondary Discourses. It gives due significance to the operational dimension, which includes the mechanical aspects of encoding and decoding, whilst insisting on recognition that much more is required of a pedagogy for ‘effective literacy’. In the current education reform context, this provides a valuable basis for critiquing unduly narrow constructions of effective literacy (cf DEET 1991a and b; DEETYA 1998). It also speaks usefully and powerfully to specific components of ‘literacy strategies’ within current reform plans: such as reporting profiles, literacy ‘standards’ or ‘benchmarks’, and the like. For example, benchmarks would need to be framed in ways that honour literacy as sociocultural practice. They could not be reduced to (merely) textual ‘lowest common denominators’, since text stands to literacy as discourse stands to Discourse in Gee’s conceptual scheme. In addition, assessment would need to be of literacy in practice: that is, as an embedded and integrated component of Discourse events or ‘moves’.

Equally, the 3D model accommodates important issues at the interface of literacy studies and curriculum theory and practice - such as subject-specific literacies, and teaching and learning within the English subjects. It is probably fair to say that facets are still in the process of negotiating their places within and relationship to the overall field of literacy studies. Many English teachers, for example, prefer to think of their work as involving considerably more than ‘literacy’. From a sociocultural standpoint, however, the interface between literacy studies and curriculum theory and practice is a key area for further development.


iii. Applications of cultural apprenticeship models of learning to literacy pedagogy

Adopting a sociocultural frame for literacy studies opens the way for exploring the potential for literacy pedagogy to be informed and enhanced by models of learning developed within other component ‘movements’ of ‘the social turn’. In an account of what more ‘authentic’ school-based curriculum and pedagogy might look like, Heath and McLaughlin (1994: 472) critique classroom pedagogies which ‘create "authenticity" artificially rather than study contextually authentic curricula -- authentic to youth -- in supportive organizational structures’. They argue that classroom educators can learn much from examining effective grass-roots organisations like the Girl Guides, Girls Club, and drama groups. These provide rich social contexts and opportunities for ‘learning to learn for anything’ everyday by means of ‘[cognitive and social] apprenticeship, peer learning, authentic tasks, skill-focused practices and real outcome measures’, such as completed public projects, performances, displays and exhibitions (ibid.). Heath and McLaughlin believe these characteristic features of effective authentic learning converge in Barbara Rogoff’s (1990; also Rogoff 1995) account of learning through sociocultural activity.

Rogoff advances three planes of analysis for interpreting and evaluating learning. These are apprenticeship, guided participation, and participatory appropriation. They correspond with community, interpersonal, and personal processes. While these planes are mutually constituting, interdependent and inseparable, identifying them individually enables particular aspects of a learning process to be brought into sharp focus for analytic purposes.

According to Rogoff, ‘apprenticeship’ operates within a plane of community and institutional activity and describes ‘active individuals participating with others in culturally organized ways’ (1995:142). The primary purpose of apprenticeship is to facilitate ‘mature participation in the activity by less experienced people’ (ibid.). Experts -- who continue to develop and refine their expertise -- and peers in the learning process are integral to Rogoff's account of apprenticeship (Rogoff 1995, p. 143). Both categories of participant find themselves ‘engaging in activities with others of varying experience’ and moving through cycles of learning, teaching, and practice. Investigating and interpreting sociocultural apprenticeship focuses attention on the activity being learned (with its concomitant skills, processes, and content knowledge), and on its relationship with community practices and institutions -- eschewing traditional conceptions of apprenticeship as an expert-novice dyad.

‘Guided participation’ encompasses ‘processes and systems of involvement between people as they communicate and co-ordinate efforts while participating in culturally valued activity’ (ibid.). It involves a range of interpersonal interactions. These include face-to-face interactions, side-by-side interactions (which are more frequent face-to-face interactions within everyday life), and other interactional arrangements where activities do not require everyone involved to be present. Hence, for Rogoff, guidance is provided by ‘cultural and social values, as well as [by] social partners’ who may be local or distant (1995, p. 142).

‘Participatory appropriation’ refers to personal processes of ongoing and dynamic engagement with learning through socially contextualised and purposeful activities that ultimately transform the learner. Rogoff uses this concept to describe processes by which people ‘transform their understanding of and responsibility for activities through their own participation’ (Rogoff 1995, p. 150). Here analysis focuses on changes that learners undergo in gaining facility with an activity, as well as acceptable changes learners make to activities in the process of becoming ‘experts’, enabling them to engage with subsequent similar activities and their social meanings.

As a model of pedagogy for effective learning, cultural apprenticeship has important implications for literacy education. By grounding learning as far as possible within settings where genuine opportunities are available for apprenticeship to skills and procedures, and where conditions exist for guided participation and participatory appropriation, it minimises counterproductive forms of abstract(ed) and decontextualised activity. At the same time it allows for skill refinement through repetition, drilling and the like (c.f., the practice and training dimensions of sports and games) - but within situations and settings that approximate to ‘the real thing’. With the drilling, habituation, repetition, in other words, come also concrete and embodied experiences of participation that convey situated cultural understanding.

At the same time, the cultural apprenticeship model is basically one of enculturation: learners are recruited to Discourses ‘from the inside’. While this may be very effective for mastering operational and cultural dimensions of literacy, it may work against the ‘critical’. This recovers for classroom learning an important role which -- almost by definition -- cannot be undertaken in situ and in role: i.e., the tasks of identifying and judging the values, purposes, interests, perspectives, and the like that are written into particular Discourses, and those that are thereby written out.


Part 4 Critical Literacy and Socioliteracy Studies

The relationship between critical literacy and socioliteracy studies is interesting from an historical-developmental perspective. By the early 1990s it was common for literacy theorists to speak of critical literacy as one of several competing Discourses of literacy -- along with functional literacy and cultural literacy, among others. This largely reflected the emergence of a critical literacy ‘school’ out of the work of Paulo Freire and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Critical literacy emerged as an aspect of the larger phenomenon of a radical alternative educational perspective (including such things as the ‘new’ sociology, critical theory applied to education, critical pedagogy, etc.) to the longstanding ‘liberal’ view of education. It was framed in conscious distinction from and opposition to cultural and functional models (the latter equating roughly with the ‘operational’ component of the ‘3D model). This separation often served to marginalise critical literacy from achieving the broad-based constituency it sought, which called for ways of taking functional and cultural considerations seriously within a larger pedagogy.

With the emergence of a defined field of socioliteracy studies it is now easier to frame and pursue critical literacy work within the ambit of a transcendent sociocultural ideal of literacy: that is, as an integral component of literacy in three dimensions. Building on ideas already canvassed in this chapter, we can expand the brief statement of the ‘critical dimension’ of the 3D model by way of concluding this discussion.

Work within socioliteracy studies identifies at least three related levels of activity involved in the critical dimension of literacy: namely,


* developing a critical perspective on literacy per se. This is precisely the kind of thing the sociocultural approach to literacy exemplifies. Gee’s account of ‘literacy’, for example, invokes meta level understandings of language in use which enable a critical stance to be adopted toward other constructions of literacy and their implications (see, for example, Kress 1996; Wallace 1992; New London Group 1996; Muspratt, Freebody and Luke 1997; Lankshear 1997; Gee 1996);


* engaging in critique of particular texts or specific instances of literacy in use. This involves developing and using techniques which reveal how texts do work and produce effects as elements of larger social practices and discursive ‘coordinations’. This presupposes drawing on some theory or ideal -- ethical, political, educational -- as a basis for choosing and employing particular kinds of techniques in the first place, as well as for making judgments about textual practices/literacy in use in the light of the analysis performed (e.g., Gee 1998a and b; 1996: ch 5; Luke 1992; Kress 1985; Fairclough 1989, 1992; Schiffrin 1987, 1994);


* making ‘critical readings’ of Discourses and enacting forms of resistance or transformative practice on the basis of preferred ethical, political and educational values/ideals (e.g., Fairclough 1989; Gee 1996; Lankshear 1997, Muspratt, Luke and Freebody 1997). This would include the kind of work that seeks to explain and critique the operation of school literacies as interest-serving selections from a larger culture, which systematically advantage some groups and language communities over others.


In a recent statement, Gee integrates these levels of activity in making a case for making concern with a particular kind of ‘work’ central to socioliteracy studies. This is what he calls ‘enactive’ and ‘recognition’ work: work done by human beings as they go about ‘getting coordinated’ and ‘coordinating other elements’ within everyday participation in Discourses -- a conception which owes much to the work of Latour (1987, 1991 and Knorr Cetina 1992).

Gee argues that social worlds are created and sustained by human beings organizing and coordinating ‘materials’ in ways that others (come to) recognise; to see as meaningful. These ‘materials’ are, of course, the ‘stuff’ of Discourses: ‘people, things, artifacts, symbols, tools, technologies, actions, interactions, times, places, ways of speaking, listening, writing, reading, feeling, thinking, valuing, etc. (Gee 1998a 15). Our discursive practice involves ‘attempting to get other people to recognize people and things as having certain meanings and values within certain configurations or relationships’ (ibid: 14). Enactive work refers to these ‘attempts’ (which, of course, are often ‘unconscious’ - they come with recruitment to Discourses -- but can, equally, be conscious -- as in witting acts of transformative practice). Recognition work refers to the efforts by others to accept or reject such attempts -- ‘to see or fail [refuse] to see things our way’ (ibid: 15).

These attempts and recognitions are precisely what produce, sustain, challenge, transform, etc., particular discursive effects, including those of particular concern to critical literacy theorists and educators: namely, the creation and maintenance of relations, processes, arrangements, etc., within which individuals and groups have markedly unequal access to ‘representational systems and mediational means’, ‘linguistic knowledge’, ‘cultural artifacts’, ‘actual financial capital’, ‘institutional entry’, and ‘status’ (Muspratt, Freebody and Luke 1997: 2). Enactive and recognition work is, then, political and ethical. And the stakes of such work are ‘always "up for grabs". Actors, events, activities, practices, and Discourses do not exist in the world except through active work, work that is very often unstable and contested’ (Gee 1998a: 17).

From this standpoint, critical literacy becomes a political project involving informed ‘enactment’ and ‘recognition’. Employing appropriate techniques of discourse analysis we can investigate how language is recruited, in conjunction with other ‘elements’, for enactive and recognition work. From this basis we can engage in our own informed enactments and recognitions on the basis of our moral and political commitments and our larger sociocultural understanding of literacy and Discourse. In the end, it is precisely these possibilities that underwrite the importance of framing literacy studies in sociocultural terms -- and fighting for that framing as enactive work.



Socioliteracy studies provides a case of postdisciplinary development that has helped achieve some important academic advances. It has provided people working within established fields of linguistics and language studies with an important material focus for ongoing theory development and application: namely, discursively embedded social practices mediated by literacy -- notably, within diverse educational contexts. Work in linguistics is the richer for this. So is work within the academic study of education, which has access to a considerably wider range of theoretical, conceptual, and research perspectives than previously.

In particular, the development of socioliteracy studies has helped the process of geting educational studies -- in principle always a cross disciplinary domain -- out from under the tyranny of the narrow paradigms of psychology that have dominated educational inquiry throughout this century. Unfortunately, at the points of most practical application -- the ‘chalkface’ -- education remains powerfully in the grip of psychologistic-technicist policy predilections. Even so, literacy studies in education provides a key battleground from which to continue the struggle against the psychology-technocracy ‘alliance’, and to have sociocultural practices better understood for what they are. This remains our best hope for contributing academically to the pursuit of more humane and just agendas for social policy and development.



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