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.

2.2.3 Literacy or literacies?

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