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 Perspective 2: Literacy as social practice

2.2.2 Literacy and cultural capital