2.4 The discourses of literacy

In this section we have focused on key debates surrounding the theorisation and teaching of literacy. In many ways, this section can be said to have represented different discourses of literacy: that is, ways of talking and thinking about literacy in society. Most obviously we have focused on academic discourses about literacy, but clearly many discourses of literacy exist. The range of discourses is illustrated in Table 3.

Activity 4 Discourses of literacy

Timing: Allow about 1 hour

In relation to Table 3, consider:

  1. Does this kind of diversity of discourses about literacy match your own experience? If not, how does it differ? Which other discourse on literacy do you think contributes to your conception of literacy?
  2. Are there any ways that you consider the distinctions made in Table 3 need to be treated with caution, modified, or elaborated?
  3. What would you want to gather, in the ways of evidence, to validate or elaborate the existence of the discourses in the table?
  4. In what ways, if any, do you think your discourses on literacy may have shifted by studying this unit?

Table 3 Discourses on literacy in the UK

Popular mass discourse Discourse of policy and management Discourse of practice Academic discourse
Example Example Example Example
Newspaper headlines: Director of Education of an English borough: Primary teachers: University researchers:
‘Schools fail to teach basics of reading’ (Daily Telegraph, 23.04.1991) ‘Management for change is what we call it. I want to ensure a successful implementation of the National Literacy Strategy in [this city]’ ‘Children come to school with no language and parents show no interest…’ ‘Recent work in literacy studies suggests that literacy and the literate person and social constructions…’ (Carrington and Luke, 1997)
‘Study shows half of adults illiterate’ (The Guardian, 21.01.1997, cited by Hamilton, 2000) ‘The NLS (National Literacy Strategy) is squeezing science out…’
Carrington and Luke, 1997

You may have decided that the distinctions between the types of discourse in Table 3 are too simplistic. For example, as we have seen, there is far more than one academic discourse on literacy. The differences between discourses are evident in the particular technical terminology used: we have seen how New Literacy Studies, for example, uses common words with specific meanings (‘practices’) and neologisms (‘literacies’).

There are also different discourses within mass media discourse, for example between broadsheet and tabloid newspapers; and specialised ‘educational supplements’. Nevertheless, the table gives an indication of the variety of discourses available on literacy and some of the key positions adopted. A typical stand in media discourse, for example, is the emphasis on literacy as a problem (Hamilton, 2000), often equated with some kind of disease: for example, ‘the scourge of illiteracy’. This medical metaphor can also be found in educational and academic discourses; the term ‘diagnostic essay’ is used in many institutions of higher education to refer to an essay that students are asked to write so that tutors can assess their skills in essay writing. Discourses are not hermetically sealed units and metaphors of one discourse on literacy (e.g. popular newspapers) are often drawn on or invoked in another (e.g. academic discussion).

The identification of different discourses on literacy has some interesting implications for researchers of language in education. As a research topic in itself, it can lead to a consideration of the ways that the concerns and goals of certain groups in society are embodied in the ways that topics are discussed and arguments are made (Fairclough, 1992; Edwards, 1997). And on a practical level it means that in investigating topics and disseminating the findings of research, we should not too easily assume a shared understanding of what literacy is amongst those who have an interest in it. The nature of discourses and the ways in which these can be investigated and analysed is taken up in more detail in section 3.

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

2.5 Research focus