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.
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.