Literacy, Learning and Teaching

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Cambridge]On: 09 October 2014, At: 14:15Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Literacy, Learning and TeachingPaul Richardson aa Monash University , AustraliaPublished online: 06 Jul 2006.

    To cite this article: Paul Richardson (1998) Literacy, Learning and Teaching, EducationalReview, 50:2, 115-134, DOI: 10.1080/0013191980500204

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  • Educational Review, Vol. 50, No. 2, 1998 115

    Literacy, Learning and Teaching

    PAUL RICHARDSON, Monash University, Australia

    ABSTRACT By taking Australia as a case study site and with findings from the newliteracy studies and new theories of learning, this paper sketches a perspective oncontemporary issues in English literacy education. While research from a number offields and disciplines advises abandonment of traditional skills-based views ofliteracy and literacy learning, governments with neo-conservative agendas aremoving to institutionalise a model of literacy learning embodied by psychometricmeasures and benchmarks. Increasingly literacy, learning and teaching are beingseen by governments as too important to the state and the market to be left only inthe hands of teachers and literacy educators.

    Introduction

    Literacy would appear to be one of the few elements of education thateveryone agrees to be a necessity of modernity. The capacity to read andwrite is causally associated with earning a living, achieving expandedhorizons of personal enlightenment and enjoyment, maintaining a stableand democratic society, and historically, with the rise of civilization itself.(Swed, 1981, p. 13)

    From the post-modernist perspective these are exciting if unpredictable times. Theestablished discourses and grand narratives imbuing individual relations and socialorganisation have been progressively disrupted and displaced by the subjective andthe particular, to the point where our personal worlds are said to have becomeinherently unstable, fragmentary and insecure (Lather, 1991). Economic rationalism,economic restructuring, new information technologies and the emergence of globalmarkets have been instrumental in creating rapid, enduring social change. Whilethere have been new opportunities for some individuals in 'the new work order',many jobs and occupations in manufacturing and other industries have been lost orare increasingly marginalised as non-competitive. In the interests of internationalcompetitiveness and 'the market' governments across the globe have been revisitingtheir industrial relations legislation in order to loosen controls on working conditions,hours of work, the nature of work and remuneration. All of which have contributedto a sense of exponential change, social instability and fragmentation. In parallel withthese changes, literacy education and schooling have been harnessed to the task ofcreating a flexible, skilled workforce capable and willing of responding to changesin 'the market'.

    Three or four decades ago it would have been possible to approach the topic ofthis paper with some assurance and confidence. Life then seemed less fragmentary,

    0013-1911/98/020115-20 1998 Educational Review

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  • 116 P.Richardson

    more stable and predictable. There were established discourses and teachers, at alllevels of education, were confident of what the young needed to know, value anddemonstrate as an outcome of teaching and learning. Back then, programmes forliteracy development were often set down in prescriptive curriculum documentsand the learning and teaching of reading and writing were seen as essentially theprovince of the school. As we approach the end of the century academics,researchers and teachers are mostly attentive to the dimensions and complexity ofthe meanings carried by the word literacy. On the other hand, neo-conservativepoliticians and elements of the mass media insist on persuading the general publicthat state-funded schools are in crisis because an unacceptable proportion ofchildren attending those schools have serious literacy problems. Measurements of'literacy standards' and 'basic literacy skills' have become the barometer of thesuccess and well-being of schools, teachers, students, citizenship, democracy andthe political system.

    This paper will examine findings from new literacy studies research and newlearning theories as a cyclorama against which to sketch a perspective on contempor-ary issues in English literacy education coincident across a number of Englishspeaking countries. These issues will be weighed against developments in Australiaas a case study. I have chosen Australia, firstly, because I have followed events inthis country more intimately and, secondly, because Australians have, perhaps froma lack of self-confidence or insecurity, closely monitored 'overseas' developments inliteracy education and public policy and have been quick to graft these 'new' literacyteaching and learning practices on to home-grown root stocks. Australia's cultural,social and political history make it an ideal site in which to make visible 'global'concerns and issues in literacy studies and literacy pedagogy.

    Thirty years ago English literacy education in Australia was a silent partner inpublic policy, where it functioned as an important instrument of cultural assimilationof minorities into the majority culture. As a concomitant, little attention was givento the concerns, identities or languages of minorities (see Smolicz, 1971). Over thelast 20 years or so a succession of Federal, State and Territory governments havedisavowed assimilation in favour of more sensitive, less discriminatory policies,embracing diversity and plurality as desirable attributes of Australian social andcultural life. By insisting that one size does not fit all, public space was opened upto a range of discursive practices, identities and minority languages (see Ozolins,1993). However, English remains the national language and English literacy edu-cation a priority for State and Federal governments. As English becomes increasinglyglobalised it is apparent that countries other than Australia also seek to give priorityto English literacy education.

    Traditionally literacy has been associated with an individual's ability to read andwrite. In everyday contexts literacy is invoked in these termsa view which regardsliteracy as a set of asocial individual cognitive skills dislodged from their socio-cul-tural moorings in human relationships and communities of practice. By neglectingthe role and constitutive influence of situation, activities and participants, literacybecomes a set of skills necessary for individuals to undertake reading and writing.Thus it is implied that once these skills are acquired early on in a child's life theyare then seamlessly transferable without: impediment across contexts and situations.Brian Street (1984) has identified this as the 'autonomous' model of literacy.Regardless of context, literacy was seen to produce desirable changes in people:raised cognitive skills, a rational outlook, restructured thought processes and sus-

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  • Literacy, Learning and Teaching 117

    tained abstract thinking. Gee (1990, p. 32) neatly summarizes the claims that havebeen made for literacy founded on what Graff (1979) has called 'the literacy myth':

    The 'literacy myth' is seen to have produced claims that literacy leads to,or is correlated with, logical and analytical modes of thought; general andabstract use of language; critical and rational thought; sceptical andquestioning attitudes; a distinction between myth and history; the recogni-tion of the importance of time and space; complex and modern govern-ments; political democracy and greater social equity; economicdevelopment; wealth and productivity; political stability; urbanisation;lower birth rates; people who are achievement oriented, productive, cosmo-politan, politically aware, more globally (nationally and internationally)and less locally oriented, who have more liberal and humane socialattitudes, are less likely to commit a crime; and more likely to take therights and duties of citizenship seriously.

    In contrast, I begin with the premise that literacy changes and that these changes areintimately coupled with knowledge, ideology and context. Thus literacy is instanti-ated and infused with particular social, cultural and ideological ends. In this sensethere is not literacy and illiteracy, but literacies which are formed and function inparticular social contexts (see for instance Heath, 1983; Street, 1984; Shuman, 1986;Prinsloo & Breier, 1996; Edwards, 1997). This perspective has far-reaching implica-tions in the determination, measurement and testing of 'basic literacy skills' and'literacy standards'.

    Literacy is so enmeshed in our daily lives, coincident with cultural, ethnic andreligious identity, social and economic status, community mores, gender identity andpolitical beliefs that it inevitably becomes entwined with issues of national identity,national economic development, citizenship, language and culture. This is not justtrue for Australia or for English speaking countries. For instance, Tonnessen (1995,p. 244) has observed that in Norway, a country of some 4 million people, the'Norwegian language and culture are under continual pressure from foreign, mainlyAnglo-American, language and culture'. So much so, to be considered literate andcapable of functioning effectively in Norwegian society an individual needs amodicum of foreign language competence. Similarly, Hornberger (1992, p. 190)affirms that literacy in South America can only be understood 'against the backdropof the linguistic diversity' found there across 14 nations and territories in whichbetween seven and 200 languages are spoken, the only monolingual exceptions beingUruguay and the Falkland Islands, where only Spanish and English are usedrespectively.

    New Literacy Studies

    A feature of literacy research studies over the last couple of decades has been thediversity of research methodologies on which these studies have been founded. Bydrawing on a range of disciplines, cognitive dimensions, socio cultural groups andeducational settings a more intricate and elaborated understanding of literacy hasemerged (see for example Gee, 1990; Beach et al, 1992; Barton, 1994; Prinsloo &Breier, 1996; Street, 1997). Disciplines and fields such as sociology, sociolinguistics,post-structuralist criticism, social psychology, feminist critical theory and cultural

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  • 118 P.Richardson

    anthropology have all contributed to contemporary conceptions of literacy, althoughnot all have had the same impact on literacy pedagogy.

    The interdisciplinary roots of the new literacy studies can be seen, forexample, in the work of researchers who have demonstrated that children progressunequally towards literacy. The nature and extent of that inequality has beenrevealed through the work of Heath (1982, 1983), Scribner & Cole (1981),Lankshear & Lawler (1987), Wells (1986), Gumprez (1982), Michaels (1981,1985), Cazden (1979), among others. Similarly, studies by Graff (1979), CookGumprez (1986), Street (1984), Gee (1996) have brought to our attention twotenets: literacies are 'social practices' and the nature of language is 'dialogic'(Street, 1997).

    Taking into account the implications stemming from a social view of literacy,what practical differences might ensue? In compiling what follows I have drawnfreely on work by Ivanic & Hamilton (1989) (reported in Barton 1994, pp. 211-212)and Dombrey (1992), who have similarly attempted to distil some of the moreimportant points gleaned from a range of literacy research. In summary, the newliteracy studies provide good evidence in support of the following.

    There are important links between the processes of literacy acquisition andsocio-cultural background.

    All children do not uniformly or equally learn literacy. The nature and dimensionof inequality is now better understood.

    Literacy is not just cognitive skills which, once acquired, are endlessly transferablefrom one setting to another.

    Socio-cultural factors interact with cognitive factors in complex ways and are ofcritical importance in the achievement of 'academic' literacy.

    Literacy is imbued with the values of the social context that both surrounds andis shaped by it. Literacy is learned in specific settings, embedded in particularideologies. Hence, there are literacies; which are essentially social practices, butnot all literacies are of equal value. In everyday life reading and writing alwayshave a social purpose.

    Literacy learning is an active process, driven and shaped by the learner's inten-tions. Methods for learning literacy vary greatly. Literacy operates most character-istically on a number of different linguistic levels simultaneously and is not madeeasier by being broken down into simpler elements that are taught separately.

    Readers engage in complex, multi-level processes that involve knowledge ofsound-sy...

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