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E844: Language and literacy in a changing world


This unit explores the rapidly changing field of language and literacy studies and its relevance to teaching and learning. It’ll help you gain a deeper understanding of the nature of language and literacy, and to learn a range of ways of analysing different kinds of language in context.

A focus on language is obviously important because of its dual educational role as both ‘the medium’, i.e. the ways that teaching and learning is carried out, and ‘the message’, i.e. the focus of instruction. More recently, other dimensions of language use have also been considered, e.g. the relationship between language use and identity, and between language and power. You’ll explore ways of understanding language in context, concentrating on their relevance to education.

This unit has been designed both for students with no experience of the specialised study of language and for those who wish to update and extend their existing knowledge.

This unit is from our archive and is an adapted extract from Language and literacy in a changing world (E844) which is no longer in presentation, having finished in 2010. The course has been replaced with Language, literacy and learning in the contemporary world (E852). If you wish to study formally at The Open University, you may wish to explore the courses we offer in this curriculum area.

Learning outcomes

On completion of this unit you should be able to:

  • understand how to approach debates within the rapidly changing research field of language and literacy studies

  • understand the role of language and literacy in the processes of teaching and learning

  • be able to use a range of methods for researching and analysing language in use.

1 Talk and the processes of teaching and learning

This section is about the importance of spoken language in the processes of teaching and learning. Using examples from recent research, this section should enable you to gain insights into the ways language is used in the everyday life of classrooms and other educational settings. It should also help you understand the nature and significance of one particular approach to the analysis of language and education, known as a sociocultural approach or theory.

Language is both the ‘medium’ and the ‘message’ of education. It enables the process of teaching and learning to take place; and one of the principal goals of education is the development of students’ ability to use language. Learning in all subjects involves becoming able to understand and use the specialised ways that language has been adapted to develop particular areas of knowledge and expertise. This section is mainly concerned with spoken language. We will examine talk between teachers and learners and talk amongst learners. But before focusing on talk in educational settings, we will first consider the use and functions of language, and its relationship to thinking, in a more general way.

1.1 A sociocultural perspective on language and learning

A sociocultural perspective on language and learning entails a particular view of how language and social interaction are involved in the processes of human development and learning. From that perspective, education and cognitive development are seen as cultural processes, whereby knowledge is not only possessed individually but shared amongst members of communities; and understandings are constructed by people jointly, through their involvement in events which are shaped by cultural and historical factors. Language acquisition and use is seen as having a profound effect on the development of thinking. This does not mean that sociocultural researchers boldly assert that social experience rather than heredity shapes children’s development. They may take different positions on that issue. But they share the view that we cannot understand the nature of thinking, learning and development without taking account of the intrinsically social and communicative nature of human life.

A sociocultural perspective sees education as taking place through dialogue, with the interactions between students and teachers reflecting the historical development, cultural values and social practices of the societies and communities in which educational institutions exist. The educational process which takes place within those institutions might thus be better described as ‘teaching-and-learning’, rather than there being separate processes of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’. This implies that educational success, and failure, may be explained by the quality of educational dialogues rather than being just the result of the intrinsic capability of individual students (or the didactic presentational skill of individual teachers).

Deborah Hicks is a leading American researcher in the study of classroom talk. She has written an article, supplied in PDF form below, which provides a comprehensive overview of work adopting a sociocultural perspective on language and the process of teaching and learning.

Reading 1 Discourse, teaching and learning

Timing: Allow about 2 hours

Now read ‘Discourse, teaching and learning’ by Deborah Hicks.

In particular, pay attention to the following concepts:

  • ‘discourse’
  • ‘academic discourse’
  • The teacher-student exchange sequence called the IRE or IRF
  • ‘participation structures’.

Note: Hicks uses the term ‘socio-cognitive’ to describe the approach we have called ‘sociocultural’ (the more commonly used term). Her overview is mainly based on North American research (rather than, say, that from Europe and Australia, where similar work has been carried out); but the perspective she endorses is essentially similar to that adopted by many researchers of classroom discourse elsewhere in the world.

Right-click on the following link to open the PDF in a new tab or window.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

1.2 What is meant by ‘discourse’?

Hicks points to the importance of the notion of discourse in recent sociocultural research. Discourse is a key notion in much contemporary work in the social sciences and its meaning varies according to the particular theorists that researchers draw on. For example, in applied linguistics research, discourse is often used to refer to a stretch of language – spoken or written – in context (Crystal, 1997). In contrast, for many social theorists, notably post-structuralist social philosophers such as Foucault (e.g., 1980), discourse refers to socially and historically situated domains of knowledge or ways of construing the world. In the first reading, Hicks emphasises the work of researchers on language who aim to combine the more concrete use of discourse as actual stretches of language with some elements of the more abstract notion of discourse from social theory. Throughout this unit we draw on these two notions of discourse to talk about language in context:

  1. Discourse as ‘language in its social context, as it is used to carry out the social and intellectual life of a community’ (Mercer, 1995, p. 79). This meaning of discourse emphasises the importance of looking at language in context and usually involves an analysis of actual stretches of spoken and written language, often referred to as ‘texts’. Note that ‘text’ is a term widely used in language research to refer to both spoken and written language, and, more recently, visual images, as we will see in section 4.
  2. Discourse as ‘different ways of structuring areas of knowledge and social practice’ (Fairclough, 1992, p. 3). This is a more abstract meaning of the term than (1) as it is not used to refer to particular texts, but rather to explain how certain ideas and values are embodied in the communications of a community or society. Discourse in this sense cannot be observed or recorded but is rather a theory of social reality. This meaning is found in some research on education (e.g., Ball 1990; Usher and Edwards, 1998) and on language in society (Pennycook, 1998). It is commonly used in analyses of political influence and social power. For example, in his examination of global English, Pennycook refers to the ‘discourse of colonialism’ (1998). Naz Rassool (2000), whose article you will be reading in section 3, refers to what she terms the post-structuralist discourses of language, identity and cultural power.

While we can distinguish these two different kinds of meaning of the term ‘discourse’, it is important to bear in mind that it is often used in confusing or ambiguous ways. Researchers and writers may use the term to mean either or both of the meanings outlined above and they may not make it absolutely clear how they are using the term. In this section, we will use the term mainly in the first of the meanings described above as we focus primarily on actual instances of language in context: talk in the classroom. But the second meaning is also briefly referred to; for example by linking actual instances of talk in classrooms with schooling as a particular kind of institution with its own particular language values and beliefs. Other aspects of the notion of discourse arise in later parts of the unit and will be discussed as they do so.

The importance of the notion of discourse in what are known as social constructionist perspectives on language, including a sociocultural perspective, is that language not only reflects but constructs social reality. As Hicks points out in her reading, classroom life is constituted through the specific discourse practices in which students and teachers engage.

1.3 The nature of educational discourse

Schools are special kinds of places, social institutions with particular purposes, conventions and traditions. So, although teaching and learning go on in many other places outside the formal education system, schools, colleges and so on are associated with particular, distinctive patterns of language use. Life in classrooms generates and sustains some distinctive ways of using language, though this may not be well recognised by teachers because they are immersed in it, and because they take these features for granted. Even students whose mother tongue is the language they use in school have much to learn about how that language is used as an educational medium.

The most obvious kind of spoken language used in education is between teachers and learners. We will consider that first, before looking at talk amongst students. The patterns of language use established by teachers have important consequences for how their students use language. One of the most obvious functions of spoken language in a classroom is for teachers to tell students what they are to do, how they are to do it, when to start and when to stop. Talk is the means by which teachers can provide students with information, a lot of which would be very hard to communicate in any other way. They tell students stories, read texts to them and describe objects, events and processes (sometimes introducing new descriptive vocabulary as they do so). Language in most educational contexts is also the main tool for a teacher’s control of events in the classroom. And teachers assess students’ learning through talk, in the familiar question-and-answer sequence of classroom life.

1.3.1 IRF exchanges

As described by Hicks in her reading (in the section headed ‘IRE/IRF: The Unmarked Case’), one of the most persistent and common features of classroom talk is the interaction between a teacher and a pupil known as an Initiation–Response–Follow-up (or ‘Feedback’) exchange (usually abbreviated as IRF).

Some researchers, such as Lemke (1990) and Wood (1992), have argued that the dominance of this exchange pattern of question-and-answer seriously limits the kind of participation that a student can have in classroom discourse, and that its use is really a reflection of teachers’ need to control classroom events, rather than being justifiable for pedagogic reasons. Others, such as Newman et al. (1989) and Wells (1999) have mounted the counter-argument that such criticisms are based on an inadequate understanding of the relationship between language form and language function. By this, they mean that critics of teachers’ use of IRFs have tended to assume that such exchanges inevitably perform the same type of function, which is to test students’ ability to provide a ‘right answer’ predefined by the teacher. They argue instead that IRF exchanges can be used to carry out a range of different kinds of interaction, within which a teacher’s questions may be used to elicit many other kinds of responses, such as explanations about what students have done or plan to do, their reasons for holding particular opinions, and their reflective comments on their own understanding. That is, there is no necessary association between a teacher’s frequent involvement of their students in IRF exchanges and a particular pedagogy or style of teaching. This point of view is supported by comparative research by Robin Alexander (2000), in which he observed classroom interaction in primary schools in five countries: England, France, India, Russia and the USA.

Alexander found that although teachers everywhere habitually asked many questions, there was significant variation in the functions of questions and their effects. For example, in Russian classrooms, he observed that teachers’ questions often generated quite long and thoughtful responses from children which contributed to whole-class discussion of problems encountered in doing work, and in finding solutions to them. Such elaborated IRF exchanges were relatively uncommon in British and American classrooms, reflecting differences of cultural tradition and practice between schools in the different countries.

1.4 The meaning of ‘context’

‘Context’ is a term that is commonly used in research on the social use of language. Its use reflects the widespread realisation amongst language researchers that the meanings that words or texts have for listeners or readers may be dependent on situational factors, such as the other words that surround them, the physical setting in which words are uttered, gestures and other non-linguistic signs which accompany speech, the history of the relationship between a speaker and listener, and so on.

Mercer (2000) states that ‘context’ is defined from a sociocultural perspective, as a joint, socially constructed frame of reference. Other research suggests that ‘context is not a container for a learner, but rather a weaving together of the learner with other people and tools into a web or network of sociocultural interactions and meanings that are integral to the learning’ (Russell, 2002, p. 68).

Similar interpretations are offered by Edwards and Furlong (1978) and Wells (1999); and see also the quote from Mehan (1979) in ‘What is discourse’ in Hicks’s reading. However, if you scanned the research literature on language in education, you would find the term ‘context’ being used in different ways. For example, sociolinguists commonly use the term ‘context’ to describe the physical, social and cultural settings in which language is produced or interpreted (Graddol et al., 1994, Chapter 1; Rothery, 1996).

As Hicks mentions, one of the claims regularly made by researchers into the process of teaching-and-learning is that its success depends on the maintenance by participants of a shared contextual frame of reference. This can be thought of as a resource of ‘common knowledge’ which develops through time, and to which a teacher can expect continuing members of their class to have access (Edwards and Mercer, 1987). This develops over the course of a particular lesson or activity, but it can also persist and accrue over longer periods of time. It is constructed using language and other cultural tools (such as books and other texts); it supports communication in the classroom, and the intelligibility of communication comes to depend on it. Teachers and students feel able to assume the mutuality of some knowledge, based on their past shared experience.

Activity 1 The concepts of ‘context’ and ‘common knowledge’

Timing: Allow about 1 hour 30 minutes

The sociocultural concepts of ‘context’ and ‘common knowledge’ can be examined further by considering the short extracts of classroom dialogue which are reproduced as Examples 6a and 6b in Hicks’s reading. Both were recorded by the educational researcher Gordon Wells, and came from the same lesson in a primary school in Canada. Hicks uses them to discuss the variety of functions which IRF exchanges can fulfil; but as is often the way with observational data, they can be used to gain other kinds of insights too. Re-read those extracts now, with Hicks’s introductions to them, and consider:

  1. What objects in the classroom are given contextual significance in the talk?
  2. What assumptions about ‘common knowledge’ about language use do participants seem to be making in this classroom talk?

In Example 6a, it seems that a textbook is an important part of the contextual framework which the participants are using to talk to each other and to make sense of each other’s talk. The book not only contained the cartoon to which they refer, it is also probably the source of the teacher’s remark that the students are ‘not supposed to use a clock’. There would of course be many other artefacts around the speakers in their classroom – chairs, desks, cupboards, perhaps computers – but these would not necessarily be part of the ‘context’ in the sense the term is defined in the second paragraph of this chapter, unless they were in some way invoked by the conversation.

Participating in the talk also invokes a certain kind of shared past experience. The participants readily generate the usual teacher-led IRF because their current activity is built upon their past participation in this genre of talk. Everyone treats this as a normal way to behave – as we have seen it is in classrooms (though it is not at all normal in many other types of social setting). This relates to a further concept, that of ‘educational ground rules’. The idea of educational dialogues being based on a set of normative rules (which are usually ‘taken for granted’ by teachers) is a key aspect of a sociocultural analysis of classroom interaction. Some researchers would describe them as elements of the ‘activity system’ within which teaching and learning takes place (Russell, 2002). Hicks uses the term ‘participant structures’ to refer to the same phenomenon.

In Example 6b we can see the contextualising influence of shared history in a more specific way. Pupil E explains her recent actions saying that she ‘started clapping’, knowing that will make perfect sense to the teacher on the basis of their shared knowledge of, and past discussion of, the content of the textbook. In this way, we can see that the process of classroom education is carried along in the fluid, regenerating context of shared knowledge and understanding.

Language is not only used to create a foundation of shared understanding in educational settings; we can observe it happening in many social situations, when people are involved over time in some joint activity. But the process of creating such a context may have particular significance in education because the knowledge involved also serves as a foundation for the developing understanding of the learners. The sense that people make of any future activities may depend crucially on what sense they have made of previous ones and a teacher may assume that past experience can be evoked as ‘common knowledge’ in carrying out further activities.

The research of both Stokoe (1996) and Gibbons (1995, 2001) illustrates a method of analysis for tracking the short-term history of communication in classrooms (and similar settings). Gibbons’s research draws explicitly on systemic functional linguistics and the concept of cohesion developed by its founder members Halliday and Hasan (1976). Although using a similar technique, Stokoe’s research is based on a different analytic tradition, known as ‘discursive psychology’, which is discussed briefly by Hicks (following her Example 3). It is also the basis for research on ‘collective remembering’ by Middleton and Edwards (1990). Such convergence illustrates the cross-disciplinary nature of much recent research on talk.

1.5 Discourse strategies used by teachers

Various discourse strategies or techniques have been identified which – like the IRF exchange – are commonly used by teachers in many parts of the world. Some experts suggest that the ubiquity of these ways of using language reflects the fact that all teachers have some similar responsibilities for guiding the learning and understanding of their students. Thus they use recaps and exhortations to create links between past, present and future educational experience.

As analysts, we may infer that the intention of teachers in using various discourse techniques or strategies is to build a shared context for supporting classroom dialogue and the process of teaching and learning. This is a worthy and sensible intention. However, achieving such shared understanding is a problematic procedure as even teachers’ best laid plans go awry; and misunderstandings are a common product of teacher–student interaction.

There are powerful and salutary illustrations of how difficult the communicative process of teaching and learning can be. They also illustrate well the weakness of the claim by Pinker (1994) that ‘Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds’. Torrance and Pryor (1998) highlight some ways in which the nature of a teacher’s questioning can have a strong influence on the process of classroom education. One implication of their analysis might be that if teachers changed their conception of the functions of dialogue with their students, and/or had a more insightful understanding of the pragmatics of classroom dialogue, this might change the ways they chose to manage classroom communication. The kind of reconceptualisation of the process of teaching and learning that would be most welcome would, of course, be one that led to a better quality of teaching and learning.

There are a range of concepts which are now quite commonly employed in sociocultural research (and so part of what Hicks calls the discourse of the relevant research community). One of these concepts – and an important one – is ‘scaffolding’.

The concept of scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) offers educational researchers an attractive metaphorical image of a skilled teacher’s intervention in a student’s learning. But to use it in a systematic, rigorous way we need to decide what, in classroom interactions, counts as ‘scaffolding’ and what is merely ‘help’. (Using the term to describe any intervention on the part of a teacher would reduce it to no more than empty jargon). One way we can explore the use of the concept is to apply it in an analysis of actual episodes of teaching and learning and to relate it to strategies or discursive techniques used by teachers.

Whether self-consciously or not, teachers organise the patterns of communication in their classrooms in different ways, and these may affect how learning takes place.

1.6 Language as a tool for social action

In this section, we have so far concentrated on teacher–student discourse. However, we should also be concerned with how people use language in many kinds of situations to solve problems and get things done. Before examining ways in which teachers can help students develop their understanding and use of spoken language, it may be useful to step outside the classroom and consider some of the ways that language is used in everyday life as a means for ‘getting things done’.

A widely accepted aim of education is to help students become better at using language. This is not only the case in modern language classrooms, or in those concerned with the English curriculum. Studying science, mathematics and other subjects also involves becoming able in using language as a tool for constructing and sharing knowledge. Teachers are expected to help their students develop ways of talking, writing and thinking which will enable them to travel on wider intellectual journeys, understanding and being understood by people in wider domains than those of their home community. While the strongest emphasis in mother tongue language education has always been on literacy, in recent years in many countries there has been an increasing acknowledgement in educational policy and curriculum guidance of the importance of children becoming effective users of spoken language. For example, within the National Curriculum for schools in England and Wales, the guidance for teaching English to Year 7 children (aged 11–12) includes the following objectives for group discussion and interaction.

“Pupils should be taught to:

10 identify and report the main points emerging from discussion, e.g. to agree a course of action including responsibilities and deadlines;

11 adopt a range of roles in discussion, including acting as spokesperson, and contribute in different ways such as promoting, opposing, exploring and questioning;

12 use exploratory, hypothetical and speculative talk as a way of researching ideas and expanding thinking;

13 work together logically and methodically to solve problems, make deductions, share, test and evaluate ideas;

14 acknowledge other people’s views, justifying or modifying their own views in the light of what others say;”

DfEE, 2001, p.25

However, formulating a set of teaching objectives does not address the question of how they can best be achieved. For several years, some educational researchers (mainly in the UK) have used the findings of observational studies to suggest that students need more explicit guidance than they normally get on how to talk and work together effectively in groups (e.g., Barnes and Todd, 1995; Bennett and Cass, 1989; Bennett and Dunne, 1992). Without explicit guidance, it is suggested, group-based activity (which is a common feature of education in some countries such as the UK), may be of little educational value. Research on language use in homes and communities, such as that of Shirley Brice Heath (1983) and Gordon Wells (1992), has shown that ways of using language to make joint sense of experience vary between cultures and communities, and so children from different backgrounds cannot be assumed to come to school with similar language repertoires. Yet it seems commonly to be assumed by teachers of students of all ages, right through to higher education, that when students are asked to go and discuss a topic together, or to work together to solve a problem, they will have the necessary strategies for doing so (or at least will know to use those they have in the most effective ways).

1.7 Evaluating classroom discussion

Children regularly talk amongst themselves, but how much of that talk is concerned with actually ‘getting things done?’ The next activity will allow you to attempt a reduced version of a similar evaluation. It will also allow you to compare your evaluation with that provided by one of the unit team (in comments following each example). And, finally, it may also allow you to consider the extent to which you feel such evaluations are valid and useful.

Activity 2 Evaluating discussions

Timing: Allow up to 2 hours

Examine the following two sequences, which are extracts from classroom discussions involving two sets of children (all aged 12–13). In each of the sequences, the children have been asked to try to complete a specific task together (as is explained before each sequence). When reading each sequence, consider the following questions:

  1. How ‘on task’ does the talk seem to be?
  2. How well does the discussion operate as a forum for sharing relevant information, evaluating ideas and reaching joint decisions?
  3. Does everyone in the group participate to a similar extent? If not, why do you think this is so? Does unequal participation matter?

Compare your own answers to these questions with the evaluative comments below.

Sequence 1

This sequence comes from the discussion of a group of four pupils (two girls and two boys) about the causes of vandalism. Preparation for this included reading an interview with the leader of a gang (called Ron) who regularly engaged in such behaviour; and the children were prompted by the question: ‘What do you think this interview tells you about the cause of vandalism?’

At the point the extract begins, Robert has just rejected the idea that young people engage in vandalism because they ‘aren’t given enough things to do’.

Oh I, I don’t, I, I think it’s partly that, but if you get some people that, really want to be vandals, really want to smash things up just for’t pleasure of it, and you get some that an’t owt better to do so they just go around smashing things up. It’s a bit daft really, in’t it ...?
Say summat, Margaret (whispered)
You an’t said owt yet (whispered)
I’ve said ‘Yeah’, ‘Yeah’ (whispered)
Do you think Ron’s any good?
Do you think Ron’s what? (said aggressively)
He dun’t give, he dun’t give good answers.
No, he just said that he wanted to be ‘somebody’. He could have been somebody if he worked hard couldn’t he, instead of ...
(interrupting) Yeah, but not like that.
Instead of, he always wanted to make people be frightened of him.
Source: Barnes and Todd, 1995, pp.52-3

The discussion in Sequence 1 does not seem to make much progress, nor to show much commitment on the part of the participants. This is despite the fact that the topic of vandalism is one on which most teenagers could be expected to have some opinion. While Robert is clearly on task, the two other members of the group who contribute, Margaret and Christine, seem more concerned with disputing their partners’ claims than with developing the group’s understanding of vandalism. The talk has some of the characteristics which are associated with ‘disputational’ talk.

As a process for sharing ideas, evaluating them and reaching some joint conclusion, the discussion does not seem to be functioning well. The participants do not make similar levels of contribution to the discussion. Robert tries to get the discussion going, but the girls seem self-conscious (perhaps not enjoying being recorded) and uncooperative in the face of his efforts. The fourth member of the group does not join in at all. Robert’s contributions therefore make up most of the talk, but this seems due to the reluctance of his partners rather than any social dominance on his part. As a result, the only ideas which are put into the public domain are his, and little in the way of collective thinking is apparent. Of course, this is only part of a longer discussion. If we were the researchers involved, we would no doubt wish to look at a much longer sample of talk before making an evaluation.

(Note: these comments are based partly on those of Barnes and Todd, 1995, the researchers who recorded this discussion.)

Sequence 2

In this sequence the two twelve-year-old girls who speak are members of a group who have been asked to talk together to choose a suitable set of objects for storing in a ‘time capsule’.

Pupil A
We’ve got to start selecting which ones we want now, so let’s have yours.
Pupil B
A Mars bar definitely... clothes... this is the sixth one now that we’re going to have.
Pupil A
Right, six... now we’ll all keep the same so we send them clothes... number one.
Pupil B
I’m only going to send them some chocolate, cos they know...
Pupil A
Pupil B
They might not have things like that.
Pupil A
Yeah, all right then... number two.
Pupil B
Number two... chocolate.
Pupil A
Right, just a minute.
Pupil B
Photos is a good idea.
Pupil A
Yeah, cos then they know what you look like.
Pupil B
Pupil A
Right, let’s have a look at yours.
Source: Phillips, 1992, p.153

The talk in this discussion is ‘on task’, and the discussion seems to function quite well as a means for sharing relevant ideas. Both children contribute about equally to the discussion. However, there is no critical consideration of the suitability of anyone’s proposals. The process is not really one of collective reasoning but rather simply one of accumulating items from individuals to make up a list. The talk is ‘cumulative’ rather than ‘exploratory’.

The educational researcher who recorded this discussion made the following comments about it:

The pupils’ reason for doing the task was, in their own words, ‘because we were asked to discuss it’. It had no obvious purpose beyond complying with that instruction to ‘discuss’ and, consequently, nothing much was at stake. They were prepared to leave explanations of their choices implicit because they saw the activity as one requiring nothing more than the completion of an apparently arbitrary list. Indeed, why justify the choice of items to put in a time capsule, when more rapid completion of the list can be achieved by a kind of ‘bartering’ – one of mine for one of yours? And why bother to ask for a ‘better’ reason in response to a ‘poor’ one when in the end the case being put is of no real significance to you?

It is significant that the teacher who set the task intended the group of pupils to persuade each other ‘properly’ of the value of the particular items they suggested for inclusion. She hoped individuals would give well reasoned justifications for their proposals, and wanted the group to explore the validity of those justifications. She was disappointed in the quality of the discussion.

Phillips, 1992, p.153

1.8 A sociocultural perspective on talk in the teaching of second or other languages

In the introduction to this section, language was described as both the ‘medium’ and the ‘message’ of education. Nowhere is this more apparent than when students are learning a second, foreign or other language. It is only relatively recently that the sociocultural perspective has been applied to research on language teaching, but it has now begun to be a significant influence. One of the contributors to this development is James Lantolf (e.g., Lantolf, 2000). He has suggested that one reason that the sociocultural paradigm has only made a late impact on this field is because hitherto it had been dominated by research in ‘the natural science tradition, a tradition that values predictive explanation and controlled, heavily quantitative research’ (Lantolf and Appel, 1994, p. 27). In contrast to this tradition, which relied heavily on the methods and concepts of laboratory-based experimental psychology, Lantolf, Appel and others such as Donato (2000) have used a sociocultural approach to pioneer research which is more qualitative and which examines the processes of language teaching and learning in its social context. They have also suggested that this approach is more amenable to the participation of language teachers in researching their own practice.

Some researchers use the term ‘scaffolding’ to describe the ways that learners help each other to accomplish difficult parts of the task. One interpretation of the concept, as applied to interaction amongst peers, is to refer to the way that an expert enables a learner or novice to accomplish a task by reducing its complexity. However, the notion of learners scaffolding each other’s learning at points where one has more knowledge or expertise than the other could be seen as a legitimate extension of this idea.

These studies are very useful for illustrating how a sociocultural approach can be used for analysing talk and social interaction in language learning situations. In particular, they are able to show how joint activity can lead to useful learning (even if some misunderstandings are also shared!), and how the ways learners carry out tasks are bound to be dependent on their interpretations of what is expected of them (rather than simply on the task demands as formally or objectively described, or as implicitly understood by a teacher). That conclusion echoes the findings of research in ‘mother tongue’ educational settings, as described in the rest of this section.

1.9 Summary

In this section we have focused on sociocultural theory and in particular the notion of discourse and the application of a sociocultural perspective to the analysis of classroom talk. Some concepts from sociocultural theory have been introduced. The main ones are: scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). We have also introduced some concepts used in the analysis of classroom discourse. These included IRF, educational ground rules, exploratory, disputational and cumulative talk and (in the context of second language learning) private speech.

One of the key features of a sociocultural perspective is that language is identified as figuring in two ways. First, language is seen as the principal medium for the process of teaching and learning. Second, language is the goal or ‘message’. Following Vygotsky, sociocultural researchers describe language as a cultural tool and a psychological tool, and argue that it is through the acquisition of ways of using language that some of the most profound changes in ways of thinking take place. In all subjects, not only in learning languages, the development of knowledge and understanding involves the acquisition of certain ‘ways with words’. Curriculum subjects each have their own specialised discourses, and becoming knowledgeable in a subject means becoming fluent in the relevant discourses. Becoming fluent will not simply be a matter of learning specific technical terms and concepts, but also of learning to use language to reason – both collectively and individually – in ways that are associated with the practices of the relevant academic communities.

1.10 Reflection activity 1


Drawing from your study of this section:

You might like to write down your thoughts in the form of an essay, aiming for about 2000 words (excluding appendices and references).


This activity gives you the opportunity to engage with key ideas in this section and, in particular, the sociocultural approach and discourse features and strategies such as IRF sequences, scaffolding and exploratory talk. Your main source of information will be section 1 of this unit. Having followed the guidance and activites in this unit you will also find much related discussion and information in Hicks’s reading.

The activity should also allow you to explore the sociocultural perspective, which, building on Vygotsky’s work, informs this section. The notion of ‘discourse’ and the social nature of talking, thinking and learning are key ideas here. In applying your understanding and insights to an educational context you may draw on your own experience or practice from within either a formal context, such as a mainstream classroom, or an informal context, such as an interaction between a parent and child.

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2 Literacy and learning

‘Literacy’, in its most basic sense, refers to communication which involves the use of written language. We would probably all agree that ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ are recognisable literacy activities. However, you will see during your study of this section that perspectives on what is meant by ‘literacy’ and what it means to be ‘literate’ vary, not least according to the particular academic tradition researchers are drawing on. Later in the unit (in section 4), we will consider conceptions of literacy that involve the use of non-linguistic representations (such as pictures or symbols other than writing) and multimodal communications in which different modes of language (written and spoken) and non-linguistic representations may be combined.

Studies of literacy have been carried out within various academic disciplines – notably psychology, applied linguistics, anthropology, sociolinguistics and education. Not surprisingly, studies from such a range of academic disciplines have focused on different aspects and given rise to rather different conceptions of literacy. Most obviously, literacy studies are characterised by:

  • a focus on the individual’s perceptual and cognitive functioning (within psychology)
  • a focus on the analysis of written texts and the use of such analyses for the teaching of reading and writing (within applied linguistics)
  • an interest in observing and documenting literacy activities in everyday life, emphasising the social contexts of literacy (within anthropology and, increasingly, sociolinguistics)
  • an interest in researching ways in which children and adults learn to read and write (within education).

In this section we will explore some of the different ways in which literacy has been defined and researched within different traditions, but we will focus in particular on approaches that adopt a social perspective on literacy. We begin by outlining two major perspectives on the nature of literacy which have been influential across much literacy research: literacy as cognitive skill and literacy as social practice. The former has been mainly associated with cognitive psychology and has informed research on reading development and children’s understandings about language (their ‘metalinguistic awareness’). The latter has emerged from anthropological and sociolinguistic research on how written language is used in social life, and has increased awareness of the diversity of literacy experience and what it means to ‘be literate’ in any society. Both have influenced educational practice.

2.1 Perspective 1: Literacy as cognitive skill

Much research on literacy has focused on reading; the ways that individuals make sense of written language. This is probably the oldest tradition of literacy research, within which psychologists have been particularly active. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, a common interest in such research was in explaining the strategies by which readers ‘decoded’ texts. In the 1930s, for example, there were many studies of the eye movements of readers as they scanned the page (sometimes carried out using ingenious apparatus which recorded light reflected from the reader’s eyes). While some of that research was motivated simply by interest in the psychological and perceptual processes involved, it also informed approaches to the teaching of reading (Giordano, 2000). Within this line of research, literacy was treated as an individual skill, dependent on a reader’s intellectual and perceptual capacities. Research based on such a perspective continues today, though not now narrowly focused on eye movements. It includes, for example, the study of the sense-making strategies readers use to comprehend text, and how children learn to use alphabetic and other scripts (see Harris and Hatano, 1999). It has underpinned investigations of dyslexia and other specific language processing difficulties, and has also influenced the design of ‘remedial’ reading programmes, including computer-based methods for teaching reading.

Associated with this cognitive perspective on literacy has been a theoretical position which argues that ‘becoming literate’ has specific and profound effects on ways of thinking, both for societies and for individuals. You will find this position explained in the next reading.

Reading 2 Literate mentalities: Literacy, consciousness of language, and modes of thought

Timing: Allow about 1 hour 30 minutes

Now read ‘Literate mentalities: literacy, consciousness of language, and modes of thought’ by David Olson. As you read, pay special attention to the following topics:

  • the distinction between oral and written modes of language
  • how the acquisition of literacy is claimed to be related to the development of knowledge of ‘actual linguistic meanings’ and metalinguistic awareness
  • the implications that Olson sees literacy development having for the development of reasoning. How does this seem to relate to the claims discussed in section 1 about language use and the development of reasoning?

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2.1.1 Oral and literate modes

In the study of language development and education, there has often been an assumption that the process of becoming literate in a mother tongue is essentially different from, and distinct from, the process of learning to speak it. In some ways, this is self-evidently true. All children, except those with specific sensory or cognitive disabilities, will learn to speak without apparently having any tuition. In contrast, many people do not become proficient writers and readers. The two kinds of language use also clearly involve different perceptual skills. There is in addition the matter of the different ages at which speech and literacy normally develop.

Until quite recently, as Olson implies, it was also commonly asserted by researchers that the two modes of speech and writing were different in their nature. Speech is usually spontaneous and its sound fades rapidly, while writing is commonly planned and may be drafted; and as a product it may persist for centuries, and can be read and re-read many times. It was also argued that the two modes are commonly associated with different kinds of communicative function. For these various reasons, it was concluded that the different modes necessarily require the use of rather different compositional and comprehension skills.

Again, there is certainly some truth in these claims. But in recent times the general validity of this bi-modal view of speech and writing as very distinct language modes has been questioned. Olson briefly mentions some reasons why this is so, and others can be found. For example, some kinds of oral performance can be ‘drafted’ and practised, as in for instance traditions of storytelling and in political speeches. Speech can also be recorded, so it need not fade rapidly, and can be replayed for multiple hearings. Moreover, with the advent of information technology new ways of using language are emerging which make it difficult to continue to argue that the two modes are completely distinct in nature, or in the skills they require for their use. Consider, for example, the use of email, conferencing and other similar kinds of computer-based communication. All involve ‘writing’, yet in their spontaneity and interactivity they often share more characteristics with spoken conversation than with formal letter writing. We will be looking at those kinds of language use, and at multimodal communication, in section 4.

2.1.2 Literacy and ways of reasoning

One of Olson’s aims in rejecting the firm distinction between the two modes, spoken and written, is to argue that once literacy is part of a cultural tradition, uses of spoken language within that tradition involve what he refers to as ‘a literate form of thinking’ (see his article for more). Literacy gives rise to a particular way of thinking, ‘scientific’ thinking, which is not then bound to the written mode. A key aspect of this scientific thinking is ‘how language, in particular meaning, is conceptualised’. Briefly, Olson argues that becoming literate facilitates an explicit reflection on reasoning and the role of language in reasoning.

Olson’s argument for the influence of literacy acquisition on the development of thinking includes a discussion about how the kind of dialogue he calls ‘exploratory talk’ may be ‘internalised’ as an individual way of reasoning. In both cases it is being argued that children’s involvement with ways of using language can lead to the adoption of reasoned procedures for analysing and solving problems. There is an important difference, however. The argument made by some sociocultural researchers is that it is through involvement in certain types of dialogue (which will mainly be spoken interactions) that children become aware of how language can be used to ‘model’ problems and solve them. Olson, on the other hand, is arguing that it is through becoming aware of the nature of language as an object – something which can be observed and scrutinised – that reasoning is developed. We might therefore call the first a ‘dialogic’ theory of the development of reasoning (as it depends on involvement in joint reasoning activity), while the second is a ‘monologic’ argument (in that it depends on individual acquisition of literacy skills).

Whilst arguing that the historical development of literacy influences ways of thinking, Olson does not seem to be making a claim for any universal effects of literacy. In the first section of the reading, Olson refers to cross-cultural research on literacy by Scribner and Cole which is generally taken to challenge the hypothesis that becoming literate in itself has specific cognitive effects. Scribner and Cole carried out extensive research with a community in Liberia and their uses of three literacies: Vai, English and Arabic (Scribner and Cole, 1981). Olson seems to accept Scribner and Cole’s finding that different literacies involve different kinds of thinking and reasoning and therefore that there can be no universal claim about the impact of ‘literacy’ on cognition.

But Olson draws on their work to reach a different conclusion: that only some literacies can facilitate ‘scientific thinking’. More specifically, Olson seems to be arguing that only English-medium literacy, or certainly ‘Western Literacy’, facilitates this thinking. While the view that it is important to talk of ‘literacies’ rather than a single ‘literacy’ has become important in literacy research, and is discussed in the next part of this section, the idea that certain types of reasoning are made possible only by particular kinds of literacy, is highly controversial.

2.2 Perspective 2: Literacy as social practice

Clear criticism of any universal definition of literacy and any specific cognitive effects comes from a number of writers and researchers, often currently referred to as working within ‘New Literacy Studies’. Such writers, of whom one of the most notable is the anthropologist Brian Street, argue that it is not literacy as such that develops a particular way of reasoning, but that the ways in which people use written (and spoken) language in their everyday lives involves specific ways of thinking (Street, 1984, 1995). Furthermore, writers within this tradition argue for the need to theorise the social significance of diverse literacy practices and, as is discussed below, they draw on work by critical social theorists to do so.

A ‘social perspective’ on literacy does not focus on individual acquisition or use of skills, but rather on the ways people use written language in their everyday lives. Literacy from this perspective is viewed as a ‘social practice’. The following quote from Barton and Hamilton offers a summary of what it means to consider literacy as a social practice. You can see at a glance that literacy within this perspective is conceptualised primarily as a social activity with specific social goals and outcomes.

  • Literacy is best understood as a set of social practices; these can be inferred from 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 relationships, and some literacies are more dominant, visible and influential than others.
  • Literacy practices are purposeful and embedded in broader social goals and cultural practices.
  • Literacy is historically situated.
  • Literacy practices change and new ones are frequently acquired through processes of informal learning and sense making.
Barton and Hamilton, 1998, p.8

Researchers working within this approach have tended to challenge the cognitive perspective outlined in the previous section. In the 1990s the debate about the relative merits of each perspective as a basis for educational practice became an issue in the UK news media. You can gain some understanding of the nature of this debate, as well as the essential features of the ‘literacy as social practice’ approach, from the next reading.

Reading 3 The implications of the “New Literacy Studies” for literacy education

Timing: Allow about 1 hour 30 minutes

Now read ‘The implications of the ‘‘New Literacy Studies’’ for literacy education’ by Brian Street. As you do so, pay special attention to the following issues:

  • Street’s characterisation of the literacy debate in the UK
  • the significance of the phrase ‘literacy as a social practice’ in his account
  • the different ways in which the phrase ‘literacy practice’ is used
  • his discussion of ‘dialogic language’
  • his view of the implications of a New Literacy Studies approach for educational practice.

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2.2.1 Autonomous and ideological models of literacy

Street begins his paper by describing the way in which debates about the teaching of literacy have been represented in the media around a series of either/ or choices about teaching methods: for example, phonics versus whole language, code-based versus meaning-based reading. Street argues that there is a need to move beyond this level of debate to explore the theoretical bases on which such choices are argued. A principal contribution Street has made to making visible the often implicit theoretical basis of much debate on literacy is his distinction between ‘autonomous’ and ‘ideological’ models of literacy which he refers to in this chapter. A clear definition of the difference between autonomous and ideological is as follows:

The ‘autonomous’ model of literacy works from the assumption that literacy in itself – autonomously – will have effects on other social and cognitive practices. The model, however, disguises the cultural and ideological assumptions that underpin it and that can then be presented as though they are neutral and universal ... The alternative, ideological model of literacy ... offers a more culturally sensitive view of literacy practices as they vary from one context to another. This model starts from different premises than the autonomous model – it posits instead that literacy is a social practice, not simply a technical and neutral skill ... It is about knowledge: the ways in which people address reading and writing are themselves rooted in conceptions of knowledge, identity, being. Literacy, in this sense, is always contested.

Street, 2000, pp.7-8

It might seem that disagreements amongst academics about different theoretical models of ‘literacy’ are of little relevance to educational practice. But Street argues that there is a need for teachers and policy makers to be aware of the theoretical models of literacy which are implicitly influencing educational policy and practice. Moreover, while, as Street says, there is no necessary one-to-one relationship between a specific theory of literacy and a specific teaching method, he argues that many approaches to literacy in formal institutions of education seem to more closely reflect an autonomous model. For example, the ‘autonomous’ approach has been associated with a skills-based approach to literacy and a more narrow transmissional approach to education, at both school and higher education levels (see Willinsky, 1994, and Sealey, 1999, for the former, and Lea and Street, 1998,and Lillis, 2001, for the latter).

The debate about the relative virtues of approaches to the teaching of reading based on either phonics training or on children’s and adults’ immersion in the meaningful use of print has run now for many years. Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the teaching of reading (certainly in Western countries and their sponsored campaigns elsewhere), commonly focused heavily on the explicit coaching of skills in sound-letter relationships. Underlying this kind of educational practice has often been the assumption that the out-of-school lives of many children will not provide much literacy experience, and that the focus of any instruction should be on the development of ‘schooled’ types of literacy, such as the writing of essays, scientific reports, etc. Educational researchers have long questioned the assumption that literacy is best taught through programmes which focus on particular skills in ‘decoding’ texts, rather than encouraging learners to become involved in using written language to make and discover meanings. The American educationalists Goodman and Goodman, for example, some time ago wrote:

We believe that children learn to read and write in the same way and for the same reason that they learn to speak and to listen. That way is to encounter language in use as a vehicle of communicating meaning.

Goodman and Goodman, 1979, p. 138

Whatever the approach advocated for teaching reading and writing, educators and researchers from all perspectives stress the right of all individuals to learn to read and write. We return to questions about literacy pedagogy below.

2.2.2 Literacy and cultural capital

Where there is significant debate, however, centres on the presumed benefits accrued to individuals because of their literacy skills. This debate is illustrated by Vicki Carrington and Allan Luke (1997), who argue that, contrary to the claims made by many literacy campaigns, strategies and policy statements, literacy of itself does not guarantee social, educational or social success.

Carrington and Luke suggest that ‘Literacy has become one of the enduring myths of the Western world’ linked, as they see it, to some popular ideas or ‘folk theories’ about the value of literacy development for the economic and personal advancement of individuals and societies. Rejecting those ideas, they instead propose the adoption of ‘broader social understandings of literacy’ of the kind developed by the New Literacy Studies. The essence of their argument is that literate abilities do not bring to an individual any intrinsic social or cognitive advantages. Instead, they propose that it is only when literacy is accompanied by gains in other kinds of ‘cultural capital’, such as involvement with ‘educated’ ways of thinking, and economic opportunities for self advancement, that ‘becoming literate’ is the key to personal and social progress. Their argument that having literacy skills does not guarantee access and success in society indicates the powerful way in which the two levels of discourse, discussed in section 1.2, are interrelated; that is, that particular instances of language use are bound up with particular ways of representing and being (habitus) in the world.

That ways of using language or doing particular kinds of literacy are intimately bound up with ways of being in the world can be exemplified by the accounts of so-called ‘non-traditional’ students in higher education as they engage in academic writing, described by Lillis (2001). By ‘non-traditional’, Lillis means students from social groups who have historically been excluded from higher education (Lillis, 2001, p. 1).

Consider what one student, Mary, says about the struggles she faces in using particular words in her academic essay writing at university. Here, Mary is talking about how she feels about using certain words. She is explaining why she would not use the word ‘prerequisite’:

A sort of stereotype I would have would be people who would use words like that are real academics and people sit down and talk about ‘prerequisite’ [speaking in an exaggerated RP, ‘posh’, accent: laughs] over coffee and tea [laughs]. And I just don’t experience those kinds of things so why should I ... I could be left out from my own community, why am I talking like that for?
And you don’t want to be part of that community?
No, ’cause I don’t fit in ’cause I’m Black. How can I fit in there? No way, no matter how qualified, how much qualifications, they’ll still see me as Black and that’s it. And I don’t relate to those people anyway, no, no.

Mary says she feels like that about a lot of words. She has particular concerns about how others around her who have not studied after leaving school will see her:

They’ll see me differently and I don’t want them to, at all. At all. [laughs] – Oh they’ll probably say something like erm, what’s she using that word to me for? They probably do know what it means but they think there’s no need for that. It’s unnecessary. It’s like putting on airs and graces in a way.

She also has concerns about how she will feel about herself writing in academia:

I mean, if I write like that, if I use certain words that are just unnecessary, I’m just going to feel out of it.
Out of what? [they laugh]
Sort of like I’m not me, you know? It’s too much of a big stride.
Lillis, 2001, p. 95

Mary’s comments illustrate that engaging in a high status literacy practice, academic writing in higher education, is not straightforward: it is not just a question of learning new ways with words but rather learning and taking on new ways of being. This theme of identity and discourse is explored more fully in section 3.

The dilemma surrounding Mary’s use of particular types of language raises the question about what kind of language, and literacy, should be valued in formal education and why. Writing at university, for example, typically involves a formal and impersonal kind of language as well as a distant relationship between writer and reader. Questions about the nature of academic writing and reading in higher education and students’ experiences of these have been taken up in recent times by researchers working in an area of New Literacy Studies referred to as ‘academic literacy/ies’.

Much work in New Literacy Studies is critical of the emphasis on school literacy only – that is, the kinds of literacy that are required in institutions of formal education – and argue that there is a need for greater recognition of everyday literacy practices in which children and adults engage. Some of the more informal language and literacy practices, for example, children’s talk outside of lessons and children and adults’ growing use of information technology, are discussed in sections 3 and 4.

2.2.3 Literacy or literacies?

At the beginning of this section we emphasised two distinct perspectives on literacy, the cognitive and the social, and we then turned to explore in more detail what is involved in a social practices approach to literacy. There are of course ongoing debates both across and within the two main perspectives outlined. For example, within social perspectives on literacy a key question has been as follows: how useful is the notion of ‘literacies’ rather than ‘literacy’?

Street uses the term ‘literacies’ to indicate that literacies vary according, not least, to different contexts, purposes and social relationships. This definition is echoed by Barton and Hamilton who state:

Literacies are coherent configurations of literacy practices: often these sets of practices are identifiable and named, as in ‘academic literacy’ or ‘workplace literacy’ and they are associated with particular aspects of cultural life.

Barton and Hamilton, 2000, pp. 10–11

In his reading, Street describes some disagreement between himself and the linguist Gunther Kress about the value of the concept of ‘multiple literacies’ (although both researchers have been associated with the development of the New Literacy Studies). Kress argues that there is no need to make literacy plural because ‘it is a normal and fundamental characteristic of language and literacy to be constantly remade in relation to the needs of the moment’ (Kress, 1997, p. 115, quoted in Street’s article). In other words, plurality or multiplicity is a fundamental feature of language and therefore it is superfluous or even misleading to talk of ‘literacies’. Street agrees with Kress’s theory of language and literacy, but argues that for strategic reasons it is important to stress plurality: in order to challenge the view that there is only one kind of literacy which is both uniform in nature and in terms of outcomes. As you read this guide and the accompanying PDFs, you will notice that in fact researchers use both the singular and plural form of literacy/ies according to the kind of distinction they wish to emphasise. Thus, as you will have noticed, academic literacy/ies has been used in this section in both the singular and plural. Why? ‘Academic literacy’ is often used to indicate a particular kind of writing at university level, as compared with, for example, workplace literacy; at other times the term is used in the plural ‘academic literacies’ to indicate the range of literacy practices that exist across discipline areas within higher education.

Catherine Wallace’s (2002) definition of ‘literate English’ echoes Olson’s notion of ‘literate thinking’: both writers emphasise the benefits that literacy brings to individuals’ capacity for reasoning, a key aspect of which is ‘metalinguistic awareness’ (Olson, 1996) or ‘learning more about language itself’ (Wallace, 2002). This involves participants making the reasoning behind talk and writing explicit in the talk and writing.

Wallace and Olson are arguing that this particular kind of literacy – one which emphasises explicit reasoning – is what should be taught in formal educational contexts. Wallace draws on Bernstein to explain some specific aspects of this literacy: this particular kind of literacy is part of a ‘vertical rather than a horizontal discourse’. Horizontal literacies are embedded in local contexts and serve the needs of local contexts. In contrast, vertical literacies have to be taught in formal education and have a different purpose – Wallace argues that a vertical discourse has ‘universal applicability and resonance’. In the specific context of EFL teaching and learning literate English is therefore a powerful resource for all users and should be taught.

Where Wallace differs from Olson is in her emphasis on the need for ‘critical literacy’ alongside this ‘literate English’. Her discussion of critical literacy is informed by the work of Paulo Freire, who conceptualises literacy not just as reading the word but as ‘reading the world’ (Freire, 1970). Thus while Wallace accepts that students need to be taught ‘literate English’, she is also clear that students should be encouraged to engage in critical analysis too. In order to engage in both aspects, Wallace argues that written texts should be treated not only as linguistic objects but also as cultural objects. The first is common in EFL classrooms, where a range of analyses are carried out with students on written and spoken texts. The second aspect; that of treating texts as cultural objects, is less commonly the focus of teaching. Treating texts as cultural objects involves looking at the values and belief systems they embody.

2.2.4 Literacy, diversity and access

A key interest in much literacy research has been the significance of social diversity for the teaching and learning of ‘schooled literacy practices’.

Considerable research now exists which demonstrates the very different literacy practices experienced by both children and adults in different social communities. For example, a well-established line of American studies is mentioned by both Hicks and Street, within which the anthropological research of Shirley Brice Heath (1983) was particularly influential.

Heath observed the interactions between children and adults in three urban communities in the Piedmont Carolina region of the USA: a Black working class community, a white working class community, and a middle class (mainly white) community (she called these Trackton, Roadville and Maintown). She found that there were significant differences between different communities, and especially in the ways in which speech and writing were used in interpersonal interactions in the family and in other social events of each community. Many literacy activities in the Roadville community were religious in nature, focusing on written scriptures; Maintown practices included regular bedtime stories and an emphasis on talking explicitly about texts; Trackton community members focused less on written texts but were skilled in oral storytelling. There were greater differences between the ways that literacy was enacted in the working class communities and in school than between school practices and those of the middle class, Maintown, community.

The fact that there are variations in the literacy practices of communities within societies (and between societies) is not a matter for dispute amongst researchers. Neither is the claim that the practices of different communities vary in the extent to which they resemble, or are compatible with, the practices of ‘schooled’ literacy. There is also a fairly widespread acceptance that education must do more to enable the literacy development of learners from all social backgrounds.

Where differences of view are found is in the implications of such diversity for teaching in formal education. Perhaps at the heart of debates about the teaching of literacy are the following questions: what kinds of literacy should be taught in schools, colleges and universities? what can and should be taught explicitly? what can/should be taught implicitly, that is as part of engaging in particular literacy activities and practices?

The view reflected by Olson is that a particular kind of language and literacy should be taught which will enhance individual’s reasoning capacities. Exactly what the features of such language and literacy are is not always clear, but a key focus is on explicit reasoning, as outlined in section 2.1 in relation to spoken language and in this section in relation to written language. This is seen as a key aspect of ‘educated discourse’ and should therefore be taught explicitly to students.

A slightly different, although not incompatible, approach to the explicit teaching of the language and literacy demands of formal schooling has developed from the work of M. A. K. Halliday and systemic functional linguistics (Halliday, 1978, 1989). This approach has been particularly influential in the Australian education context (Halliday and Martin, 1993; Coffin, 1996; Painter, 2001) and has been influential in many parts of the world. An important position adopted by those working within a systemic functional linguistics approach is that students should be taught the specific features of different kinds of texts explicitly.

Whilst supportive of the need to teach students the language and literacy demands of schooling, writers such as Street argue that sole emphasis on one kind of language and literacy will negate the value of other ‘ways with words’. Many writers within New Literacy Studies argue that greater emphasis should be placed on taking account of the variety of literacy practices that exist in homes and communities, and that these should be valued rather than ignored. This argument is being voiced even more loudly within the context of the changing communicative practices facilitated by the use of new technology. As is discussed in section 4, researchers are arguing that the ‘new’ literacy practices in which many children and adults are engaging in everyday life must be considered as potential resources for meaning-making in formal educational contexts, such as schools and colleges.

2.3 Drawing on research to offer an integrated approach to literacy pedagogy

Increasingly, researchers are seeking to offer an approach to pedagogy which draws on understandings that have emerged from the broad range of literacy research. A key interest is to develop an approach which enables both student induction into, and critical awareness of, the literacy practices associated with formal education. This position is illustrated in the context of secondary schooling in the work of David Wray (2001) which is summarised in Table 1.

Activity 3 A map of literacy requirements

Timing: Allow about 2 hours

Look at the framework in Table 1 constructed by David Wray drawing on the work of Freebody and Luke (1990). The table reflects an attempt to outline the ways in which the literacy requirements of several school subject areas can be taught (see, e.g., ‘code-breaking’, ‘meaning-making’ and ‘text-using’) while also teaching critical analysis of texts (see ‘text-analysing’).

As you look at Wray’s framework, consider the following:

  1. To what extent do you think Wray’s mapping of literacy requirements of three areas of the school curriculum alongside critical analysis is successful?
  2. If you have relevant experience of teaching English or the other subjects mentioned, try to match each example with an activity you have actually carried out with a class. Does this give you any insights into your own views of the nature of literacy development, or how it may best be encouraged?
  3. If you are familiar with any literacy programme – for example the UK National Literacy Strategy which Wray mentions in the table – consider the ways in which Wray’s framework reflects the programme’s stated goals.
Table 1 Literacy requirements in English, mathematics and science
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

We return to the question of ‘critical literacy’ in section 3. For the moment we wish simply to emphasise that many teachers and researchers are aiming to find a way of teaching the established conventions of language and literacy required by formal schooling, whilst allowing a space for critiquing them. In addition, researchers and teachers are seeking ways in which to combine what have often been construed as distinct teaching methods: for example developing the ‘whole language’ approach advocated by Goodman and Goodman (1979), where immersion in real communication activities is emphasised, alongside the explicit focusing on features of language.

The New London Group of researchers (so-called because the ideas generated by the group emerged after a week-long meeting in the town of New London, New Hampshire, USA), also sometimes referred to as The Multiliteracies Project, have emphasised four elements which they consider to be essential for a meaningful literacy programme for the future. In many ways, these elements amount to a framework for teaching literacy which integrates pedagogical approaches which have previously been construed as distinct. These elements are outlined in Table 2.

Table 2 A theory of literacy pedagogy
Situated Practice Students being immersed in a range of literacy practices
Overt Instruction Students being taught explicit and systematic ways of analysing texts
Critical Framing Examining critically the texts they are reading / writing / designing
Transformed Practice Development of new ways of meaning or ‘designs’
Based on New London Group, 2000, p.35

As the headings indicate, this approach involves students learning how to ‘do’ particular ways with language and literacy, learning how to identify the particular features which constitute these ways of doing, and, finally, learning how to engage in a critique of language and literacy in order to construct or ‘design’ new ways of meaning. The notion of ‘design’ is central to the work of the New London Group, and will be discussed in section 4.

2.4 The discourses of literacy

In this section we have focused on key debates surrounding the theorisation and teaching of literacy. In many ways, this section can be said to have represented different discourses of literacy: that is, ways of talking and thinking about literacy in society. Most obviously we have focused on academic discourses about literacy, but clearly many discourses of literacy exist. The range of discourses is illustrated in Table 3.

Activity 4 Discourses of literacy

Timing: Allow about 1 hour

In relation to Table 3, consider:

  1. Does this kind of diversity of discourses about literacy match your own experience? If not, how does it differ? Which other discourse on literacy do you think contributes to your conception of literacy?
  2. Are there any ways that you consider the distinctions made in Table 3 need to be treated with caution, modified, or elaborated?
  3. What would you want to gather, in the ways of evidence, to validate or elaborate the existence of the discourses in the table?
  4. In what ways, if any, do you think your discourses on literacy may have shifted by studying this unit?
Table 3 Discourses on literacy in the UK
Popular mass discourse Discourse of policy and management Discourse of practice Academic discourse
Example Example Example Example
Newspaper headlines: Director of Education of an English borough: Primary teachers: University researchers:
‘Schools fail to teach basics of reading’ (Daily Telegraph, 23.04.1991) ‘Management for change is what we call it. I want to ensure a successful implementation of the National Literacy Strategy in [this city]’ ‘Children come to school with no language and parents show no interest…’ ‘Recent work in literacy studies suggests that literacy and the literate person and social constructions…’ (Carrington and Luke, 1997)
‘Study shows half of adults illiterate’ (The Guardian, 21.01.1997, cited by Hamilton, 2000) ‘The NLS (National Literacy Strategy) is squeezing science out…’
Carrington and Luke, 1997

You may have decided that the distinctions between the types of discourse in Table 3 are too simplistic. For example, as we have seen, there is far more than one academic discourse on literacy. The differences between discourses are evident in the particular technical terminology used: we have seen how New Literacy Studies, for example, uses common words with specific meanings (‘practices’) and neologisms (‘literacies’).

There are also different discourses within mass media discourse, for example between broadsheet and tabloid newspapers; and specialised ‘educational supplements’. Nevertheless, the table gives an indication of the variety of discourses available on literacy and some of the key positions adopted. A typical stand in media discourse, for example, is the emphasis on literacy as a problem (Hamilton, 2000), often equated with some kind of disease: for example, ‘the scourge of illiteracy’. This medical metaphor can also be found in educational and academic discourses; the term ‘diagnostic essay’ is used in many institutions of higher education to refer to an essay that students are asked to write so that tutors can assess their skills in essay writing. Discourses are not hermetically sealed units and metaphors of one discourse on literacy (e.g. popular newspapers) are often drawn on or invoked in another (e.g. academic discussion).

The identification of different discourses on literacy has some interesting implications for researchers of language in education. As a research topic in itself, it can lead to a consideration of the ways that the concerns and goals of certain groups in society are embodied in the ways that topics are discussed and arguments are made (Fairclough, 1992; Edwards, 1997). And on a practical level it means that in investigating topics and disseminating the findings of research, we should not too easily assume a shared understanding of what literacy is amongst those who have an interest in it. The nature of discourses and the ways in which these can be investigated and analysed is taken up in more detail in section 3.

2.5 Research focus

Researching literacy is necessarily a complex activity, depending not least on how you define literacy and the particular aspects you wish to explore.

What does it mean to ‘observe’? Observation is a key aspect of much research activity including ethnography, but ‘observation’ is not a straightforward activity: for example, what exactly do we observe? We don’t ‘see’ everything in any one context. How do we decide what is important or relevant? What language do we use to describe what we observe? Furthermore, in carrying out any empirical research, researchers are not simply interested in listing countless details of what they ‘see’, but rather constantly seek to impose an order on such detail through a process of categorisation. How this process of description and categorisation happens is rarely explicitly discussed in accounts of research. Bernstein’s work on different levels of description is useful here. Bernstein (1996) argues that researchers first have to learn the language of the participants in order to ‘grasp how members construct their texts or manage their contexts’. But if researchers only stay at this level of description, all they can do is repeat what they have learned from participants. In order to move beyond this level and towards explaining and accounting for participants’ activities, Bernstein argues that the researcher’s language of description has to act as ‘a translation for, rather than a simple reduplication of the language of the researched’.

2.6 Summary

This section began with a consideration of two different perspectives on literacy: literacy as cognitive skill or autonomous and literacy as social practice or ideological. Using the PDF articles written by Olson, Street, and Carrington and Luke, we discussed how these two perspectives informed conceptions of the nature and significance of becoming literate, and approaches to literacy education. We then focused in more detail on work emerging from New Literacy Studies, what it means to talk of literacy as a social practice and the cultural capital of literacy. We considered the usefulness or otherwise of the term literacies.

The next readings, by Wallace and by Gregory and Williams, formed the basis for a consideration of the implications of different perspectives on literacy for teaching English as a global language, and for the education of children from diverse social backgrounds in mainstream schools. Wallace argued for the need to teach ‘literate English’ alongside critical literacy. The possibility of a basis for educational practice which attempts to teach the literacy demands of formal institutions of education alongside critical literacy was then considered, looking at the work of Wray in the secondary level classroom and the more general literacy programme outlined by the New London Group project.

We then examined the ways in which literacy is represented in various current discourses, and the implications these might have for researchers. We concluded this section with a focus on ways of researching and analysing written texts and literacy practices and in considering what it means to observe literacy events.

2.7 Reflection activity 2

Reflection activity 2: Literacy

Discuss the implications of an approach to ‘literacy as social practice’ for teaching and learning within either a formal or informal context with which you are familiar.

You might like to write down your thoughts in the form of an essay, aiming for about 2000 words (excluding appendices and references).


Section 2 of this unit will provide you with a useful overview as you plan this assignment.

As with Reflection Activity 1, explore and engage with key ideas and themes: the comparison between a ‘social’ and ‘cognitive’ approach to literacy, Street’s discussion of ‘autonomous’ and ‘ideological’ models, and the notion, from Carrington and Luke, of ‘literacy as cultural capital’.

There is no feedback for this activity.

3 Discourse and identity

In this section we shall be looking at ways in which the use of language is closely connected with identity, focusing in particular on students’ use of oral and written language. ‘Identity’ refers both to how one sees one’s own position and meaning in the world, and also to how one is ‘identified’ by others. Of course these two perspectives are interconnected and mutually reinforcing, and we shall treat the concept of identity as essentially interactive; we develop a sense of our own identity in relation to the social world around us and through interaction with other people.

In this section we explore what is often referred to as the move away from a structuralist to a post-structuralist theoretical position on language and identity.

This involves the following ideas:

  • that identity is never fixed but is always developing and transforming
  • that language use or ‘discourse’ plays a central role in this process of identity formation and transformation
  • that individuals are constituted by not one, but many senses of identity which are bound up with the cultural contexts they inhabit.

We will consider the relevance of recent understandings about language and identity to issues of teaching and learning.

3.1 Language and identity

Language has long been seen as closely connected with identity in a number of distinctive ways. Traditionally, the language people speak has been connected with their national identity: English, Spanish, Japanese and so on. Within any one language there are different language varieties which are also connected with particular identities. In Britain, accent and dialect reflect a person’s regional and social identity. In the United States, speaking ‘Black English Vernacular’ is connected with being African-American. Sociolinguists have also studied differences of accent, dialect and communicative style in the language of people of different age groups and generations, in order to find out how languages shift and change over the course of time, and in men and women’s use of language, which has been seen as reflecting gendered socialisation practices and unequal power relationships.

It is also recognised that children and adults from different social groups bring different kinds of language resources into the classroom and that these influence their identity as a student. Particular uses of language and literacy are highly valued in the classroom and seen as centrally important for learning, and there has been considerable argument about how far the language of children and adults from various ethnic and class communities is different or deficient in relation to competencies required in educational settings (Bernstein, 1971; Labov, 1972; Michaels, 1981; Heath, 1983; Tizard and Hughes, 1984).

These associations of language use and group identity (class, gender, generation, ethnicity) remain significant, but a number of important theoretical shifts in the ways in which social scientists conceptualise the role of language in relation to other aspects of social life have had some profound implications for issues of language and identity. Briefly, there has been what is referred to as a shift from a structuralist approach, which conceives of identity as a relatively fixed set of attributes, to the post-structuralist notion of identity as a more fluid ongoing contested process, with people constructing and reconstructing various aspects of their identity throughout different experiences in their lives. Post-structuralists often use the term ‘subjectivity’ to indicate that ‘identity’ is a continual process of making the self, the subject. The term ‘identification’ is also used to emphasise that identity is an ongoing, interactive process rather than a fixed product. Throughout this section we use the term ‘identity’ because, ‘it is the everyday word for people’s sense of who they are’ (Ivanič, 1998, p. 10). But we use it to incorporate the post-structuralist emphasis on identity as a process rather than any fixed set of social attributes or roles.

The theoretical shift in ways of looking at identity is part of a more general acknowledgement within the social sciences of the importance of the dynamic processes of social life and the role of language within these. For instance, there has been an increasing interest in the way in which people use language collaboratively to accomplish intellectual as well as practical tasks. In sociocultural theory, which we explored in section 1, cognitive development is seen as socially driven, and knowledge as socially constructed, through the medium of teaching and learning dialogues. As we stressed in section 1, language is both the medium and the message of education. This more social constructionist approach sees knowledge not so much as a body of facts and information but rather as the outcome of particular kinds of social interactions and processes. It has also been applied to understanding other aspects of social life. So, for instance, social categories like class, gender or ethnicity are increasingly seen not as intrinsic labels of identity residing within the individual, but as experienced by people as a more or less salient aspect of who they are through their experience in different interactions and dialogues, across different contexts.

Alongside an increasing emphasis on the role of language in the ongoing construction of knowledge and identities, there has also been a growing recognition of the ideological nature and functions of language. Rather than being a neutral, transparent medium for expressing and constructing ideas, language use reflects ideologies, that is ‘systems of values, beliefs and social practices’ (as Hicks wrote in the first reading). The meaning of language in any specific interaction is shot through with these social and ideological associations, which are an intrinsic aspect of the immediate and the broader context. In this section, we are using the term ‘discourse’ in both the ways outlined in section 1, that is, to mean actual stretches of language in context, and systems of knowledge and cultural frameworks. An aspect of discourse that we will be focusing on in this section is the ideological dimension.

While some experts use Vygotskian ideas to argue that teacher–pupil dialogues, post-structuralists would argue that they also construct the identities of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, and the practices and procedures of schooling. Furthermore, individual students will be identified, through the ways in which they participate in classroom dialogues (as well as through their written work), as particular kinds of students: for example, clever or stupid, good or bad. Similarly, teachers will become defined as good or bad teachers. From a post-structuralist view, therefore, dialogues do not only encode systems of beliefs, values and social practices, they also enact and therefore actually construct these systems, and produce particular aspects of people’s identities in the process.

A final point on the concept of context. Context can be defined in terms of the resources invoked by speakers to make sense of a particular communicative exchange. These resources may include:

  • the physical surroundings
  • the past shared experience and relationship of the speakers
  • the speakers’ shared tasks and goals
  • the speakers’ experience of similar kinds of conversation.
Mercer (1995)

In section 3, we shall also include within the notion of context the ways in which these resources invoked by speakers are shaped and given meaning through:

  • the nature of the social event in which speakers are involved (for example doing a crossword puzzle with friends or a classroom activity in school)
  • relevant broader cultural beliefs and values (e.g. about institutional roles and practices).

Of course, from the social constructionist point of view, as noted in section 1, these events, beliefs and values are at least partly constituted through the discourse itself. So, rather than seeing context as a kind of frame surrounding a communicative event, we need to think of a more dynamic relationship between the two. Particular aspects of the context are invoked by conversation participants in their construction of meaning, and language may also invoke other contexts away from the here and now, for example when people tell anecdotes or stories, or teachers ask students to remember what happened in a previous lesson. Finally, language can be used to change the context, for instance joking and teasing may signal the end of a formal meeting, or turn students’ class work momentarily into play.

3.2 Language variety, style and identity

In this part, we shall explore how language variety and style may be salient to people’s identities, in particular contexts.

The idea that individual and group identity is constantly being negotiated and renegotiated through the minutiae of everyday social interactions has been explored in some detail by the American sociolinguist, Penelope Eckert. Eckert studied the language use of American high school students who called themselves Jocks and Burnouts. These two subcultures were associated with sharply contrasting personal styles. Jocks participated enthusiastically in extra-curricular activities, played sports, served on the school council and hoped to graduate to college. They took the school as their community and hence the basis of their group identity. In the 1980s, when Eckert did her research, they wore smart designer jeans, the girls used candy coloured make-up and the boys had short hair. The Burnouts, in contrast, did not participate in school social activities and resisted the corporate identity of the high school and what it stood for. They wore bellbottom jeans, rock concert T-shirts, sweatshirts and auto-plant jackets, and expected to work in local industry when they were older. They were more likely to be out at an all-night party in the town than at the school dance.

There were differences, too, in the language styles (pitch, pronunciation and grammar) used. Eckert sees these two subcultural groups as representing two different kinds of response to the school institution, and as involving students in alternative ways of negotiating their individual identities, their ‘meaning in the world’ (Eckert, 2000, p. 41). She suggests that Jocks and Burnouts are two different ‘communities of practice’, each involving students who have come together to share ways of doing things and ways of talking, beliefs and values, as a function of their shared engagement in the activity. Individual identity is constructed in collaboration with others in and around these communities of practice.

3.3 Communities of practice

Eckert’s (2000) study combined a more traditional sociolinguistic quantitative analysis of speech variation with ethnographic research which enabled her to examine the subtle, ongoing process of language use in reconstructing aspects of social identity like class and gender. On a theoretical level, the concept of ‘community of practice’ enabled her to investigate how language use was related to other aspects of personal style, aspirations and approach to school and to treat activity, relationships and group and individual identity as all mutually constitutive.

Mary Bucholtz (1999) also used the concept of ‘community of practice’ to investigate the identity of girl students in an American high school who called themselves ‘nerds’. Her article included a theoretical argument about the limitations of the traditional sociolinguistic concept of a ‘speech community’, that is, a community of people who share linguistic norms.

For Bucholtz, this concept focused too centrally on language and tends to marginalise other aspects of social practice. It assumed that there was consensus in community language norms and often studies central members of the group rather than those at the margins, and it tends to view ‘identity’ as a set of static categories. In arguing for the use instead of the concept of ‘community of practice’, Bucholtz illustrated the shift we described earlier in this section from treating identity as a set of fixed attributes to seeing it as a more fluid, contested ongoing social process. In arguing that traditional sociolinguistic theory marginalises certain kinds of gender issues, she also illustrated the important point that any body of theory will privilege particular beliefs and values and particular kinds of knowledge, while underplaying, or rendering invisible, others.

Bucholtz was interested in ‘the performances of identity and the struggles over it, which are achieved through language’. Mainstream norms in traditional sociolinguistics have been based on male speakers; she was looking not just at a different social category, women speakers, but at a marginalised group within this. Like Eckert, she used ethnography and argued that through focusing on language, not in isolation but as part of social practice, she could capture something of the complex relationship between broader social structures and individual agency, ideology and identity, norms and interactions.

A similar term to ‘community of practice’ is ‘discourse community’. The term ‘discourse community’ was created to explain how groups of people, sometimes but not necessarily involved in face-to-face relationships, use language for collective activity and thinking. The focus is therefore primarily on language, whereas the term ‘community of practice’ invokes language use as just one explanatory aspect. The terms ‘discourse community’ and ‘community of practice’ thus emerged in relation to different kinds of research interest and evidence, but end up covering some similar ground.

3.4 Voices, diversity and intertextuality

The studies discussed thus far in section 3 have begun to build up a picture of the ways in which individual and group identity are both expressed and also constructed through dialogue. In this sense, then, identity is not fixed and unitary. Different kinds of identities may be tried out, and negotiated, in different contexts, within different discourse communities and communities of practice. There is also often a sense of struggle, as people try to create a sense of themselves against dominant forms and institutional expectations. In this part we look at research which draws on the ideas of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and his associates in what has been called the Bakhtin circle, who conceptualise language itself as a site of struggle. Bakhtinian ideas have made a key contribution to post-structuralist notions of discourse, and its relationship with identity. We shall briefly explain three of the key ideas in the Bakhtin/Vološinov writings and then discuss how these have been used within educational research. (While there is some controversy about whether works published under Vološinov’s name were in fact written by Bakhtin, we shall refer to the works by their published authorship.)

First, Bakhtin sees language as involving a constant, dynamic tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces. Centripetal forces produce authoritative discourses which are relatively fixed and inflexible in meaning, for example established bodies of knowledge and religious orthodoxies. They are associated with political centralisation and a unified cultural ‘canon’. These forces, however, are always interpenetrated by centrifugal forces leading to the diversification of language, and the fragmentation of cultural and political institutions. At their most extreme, these centrifugal forces are associated with what Bakhtin calls ‘inwardly persuasive discourse’ which accompanies everyday experience and is intensely interactive and contemporaneous. Finding a voice implies taking up a particular ideological position within the struggle between centripetal and centrifugal forces. In school, this struggle is often played out between the centripetal forces of the school institutional authority and the official curriculum, and the centrifugal forces of personal and community experience and the day-to-day concerns of the students.

Sola and Bennett (1985), in their study of Puerto Rican students on a junior high school programme in East Harlem, found that the students struggled between the centripetal instructional school discourse with its fixed curriculum goals and knowledge, and the more interactive, contemporaneous discourse of their local community. School discourse for these students was closely associated with the dominant societal forces which were responsible for the political and economic marginalisation of their own families. Entering into the official discourse was therefore not a neutral act. It could mean participating in the very practices which marginalised their own community and its discourse. Sola and Bennett show how the teaching style in three different classrooms in the junior high school offered different opportunities for the legitimation of students’ own discourse and elicited quite different models of student participation. Only in one classroom did the teacher manage to both legitimate the students’ own discourse and also accomplish educational goals. She did this through building community discourse styles into her classroom teaching, thus harnessing both centripetal and centrifugal forces. The broader struggle between dominant and minority group discourses and the students’ struggle to find their own individual voice were intimately connected.

The second key Bakhtinian idea is the concept of heteroglossia. Bakhtin argues that when we speak we use words which are already saturated with ideological meaning, in relation to the centripetal and centrifugal forces described above. Words have associations with particular genres and discourses and are, as he puts it, overpopulated with other people’s intentions. There is a continual struggle between the nuances and associations which words bring with them and the speaker’s own intended meaning. Thus the students in Sola and Bennett’s study struggled to use school discourse in a way which did not mean they were denying their own community identity. Bakhtin uses the term ‘heteroglossia’ to describe this many-voiced quality of language. He describes the struggle for voice as follows:

language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is always half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with [their] own intentions, [their] own accent, when [they] appropriate the word, adapting it to their own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language ... but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own.

Bakhtin, 1981, pp. 293–4

While this quotation suggests that in one sense all speech for Bakhtin involves using other people’s voices, he was particularly interested in how speakers marked the ways in which they took on and reproduced other people’s discourse more specifically, for instance through various kinds of reported speech. Bakhtin and Vološinov argue that the ways in which reported discourse is framed by the reporting speaker is centrally important to its meaning in the reporting context. (We shall be exploring this idea more fully in the next reading.)

The third Bakhtinian idea which has strongly influenced language studies is his argument for a ‘dialogical’ model of communication. Bakhtin sees meanings as emerging not from an individual utterance, but, sometimes provisionally and ambiguously, through the position of the utterance within a particular chain of communication. The utterance is itself a response, explicit or implicit, to other utterances, either in the current conversation or in the past. And every utterance is always shaped in anticipation of its own possible responses in the future. The shape and meaning of an utterance is thus dialogically orientated in two directions, towards the past and towards the future. Specific words and phrases may also invoke links with other conversations, or with particular discourses. There is therefore another layer of intertextual connections which contribute to the nuances of meaning in the utterance. Finally, that utterance only has meaning through the ‘electric spark’ when the speaker and listener connect. In understanding the theme, or situated meaning, of another person’s utterance (or a more extensive text), Vološinov suggests that the listener orientates himself to it, locating it in relation to their own inner consciousness.

For each word of the utterance that we are in the process of understanding, we, as it were, lay down a set of our own answering words ... In essence, meaning belongs to a word in its position between speakers; that is, meaning is realised only in the process of active, responsive, understanding ... It is like an electric spark that occurs only when two different terminals are hooked together.

Vološinov, 1986, p. 102

In this sense, an explanation by a teacher only acquires meaning through the process of students’ ‘active, responsive, understanding’. Vološinov suggested that this dialogic process is internalised into thought, as one thought creates meaning through answering another. The notion of the ‘electric spark’ of understanding can also be extended to the activity of reading.

Intertextuality, that is, a relation invoked explicitly or implicitly between one text (spoken, written, visual or multimodal) and another, has long been of interest to literary theorists and researchers in the media. Media texts such as film, television and advertisements have provided obvious rich sites for the analysis of intertextual play (e.g. Cook, 1992; Meinhof and Smith, 2000). Intertextuality is now increasingly seen as an intrinsic part of meaning-making in discourse more generally.

A number of researchers have been interested in the evaluative functions of reported discourse in students’ writing, which can also be seen as a judicious (or less judicious) weaving together of voices from different sources. Kamberelis and Scott (1992) applied Bakhtinian ideas about voice in their longitudinal study of children’s writing in an inner-city elementary school in Detroit. The school served a mainly African-American neighbourhood and Kamberelis and Scott’s research on children’s writing was linked to work with the teacher to develop a writing programme. This involved children reading and writing about themselves, their families, their community and their cultural history. The programme aimed, like the teacher reported by Sola and Bennett (1985) from their research in East Harlem, to enable students to bring their own community voices and discourse into the classroom. Kamberelis and Scott were particularly interested in the kinds of voices which the nine to ten-year-olds reproduced in their writing, how they managed these voices and what these patterns of heteroglossia revealed about the children’s developing sense of identity. The research involved classroom observation and interviews with the children, which informed the analysis of their writing. Kamberelis and Scott (1992) give two examples of writing by fourth grade students to illustrate their findings. We shall look in detail at one of these examples.

Activity 5 Identifying voices in written work (1)

Timing: Allow up to 30 minutes

Read the piece of writing by Lisa, ‘Living in the Black Life’, and consider any points where you feel she might be reproducing other people’s voices. What makes you identify these particular points? Kamberelis and Scott set out the writing in numbered lines to clarify their analysis.

Living in the Black Life [by Lisa]

  1. It’s nice living in the Black life.
  2. I haven’t been harmed in Detroit.
  3. Back then Black was treated bad and beaten and spat at.
  4. But right now it is better.
  5. and I am happy that I am living in the Black life.
  6. Some people don’t like living in the Black life.
  7. Back then White people hated Blacks
  8. But now White people really like Blacks.
  9. We communicate with each other,
  10. but it is a wonderful life that my life being Black.
  11. And I don’t hate for being Black and other Blacks shouldn’t hate being Black.
  12. They should be happy who they are.
  13. And no matter what Whites do to Blacks we are good people still.
  14. So love who you are don’t hate yourself,
  15. and thank God for making you a person.
  16. So that living in the Black life it don’t matter if you White or Black, just know who you are.
Kamberelis and Scott, 1992, p.378

You may have felt that there were a number of places where Lisa seemed to be taking up a particular voice, with its associated value position. We think this was happening at lines 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, either because she was reporting something she could not have known directly (7), seems to be reporting a generalisation she has heard (8, 9) or seems to be quoting homilies (13, 14, 15).

In their analysis, Kamberelis and Scott suggest that Lisa takes on and orientates towards a number of specific voices. First, she told the researchers ‘I wanted people to know that it’s not like in the news’. Her writing therefore is a response to voices in the media portraying life for Black people in Detroit as violent, dangerous and oppressive. Second, Lisa told the researchers that the idea to say ‘it’s a wonderful life’ came from a film by Frank Capra where a man about to commit suicide is saved by an angel who tells him to like himself and go back to his family. And she told a peer editing group that her title was from a song she liked, ‘Back in the High Life again’ by Steve Winwood, which is about having a good life after some down times. These voices are reversioned in her title and line 10 to convey Lisa’s theme of a good life for Black people in the present after much suffering in the past.

Professor L, whom Kamberelis and Scott describe as a militant African-American historian, had spoken to Lisa’s class and told them that some Black people didn’t like themselves because of the way they had been beaten and treated as animals by white people in the past. Lisa uses the Professor’s voice to convey an opposing message about Black self-hatred as the result of this experience (lines 3, 7) and her rejection of this voice (11). She also mentioned learning about Black history from her sister-in-law, books about Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, her teacher and her mother. Finally, she told the researchers that Jesse Jackson had preached on TV about the importance of thanking God you are alive whatever colour you are (a video of this speech had been shown to the class) and that her mother had told her you should love yourself whoever you are. These last two voices seem to be fairly directly reproduced in lines 13, 14 and 15.

Kamberelis and Scott suggest that Lisa stylises these other people’s voices, signalling her solidarity with them and also using their authoritative power to consolidate her own position of resistance to racism and injustice. In addition to her stylisation of particular voices and their associated ideologies (i.e. systems of values, beliefs and social practices), Kamberelis and Scott found that Lisa had appropriated the rhetorical framework used by Jesse Jackson, who on the TV programme presented an argument for Black pride and self-love and then strengthened this by counterposing it against the inverted position of Black self-hate. Lisa’s own counterposing of these two positions of love and hate, together with the opposition between the past and the present, gives her essay both textual and ideological power.

Kamberelis and Scott also present a less coherent piece of writing, ‘Guns’, by a boy, Anthony, which is reproduced below. In this essay they suggest that Anthony appears to move and sometimes flounder between the voices and anti-gun position of his teacher and members of his club, the voices of his grandparents and mother who support the limited use of handguns and the explicitly pro-handgun position of his older brothers and their friends. Anthony’s efforts to express his alignment and solidarity with all these different people results in a piece of writing which feels disappointed and incoherent. It reflects his struggle to construct his own identity, his ‘subjectivity’, in the context of different social relations and different political positionings within contradictory social networks. We return to the notion of ‘subjectivity’ and its importance in teaching and learning in section 3.5. The point to note here is the contradictory nature of voices in Anthony’s text; these are particularly noticeable in lines 10, 11, 12 and 13. Anthony can’t fully adopt the ideology of one group without rejecting another and seems to shift back and forth trying to find a position he can call his own, which won’t disrupt too many of his relationships and loyalties. This impasse is perhaps reflected in the way the piece ends with a question.

Guns [by Anthony]

  1. Guns are nothing to fool around with.
  2. Parents should hide guns away from children. Children shouldn’t play around with guns anyway.
  3. So I think guns is no good at all.
  4. Some people have guns in our neighborhood. We can do something about it. I will do my best and try my best to stop the guns in my neighborhood. I will guarantee you it will stop. It will stop! I promise you.
  5. It is a time to use guns.
  6. When you are a police officer it is OK to use guns.
  7. Guns do kill people but sometimes when some people are used to guns they are lucky and don’t get hurt.
  8. Some police get shot when they are on duty. That is so, so, so sad when they get shot on purpose.
  9. Why is guns bad to our children?
  10. Some people think guns are for safety.
  11. I think guns are for protection.
  12. Some people sell drugs to get guns.
  13. I think guns is just a piece of trash.
  14. But if it wasn’t for weapons people wouldn’t get killed.
  15. But some people ask for peace, but so you think they get it when they use guns?
  16. What do you think about it?
Kamberelis and Scott, 1992, pp.387-8

For Kamberelis and Scott, the writing of these children was not only about the development of literacy skills and the ability to present an argument, but also contributed to their exploration and development as particular kinds of people. ‘In the process of appropriating, transforming and resisting various voices, Lisa and Anthony were engaged in forging their own personal, social and political identities’ (1992, p. 377).

Activity 6 Identifying voices in written work (2)

Timing: Allow up to 3 hours

If you are currently teaching you may want to talk to a number of your students about a particular piece of their writing and track the various voices they may be appropriating or stylising. In what ways do these reflect important people and influential discourses in the student’s life?

Sola and Bennett’s (1985) study in East Harlem, Kamberelis and Scott’s (1992) research in Detroit, and Lillis’s (2001) study outlined in section 2.2.2, focus on students who may experience a disjunction between the influential discourses and ideologies in their home communities and those of the school or college. The teachers in the studies by Sola and Bennett and by Kamberelis and Scott endeavoured to bridge these differences, encouraging students to bring the voices of their community into the classroom. In the next reading another group of researchers working with teachers of bilingual Spanish/English speaking students argue that many learning contexts for students are multivoiced, changeable and conflictual. Rather than suppressing possible points of disruption, they suggest, hybridity and diversity should be harnessed to provide a rich context for teaching and learning.

Gutiérrez et al. (1999) refer to the ‘third space’ as having the potential within it for reconfiguring what counts as institutionally approved knowledge and language use, thus drawing on a fuller range of teacher and student resources than is possible in either the ‘official space’ or the ‘unofficial space’. This reconfiguring provides new possibilities for student positions and identities and, the researchers argue, enables some of them to engage more constructively with learning in a renegotiated classroom curriculum.

The idea of reconfiguring pedagogic spaces has also been taken up in other multi-ethnic and multilingual contexts. Stein (1998) describes an exercise within an inservice postgraduate teacher training course where the teachers, who came from various different language and ethnic backgrounds in South Africa, prepared small-group dramatic presentations based on their individual literacy histories. Stein defines a literacy history as an account of an individual’s relationship with different literacies from early childhood, including mainstream literacies and vernacular literacies (Barton, 1994).

Because many of the teachers come from backgrounds with rich oral traditions, events such as storytelling, singing and praising are a central part of their literacy history and students are encouraged to weave their individual histories together into a performance involving music, dance, costume, gesture and visual design as well as language. Stein reports that these performances provided very powerful experiences for the students involved. One included the acting out of the painful experience of one woman student who as a ten-year-old girl had to read and write intimate personal correspondence for the illiterate adults around her in a small rural village, and sometimes inform them of the death of their husband or son who had left home to work in the mines. The performances enabled students to interpret, rename and validate their own experience through a collaborative process which also provided a possibility, through the re-evaluation of their lives in relation to others and to much broader social and historical processes, of new definitions of self and identity.

Stein suggests that the multimodal nature of the drama – we focus in detail on multimodality in section 4 – set up powerful juxtapositions of images and memories which did not encourage students to obliterate the past, but rather to reconfigure it, and the present, to reveal new possibilities. Stein, like Gutiérrez et al., uses difference as a pedagogical tool and suggests that through the complex emotional, linguistic and cognitive associations evoked through the collaborative recovery of different literacy histories, individuals begin to understand links between their private histories and the wider social and political structures of their society.

3.5 Discourse and critique

Stein’s work described in section 4 draws on Street’s conception of literacy as a social practice and inherently ideological, as discussed in section 2.2. Street (1995) argues that the way people learn literacy is always imbued with power relations and is part of an ideology, that is a system of values, beliefs and social practices connected with a particular dominant social group. An important strand within language studies has been the development of a group of approaches to analysing ideological aspects of language, and teaching students how to do this, variously referred to as critical literacy, critical language study or critical discourse analysis. These approaches all address the following questions:

  1. In what ways do texts (spoken or written) convey particular ideological messages?
  2. How do texts position people in certain ways and what resources do people have to resist such positionings?
  3. How do wider social processes shape the language we use and the meanings we take from it?

Academic writing itself often entails particular risks, sacrifices and investments in relation to the kind of person students feel they are, and the kind of person they want to become. As discussed in section 2, there is a growing body of research in academic literacy/ies, which documents the particular practices and discourses required for students working at this level, and the models of knowledge and learning that underpin these. In research with eight mature students doing undergraduate degrees at a British university, Ivanič (1998) analysed in detail the traces of different discourses within their essays and explored, in interviews with her students, the reasons behind their particular choices of language. She found that students felt they ‘owned’ parts of the essays more than others. Some choices, to include a formal academic phrase, refer to a writer, use a quotation or adopt a particular evaluative stance (for instance giving evidence of familiarity with existing theory rather than critically examining it), were taken from a sense of ‘playing the game’, or producing what they felt the tutor who marked the essay would value. At other times students felt they were able to express their own ideas and beliefs more directly – often at the end of an essay, by which time they had worked out a position for themselves through the writing.

While Kamberelis and Scott’s (1992) research showed how younger students drew on the voices of people around them in their writing, Ivanič’s shows how her students were able to explain where they had picked up particular words, syntactic structures, argumentation strategies or structuring devices, from their reading, lectures, tutorials, discussion with other students and sources outside the university altogether. Some pieces of language were appropriated because the student had been interested and excited by an idea or a writer, and some because the student felt they were appropriate for the discourse within their discipline and would be positively valued by staff evaluating the essay. It was sometimes difficult to knit language from these heterogeneous sources together, and to negotiate the tricky boundaries between quotation, paraphrase and plagiarism. As Ivanič puts it: ‘Complex negotiations of identity lie beneath the surface of what may appear at first glance to be ‘‘inadequate’’ academic writing’ (1998, p. 343). Students were not always comfortable with the academic ‘selves’ they were required to produce through academic writing. Applied courses often involved the further complexity of having to juggle between two different discourses and ‘selves’ within the one piece of writing which would be assessed both by an academic and a professional tutor. Ivanič gives the example of an essay by a student doing a social work degree where she switches between the vocabulary and grammatical structures of a social work report and that of an academic essay, and between the identities of trainee social worker and applied social science student.

Ivanič believes that teachers need to give more attention to the ways in which students are struggling with different discourses and different kinds of selves within their writing. Using the term ‘subject position’ to mean ‘assigned identity as a certain type of person’, she summarises the ways in which writing constitutes a ‘representation of the self’ as follows:

  • Writing is a particularly salient form for the negotiation of identities, because written text is deliberate, potentially permanent and used as evidence for many social purposes (such as judging academic achievement).
  • Negotiating a ‘discoursal self’ is an integral part of the writing process: there is no such thing as ‘impersonal writing’.
  • Writers create an impression of themselves – a discoursal self – through the discourse choices they make as they write, which aligns them with socially available subject positions.
  • The relations of power, interests, beliefs and practices in institutional settings enable and constrain people’s possibilities for self-hood as they write.
  • Some discourses are more powerful and/or more highly valued than others, and people are under pressure to participate in them through adopting them in their writing.
  • In spite of these powerful shaping social forces, individual writers participate in the construction of their discoursal identities through selection (mainly subconscious) among the subject positions they feel socially mandated, willing, or daring enough to occupy.
  • Writers bring an ‘autobiographical self’ to an act of writing. This is shaped by their life-histories and the social groups with which they identify. Different social groups have differential access to the subject positions inscribed in discourses. In this way, writers’ autobiographical selves are very varied, and do not have equal social status.
  • A writer’s autobiographical self influences the discoursal self they construct for themselves in a specific piece of writing, and leads them to own or disown aspects of it.
  • When people enter what is for them a new social context such as higher education, they are likely to find that its discourses and practices support identities which differ from those they bring with them.
  • Both writers’ sense of themselves (autobiographical self), and the impression they convey of themselves in writing (discoursal self) are normally multiple and subject to change over time.
  • Every time people write, they reaffirm or contest the patterns of privileging among subject positions which are sustained by the relations of power in the institution within which they are writing.
  • The reader–writer relationship is a crucial element in all this: the discoursal self which writers construct will depend on how they weigh their readers up, and their power relationship with them.
  • The effect of writers’ alignments on the community as a whole will depend on ‘uptake’ by readers.
  • Writers can accommodate to or resist the pressure to conform to readers’ expectations.
Ivanič, 1998, pp. 32–3

Activity 7 Autobiographical and discoursal selves

Timing: Allow about 2 hours

Choose one of your Open University assignments and consider any ways in which your ‘autobiographical self’ influenced the discoursal self you constructed.

  1. Are there particular parts of the assignment which you feel you ‘own’ more than others?
  2. How constraining or enabling do you find the discourse which you feel is expected in the assignment?
  3. Which specific voices or more general discourses are you reproducing in your writing? By ‘specific voices’ we mean that you can identify specific sources, such as people, written texts, films; by ‘more general discourses’ we mean that you can identify particular ways of representing the world, such as a feminist discourse, a medical discourse, etc.

3.6 English as a second language and identity

Learners of English as a second language (ESL), especially migrants, have found that the identity positions offered them within the English speaking community can be crucial for their development of fluency in the language. In a longitudinal study of the experience of five immigrant women learning English in Canada, Bonny Norton (2000) argues that these women’s difficulties in mastering English cannot be adequately explained by traditional second language acquisition theory. This would explain their progress as the result of their individual motivation, self-confidence and anxiety and the degree to which they were prepared to assimilate to the lifestyle and values of Canadian society and thus maximise their contact with anglophones and the possibilities for natural language use.

Documenting the experience of the five women in her study, Norton shows that immersion and natural language learning are much more problematic than this suggests. The women were all very highly motivated to learn English, for different reasons, and were all good language learners. But they found that they could not gain access to the social networks which would give them the opportunity to practise and become fluent in English because of their current lack of fluency and their negative identification by Canadians as ‘immigrants’. The three older women had been professionally trained before they emigrated, but were able to obtain only unskilled jobs in Canada and felt doubly stigmatised by their inability to get work commensurate with their education and training and by their lack of fluency in English.

For all the women, the workplace was their major opportunity to mix with anglophones. However, they were often given the low-status, solitary jobs which no one else wanted to do and this marginalisation limited their opportunities to practise English and also reduced their confidence and heightened their anxiety so that they felt reluctant to initiate conversations with other workers. For instance, one woman, Eva, who had been allocated the jobs of cleaning the floors and putting out the garbage in a fast-food restaurant, said ‘When I see that I have to do everything and nobody cares about me because – then how can I talk to them?’ (Norton, 2000, p. 63). The other women also experienced this ‘silencing’ through marginalisation in jobs and social encounters where skills and cultural resources which they had previously taken for granted, as part of who they were, were ignored or not valued.

The women fought against this marginalisation in various ways. Martina, who saw her role as crucial for her family because of her husband’s lack of English, took cleaning jobs, attended ESL classes, borrowed her children’s books from school, watched soap operas and made superfluous practice phonecalls in order to ensure she acquired enough English for her family’s survival. Another woman, Felicia, who had enjoyed a very comfortable middle-class life as the wife of a successful businessman in Peru but whose husband had been unable to get work in Canada, refused the identity of ‘immigrant’ but explained that ‘I’ve never felt an immigrant in Canada, just as a foreigner person who lives here by accident’ (ibid., p. 101). She was very keen to practise her English and was comfortable speaking in private with anglophones who knew and accepted her middle-class Peruvian identity, although she still mainly listened. But she found it difficult to talk in public with strangers who might simply class her as an ‘immigrant’.

Eva, in the fast-food restaurant, made a breakthrough in relations with other staff during a company social outing when her partner provided a lift for some of her co-workers and her youth and charm were more in evidence. People began to talk to her and treat her as an interesting person, which gave her more opportunities to practise English and greater confidence to join in staff conversations, for instance to bring in her experience of Europe, and initiate contact with customers.

Through her detailed analysis of these women’s experience, Norton argues that confidence and anxiety are not individual attributes, but are socially constructed in encounters between the second language learners and the majority community, and that these encounters are structured by relations of inequality. Similarly, class and ethnicity do not reside in the individual, but are constructed and realised through social relations. The immigrant women were declassed because of their identification as ‘immigrant’ and their lack of access to social networks commensurate with their previous social standing.

Norton (2000) argues that second language acquisition theory needs to recognise that questions of identity (i.e. a person’s sense of themselves and of their relation with the world) are crucial for second language learning and that identity is not a set of individual attributes but rather emerges through social relations over time. As the result of her research she argues that identity is:

  1. ‘non-unitary’, involving apparent inconsistencies. For instance Eva wanted to be treated as an equal, but for her co-workers to recognise and respect her difference as a European. Martina was uncomfortable speaking English but determined to fight for her family’s survival. Felicia knew she needed to practise to improve her English but didn’t want to speak in public.
  2. a site of struggle, as people are positioned in various ways in the significant sites in their lives and try to resist or change some of these positionings. Felicia’s resistance to the positioning of ‘immigrant’ through replacing it with ‘foreigner person’ and Eva’s successful efforts to build social contact with her co-workers reduced their identification as ‘immigrant’.
  3. changing over time. Eva, in particular, changed her position from an ‘illegitimate’ to a ‘legitimate’ speaker in the workplace, and her increasing confidence about her identity within the workplace began to affect her public life more generally.

Pennycook (1998) suggests inequalities between anglophone communities and second language learners are also deeply encoded within the discourse of ESL teaching and within the textbooks used with learners. He traces the discourse of teaching English as a second language back to its historical roots in nineteenth century British colonialism and assumptions about the inherent superiority of the English language and, by association, of native English speakers. He argues that threats to standard English from other varieties are elided with ethnocentric and racist attitudes towards ethnic minorities and immigrants. These discourses and their associated value positions are then reproduced, often at an implicit level, within English language teaching materials.

3.7 Research focus

As discussed in this section, there are different ways of conceptualising the relationship between language use or discourse and identity, and these are evident in different research approaches.

Vai Ramanathan (1999) focuses on the powerful status of English. She draws on the work of Kachru (1985), who argues that there is a deep-seated unequal power relationship on a global level between an inner circle of English speakers (comprised of Britain and its former old colonies the United States, Canada and Australia) and an outer circle comprised of formerly colonial English speaking countries in Asia and Africa. Ramanathan takes up Kachru’s argument about the hegemony (i.e. the political leadership and ideological domination) of the inner circle of English speakers over the outer circle and argues that this is echoed in a similar relationship between more and less powerful social groups within the outer circle country of India.

A key research focus in Ramanathan’s paper is that of language and literacy practice. In sections 1 and 2 of this unit we emphasised the importance of this notion for those working within a social perspective on language and literacy. Ramanathan’s paper illustrates well the two meanings of practice often used in such research. First of all she uses practice to indicate what people routinely do in a particular institution. Thus, in her ‘Method: data’ and ‘Findings’ sections it is clear that Ramanathan was observing particular groups of students, ‘Dalit and OBC’ students, in a particular institution. The kinds of observations that were made, including classroom observation, interviews and departmental notes and information about course and assessment requirements, are also clear. From such observations and data gathering Ramanathan reaches conclusions about the practice of tracking students into streams which bar some students from English-medium instruction.

As well as using practice in this concrete sense, Ramanathan uses a more abstract notion of practice. This is most obvious when she talks of ‘hegemonic practices’ that benefit the more powerful groups within society; in the context of India, relations of power are significant in terms of different castes. Practice at this level is not ‘observable’ in any straightforward way. It may be possible to ‘observe’ the wealth of individuals (per capita income) or the wealth of nations, for example, but it is not possible to actually ‘observe’ relations of power: commenting on relations of power involves theorising about the ways in which society works because it involves a particular view of society.

The reference to Gramsci indicates that Ramanathan is working within, if not a neo-Marxist perspective, then certainly a view of society which sees conflict at the centre of social relations. Her paper is a good example of empirically grounded critical writings on the relationship between the micro and macro level, which is echoed to a large extent in the different levels of practice: the micro-level detail of what goes on, and the macro level of generalisations or theorisations about how and why this happens.

3.8 Summary

The beginning of this section suggested that the shift towards post-structuralist ideas within the field of language studies, as well as more generally within the social sciences, has opened up new opportunities for examining and understanding some of the complex relationships between discourse and identity, or, subjectivity, and the importance of these to teaching and learning. This shift has involved the development of a new conceptual apparatus for analysing social processes and the role of language within these. The definitions of discourse are part of this development, as are Eckert and Bucholtz’s use of the concept of community of practice, the replacement of the structuralist view of text with a view of text as social practice and the shift from defining contexts to examining intertextuality. The differences and similarities between the notions of discourse community and community of practice were discussed. Theorists and researchers have found Bakhtinian ideas, for instance the concepts of voice and heteroglossia and a dialogical model of communication, particularly useful in moving towards a more process-orientated framework for analysing communication and identity.

The ways in which students take on other people’s voices in their talk and writing is seen as significant both for their learning and for their developing awareness of themselves as particular kinds of people. In addition to reversioning specific voices, students use the vocabulary and discursive structures of particular discourses, aligning themselves with particular ideological positions as well as producing written assignments. The notions of discourse, voice and intertextuality, together with influential concepts from social theory such as ideology and hegemony, are enabling theorists and researchers to examine more intricately how language contributes to different kinds of social practices, including teaching and learning, and the important ways in which students’ language use, and their use of language for learning, is tied up with the ongoing construction of their identity.

In pedagogic terms, we discussed how difference and diversity are being transformed in some contexts from obstacles to learning into transformative resources, for example in work reported by Sola and Bennett, Gutiérrez, and Stein. Language, ethnic and other social differences can still, however, create powerful barriers for individual students, and relationships of inequality and exclusion are deeply embedded in institutional practices and social values, as shown in the research by Norton and Ramanathan. The reading by Rassool showed how people’s experience of language and identity has been affected by wide-ranging and substantive global changes.

We concluded this section by focusing on ways of researching and analysing the relationship between language use, or discourse, and identity. In particular, we focused on the way in which the notion of practice can be researched and theorised.

3.9 Reflection activity 3

Reflection activity 3: Project proposal

This is an activity in creating a proposal for a practical investigation of an aspect of language or literacy which particularly interests you, related to an issue or issues in this unit.

Please note that you will only be preparing a proposal; this will not lead on to a full-scale project.

You should aim to write 2000 words (excluding appendices and references).

Your project proposal is an opportunity for you to set out a plan for a small scale piece of research on an area you might like to explore further.

A small-scale research project provides an opportunity for you to explore and reflect on one or more issues in this unit, to relate them to educational or wider concerns in your own context and to give you experience of and insights into the realities of conducting research into language and literacy. Whatever topic you choose to examine, and whatever approach you adopt, it will be essential to locate your project work in the context of your study of the unit material.

Preparatory work

You need to:

  • develop your project topic
  • identify key questions or issues you wish to investigate
  • locate ideas in the unit material which will underpin the project
  • decide which method or methods would best enable you to collect and analyse appropriate evidence


  • map out the practical details and timescale for the project, including the collection of data.

There is no feedback for this activity.

Please note – these notes are only provided to show how a proposal would extend into a full-scale research project. The following information is provided for your information only should you choose to undertake this particular activity; you are not being asked to undertake the tasks listed below.

As you review the material, consider which aspects of it have most relevance to you and your interests. Consider also how you could investigate a particular topic: you should choose a topic that links the content of the unit to your own professional circumstances or personal interests. You will need to narrow down from a number of potentially interesting topics to one that is manageable.

Choosing a topic

You can choose a topic from any section of this unit, including section 4. Below are a few general suggestions to give you a sense of the scope you should aim for. Resist the temptation to be over-ambitious: this is a proposal only, not a full-scale project.

Sample project topics might include:

  • a study of classroom talk
  • an investigation of the role of talk in learning
  • a comparison of language/literacy practices in two or more contexts (within and outside school, for example)
  • a study of family or community literacy practices
  • an analysis of policy issues in some area of language and literacy
  • a study of the ‘voices’ in one or more texts
  • a study of some aspect of language and identity
  • a study of a multimodal text
  • a study of the role of computers in a particular sphere of education.

Clearly, these topics differ in many respects – in the amount and kind of fieldwork they demand as opposed to their reliance on documentation, for example, as well as in the parts of the unit from which ideas and concepts are drawn. They are expressed here in deliberately general terms, so that you may consider ways in which the idea can be adapted to your own interests and circumstances.

Please note: It is not acceptable to use existing data that you may have collected for another purpose (for an MA course or for professional purposes, for example). You must propose to collect new data, that is, data collected specifically for the purposes of this investigative project.

Specification for the project proposal

Your proposal should be structured according to the following headings:

  1. Title of proposed project

    This should be a concise description of your proposed project, such as in the examples above, and convey how it would be well supported by a range of material from the unit.

  2. The aims of the investigation

    Here you will need to set out clearly what you wish to find out through your project work. Project aims are often more effectively expressed in the form of one or more specific investigative questions. When such questions are posed in a suitably clear way, they will help you to reach an understanding of the purpose of your project, and help you to evaluate your project when it is completed. These questions need not be formal hypotheses which you aim to prove or disprove: they may just as easily be expressed in exploratory or open-ended terms. Bear in mind that it is probably inappropriate for you to pass evaluative judgements on the people you are researching, or to appraise people’s practices, attitudes or opinions: express your questions in a way which will enable you to raise issues rather than pass judgement. For example, project aims might be expressed as:

    • What differences can be observed in the ways boys and girls use talk when they are engaged in computer-based activities in the classroom? or
    • How do history textbooks make different use of visual and linguistic modes of communication?
  3. The rationale and main conceptual themes for the investigation

    Here you should discuss the significance of the project you are proposing, and your reasons for choosing it. You should discuss these issues in both academic terms (by providing an outline of relevant theory and research) and, where appropriate, professional/practical terms (by indicating how your project fits with the theory and research). One way to approach this would be to answer such questions as:

    • Why have you chosen this topic to investigate?
    • Why is it an important and/or significant topic to investigate?
    • What are the relevant ideas and issues in the unit material?

    Identify the main conceptual strands running through the unit which relate to your topic. Identify, also, some more specific ideas and issues in unit readings which support your rationale and may provide the ‘tools’ for analysing your evidence after you have collected it.

  4. A description of the setting(s) in which you would plan to collect your evidence

    This section should be brief, but the information you provide here will enable your tutor to understand the context of your investigation.

  5. Description of the evidence you would intend to collect

    You should give careful thought to the kinds of evidence which will help you to answer your research questions, but at the same time are feasible to collect in the time available and in the settings to which you will have access. By ‘kinds of evidence’, we mean, for example:

    • observation notes
    • responses to interviews (notes and/or recordings)
    • responses to questionnaires
    • documents, possibly including writing from community contexts, examples of students’ work, policy documents, research reports, school texts, etc.
    • audio or video recordings
    • personal research diary/notebook.

    Generally speaking, the evidence base for your project will be stronger if you combine two or three different methods of collecting data. This will also provide several perspectives on the same phenomenon. For example, if you wanted to investigate children’s talk around computers, it might be advisable not only to tape record the children but also to observe them (possibly resulting in observation notes and entries in a personal research diary), and to discuss with them the activities involved, in order to gain a more rounded picture of the processes you are studying. In a project on community literacy practices, it would be advisable to collect examples of the texts produced by the writers, and perhaps also to discuss the writing with them.

    When deciding how many ‘cases’ to include in your study, bear in mind that projects range from those which are rich in detail but limited in their general application, to those which are trying to investigate variation across a wide range of cases but not in any great depth. You should design your project in a way which matches your aims. If your project is closer to the first end of this continuum, you should ensure that you collect evidence which is sufficiently detailed and varied to enable you to document the richness of the small number of individual cases. If your project is closer to the latter end of the continuum, you will need to bring a sufficiently robust analysis to bear upon the small number of questions being asked of your evidence.

  6. The methods you would plan to use to collect your evidence

    Language and literacy in a changing world is not a unit on research methodology, and you will not be expected to construct a sophisticated research design or to justify your methods in the light of the literature on research methodology. However, it does have an emphasis on learning a range of tools for practical analysis of language and texts, and understanding the rationale for different approaches to analysis, and you should be able to explain why the methods you chose to use matched the aims of your project. In other words, why did you feel that the methods you chose would help you to find out what you were attempting to find out?

    The notes that follow outline some of the main methods you may consider using if you were preparing for a full-scale assignment. You should also at this stage examine those readings in the unit material which refer to or use the method or methods which you are contemplating adopting.

    • Interviews: These can vary from a highly structured format to an open conversation covering a list of topics. Depending on the nature of your project, you may want to collect some fairly specific information, or to explore children’s or adults’ ideas on a topic. Try out at least two pilot interviews if you possibly can, and record them if possible. Listening to the recordings should help you decide if questions need to be reworded, or if you are doing too much talking yourself.

      Recording relieves you from having to take notes during the interview and often throws up interesting information which might otherwise be missed. (Audio recordings can also be an effective way to supplement your other means of data collection. Even if you do not transcribe any part of your recordings, they provide an additional perspective which brings its own particular insights on any observation or interview work you have done.) If audio recording is not possible, then decide beforehand on the best way of making notes.

      When interviewing, it is usually much more productive to relate your questions to specific people, events or practices than to ask generalised questions. For example, asking teachers how they go about assessing children’s writing is understandably likely to produce idealised and unfocused responses, whereas asking a teacher to look over a particular piece of writing and to explain the kinds of points they would want to bring to the writer’s attention will give a clearer indication of the kinds of criteria implicit in the teacher’s assessment practice.

    • Questionnaires: Like interviews, these range from the highly structured to those with more open-ended questions. The questionnaire may be completed in your presence as part of an interview, or in your absence. When constructing your questionnaire think about how you intend to analyse the results you obtain. If you are hoping to make some quantitative statements then the questions cannot be open-ended. You will need to consider the reply options that you provide, so that people can, for example, tick a box or circle an answer.

    • Observation: A variety of methods can be used to observe and analyse interaction, for example taking detailed notes of observed events, or making transcriptions of recorded events in classrooms.

      If you are using audio or video recordings in a classroom there are certain things you need to consider. The sound quality is likely to be important if you want to reflect on the language being used. How you set up your audio or video equipment to make recordings is going to be affected by who it is that you wish to hear or see most clearly. Depending on the type of lessons involved, you may want to focus on the teacher’s talk at the front of the class, the teacher’s talk with individual students around the class, student responses to the teacher, students talking to each other in groups, or a whole-class discussion. If you are interested in student–student interaction in groups, for example, you may need to use a number of cassette recorders placed with each individual group. You also need to be aware of the effect of an additional person and/or recording equipment in the classroom on the behaviour of both teachers and students. You are strongly advised to pilot your recording techniques. By this we mean that you should try out your data collecting methods in a classroom situation and see if they work. After making a recording, watch or listen to it carefully. Can you hear and see everything you need to? If not, can you position your equipment differently to improve things or do you need to modify your data requirements?

    • Collection of texts: All sorts of ‘texts’ – spoken, written, multimodal – can be collected and analysed, for example, policy documents, advertisements, informal conversations, visual images.

  7. The ethical issues you have to consider

    You should include some reflection on ethical issues, and indicate ways in which you will respect the privacy of individuals and the confidentiality of data relating to them. You should also consider, if necessary, whether you will need to inform parents about your project or seek their permission to involve their children in the work. You might also like to consider what purposes your findings could be put to. If you work in a school, for example, is it expecting some kind of outcome which can be used to direct policy?

  8. The methods you expect to use to analyse the evidence you collect

    You should give a clear account and some justification of the ways in which you will relate your evidence to your aims and initial questions. In some cases the most useful conceptual frameworks for analysing evidence will emerge after the evidence has been collected and initially examined. However, even at this relatively early stage you should begin to consider the kinds of frameworks you might devise to categorise your evidence, and the kinds of themes and issues which you might adopt as organizing principles for your analysis.

  9. The timetable for the proposed project

    You should include here any practical difficulties you face in carrying out your project (e.g. school or college holiday times coinciding with critical stages of your data collection), so that potential readers may be aware of how it has been shaped by your local circumstances.

4 Multimodal communication and information technology

This section looks at two main areas of study, multimodality and information technology. First, we introduce and define multimodality, consider some examples of multimodal texts and outline why they are worth studying. We then look at ways in which developments in technology are often linked to (often subtle) changes in language – language form – as well as affecting how we communicate with each other. Finally we draw these together, focusing on information technology and multimodality in educational settings and the processes of teaching and learning. We raise some questions about issues of access and patterns of participation in these emerging practices of communication, drawing on the material in this section. As you study this section, you will be encouraged to make links to issues raised earlier in the unit. You will also work through some examples of multimodal analysis in the Workbook, and consider some research issues relevant to these types of approach.

4.1 What is multimodality?

Multimodal texts are defined as texts which communicate their message using more than one semiotic mode, or channel of communication. Examples are magazine articles which use words and pictures, or websites which contain audio clips alongside the words, or film which uses words, music, sound effects and moving images. As soon as you start to take this idea seriously, you realise that, in a sense, all human communication is intrinsically multimodal. We rarely read, write, receive or send messages to one other in a single mode. In spoken language, for example, words are often accompanied by facial gestures, hand movements and so on. This paralanguage is communicative, and is hard to separate from words as we engage in the process of interpretation. An email message may be thought of as written text, but it is accessed via a series of visual icons on a computer, is read in the context of a website or desktop screen, and may contain iconic representations of the sender’s mood such as emoticons (or ‘smilies’), or unusual punctuation added by the sender for emphasis, etc. Email communication is often quite ‘speech-like’, too, so can be said to contain elements of spoken language (more on this later).

Even a piece of solid written text with no pictures can be said to convey messages from visual modes. We may be influenced by the typeface of the text: it may seem formal or informal, childlike (such as large lower case letters), or carry other connotations which support or undermine the apparent message of the words. The layout of the page can also be interpreted as conveying meaning: think about your impression of a text set out in columns like a newspaper article, or double spaced like a first draft of a report, or densely packed like a dictionary entry. Advertisements exploit this extra layer of meaning as a matter of routine. Our knowledge and experience of other texts is brought to bear and colours what we take from any new text, even if this process is not a conscious one. Some of the principle communicative components of text are:

  • written or spoken language
  • intonation
  • images (photographs, diagrams, drawings), and aspects of images such as colour, sharpness of focus, spatial composition, etc. Also other visuals such as logos, corporate letterheads, shop or road signs
  • gestures
  • facial movements
  • action (movement in film, for example).

The study of multimodality involves looking at these components and the ways they communicate meaning, both separately and in combination. Components of multimodal texts often take on new meanings, or connotations, when they interact in a complete text. Newspaper headlines, for example, may be placed next to a striking photograph which reinforces the story, or even undermines it. Black and white film may be deliberately used to convey a sense of the past. Teachers may gesture to the class in order to reinforce what they are saying.

In this section you will learn about and try out types of analysis which aim to integrate visual and physical aspects of communication with analysis of spoken and written language. Multimodal approaches to the study of different forms of communication – the visual aspects of communication (in art/cultural studies), the physical (non-verbal communication in psychology) for example – have a long history of course. However, the study of communication within the tradition of Western linguistics has tended to focus predominantly on verbal aspects of communication. A call has come in recent times to integrate visual and physical aspects of communication into analyses of spoken and written language. This arises out of two principal concerns:

  • to acknowledge that verbal language always takes place alongside a whole array of other representational (semiotic) resources (the word ‘semiotic’ or ‘semiosis’, meaning ‘the meaning of signs’, is often used in these approaches to signal an interest in language as well as other sign systems)
  • that global communication practices at the beginning of the twenty-first century, notably exemplified in internet usage, are increasingly more obviously multimodal, displacing the verbal as the central mode of communication.

It will already be clear that while multimodality is pretty much the norm in most forms of communication, it is not new, nor has it suddenly become relevant to education. Later readings in this section suggest, however, that what is new is an urgent need for a serious consideration of modes other than speaking and writing in the classroom. This need derives from children’s – and adults’– increasing need to engage with new forms and uses of technology.

Activity 8 Communicating via websites

Timing: Allow up to 1 hour

Take a moment to visit The Open University homepage:

The Open University

As websites go, it’s fairly straightforward and contains only two modes of communication, verbal and visual. But these modes, even on simple websites, communicate in many ways: through layout, colour, typeface, for example. What do the different elements of this website suggest to you?


Some elements of The Open University homepage you may have considered to be significant are: the OU logo, with its intertwined letters O and U; the use of the same colours across the site and on many of the linked pages (signifying brand consistency); the images of people of different ages and ethnic origins (signifying ‘real people’, as well as ‘openness’, ‘access’, etc.).

Computers, then, are rapidly adding new multimodal texts to our daily communicative practices. In some communities, though, multimodal communication is routine and has existed for centuries. The next reading introduces you to an example of this from Brazil.

4.2 Traditions of multimodal practices

Section 3 has already introduced the idea that wider social processes, including cultural practices, shape the ways we use language and create meaning. However, the introduction of the technology of writing interacts with traditional cultural practices and can be generative or transformative. Literacy can transform practices from ‘vision’ to paper: this new literacy is then adapted into its own multimodal cultural identity.

Swanwick (2002) highlighted a number of issues relevant to both deaf and hearing children, as they learned to write in English. The deaf children she studied had varying degrees of deafness and varying proficiency in British Sign Language (BSL). Some had hearing parents and siblings; some did not.

Swanwick pointed out that deaf children learning to write English have to shift between, and make sense of, three modes of communication simultaneously: sign language – visual; English – spoken; English – written. Monolingual hearing children only have to cope with two. Some of these deaf children may have a visual-gestural code as their ‘inner speech’, thus making it harder for them to translate into written English than their hearing or partially deaf counterparts, whose inner speech is spoken English. Swanwick noted that differences between the two languages, such as the importance of facial gesture and word order, make the literacy development of deaf children very different from the biliteracy development of hearing children. Some meanings in BSL, moreover, are not amenable to direct translation.

Swanwick concluded that the children used a variety of strategies to write their stories in English, and suggested that those with more developed speaking skills appeared to find the writing task easier, as they can think in English rather than only in BSL.

4.3 Widening interest in multimodal texts

As an academic area of study, multimodality has attracted increasing interest over the last decade or so. This interest stems from a number of factors, including:

  • the number and type of multimodal texts has increased dramatically
  • we need to understand and be ‘literate’ in reading multimodal texts
  • we need to understand how and why such texts are produced.

4.3.1 The increase in multimodal texts

We are accustomed to certain types of multimodal texts, such as films, television and advertising. These have been studied in terms of the semiotic modes they use. In the case of advertisements, the research agenda is often to unravel and make explicit the strategies that are being used to persuade us to buy the product. Advertisements frequently encourage us to make links between semiotic modes which are actually present in the text (e.g., words and pictures) and further semiotic modes which are not (an image of snow-covered mountains is equated to the taste of yoghurt or the smell of chocolate, for example).

As well as these more ‘traditional’ texts, however, computers have rapidly increased the extent and range of multimodal communication we encounter. Unlike early computers which required written commands to be entered, all modern computer systems use desktop screens with visual icons that users click to start programs. Programs themselves rely on the use of button bars (icons) to perform most functions, and if we use CD-ROMs or the internet we are immediately immersed in multimodality – sounds, images, video clips, radio programmes, music.

4.3.2 Understanding multimodal texts

Being surrounded by such texts, it is important that we understand how meaning is derived from individual elements in a text, such as words, pictures and sounds, and how the meanings of these elements interact to form a whole.

Many researchers believe that such an understanding of multimodal texts is so important that it should be a central part of literacy pedagogy. The New London Group (or Multiliteracies Project), whom we briefly mentioned in section 2.3, first published ‘A pedagogy of multiliteracies: designing social futures’ in 1996. It sets out a pedagogy for ‘multiliteracies’ aimed at broadening traditional conceptions of literacy to encompass multimodal communication. The authors give their reasons for advocating a broad definition of literacy as follows:

First, we want to extend the idea and scope of literacy pedagogy to account for the context of our culturally and linguistically diverse and increasingly globalised societies, for the multifarious cultures that interrelate and the plurality of texts that circulate. Second, we argue that literacy pedagogy now must account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies. This includes understanding and competent control of representational forms that are becoming increasingly significant in the overall communications environment, such as visual images and their relationship to the written word – for instance, visual design in desktop publishing or the interface of visual and linguistic meaning in multimedia. Indeed, this second point relates closely back to the first; the proliferation of communications channels and media supports and extends cultural and subcultural diversity. As soon as our sights are set on the objective of creating the learning conditions for full social participation, the issue of differences become critically important. How do we ensure that differences of culture, language, and gender are not barriers to educational success? And what are the implications of these differences for literacy pedagogy?

New London Group, 1996, p. 61

The authors argue that literacy pedagogy must take account of the different literacy demands made on students in an increasingly culturally diverse world, where future employment depends less on manual skills and more on communication skills. The purpose of education, they argue, is to equip students with the skills to participate fully in social and economic life.

These are broad and ambitious aims. Small studies into how children begin to engage with literacy support them, however. Millard and Marsh (2001) looked into the relationship between children’s visual literacy skills and emergent writing, and teacher responses to their pupils’ drawings. They found that drawings, although often a vital part of the child’s communication of a story and its significance, were largely ignored or seen as an unimportant part of the transition into ‘proper writing’. Millard and Marsh state that, increasingly, pressures on teachers to achieve certain standards in writing mean that an important part of children’s literacy development is being overlooked. The effect on boys, in particular, was to engender lower motivation and achievement (Millard and Marsh, 2001, p. 55).

Coles and Hall (2001) consider how contemporary texts often require different ways of reading than do conventional books, with their linear and ordered reading paths – from left to right in English, for example. They looked at some modern children’s books which break down these traditional pathways and subvert our expectations – by having characters break out of the story to speak to the reading child, or by having the Big Bad Wolf defend himself in an alternative version of the Three Little Pigs fairytale, or by weaving together different narratives which require the reader to make choices to proceed with the story. Coles and Hall describe these as displaying the fun, parody and irony of postmodernism:

The search for ‘true’ gives way to playfulness where coherence is formed by constantly unfolding meanings, and expressed through choices the reader makes.

Coles and Hall, 2001, p. 112

The term ‘postmodernism’ is sometimes used interchangedly with poststructuralism which you met in section 3, but is used by Coles and Hall to convey a perceived sense of the precariousness of meaning-making in texts (see Graddol, 1994, pp. 17–19).

Children also regularly interact with websites and periodicals, which make similar demands on them. Because reading in these texts is non-linear, and readers have to actively engage with them rather than passively consume them, the authors argue that there are implications for how reading is approached in school:

[T]he reading curriculum, and associated assessment criteria, still promote a linear view of reading, and rarely promote the kinds of literacy which are required in the workplace and in the home.

Coles and Hall, 2001, p. 112

4.3.3 Understanding how and why texts are produced

The forms that texts take are often closely related to their means of production, and the intentions of the producers, which are shaped by political and commercial forces, or sometimes simply by certain views of the world (ideologies). It is important to be aware of these forces and ask questions of texts, such as who produced it and why? What is its purpose? What views does it portray or reject? This is not to argue that texts are intrinsically sinister; rather that authors/producers have a purpose which is not always apparent, and which may suppress alternatives or guide our interpretation of the text. This ideological approach (involving often quite detailed critique of texts) has been an important one over the last three decades, and has been taken up by social scientists and linguists in particular.

4.4 The notion of ‘design’

A key concept in the Multiliteracies Project and within writings on multimodality is that of ‘design’, a term increasingly used by those involved in research into multimodal texts, such as Kress and van Leeuwen (2001). This use of the term differs from more usual and commonsensical notions of design – such as the use of space or layout in ‘interior design’ – although it encompasses these meanings as well. The term ‘design’ in multimodal research signals a shift away from a focus on verbal language alone, and a move forward from a focus on critique and ideological stances in texts. Design, ‘the organisation of what is to be articulated into a blueprint for production’ (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001, p. 50), implies that we are all increasingly able to have greater control over the texts we produce, and have a wider range of semiotic modes to select from when we communicate. The term is still used in much of the literature, however, interchangeably with ‘design’ in its more commonsensical way. We will return to the concept of ‘design’ at several points in this section.

This more dual notion of ‘design’ mirrors in some ways the dual meanings of discourse – both concrete and abstract – discussed in earlier sections. Both meanings of ‘design’, and both meanings of ‘discourse’, need to be considered in multimodal texts. So far in this unit we have discussed discourses in terms of the verbal mode of communication. It is also possible to identify them in operation in the visual. For example, Kress and van Leeuwen (2001) analyse photographs of children’s bedrooms taken from House Beautiful magazine, with the accompanying text. If we focus on the design of the bedroom in the everyday, more concrete, sense of the term, we might talk about descriptive details: colours, where things are, what’s there. This descriptive detail is important in multimodal research and analysis. But so too is the more abstract notion of design: constructions of childhood, family, etc.

Kress and van Leeuwen show how the bedroom furniture, use of colour, and layout impose or imply certain types of activities in the room (a child’s sofa is for reading, pegs are set at a low height for children to hang up their own clothes, and so on). The photographs therefore encode discourses about childhood, homes, families and gender. The design presents as normal and conventional certain idealised Western models of children’s behaviour: they will play or read quietly in such spaces, away from adults who have better things to do, and they will tidy up after themselves. Kress and van Leeuwen point out that not all cultures separate children from adults in these ways, nor do they design spaces for these specific activities. They also note that the design of the bedrooms is highly gendered, and link this to conventionalised notions of appropriate behaviour for boys and girls: girls read, sing, dance and dress up, whereas boys play with trains and toys. A desk is also shown.

This children’s bedroom is clearly a pedagogical tool, a medium for communicating to the child, in the language of interior design, the qualities (already complex: ‘bold’, yet also ‘sunny’ and ‘cheerful’), the pleasures (‘singing and dancing with your friends’), the duties (orderly management of possessions and, eventually, ‘work’), and the kind of future her parents desire for her.

Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001, p. 15

Multimodal texts can guide our reading and interaction with them in other ways. Researchers have noted, for example, that encyclopaedias produced on CD-ROMs can be quite restrictive in terms of how they can be used, what information is available, and how people and events are represented. Luke (2000) sees a major challenge for education in mediating electronic texts:

Literacy requirements have changed and will continue to change as new technologies come on the marketplace and quickly blend into our everyday private and work lives. And unless educators take a lead in developing appropriate pedagogies for these new electronic media and forms of communication, corporate experts will be the ones to determine how people will learn, what they learn, and what constitutes literacy. For instance, a quick look through any of today’s most popular CD-ROM encyclopaedias (e.g., Microsoft’s Encarta) shows how limited entries on, for example, ‘Australia’ or ‘Aborigines’ are; how ideas are connected by lateral links and pathways which exclude other knowledge options; and how the software in fact ‘teaches’ the user-learner certain cognitive mapping strategies. Many of these best-selling American-authored encyclopaedias are in use in Australian schools and households. But even Australian-authored educational CD-ROMs reproduce the same old tired narratives on, for instance, bushrangers framed in mythologies of male heroes, and narratives of colonialism framed in mythologies of settlement instead of invasion. The point is that today’s corporate software designers can easily become the literacy and pedagogy experts of tomorrow. This is not to say that many educational products on the market today are pedagogically unsound or lack innovative teaching-learning methods. But it is to suggest that educators need to become familiar with the many issues at stake in the ‘information revolution’ so that we know how and where we must intervene with positive and critical strategies for Multiliteracies teaching, and how to make the best and judicious use of the many multimedia resources available.

Luke, 2000, p. 71

Zammit and Callow (1999) analysed in detail screens from two educational CD-ROMs (The ANIMALS!, based on San Diego Zoo, and the Encarta encyclopaedia). They compared the introductory screens (splash screens) and a page of information from each CD about koala bears. The authors were interested in the ideological positions set up within the CD-ROM texts, in how information was presented as factual or questionable, in implicit or explicit hierarchical structures, and in how the design encourages particular ways of navigation through the text. The ANIMALS!, for example, uses predominantly visual icons, with many symbolic abstract images, and discourages individual keyword searching – this CD-ROM prefers visitors to go on a pre-defined tour of the zoo. Encarta, on the other hand, uses both verbal text and visual icons and encourages topic-specific searching and navigation. Zammit and Callow demonstrate the complexity of reading positions required by CD-ROMs, even on a single screen. They advocate providing students with critical evaluative tools for use with such multimodal texts.

Van Leeuwen (2000) looks at a different aspect of educational databases on CD-ROM. He is interested in how visual and verbal information is presented, and what sorts of information are presented in each mode. He analysed a Microsoft CD-ROM, Dangerous Creatures, which uses a number of ‘guides’ who lead users through the database. Van Leeuwen notes that the visual mode is used in a similar way throughout the tours, whereas the verbal text differs considerably; and he questions whether the various guides leading users through the database represent different points of view on events. Overall, he suggests that the apparently different viewpoints are actually packaged consistently – while they may appear heterogeneous on the surface, there is an underlying conformity. Van Leeuwen links this to practices in other spheres of life, such as radio broadcasts which, while admitting wide variations of accent and musical style in their programmes, all tend to follow a similar overall format. Children using this CD-ROM may follow different routes, but they are nonetheless learning social and textual patterns which are remarkably conformist.

Activity 9 Evaluating CD-ROMs

Timing: Allow up to 2 hours

If you use CD-ROMs for teaching, or have one at home, or can use one in a library, look to see whether you can apply van Leeuwen’s points to them. Look particularly for:

  1. Any ‘division of labour’ between visual and verbal modes: what sort of information is presented in each?
  2. How are you encouraged to engage with the narrative, and how restricted are you in terms of following your path(s) through the material?
  3. What conclusions are you able to draw from this?

It is claimed that technology has played a hugely facilitating role in democratising the processes of text production, for those who have access to it. Desktop publishing and word processing programs certainly make it easy for users to change typefaces, layout, emphasis; they can add images (often supplied pre-drawn); they can digitise photographs and change almost anything about them; they can send audio clips and video clips, and so on. Web authoring programs are also widely available. A vast number of non-professionals have thus been handed the tools of individualised text production. As we will see in the next part, however, even larger numbers of people have no such tools.

Our increasing engagement with multimodal texts in more and more areas of our lives, as well as the need to create them ourselves, comes largely from the widespread use of technology. Before we turn to look at that in more detail, however, we outline some more general ways in which technology influences language use and linguistic forms.

4.5 Information technology and language: Access and participation

Just as not all multimodality derives from technology, not all technology produces multimodal texts. This part provides a brief outline of some of the ways in which developments in information and communications technology are linked to changes in language, as well as how we communicate with each other via technology. We have insufficient space here to discuss in detail the implications – political, social, commercial – of such developments, but you may wish to follow these up yourself. Some connections between language and technology are pretty banal and unproblematic; others are profoundly political or financial in nature, and have to do with the globalising business practices of large corporations, and concomitant effects on smaller local communities, or the status of minority languages. It is clear, for example, that the availability of information and communications technology is not evenly spread around the world – there are vast inequalities in terms of access and use. Accurate statistics on internet use are difficult to find, but it is possible to find some broad indicators such as number of users worldwide, and the languages being used by them. The website Nua Online, for example, makes what it calls an ‘educated guess’ as to numbers of people online, based on results of a range of surveys. The figures for February 2002 are shown in Table 4.

Table 4 Numbers of people online
World total 544.2 million
Africa 4.15 million
Asia / Pacific 157.49 million
Europe 171.35 million
Middle East 4.65 million
Canada and USA 181.23 million
Latin America 25.33 million
Nua Online, 2002

Others give figures in terms of percentage of population, which is more useful for drawing conclusions about comparative levels of access, although still not very precise about countries. For example, Singapore’s high number of users is not obvious from the United Nations Development Programme’s ‘Annual Report’ (see Table 5).

Table 5 Internet users by region
Percentage of population
United States 54.3%
High Income OECD (excluding US) 28.2%
Eastern Europe and CIS 3.9%
Latin America and the Caribbean 3.2%
East Asia and the Pacific 2.3%
Arab States 0.6%
Sub-Saharan Africa 0.4%
South Asia 0.4%
United Nations Development Programme, 2001

According to Global Reach, an internet site containing information about e-commerce and demographic data, the online language populations in December 2001 were as shown in Figure 1.

Global Reach, 2001
Figure 1 Online language populations

The data in Figure 1 is problematic, of course: it shows what the site calls ‘native speakers’ of each language, but doesn’t show how many people are speakers of more than one language; nor does it show actual internet ‘traffic’, that is, the amount of communication actually taking place in each language. However, it is clear that some developing countries are more or less excluded from the ‘technological revolution’, as Rassool points out:

[T]he cultural and economic heritage of colonialism and the reinforcement of inequalities in postcolonial contexts, have contributed to the fact that many developing countries, especially in Africa, still lack the necessary infrastructure to support the development of an adequate industrial base, let alone having the capacity to enter the technological development paradigm as equal competitors in the global market place.

Rassool, 1999, p.145

Even where technology is available, it does not necessarily bring an appropriate model of communications to countries with different cultural and traditional practices. Many countries still struggle to provide basic education, with even chalk and slates being in short supply in many areas (see Rassool, 1999, for more about development and education).

In the developed world, however, the introduction of new information technology always brings renewed claims that it is revolutionising the ways we communicate with each other. New media of communication have always brought with them new linguistic forms, and have required us to adapt established practices in order to use them. Often this is because of the limitations of new technology (think of the short, pared-down style of writing used on the early telegraph and then telex machines, or the many symbols and abbreviations used now in text messaging on mobile phones). There are also some less obvious, but interesting, effects of technology on language itself, or on the choice of which language to use.

4.5.1 Computer keyboards

In the early days of computers it was possible to buy a range of keyboards, each suited to typing at speed in different languages. One now remains – the QWERTYUIOP keyboard – which was designed to enhance typing in English (Granville et al., 1998). It is of course possible to install software to enable faster keyboarding in other languages, and plastic templates can be laid over QWERTYUIOP keyboards to rearrange the letters to suit other languages. But the ‘English’ keyboard is now ‘normal’, and anything else is in some way derived or adapted from it. This dominance of keyboards designed to work well for the English language could therefore be seen as a potential contributing factor in the growing dominance of English and the concurrent decline of endangered minority languages.

4.5.2 HTML source code

The world wide web exercises a similarly subtle form of control over the ways web authors can create their texts. Yates (1996) notes that the source code (the ‘building blocks’ of a website which users arrange to create their pages) is in English, because the technology was developed in the United States and the vast majority of web users are still in the USA and Europe. Speakers of other languages wishing to create websites, therefore, are forced to do this at least partially through English, even if their actual website is displayed in another language. The same can be said for most computer code.

4.5.3 Working in call centres

Call centres, through which many of the service sector industries such as banks and insurance companies route all calls from customers, have become ubiquitous. Staff working in them frequently speak to customers according to pre-defined scripts (Goodman, 1996; Cameron, 2000), and nearly all aspects of communication with customers are prescribed (order of questions, terms of address, salutation and so on). Telecommunications technology allows incoming calls from any part of a country to be automatically redirected to call centres elsewhere, without the caller realising this. Some call centres serving British and American companies are located elsewhere, often in countries such as India which have a large pool of English-speaking graduates. In April 2001 the Financial Times reported how employees in India’s call centres, who deal primarily with callers from the USA, are trained to sound as if they are working just around the corner from the customer:

With low rupee costs and high dollar revenues, Indian call centres are about 40 per cent cheaper to run than US ones ...

In everything but pay, however, Indian call centres try to be the same as US ones. Foremost is the acquired accent of call centre workers. They are trained to speak like natives of, say, Texas or California because this is home for the millions of customers of the big US telecoms, healthcare and financial services groups that outsource their ‘customer response services’ to Indian companies.

The difficulty arises with people who have grown up speaking a vernacular tongue, such as Kannada, the language indigenous to the southern city of Bangalore, India’s software capital. Many south Indians unconsciously retreat into their own language, says Mr Aneesh Nair, managing director of the Bangalore’s Call Centre College, a private tutor for aspiring call centre workers. This ‘mother tongue interference’, he says, ‘can disrupt a conversation on a disputed insurance premium’.

The teaching at the colleges is designed to neutralise an existing accent rather than add a new one. English is broken down into phonetics and pupils are taught how an Indian and an American pronounce the same words, such as ‘value’. Indians render this as ‘walue’, leading to a costly failure of communications with a US client in a telemarketing campaign. Computer based tuition is a large part of the four week training, with courses designed by US language specialists.

Financial Times, 2001, pp. 2–3

There are clearly tensions here for the call centre staff: on the one hand technology brings employment possibilities with it; on the other, staff pay a price in terms of having to neutralise their accent (and with it an aspect of their social identity). As well as permitting the existence of such businesses, technology is also used in staff training. Staff are taught about US culture:

Employees are expected to have conversations that enhance the US client’s relationship with the customer. They should know that snow is rare in Florida – and therefore not to ask a Florida caller about winter clothes – as well as be informed about bearish sentiment on the Nasdaq.

ibid., 2001, p.3

Claims about the democratisation of design, and control over how we communicate, are difficult to square with the demands made of some call centre staff. Their language use, and in the example described above, even their accent, is strictly prescribed and rigidly controlled.

4.5.4 Text messaging

Mobile telephone networks have brought us the Short Message Service (SMS), often known as ‘text messaging’ or simply ‘texting’. SMS is now a hugely popular means of communication. In the UK it is largely associated with teenagers, but elsewhere it has been instrumental in political activity. For example, Richard Lloyd Parry (2001) wrote in The Independent about the text messaging epidemic in the Philippines in January 2001, when the technology was used to organise repeated mass protests at a moment’s notice, culminating in the overthrow of the corrupt government of President Estrada. These text messages were predominantly in English.

In the UK the debate about texting usually revolves around supposed falling standards of literacy. This concern stems from a technological limitation, as users are restricted to 160 characters per message. This, combined with the difficulty of using a small keypad and the necessity of repetitively pressing buttons, encourages users to abbreviate each word, or use symbols, as much as they possibly can. We therefore see a return of traditional rebus-like wordplay (CUL8R used for ‘see you later’, for example) as well as single consonants replacing double ones and often the complete omission of vowels (HPY for ‘happy’), and so on. Evidence about the ‘falling standards of literacy’ engendered by the use of SMS is still, at this stage, largely anecdotal.

4.5.5 Email and computer mediated communication

Email is the most popular of the new communications technologies (Baron, 1998, p. 134), and, along with computer mediated communication (CMC) more generally, is of great interest to linguists. Baron traces the history of email back to the development of the telegraph in 1838 and the telephone in 1876, followed by telex and fax. She shows how the limitations and capabilities of technology have a clear influence on the forms of language we use when communicating with them – the first email messages were brief because they had to fit on a single screen. Baron also notes that a period of maturation is necessary with any new means of communication, for users to familiarise themselves and become more conversational in style (early telephone users tended to read their messages quite formally, as if delivering a speech). This is currently taking place with CMC, as linguistic and iconic conventions become established and the medium ‘settles down’ into its own set of norms and rules (‘netiquette’).

A current issue in language research is the place CMC occupies on the continuum between speech and writing. Table 6 summarises some of the main differences; as you read the table, think about aspects of your own email communication.

Table 6 Differences between speech and writing
Speech Writing
1 Time-bound, dynamic, transient. Both participants usually present; speaker has a particular addressee in mind. 1 Space-bound, static, permanent. Writer usually distant from reader, and often does not know addressee.
2 Spontaneous and fast. Sentence boundaries often unclear, constructions looser, repetition occurs. 2 Time-lag occurs between production and reception. Organisation and expression more careful.
3 Facial expression and gestures used to aid meaning. Deictic expressions referring directly to the situation are often used (e.g. that one, in here, right now). 3 Participants cannot rely on context to aid meaning; no immediate feedback. Deictic expressions often avoided.
4 Contractions (isn’t, he’s) common. Sentence construction lengthy and complex. Use of nonsense, obscenity and slang may occur. 4 Multiple instances of subordination in same sentence; elaborately balanced syntactic patterns. Use of certain words never spoken (e.g. long names for chemical compounds).
5 Speech suited to social or ‘phatic’ functions, such as passing the time of day. Good for expressing social relationships, personal opinions. 5 Writing suited to recording of facts and communication of ideas. Written records easy to keep; good for tabulation and so on.
6 Speech can be rethought and qualified, but errors cannot be withdrawn. Interruptions and overlapping are normal. 6 Errors can be eliminated by redrafting. Interruptions are invisible in the final product.
7 Unique features include the nuances of intonation, contrasts of loudness, tempo, rhythm, pause, tones of voice. 7 Unique features include pages, lines, capitalisation, spatial organisation and aspects of punctuation. Some genres of writing (e.g. timetables, graphs) can only be assimilated visually.
Source: adapted from Crystal, 2001, pp.26-8
Activity 10 Language in emails and CMC
Timing: Allow up to 2 hours

Using some of the emails you have sent or received, consider the following questions:

  1. How many of the features in Table 6 can you identify?
  2. How easy is it to place your own CMC on a continuum between ‘speech-like’ and ‘writing-like’ language?
  3. How do contextual factors (situation, social relationships, level of formality) affect the language used?

In many ways CMC is more ‘speech-like’, with its immediacy, and its tendency to informal style, abbreviations and contractions. In other ways, however, CMC is more like writing. It can be made more formal, it has permanence, it can be reflected upon and returned to. It can have similar status to other written texts, and be used as evidence in legal cases and industrial tribunals. The absence of gesture and facial expression in CMC, and often lack of personal knowledge of the addressee, makes it potentially difficult to gauge others’ reactions. People frequently use emoticons in CMC to disambiguate the meanings of their messages – such as :-( to convey frowning, or ‘-) for winking.

Mercer (2000) looks at some further aspects of computer mediated communication. He considers how the concept of ‘community’ has shifted from traditional groups of people living and working together, to much more disparate collections of people who have shared interests but who may never meet. In practice we are all members of multiple communities, of course, and communications technologies play a vital role in creating and maintaining such groupings. Mercer describes a group,, who form a community of music fans on the internet. There are millions of such groups, each with their own discourse, acronyms and jargon which requires newcomers to become acculturated. Mercer goes on to describe some linguistic aspects of computer mediated communication (CMC) in synchronous and asynchronous conferencing, and email.

Technological developments, then, are sometimes linked in small but significant ways with changes in language forms themselves, because they restrict some means of communicating, or encourage others. We now move on to look further at information technology and education and the new literacy needs it is engendering for teachers and learners.

4.6 Information technology, literacy and education

Literacy has always depended on technology of some sort, even if this comprises pencil and paper, or chalk and slate. Lankshear et al. (2000) note that:

What literacy is in a particular place and time is necessarily related to the technologies available locally [...] how people wrote, how much they wrote, what they wrote, why they wrote, who could read what they wrote, and when they wrote, varied in association with the literacy technology they were using.

Lankshear et al., 2000, p. 25

The authors advise caution rather than wholehearted endorsement of information technology simply because it is new, but firmly believe teachers should position themselves to take advantage of newly available technologies in the classroom.

4.7 Research focus

It will now be clear that a multimodal approach can mean many different things. But it signals that researchers start from the premise that language-as-text alone is not the only, or necessarily the most important, thing to pay attention to.

Researcher stance is an important subject to look at here. The increasing interest in communication as a multimodal phenomenon clearly illustrates that the nature of phenomenon under study will vary according to what the researcher think s/he is looking at, or chooses to look at. If in researching, for example, classroom interaction the focus is only on verbal exchange, then the significance of non-verbal – visual, sound or physical movement – will not be discussed and may thus be indirectly construed as irrelevant. Thus the recent multimodal approach to communication not only raises questions about the nature of the object under study, but also about what we can refer to as the researcher’s stance: that is the what s/he chooses to focus on and thus make important, and the research processes by which s/he decides to focus on a particular element.

4.8 Summary

This section has drawn on the work of educational theorists and researchers, many of whom are linguists, and on multimodal studies more generally. We introduced the concept of multimodality, and explained why an understanding of multimodal texts – texts that use more than one semiotic mode – is important for teaching and learning, as well as more generally in everyday life. We also discussed design, a concept increasingly used in research into multimodal texts.

Information technology in its various forms is instrumental in allowing us to communicate through multimodal texts, and developments in information and communications technology are accelerating the need for us to become multiliterate in order to be adept at ‘reading’ such texts and understanding how they present information and why, and also at producing them ourselves. We considered the meaning of community in the context of increased use of computer mediated communications. We also looked at ways in which such technology usefully can be drawn upon to enhance the processes of teaching and learning, and pointed to some problematic issues around these new literacy practices, particularly those of uneven patterns of participation and access to technology. While some theorists and researchers embrace the spread of communications technologies and suggest it can and probably will enrich the lives of all, others point out that traditional forms of multimodality can become increasingly marginalised and undervalued.

We concluded this section by considering some ways in which researchers are exploring and analysing multimodality, focusing on the importance of space and researcher stance in carrying out research.

4.9 Reflection activity 4

Reflection activity 4: Identity, multimodality, IT

Select and analyse a multimodal text which has either a formal or informal educational purpose and, drawing upon the section 4 materials, discuss the effectiveness of the analysis undertaken.

You might like to write down your thoughts in the form of an essay aiming for about 2000 words (excluding appendices and references).


In answering this question you should outline what you understand by a ‘multimodal text’. In asking you to both apply and reflect upon a particular analytical framework this assignment gives you both some practical experience and an opportunity to explore the ideas and associated readings in section 4.

It is essential that you select a multimodal text which is both appropriate to the task and practicable for the purposes of analysis. Do remember, however, that emphasis here should be on critical discussion substantiated by reference to section 4.


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The material acknowledged below is Proprietary and used under licence (not subject to Creative Commons Licence). See Terms and Conditions.

The material acknowledged below is contained in

Goodman, S., Lillis, T., Maybin, J. and Mercer, N (eds) (2003) . ‘Language, literacy and education: a reader. Trentham Books, Stoke on Trent, 2003. Published in association with The Open University. © The Open University.

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Table 4: ©Computerscope Ltd.

Table 5: ©Human Development Report Office / UNDP.


Figure 1: ©2002 Global Reach.