ERG SES E 08, Literacy and Education
The varied ways in which literacy has been defined and conceptualised within policy is a recurring theme of research on adult education. Hamilton and Hillier’s work on the development of adult literacy education in the UK (2006) considers the period between 1970 and 2000 and shows how literacy has been subject to a number of different representations. UK policy documents have been the focus of a number of analyses, while the definitions and perceptions of literacy used by international organisations such as OECD and UNESCO, along with international surveys of adult literacy, such as PIAAC, have also been identified. Taking a global perspective, Benavot (2015) argues that a variety of definitions of literacy are used in education policy ranging from literacy as print-based skills in Asia to much broader notions involving empowerment and social development in South America. Overwhelmingly, however, discourses of functionalism and employability have been identified in ‘official’ definitions of literacy, and as a result they have been the subject of criticism. In the UK literacy education policy for England and Wales (which established the Skills for Life initiative and Functional Skills qualifications, for instance) has been criticised for taking a restricted, skills-based view of literacy which is largely concerned with outcomes of employability and economic prosperity (Hamilton and Pitt, 2011; Taylor 2008). The measurement and testing of literacy used in the international surveys such as IALS and PIAAC is also criticised for using a similarly restricted notion of literacy (Boudard and Jones, 2003; Burgess and Hamilton, 2011). Hanemann (2015) recognises a narrow focus on reading and writing using print-based materials in international policy, which links literacy to employment and economic progress. A more recent model of literacy, however, views it as a ‘learning continuum of different proficiency levels’ rather than a simple distinction between literate and illiterate (Hanemann, 2015, p. 295, Banavot, 2015).
Despite considerable interest in policy conceptions and definitions of literacy within educational research, however, there appear to be fewer analyses of the views of literacy teachers and their learners. One exception to this is Kendall and McGrath’s work on reading in which they conclude with the comment that few teachers included in their study had clear definitions of reading, and that writing appeared to be of greater importance to them than reading. The way teachers perceived literacy was often ‘aligned with dominant policy discourse’ and the ‘curriculum documents’ with which they were working (2014, p.71). Generally, however, there appears to be little consideration of the views of practitioners themselves on how literacy should be defined and conceptualised. In fact, the authors highlight a lack of research within post-compulsory education on teachers’ perceptions of literacy. A survey of the literature has yet to find any recent coverage of the views of literacy learners. Based on my doctoral research into adult literacy education in the UK, therefore, this paper considers the following research question:
How do literacy teachers’ and learners’ perceptions of literacy compare with conceptions of literacy presented in policy discourses?
The paper adopts a social practice view of literacy (Edwards et al., 2013; Hamilton, 2012; Kendall and McGrath, 2014; St.Clair, 2012) which recognises that literacy varies according to its social context rather than being a prescribed set of skills in print based reading and writing that are unrelated to social context. It also uses an ‘ideological’ model of literacy in acknowledging that meanings and definitions of literacy are contested and linked to power relations (Street, 1997). Fairclough’s (2001) theory of discourse, in which discourse is understood to have three distinct aspects (text, discursive practice and social practice) provides a framework for the policy analysis.
Boudard, E. and Jones, S. (2003) ‘The IALS approach to defining and measuring literacy skills’. International Journal of Educational Research. 39 pp. 191-204. Burgess, A. and Hamilton, M. (2011) Back to the Future? Functional Literacy and the New Skills Agenda. Available at: http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/66608/1/Functional_Literacy_Discussion_Paper_AB_MH.pdf Accessed 26th October 2014. Benavot, A. (2015) ‘Literacy in the 21st century: towards a dynamic nexus of social relations’ International Review of Education. 61 pp. 273-294. Edwards, R., Minty, S. and Miller, K. (2013) ‘The literacy practices for assessment in the vocational curriculum – the case of Hospitality’. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 65 (2), pp. 220-235. Fairclough, N. (2001) Language and Power. 2nd ed. Harlow: Pearson Hamilton, M. (2012) ‘The effects of the literacy policy environment on local sites of learning.’ Language and Education, 26 (2) pp. 169-182. Hamilton, M. and Hillier, Y. (2006) Changing Faces of Adult Literacy, Language and Numeracy: a Critical History. London: Trentham Books. Hamilton, M. and Pitt, K. (2011) ‘Changing Policy Discourses: Constructing Literacy Inequalities.’ International Journal of Educational Development, 31 (6), pp.596-605. Hanemann, U. (2015) ‘Lifelong literacy: some trends and issues in conceptualising and operationalising literacy from a lifelong learning perspective.’ International Review of Education. 61 pp. 295-326. Kendall, A. and McGrath, K. (2014) ‘“I don’t think I’ve ever had discussions about reading”: a case study of FE literacy teachers’ conceptualisations of literacy’. Research in Post-Compulsory Education. 19 (1), pp. 54-74. St. Clair, R. (2012) ‘The limits of levels: understanding the International Adult Literacy Surveys (IALS). International Review of Education, 58 (6), pp. 759-776. Street, B. (1997) ‘The Implications of the “New Literacy Studies” for Literacy Education.’ English in Education. 31 (3) Taylor, N. (2008) ‘Metaphors, discourse and identity in adult literacy policy.’ Literacy, 42 (3) pp. 131-136. Tonkiss, F. (2004) ‘Analysing text and speech: content and discourse analysis’ in: Seale, C. ed. (2004) Researching Society and Culture 2nd ed. London: Sage.
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