Literacy As Social Practice To Aid In Teaching Education Essay

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The world has changed profoundly over the last two decades, and many of our longstanding notions about literacy need to be challenged. As a result, the definition of literacy is neither a singular or universal one, and it is often defined in contradictory ways. It is recognised that the teaching and learning of literacy is a major responsibility of the schools. While some children have some knowledge of literacy acquired before formal schooling, all will need the opportunities for learning to read and write that school provides. The term 'literacy' has often been associated with the reading and writing stage of learning and it is no surprise that the way the community views how literacy is learned in schools can take vastly different viewpoints. It is important to note that the way in which it is defined will shape the kinds of policies and approaches to teaching and learning that are adopted by the field of education.

Olson's definition focuses on literacy as a 'cognitive' model, which is needed for work, education and social interaction. This view prevails that literacy is a simple, learned cognitive skill that one learns to read and write just as one learns to kick a ball, ride a bicycle or make a cake. It is clearly perceived, once the skill has been mastered. Street (1985) refers this view of literacy as the 'autonomous literacy' where those who master this skill can use it to advantage of influence and prestige.

In contrast, Street contemplates that literacy should have a more 'social' focus, such as the assumption of it contributing knowledge according to social-cultural contexts. He defines this alternative notion as 'ideological literacy' which refers to the social conceptions and uses of literacy. This viewpoint suggests that literacy is an aspect of defining framework of society. Street (1997) extents this notion by arguing that literacy not only varies with social context and with cultural norms and discourses, but that its uses and meanings are embedded in relations of power. This suggests that literacy is what society achieves, and society is, to some extent, what literacy contributes to it.

Furthermore, another view of literacy is that of 'critical literacy' that is informed by the work of Paulo Freire (1972), who conceptualizes literacy not as reading the word but as 'reading the world'. This advocates the emphasis of the empowering role that literacy can and should play in reshaping the way in which one lives and works. Wallace (2001) explains that the 'empowering potential of literacy' is articulated in difference ways to encourage new literates to use literacy as a means for educational change and for the literate person to reflect on what is wrong in their world and use the enabling power of literacy to change that world.

Furthermore, Wallace views this potential as a means to reshape approaches to English language teaching, not just for first language learners, but for the majority of users of English who are second language English speakers. She proposes that the variety of labels given to English in its worldwide role be replaced by what she calls 'literate English', one with which it is not a reduced or simplified model of English which restricts communication to basic patterns of interaction, but a 'global English' that should be elaborated to serve global needs. Luke and Carrington (2002) discuss this further with the notion of 'literacy as cultural capital' by suggesting how to construct a literacy education that addresses new economic and cultural formations providing our students with the ability to think critically and globally in a world that, increasingly, will require a politically and socially active citizen (NOTE, 2007).

Models of Literacy

In the minds of many in the community, an important function of schooling is that it teaches literacy with the teaching of literacy this is often held to be the most important thing that schooling provides. As a result, literacy remains high on the educational and political agenda at national and international levels and continues to be contested and debated. There appears to be three main models of literary which have implications for policy-making, teaching and learning; autonomous, social and critical literacy.

The first is the 'cognitive' or 'autonomous' model, which has dominated educational policy for the last two decades especially in the UK with the introduction of the National Curriculum which then was preceded by the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) in the late 90s. Both of which attempted to 'transform' literacy teaching in the primary and secondary school. Goodwyn and Findlay (2003) are encouraged by the aim of the NLS to demystify subject teaching and to involve all subject specialist in helping pupils become literate within each subject. However, the emphasis on the 'autonomous' literacy model is a failure to acknowledge the ever changing nature of literacy. This skills-based view of a universal or aptitude represents the meaning of literacy in terms of limited mental operations. Therefore, if we view literacy teaching and learning as a matter of mastering certain important, but essentially basic technical skills in control of such things as the spelling and writing system, and perhaps how to shape simple written sentences. Literacy becomes a relatively simple and unproblematic matter, learned in the early years and then used and reused in whatever ways appear appropriate. According to Street (1995), such traditional definitions of literacy are based an "autonomous model," autonomous because it is extracted from its social, cultural, and historical context. When treated as a technical skill or mental operation independent of social context, literacy is associated with consequences that have no relation to the social situations in which it is embedded. In addition, Street (1995) explains, it gives limited attention to social structures within which the concepts and specific cultures are forms. Therefore, in an autonomous model, literacy is separated from its social context and considered an independent variable making it possible to associate literacy with symbolic elements such as progress, social mobility and economic stability (Gee, 1996). In our society, the benefits for being literate has taken on mythic qualities as Street suggests this 'literacy myth' raises false expectations for those who do become literate in comparison to the 'illiterate' who are branded as too lazy or, even worse unable to learn. This situation enables government to shift focus away from social problems onto individual shortcoming (Street, 1996)

The second model of literacy is one that avoids the pitfalls of the literacy myth by capturing the complexity of literacy practices in the social contexts that make them meaningful. Street (1996) calls this an 'ideological model of literary', which concentrates on the social practices of reading and writing and the ideological and culturally embedded nature of these practices. In addition, the ideological model maintains a wariness of claims for literacy and distinguishes between these claims and the actual significance of literacy for the people involved. Literacy in the ideological model looks beyond a technical definition of literacy to consider 'literacy practices.' Rather than limiting literacy to events that involve reading and writing, Street broadens the scope to 'literacy practices' which take into account 'the behaviour and the social and cultural conceptualizations that give meaning to the uses of reading and writing.' This concept of literacy practices gets us away from the literacy myth by re-inserting social and cultural context and arguing that whatever benefits come from literacy also come from the contexts in which it is embedded.

The third model 'critical literacy' is one that as Wallace (2001) explains 'is powerful to the extent that it offers a vantage point from which to survey other literacies.' Like the ideological model, critical literacy is understood as social action through language use that develops us as agents inside a larger culture. However, it takes us beyond this in providing an active, challenging approach to reading and textual practice by the analysis and critique of the relationship among texts, language, power, social groups and social practice. It shows us ways of looking at written, visual, spoken, multimedia and performance texts to question and challenge the attitudes, values and beliefs that lie beneath the surface. It has been suggested that critical literacy links with our modern lifestyles of a rapidly changing globalised world. Changing societal structures, increasing social and cultural diversity and the marketing of ideas and products through multimedia mean that we need to think about literacy for lifelong learning in new ways. The way that information is received today hadn't been invented twenty years ago. The world is becoming increasingly accessible because of instantaneous communications; the corpus of print literature is expanding almost exponentially because of the number of works either being written in English not just by authors from United States or the British Commonwealth but by major authors outside these regions. The consequence is that the technology is not only bringing 'global English' (Wallace, 2004) into daily contact, the nature of digital communication is aiding in the demise of a 'standard English'.  Instant messaging, text messaging, and other technological forms of communication are creating new writing practices that often undermine traditional, standard English for the sake of faster, more effective communication. English is becoming more complex than ever, and our students will need to be flexible and efficient users of a vast array of discourses that isolated, drill-oriented grammar lessons simply will not teach. We need to be able to make meaning from the array of multimedia, complex visual imagery, music and sound, even virtual worlds that confront us each day in addition to written and spoken words. Changes in society are occurring so rapidly that we need to take time to think about whether they will have positive or negative effects upon our ways of living.


Lonsdale et al (2004) imply that the meaning of literacy has changed over time from an elementary 'decoding' of words to a range of more complex and diverse skills and understandings. There is a need for these changes to be understood, against a background of economic, social, political and cultural. Literacy as a 'social practice' should be considered in context, rather than the convention of literacy as an individual, cognitive skill. The new skills are premised on the idea that much higher order skills such as critical thinking are now needed by all students. Goodwyn et al (2003) suggest that students once needed literacy to be told what to do; now they need it to know what to do without being told.

Street (1985) implies that Ideological literacy requires that we view literacy as much more than the ability to decipher or encode messages on paper. We have to view literacy in the dynamic contexts of politics, social change, development, education, religion, philosophy, confrontation, and even war. Practitioners of critical literacy have forcefully made the point that literacy is a mechanism of political control as well as a tool for liberation. These views of literacy are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they represent points on a continuum between "action" and "system." At one extreme, autonomous literacy is viewed as something isolated from everything else, as a personal skill or characteristic. At the other extreme, it is seen almost as a primal element in the construction of reality. (SIL, 1999)

The teaching of critical thinking plays a central role in the teaching of critical literacy. As the world becomes more complex, increasingly flattened, and, one might argue, ever more interesting and challenging, our students must be prepared to enter it as competent, thoughtful, and agentive readers and communicators. In order to prepare them effectively, we as literacy educators must make changes to literacy curricula that traditionally view knowledge making and communication as straightforward, text-based, and individualized, a perspective that was only appropriate before the recent explosion in communicative technologies and resulting economic, social, and cultural realities. To prepare students who can be active and effective world citizens able to make thoughtful decisions and solve global problems, we must first help them to be critical, meta-aware thinkers and communicators. (NOTE, 2007)

'A consequence of these views of literacy has been that specialists in the field have become more aware that literacy, in both theory and practice, is more than a simple technical skill. Literacy, by itself, does not lead to health, wealth, happiness, and national development. Literacy is but one element in the development process. The other elements must be included if developmental aspirations are to be attained.' (SIL, 1999)

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