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.

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

2.1.2 Literacy and ways of reasoning

2.2.1 Autonomous and ideological models of literacy