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Literacy Studies
David Barton and Carmen Lee

39.1 A TEXTUALLY-MEDIATED These two scenes demonstrate that reading and

SOCIAL WORLD writing activities are tied up with the particular
details of a situation and that literacy activities are
People today are constantly encountering written particular to a specific community at a specific
texts. Imagine the amount of reading and writing point in history. Using these everyday activities as
people might come across in a Western-style caf a starting point provides a distinct view of literacy.
such as Starbucks: walking towards the counter, The two scenes further illustrate several other
they might go through the menu, which might points. The first point to be made is that literacy
appear in the form of colourful handwriting on a impinges on people in their daily lives, whether or
chalkboard; someone might order a cup of decaf- not they regularly read books or do much writing.
feinated cappuccino and be given a receipt by the Literacy is embedded in these activities of ordi-
shop assistant, who then marks decaf with a pen nary life. It is not just a set of skills which are
on a paper cup. Around the place, people might be learnt or taught in school. They are carried out in
doing different things while enjoying their coffee: a wide variety of settings or domains. As seen in
a group of students might be sitting together and the above examples, much of the literacy in a caf
discussing a school project with a few reference may be quite unlike that encountered in a lecture
books lying on the table; at another table, a couple theatre. In addition, several people can be involved
might be talking about current affairs and refer- in reading or in writing, and they may participate
ring to a newspaper in front of them; some other in various ways, each treating the written word
people might be surfing the Web or reading their differently. There are many ways of reading in a
email by connecting their laptop computers to the particular situation with a particular text. The
free wireless network in the caf. various texts are recognized as distinct and are
As another example, we can think about the read in different ways there are many ways of
range of literacy-related activities in a university taking meaning from the text. Reading a menu,
lecture theatre: before the lecture begins, some taking notes in a lecture and writing text messages
students might be reviewing notes from the previ- on a mobile phone may all involve different
ous lecture, while others might be talking about participants acting in different ways.
their assignments. The lecturer then comes in and The central argument of our approach to
sets up a PowerPoint presentation on the screen, literacy is that we live in a textually-mediated
and talks about the bullet points on each slide social world, where texts are part of the glue of
based on a set of notes which he or she had written social life. Texts are central to social interaction
before the lecture. Students might be taking notes and much spoken language is performed in the
as they are listening to the lecturer some might context of written language and takes into account
prefer writing notes on their laptop computers, this textual context. Understanding what people
while others might scribble handwritten notes in a do with texts, including both page-based and
notepad. At the same time, some students might screen-based texts, and what texts do to people
not be paying attention to the lecture at all they is an essential part of understanding contemporary
might be checking mobile phone messages under social change. Language and literacy are at
the desk or surfing the Web. the heart of much of current social change

because it is language and literacy which structure the writing system is not based on an alphabet,
knowledge and enable communication. The field such as Chinese and Japanese, literacy is often
of Literacy Studies, or New Literacy Studies, pro- broadly associated with the ability to read and
vides a powerful lens for examining the changing write, or knowledge of words; illiteracy in both
nature of texts and discourses in our contemporary Chinese and Japanese has negative connotations:
society. wen mang in Chinese and man mou in Japanese
In the rest of the chapter, we provide an over- both literally mean sentence-blindness.
view of this distinct approach to literacy. We first Nevertheless, in English literacy has become a
review various definitions of literacy and outline unifying term across a range of disciplines for
the central ideas in the social practice view of lit- new views of reading and writing; there has been
eracy. In particular, we describe the two major such a growth of study in the area that it is now
units of analysis in Literacy Studies literacy referred to as Literacy Studies or New Literacy
practices and literacy events. We then consider Studies.
ways of researching literacy by reviewing studies
in different traditions and areas of interest in the
field. We also discuss some recent issues in
Literacy Studies, concentrating on the materiality 39.2 A SOCIAL PRACTICE VIEW
of texts, the relationship between globalization and OF LITERACY
literacies, as well as the impact of new technolo-
gies on literacy practices. The chapter concludes The field of Literacy Studies has come into being
by discussing the importance of studying both texts in the past 20 years. In many ways, Literacy
and practices and how we can combine methods Studies grew out of a dissatisfaction with concep-
of discourse analysis with the ethnographic tions of reading and writing which were prevalent
approaches of literacy studies to understand the in education in all areas, from early childhood
textually-mediated social world. reading to adult literacy programmes: these were
conceptions of reading and writing which were
based on oversimplistic psychological models.
Defining literacy The critique has been made from a range of disci-
plinary vantage points and in a range of ways: it
Looking for a precise dictionary definition of can be found in Baynham (1995), Barton (2007),
a complex concept such as literacy may be an Bloome and Green (1992), Gee (1996), Giroux
impossible task. We are using the term to cover (1983) and Willinsky (1990), as well as in the
new broader views of reading and writing, and work of Heath (1983), Scribner and Cole (1981)
that is how it is being used in several disciplines, and Street (1984), which have become classic
and in phrases like emergent literacy, used in studies in the field. Willinsky talked of the New
education. As already pointed out, it is extended in Literacy and Gee (1996) first referred to the New
another way to mean competent and knowledgeable Literacy Studies. The critique of earlier views of
in specialized areas, with terms like computer literacy, or autonomous approaches to literacy
literacy, economic literacy and political literacy. (Street, 1984), has been well rehearsed in these
People talk of different literacies, so that different publications, opposing psychological approaches
media can be discussed and, for example, film to language which fail to take account of social
literacy can then be contrasted with print literacy. phenomena and critiquing inadequate educational
Other dictionary examples of the terms include views of literacy which do not look beyond peda-
emotional literacy, cultural illiteracy and a house gogy and the classroom.
being described as having an illiterate design. A key to new views of literacy is situating
In other languages of the world, there also exist reading and writing in its social context. Literacy
words that are equivalent to literacy, illiteracy, or Studies starts from peoples uses of literacy,
literate. However, translation of these terms often not from their formal learning of literacy. It also
brings confusions and contradictions. For example, starts from everyday life and from the everyday
the word literacy does not easily translate into activities which people are involved in. It is
French, while there is no easy English equivalent important to stress that education has not been
of the French sense of criture as writings, nor of used as a starting point and by the time the discus-
illetrisme as unlettered. Analphabetisme is also sion gets to schools and learning there will be
used in French for illiterate and words equivalent a different view of what literacy is and what
to unalphabetized exist in other languages, includ- learning is.
ing Spanish, Italian, Greek and Danish. Note The social approach to literacy starts out
that it is a partisan word: in its make-up there is from three areas of inquiry: the social, the psycho-
the idea that an alphabetic writing system is nec- logical and the historical. Barton (2007) has
essary in order to be literate. In languages where outlined the characteristics of such an integrated

theory of literacy, grouped under a set of eight drawn upon in literacy events which are mediated
headings: by written texts.
The two terms literacy practices and literacy
1 Literacy is a social activity and can best be events need to be explained. The first basic unit of
described in terms of peoples literacy practices analysis is that of event; there are all sorts of occa-
which they draw upon in literacy events. sions in everyday life where the written word has
2 People have different literacies which they make a role. We can refer to these as literacy events.
use of, associated with different domains of life. Talking in terms of literacy events is necessary to
Examining different cultures or historical periods describe how literacy is actually used in peoples
reveals more literacies. everyday lives. An obvious example of a literacy
3 Peoples literacy practices are situated in broader event is when an adult reads a story to a child at
social relations. This makes it necessary to bedtime. The bedtime story is an interesting liter-
describe the social settings of literacy events, acy event in that it is often a regular event with
including the ways in which social institutions repeated patterns of interaction. The term is
support particular literacies. broader than this though and includes any activity
4 Literacy is based upon a system of symbols. It is which involves the written word; for some events,
a symbolic system used for communication and especially within education, the explicit purpose
as such exists in relation to other systems of is learning, but for most literacy events this is not
information exchange. It is a way of representing so. In their everyday lives, people can be involved
the world to others. in a wide range of literacy events. On a typical
morning at work, for example, we might check
A literacy event is also embedded in our mental our email, listen to phone messages, and write
life; it forms and is formed by our awareness, notes in our diary while talking to a colleague
intentions and actions. Thus, we need a psycho- about a meeting agenda. These quite different lit-
logical view of literacy: eracy events are nested within each other with
micro and macro events; they are chained together
5 Literacy is a symbolic system used for represent- in sequences and they are networked across con-
ing the world to ourselves. Literacy is part of texts. Even in less text-based jobs such as those of
our thinking. It is part of the technology of cleaners and security guards, people often have to
thought. keep records of their activities; they follow written
6 We have awareness, attitudes and values with instructions and deal with written issues of health
respect to literacy and these attitudes and values and safety as well as records of their pay.
guide our actions. The notion of literacy event has its roots in the
sociolinguistic idea of speech events, which goes
Any literacy event has a history, both at the back at least to the work of Dell Hymes (1962). It
personal and at the cultural level: is used in relation to literacy by Anderson et al.
(1980) in a study of young children at home. They
7 Literacy has a history. Our individual life histories define a literacy event as being an occasion when
contain many literacy events from early child- a person attempts to comprehend or produce
hood onwards which the present is built upon. graphic signs, either alone or with others. Heath
We change and as children and adults are con- develops this, referring to literacy events generally
stantly learning about literacy. as being when talk revolves around a piece of
8 A literacy event also has a social history. Current writing (1983: 386). Elsewhere, she defines lit-
practices are created out of the past. eracy events as any occasion in which a piece of
writing is integral to the nature of the participants
Detailed elaboration of these eight propositions interactions and their interpretative processes
can be found in Barton (2007). In the following, (Heath, 1982: 50). This is important in demon-
we focus on three major issues which we believe strating that literacy has a role in so many
are essential in the understanding of a social view communicative activities. In raising children at
of literacy. home and teaching them in school there are often
regular repeated events involving the written word
and it is useful to focus on these literacy events in
Units of analysis: literacy events order to understand more about how children
and literacy practices learn to read and write.
The second central concept in Literacy Studies
The first important point to be made about the is literacy practices. There are common patterns
social approach to literacy is that literacy is a in using reading and writing in a particular situa-
social activity and can best be described in terms tion where people bring their cultural knowledge
of peoples literacy practices; these practices are to an activity. It is useful to refer to these ways of

using literacy as literacy practices. The term prac- a particular example from the Local Literacies
tices is used in different disciplines, and several research reported in Barton and Hamilton (1998),
researchers have applied the term directly to lit- a man is involved in a range of different sorts of
eracy, including the studies by Scribner and Cole literacy: he writes shopping lists and telephone
(1981) and by Street (1984) which have been messages; he uses the local library; he reads and
mentioned already. Scribner and Cole see the idea discusses the newspaper. At the library he partici-
as central and they discuss how practices can be pates in many different events and draws on a
seen as ways of using literacy which are carried range of practices: as well as reading books he
from one particular situation to another similar flicks quickly through the newspapers, sometimes
situation (1981: 2348). Another way of thinking renews books for friends he has recommended the
about it is to start from more general notions of books to, but claims never to read the notices in
social practices and to view literacy practices as the library. He sometimes looks up old newspa-
being the social practices associated with the writ- pers to read about himself and people he knows.
ten word. This can be done in order to see how In his home he has few books but he does have a
social institutions and the power relations they collection of books on local history, which he
support structure our uses of written language. For seems to use regularly. Involving quite different
example, critical discourse analysts explore the practices from a different domain of life, he is
notion of language as a set of social practices, in asked to write the occasional letter of reference
order to reveal how social institutions and power for former work colleagues in the fire service.
relations structure our uses of language, both Where these different practices cluster into
spoken and written, as in Fairclough (2003) and coherent groups, it is very useful to talk in terms
Wodak and Meyer (2009). of them as being different literacies. A literacy is
Together, events and practices are the two basic a stable, coherent, identifiable configuration of
units of analysis of the social activity of literacy. practices such as legal literacy, or the literacy of
Literacy events are the particular activities where specific workplaces. Literacies are identified cul-
literacy has a role; they may be regular repeated turally. Different literacies are associated with
activities. Literacy practices are the general cul- different domains of life such as home, school and
tural ways of utilizing literacy which people draw work. There are different places in life where
upon in a literacy event. Examples of literacy people act differently and use language differ-
events and practices can be found in many areas in ently. The social rules underlying peoples actions
life. For example, writing a letter is a literacy in these three places are different. The physical
event. In deciding where and when to write space the buildings and the layout of rooms is
the letter, how to write it, whether it should be typically different and time is broken up differently.
typewritten or handwritten, whether it should These are different domains and they give rise to
be delivered by post or by email, along with the different social practices meaning both the gen-
associated ways of writing, the letter writer makes eral ways of acting and how people individually
use of various literacy practices. act on particular occasions.
What counts as literate activity and what counts The starting point for detailed examination of
as a literacy event or a literacy practice is not literacy practices is to realize that literacy may be
straightforward; defining the limits and bounda- different in different domains and that school, for
ries of these concepts is particularly difficult for example, is but one domain of literacy activity.
those carrying out empirical research. First of all, Other domains may be just as significant. The
in many situations text and talk are mixed up, home is a particularly important domain in that it
especially with new technologies, and all activi- is the site for a wide range of activities and it is
ties are very multimodal with language and images where children typically first encounter literacy
intertwined. Nevertheless, often a good starting events. The home is the centre from which indi-
point for research into literacy practices is to viduals venture out into other domains (Klassen,
identify and examine literacy events. 1991: 43). Within a domain such as the home, one
can look in more detail and examine a wide range
of activities involving different literacies.
Domains of literacies Having been precise about identifying distinct
domains of activity, the reality is more fluid.
There are many ways of reading and writing, and When starting out, it may be useful to name home,
thus there is not one set of literacy practices. school and work as separate domains with their
An adult at home may engage in very different own distinctive practices and discourse communi-
practices at the same time: this person may be ties giving rise to particular literacies. In fact the
helping a child with homework, looking up an home is a site, a physical location, for all sorts of
entry in a diary, trying to fill out a tax form, read- activities. Different sorts of reading and writing
ing food labels, and searching the Internet. To take from many sources, including school and work,

are carried out in the home. The practices leak self-evident, and they form part of what is meant
from one domain to the other and there is much by writing. A social approach to literacy offers a
overlap. Nevertheless, home and school remain different view of communication from traditional
separate domains where certain literacy practices functional models which see it in terms of trans-
are sustained, nurtured and legitimized while mitters and receivers of messages, with writing
others are not. The same event might be valued and other technologies simply amplifying what
very differently in the two domains and have very spoken language can do. The point is that, with
different meaning to the participants. written language, we can do things we cannot do
with spoken. It does not just amplify spoken lan-
guage. It extends the functions of language, and
Literacy as communication enables us to do different things.

Literacy is part of communication and of reporting

the world to others. The relationship of reading
and writing to other forms of communication 39.3 RESEARCHING LITERACY
needs to be examined. First, there is the relation to PRACTICES
spoken language. Ideas about written language
have moved on considerably from viewing it as The view of literacy as being part of social prac-
speech which is written down. Written language tices which are inferred from events and mediated
has different functions from spoken language and by texts requires a certain methodology. In this
any choice between written and spoken usually section we first describe some methods that can
has other implications beyond a simple choice of be employed to research literacy practices, and
medium. Writing enables us to go much further outline some examples of studies which have
than with spoken language. Writing results in done this.
texts, where we are able to fix things in space and
time. Because it often is reproducible and open to
inspection, written language can be a powerful Research methods
form of language; we need to understand the ways
in which writing extends the possibilities of lan- Researching literacy practices relies on a method-
guage. It should be clear then that any view of ology of attention to detail which draws heavily
literacy is part of a theory of language and it is on ethnographic approaches. It involves the exam-
necessary here to clarify the relation between ination of particular events in order to understand
written and spoken language. broader practices. Researchers integrate a variety
Although they have different properties, written of methods, including observation, interviews,
and spoken language are not easy to separate in the analysis of texts and the use of photography.
actual use. In fact they are closely entwined, and Researchers have been innovative in developing
in daily life people participate in literacy events methods which are ethical, responsive and col-
where reading and writing are mixed in with laborative. As with all research, there is a close
spoken language and with other means of com- link between theory and methodology and each
munication. Literacy events typically involve a informs and constrains the other.
written text and talk around the text and spoken Larger-scale empirical studies like Local
language typically is supported by written texts. In Literacies (Barton and Hamilton, 1998) often
many ways, written and spoken language are not involve researchers spending time in particular
separable in literacy events and some researchers communities, using a multi-method approach to
would go so far as to blur any distinction between develop as complete a picture as possible of the
the written and the spoken and call all forms of detail of peoples lives and the place of literacy
public communication literate activities. Writing practices within them, effectively carrying out an
is based on speech in some very real ways: spoken ethnography of literacy. Data collection in ethnog-
language is the basis for most peoples learning of raphy may include some or all of the following:
written language, for instance, and the very form of observation of and participation in literacy events,
written language gets its inspiration from spoken which are documented using notes, audio recording
language. Still, it is important to stress that the roots and video recording; formal and informal inter-
of written language lie only partly with spoken views and conversations, which might again be
language. Written language has a life of its own. recorded in a variety of ways; the collection of
Other aspects of communication come into texts and artefacts created within the community,
play with written language. Most significantly, it and of externally-produced documents about the
is visual; it is laid out in some way and displayed. community where these exist; the use of photo-
The importance of the role of design, layout and graphs both as data in themselves and as a spur for
other aspects of the physical context should be interview discussions (Hodge and Jones, 2000);

historical methods, including oral history inter- UK. The Local Literacies research (Barton and
views and working with archive material. It may Hamilton, 1998) studied the role of reading and
involve methods such as questionnaires, used as writing in the local community of Lancaster, in
one method among others to develop an overall England. The study identified key areas of everyday
picture. Researchers are constantly developing life where reading and writing were significant for
and pushing at the edges of research methods and people and it contrasted these vernacular litera-
now work with what is called virtual ethnography cies, which were often voluntary, self-generated
(Hine, 2005), using email, discussion forums, or and learned informally, with more dominant lit-
chat rooms to interact with research participants eracies which were often more formalized and
and collect data. defined in terms of the needs of institutions.
Smaller-scale studies of literacy practices are Further examples of local and community
also valuable. One of the best ways to conduct literacy research can be found in the later edited
smaller-scale literacy research is to reflect on our volume Situated Literacies (Barton, Hamilton and
own practices and the practices around us by Ivanic, 2000), which brought together a number
focusing on a particular area of everyday life. This of studies of reading and writing in a variety of
would start with the identification of a particular different local contexts, informed by the same
topic a place, an activity, or a group. This could theoretical perspective outlined above. Many of
be something very familiar, or something com- the studies in this collection show how qualitative
pletely new. This method is a good way for people methods and detailed local studies can deepen a
to increase their understanding of literacy. In theoretical understanding of literacy. For instance,
Lancaster, students have studied literacy practices a study of literacy in prisons by Anita Wilson
as diverse as those involved in celebrating Chinese demonstrated the role of literacies in the struggle
New Year, buying a lottery ticket, using a shared against institutionalization and the importance of
college kitchen or going to church (see also Barton, literacy in maintaining individual identity within a
2000). After identifying a topic, the next step is to bureaucratic institution, and how people used lit-
observe elements of the visual or physical environ- eracy to construct a third space between prison
ment such as the participants and the activities in and outside (see also Wilson, 2007). This resistant
which they engage, as well as the objects around use of literacy contrasts with work by Kathryn
them. Getting down to detail is important here. Jones with bilingual Welsh farmers at an auction
Taking photographs is useful and can prove a very market, where literacy inscribed the peoples lives
revealing part of the research. Having observed the into a broader social order.
visual environment, the focus shifts to identifying Literacy Studies research in the field of educa-
and documenting particular literacy events and the tion has also provided significant insights.
texts used within them. This might involve collect- Extensive research in Further Education (FE) col-
ing or photocopying examples of texts. The next leges in the UK takes our understanding forward
important step is to interview people engaged in in a distinct way: this Literacies for Learning
the literacy events. Talking to the participants can research has identified the different literacies
help make their cultural knowledge clear and make being drawn upon in these vocational colleges and
sense of the observations. helped disentangle the dynamics of the different
As a methodology, Literacy Studies provides literacies in educational contexts. Students are
powerful ways of researching texts and practices. learning the reading and writing demands of the
The concept of literacy events provides a starting vocations they are training for literacies for
point for analysing interactions, whereas the con- particular workplaces, such as catering, construc-
cept of literacy practices provides a way of bring- tion, or hairdressing. At the same time, there are
ing in broader structural aspects. Concentrating on particular ways of reading and writing which
specific domains of life, multi-method, collabora- help students in their learning the literacies for
tive and responsive methodologies provide ways learning. These literacies for work and literacies
of carrying out research that pay close attention to for learning exist alongside other distinct forms of
details. Juxtaposed with methods in discourse reading and writing associated with assessment
analysis, the ethnographic approaches of literacy and, increasingly, with accountability, as in the
research are also powerful in understanding record-keeping they have to do. This work demon-
language use in context. strates the different literacies which students have
to grapple with simultaneously, and identifies a
phenomenon which is significant in other domains
Literacy studies in a range of contexts (see Ivanic et al., 2008).
Studies of the literacy practices of everyday
To further illustrate the methodologies we life can provide data, methods and theories for
described, we first provide an overview of some educational practice. A study of adult learners by
studies which have been carried out in the Barton et al. (2007) provides details of how and

what people read and write in their everyday lives Community literacies have also been studied in
which can inform the educational curriculum. Australia (Breen et al., 1994) and South Africa
The theory of literacy as social practice offers (Prinsloo and Breier, 1996). The personal letter-
educational practitioners a language to talk in writing practices of Pacific islanders are examined
when discussing literacy issues and can be used to in Besnier (1993). Wagner studied Arabic speak-
develop a social practice pedagogy. For example, ers in Morocco (1993). American studies such as
the range of studies of adult language, literacy and those by Moss (1994), Perez (2004) and Reder
numeracy provision in England (e.g. Appleby and (1987, 1994) have often been carried out on the
Barton, 2007; Tett, Hamilton and Hillier, 2006) literacies of minority communities. Other studies
enables us to move towards developing principles that share a similar starting point include Hull
of a social practice pedagogy, i.e. ways of teach- and Schultz (2001), and Gonzalez, Moll and
ing adults which are based upon a social practice Amanti (2005). Merrifield et al. (1996) studied
view of literacy. Other work in educational con- two distinct communities, urban Appalachians
texts has been concerned with the development of and Californian immigrant Americans, exploring
writing and identity in educational contexts their literacies and learning in different contexts.
(Ivanic, 1998, 2006), work applying a social prac- In France, there is a growing body of research in
tice view to understanding learning and peoples the area of lAnthropologie de lcriture (the
lives in adult literacy education (Papen, 2005), Anthropology of Writing); although from a differ-
and in the area of English for Speakers of Other ent theoretical tradition, studies within this
Languages (ESOL) (Pitt, 2005). approach share a great deal of similarities in meth-
Across the world, there has now been a broad ods and themes of research with the British tradi-
range of studies across different domains of activ- tion of Literacy Studies. For example, the concept
ity and it is possible to draw out common themes of actes dcriture (writing acts) that the French
from the research. People have been carrying out scholars work with (e.g. Fraenkel, 2007) broadens
research utilizing the theories and methodologies our notion of literacy events.
of literacy studies and complementing these with Such research tends to involve detailed studies
different frameworks, including discourse analy- of particular groups of people at particular sites:
sis, textual analysis, narrative analysis and aspects the references so far give a hint of their range and
of social theory. They work in different contexts, diversity. There has now been such a wealth of
including all areas of education, specific work- studies that it is possible to look across them and
places and particular communities, and may focus see common themes and repeated findings and at
on childhood, teenagers, gender, multilingualism, the same time to see how the meaning of reading
new technologies or other issues. Many studies and writing is tied to specific practices. This is all
focus on the links between home communities leading to new understandings of the nature of
and schools. Purcell-Gates (2007), for example, literacy.
provides a useful set of case studies that cover
home, school, young people, across cultures and
immigrant experiences ways in which literacy is Language and literacy in society
multiple and is looking for new pedagogies for
new literacies (p. 179), meaning in this case new As mentioned earlier, nearly all everyday activi-
social practices from a range of cultures and not ties in the contemporary world are mediated by
particularly new technologies. The studies in literacy and people act within a textually-mediated
Street (2005) also cover many educational sites. social world. It is this textually-mediated social
To give an example of a study outside of educa- world which Literacy Studies itself can continue
tion, there is a tradition of South American to investigate, linking culture and cognition and
research on the centrality of the written word in analysing the dynamics of textually-mediated
indigenous cultures and Wogan (2003) brings a communities of practice. The critique this pro-
social practice approach to this work. He sees the vides of dominant sociolinguistics research is
value of literacy studies being that it now provides similar to the critique which Dorothy Smith has
made of sociology. She accuses sociology of
A well established tradition of ethnographic being extraordinarily blind to
research.[] Twenty years ago, in the absence of
such research, a study like mine would have not the phenomenon of textually mediated communi-
been conceived.[] I focus on identity categories cation, action and social relations.[] Our lives
and state and church documentation.[] Other are infused with a process of inscription, produc-
studies do not fully explore the perspectives of ing written or printed traces or working from
ordinary non-elite groups them.
(p. 66). (Smith, 1990: 209).

She continues technology, and emphasizing the importance of

networks, mediation and roles. Contributors to
The appearance of meaning as a text detaches Cope and Kalantzis (2000) also linked up texts
meaning from the lived processes of its transitory and practices, as did Ormerod and Ivanic (2000).
construction, made and remade at each moment Texts and practices come together where Williams
of peoples talk. The vesting of meaning in such (1998) and Leander and Prior (2004) talk of
permanent or semi-permanent forms is routine textual practices, referring to the processes of
and commonplace, and has transformed our rela- reading and writing; here textual practices are one
tions to language, meaning and each other. element of social practices, complemented by the
(Smith, 1990: 21011; practices associated with the creation and use of
see also Smith, 1999: 21920). texts. Scollon and Scollons (2003) Discourses in
Place explores the meaning-making process of
By investigating practices, our approach to public texts and considers the ways in which such
literacy complements other work in linguistics, a process is shaped by the physical world where
especially in areas which focus on the analysis of the texts are situated.
texts. The study of everyday literacy practices Literacy Studies also broadens the notion of
pays close attention to the texts of everyday and interaction by focusing on the importance of texts
personal life. It starts from peoples social prac- and examining the various roles that texts have in
tices, noting that many of these involve texts of interaction. Sociolinguistic research on interaction
some sort, and that in carrying out many activities has primarily been of spoken language and of
in life people use texts. There is a strand of work face-to-face-interaction. In literacy research, the
within Literacy Studies which has drawn inspira- concept of literacy events provides a way of study-
tion from sociolinguistics, including Heaths work, ing interaction between texts and talk. An example
mentioned above, as well as Baynham (1993), of such research is Pitkanen-Huhta (2003), which
Blommaert (2008), Collins and Blot (2003), Gee examines in detail the conventional structure of
(1996) and Tabouret-Keller et al. (1997). Such literacy events in EFL (English as a Foreign
studies link Literacy Studies to sociolinguistic Language) classroom interaction in Finland.
issues such as language choice, code-switching, However, there are other sorts of literacy event,
and language and power. Barton (1998) has also where texts are present but are not read in a con-
discussed the potential inter-animation of Literacy ventional sense; there are events where texts have
Studies and sociolinguistics. A strength of Literacy symbolic functions; and there are various ways in
Studies is that it combines a very strong empirical which texts which may or may not be present are
tradition with attention to theory, and that it can invoked. Events vary in the role of text: the text
draw upon a broader range of areas of social can be central, as in the act of reading instructions
theory than just critical theory. To address its from a manual; the text can be symbolic, as when
social aims, the study of language needs to utilize swearing on the Bible; and the text can be implicit,
theories about topics such as as when talking about texts which are not present.
Consequently, within Literacy Studies, there has
how the media works been a broadening of the notion of literacy event;
the relationship between local detail and global the concept can be expanded from one which
activity focuses on talk around a text, such as the mother
notions of self and identity and child story-time, to one that includes talk
social and technological change about a text, such as a discussion of a previously-
the shift from modern to postmodern. read magazine, to an event not containing talk,
such as browsing a web page. Similarly, there are
An additional task is to link up, in a motivated many relations between events: events can be
way, research which starts with the analysis of serial, coordinated and chained; they can be
texts with research which sets out from the analy- embedded or subordinated; they can be fuzzy.
sis of practices. These have been quite different Such interrelationships between different events
traditions of research: discourse analysis studies are also noted in a number of recent studies, such
have analysed texts and much Literacy Studies as Leander (2003), Barton and Hamilton (2005)
research has been of practices. The difficulty is to and Kell (2005).
link these up in a way which shows the mutual Alongside these broadening definitions there is
influences of the texts and the practices. evidence that the existence of texts in events
Cruickshank (2006) is a good example of a study changes things: interaction around a text is differ-
which mixes the ethnographic approaches of ent. First, talk around texts is important in several
Literacy Studies with discourse analysis, focusing ways. To give a range of examples, with childrens
on a mixture of home, school, teenagers and book reading, there is evidence that talk around

texts can be much richer for learning (Snow, Each study makes comparisons between groups in
1983). Baynham (1993) has examined the way a society, teasing out differences, but they avoid
people go back and forth between text and talk, making grand generalizations. Rather, they make
which he refers to as mode-switching. There is points about the particular situations they have
also research on the importance of bilingual talk studied. They provide ideas for other people look-
around monolingual texts in the community and in ing at specific situations. Equally importantly,
the classroom (Martin-Jones and Jones, 2000). they raise more general questions about what is
Secondly, even when there are no texts physically meant by literacy, about the role of texts in peo-
present in the event, texts can be the subject of the ples lives, and about the fact that much of our
talk: people talk about texts. As the work of current understanding of literacy is not obvious,
Maybin and Moss (1993) and Kathryn Jones thus leading to new definitions of literacy.
(2000) demonstrates, much talk is about texts.
Much of the language as spoken by ordinary
people in their everyday lives, the focus of most
sociolinguistics research, is in fact talk about 39.4 LITERACY STUDIES IN
texts. It can be revealing then to move to the posi- A CHANGING WORLD
tion that most speech events in contemporary
society are, in a broad sense, literacy events. One of the most obvious aspects of contemporary
In addition to supplementing linguistics life is change. As society is changing, so language
research with new theoretical and methodological and the associated ways of using language are also
perspectives, Literacy Studies offers new views changing. Understanding the future is about
about configurations or modes of language. understanding literacies and texts and their shift-
Traditional formulations of sociolinguistics have ing role in peoples everyday lives. This section
focused primarily on spoken language (see Barton, provides an overview of three recent directions of
1998). A social practice approach to literacy research within the field of Literacy Studies: the
expands existing views of speech and writing. In materiality of texts, the impact of new technolo-
this approach, writing is more than just the spoken gies, and the relationship between globalization
language written down. For example, a number of and multilingual literacies.
literacy scholars look into the physical presence of
texts and trace how their functions and meanings
change over time and contexts (see The material- The materiality of texts
ity of texts section). From another viewpoint, for
some, written language is language made visible. In order to understand the changing nature of
Here the visual characteristics of language are literacy practices in the contemporary world, we
investigated. The work of Kress and colleagues need first to understand some properties of texts
(e.g. Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996; Kress, 2003) which enable them to travel across contexts, and
has focused largely on the visual characteristics of then to see how texts fare in the changing world.
texts. They prefer a narrow definition of literacy in There is now greater understanding of texts and
order to distinguish writing from other semiotic how they function, and how a written text is dif-
systems such as the visual. Linking different ferent from other artefacts. First, texts are things
semiotic systems, Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) and this thingness is important as we investigate
have developed an analysis of visual images and come to understand the virtual world and its
which develops out of language analysis. Kress relation to the physical world. Wenger (1998)
and van Leeuwen (2001) also talk of multimodal identifies four characteristics of things (or reifi-
meaning-making and their work, along with cations in his terms):
Hamilton (2000) and Stenglin and Iedema (2001),
demonstrates the practical value of applying their succinctness and power to evoke meanings
concepts developed in the study of language to their portability across time, physical space and
visuals. This body of work not only provides new context
meanings of writing but also broadens the scope their potential for physical persistence or durability
of language data. their focusing effect, drawing attention to spe-
There are parallels and overlaps among the cific features or distinctions within social reality.
different traditions of Literacy Studies that we
have presented in this section. They all start from It is useful to think of texts in these terms and, in
everyday life and what people read and write. fact, when Wenger and others (such as Latour,
They look at particular societies in detail, examin- 1987) focus on things, they are often talking
ing separate groups within a society and how they primarily about language-laden texts (Barton
use literacy. They observe closely and they are and Hamilton, 2005). Texts are a special sort of
willing to make use of a wide range of evidence. reification and, compared with other objects, are

generally strong on all four of these characteris- the larger cultural ecology (Hawisher and Selfe,
tics. The significance of the material existence of 2000; Selfe and Hawisher, 2004). The development
written language was apparent in the Local of new technologies also offers new affordances
Literacies research, where such disparate things for textual representations and meaning-making
as the physical existence of books on shelves, the (see, for example, Kress, 2003; Kress and van
displays on notice-boards and texts on clothing Leeuwen, 1996; 2001; Lee, 2007). Carrington
were all acts of meaning-making. In addition, (2005) also explores various new textual land-
Ormerod and Ivanic (2000), studying childrens scapes in young peoples lives, including SMS
homework projects, and Wilson (2007), studying texting and computer games.
prisoners literacy practices, have drawn attention Some studies place more emphasis on the role
to the importance of the materiality of texts in of communication technologies in education (e.g.
very different situations. The physical nature of Freebody and Hornibrook, 2005; Knobel and
the text is one aspect of this materiality. Lankshear, 2007; Snyder and Prinsloo, 2007),
Another salient aspect of materiality is the while a growing number of literacy researchers
existence of the range of cultural artefacts associ- are interested in particular types of computer-
ated with literacy (see Graddol, 1994; Hall, 2000). mediated communication in out-of-school con-
(Of course, spoken language has a materiality; texts, such as writing personal emails (Yates,
what is important is the changing materiality in 2000), using chatrooms at home (Merchant, 2001),
different forms of language.) One significant and private Instant Messaging (Jacobs, 2008;
aspect is that because of its materiality, written Lee, 2007; Lewis and Fabos 2005). In his studies
language has a different relationship to context of video gaming, Gee (2004, 2007) develops
from much spoken language, and often its impor- new ideas of learning in what he calls affinity
tance is in how it is contextualized and recontex- spaces.
tualized; which is particularly relevant within the More recently, a group of literacy researchers
sphere of education. Materiality has also been has started to explore newer forms of literacy in
investigated from a different viewpoint by those the second generation of the world wide web, or
interested in the book as an object, considering its what is known as web 2.0. These new literacies
importance as a material object and the contribu- are characterized by new practices involving col-
tion of materiality to processes of reading and laborative writing, new notions of authorship and
understanding (as in Moylan and Stiles, 1996; participation, and multimodality (Knobel and
Nunberg, 1999; Pahl, 2001). Lankshear, 2007). Examples of such technologies
are blogging (Davies and Merchant 2007;
Mortensen, 2008), online fan fiction (Thomas,
Literacies and new technologies 2007), and Flickr (Lee and Barton, to appear;
Davies, 2006).
The contemporary interest in materiality arises, Studies of literacies in times of technological
and perhaps even originates, in studies of screen- change provide strong evidence for the fact that
based technologies where, compared with paper, literacy practices have a social history, and that
the materiality of texts changes to a large extent new literacy practices are generated out of exist-
(Baron, 2000; Haas, 1996; Kress, 2003; Snyder, ing ones (Barton, 2007; Barton and Hamilton,
1998). The new configurations of language use, 1998). These new literacies or digital literacies, as
developing with technologies, render impossible with other forms of literacy, are situated in differ-
the simplistic distinctions between written and ent points in history (Sugimoto and Levin 2000;
spoken language. Understanding the language of Yates, 2000). They present new possibilities and
Internet chat, for example, or mobile phone use, or constraints for communication. Some of these
text messaging is more complex than analysing changes increase literacy demands, while some
the language and attempting to classify it on a reduce literacy demands. In general, these possi-
scale from spoken to written. These are new forms bilities are all changing the basis of communica-
of communication, with new forms of language tion in human relationships. To account for such
and literacy practices. The practices around the changes we need new definitions of language, and
texts and the technologies are an integral part of of speech and writing.
the language.
Theories have been developed to account for
such changes in literacy practices under the influ- Globalization and multilingual
ence of new media. These new views do not start literacies
with the acquisition of computer skills, but with
the culture-specific literate activities associated In relation to globalization, the examination of
with new technologies. Literacies of technology literacy practices provides a way of interrogating
are seen as emerging social practices embedded in the complex changes in specific sites, and tracing

links between local and global practices, and (1994). Multilingual literacies have also been
documenting local forms of appropriation and extended to screen-based settings. Globalization of
resistance. Drawing on Actor Network Theory, the Internet presents opportunities for multilingual
Brandt and Clinton (2002) refer to literacy artefacts literacy practices in online spaces. Lee (2007), for
as a type of stable mobile which have a particu- example, explores the ways in which Hong Kong
larly important role to play in linking local people deploy multilingual resources in instant
and global practices because they serve to build messaging.
and sustain long, stable connections and thus Other recent directions in the field include
networks across time and space. Literacy arte- making links with work on communities of prac-
facts, in other words, are particularly effective tice (Barton and Tusting, 2005). Another direction
social agents in terms of making links across has been work on spelling and orthography as
contexts. Papen (2007) explores the impact of social practices (Johnson, 2005; Sebba, 2007).
globalization on reading and writing in times Research on literacy and creativity (Papen and
of social change in Namibia. The study shows Tusting, 2006) again shows the value of Literacy
the ways in which literacy practices are patterned Studies, showing individual creativity in literacy
in terms of power and equality, as well as the practices and how people combine resources to
ways in which local people develop practices in act within social structuring.
the face of global issues such as the dominance
of English and tourism. A more recent study
by Blommaert (2008) also considers the relation-
ship between grassroots literacies and globaliza- 39.5 CONCLUSIONS
tion by analysing handwritten documents in
Africa. The fact that people live and act in a textually-
The globallocal link is reinforced in studies in mediated world is the issue which makes the theo-
multilingual literacies. Work by Kathryn Jones retical and methodological frameworks provided
(2000) with bilingual Welsh farmers at an auction by Literacy Studies so essential for the more gen-
market, where literacy inscribed the peoples lives eral study of language. Writing is not just speech
into a broader social order, showed how the local written down, it is a different form of language
and the global are linked by textual activity. Jones and a distinct form of meaning-making. This is
focuses on the process of filling in a particular one of the original starting points of Literacy
form, showing how the individual farmers are Studies as part of sociolinguistics (see Stubbs,
incorporated into the agricultural bureaucratic 1980). Sociolinguistic research which sets out
system through a complex process of locally- from face-to-face spoken language interaction has
situated talk around texts and the interweaving of difficulty in addressing other aspects of social life
spoken Welsh with written English. In the USA, which are mediated by written texts. The social
studies of literacies in multilingual settings are view of literacy introduced in this chapter is espe-
often related to improving the education of stu- cially important in understanding and analysing
dents from linguistically and culturally diverse contemporary changes in language use and inter-
backgrounds. The goal is to use ethnographic action, including areas such as globalization and
methods to understand better the different funds new technologies. Whether it is change in tech-
of knowledge students bring from their homes nologies, education, the nature of learning, the
and communities. Schools and teachers can relation of language to poverty and social exclu-
then draw on this knowledge by relating school sion, or language in the workplace, an analysis
learning to home and community practices in which starts from literacies is central to under-
more meaningful ways (Ferdman, Weber and standing language use in social life. Studies
Ramirez, 1994; Gonzalez, Moll and Amanti, restricted to spoken language cannot adequately
2005; Prez, 2004). account for these crucial areas of contemporary
A wide range of further studies in multilingual language use.
literacies are reported in Martin-Jones and Jones The body of work within Literacy Studies also
(2000). In one study, Blackledge (2000) shows provides new methods of researching texts in con-
how unequal relations of power between domi- temporary social life. These include combining
nant-culture schools and minority-culture families discourse analytic approaches of text analysis
dictated that Bangladeshi mothers of six-year-old with ethnographic approaches of Literacy Studies
children were unable to use their own literacies in and concentrating on the role of texts in specific
the home-school learning context, constructing domains of life. It is also essential to be explicit
them as illiterate despite the majority being liter- about such detailed, multi-method, collaborative
ate in Bengali. Other studies of minority bilingual and responsive methodologies. More broadly,
communities in Britain include Baynham (1993), Literacy Studies redefines the scope of linguistics
Bhatt et al. (1996), Gregory (1996) and Saxena and sociolinguistics and provides a paradigm

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