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.

1.10 Reflection activity 1

2.1 Perspective 1: Literacy as cognitive skill