Literacy is an extremely broad concept. All theorists have their own views and opinions about its definition, which tends to change according to context. One all-encompassing definition of literacy is Street’s: ‘… the social practices and conceptions of reading and writing’ (1984: 1) Barton (1994, 2002) writes that people’s literacies vary depending on the domain they find themselves in.
The home, the workplace and the school are all domains of life. He states that literacy is situated: it cannot exist outside of a social context. In this essay, I will look at literacy from a sociocultural perspective. I will start out by defining relevant terms, and will go on to discuss the following quotation: ‘Literacy is a social activity and can best be described in terms of the literacy practices which people draw upon in literacy events’ (Barton 1994: 34). I will do so with reference to my own literacy practices as a student in two different universities.
2. Defining terms
In the quotation above, Barton (1994) suggests that to understand the scope of a domain’s literacy, one must know about the literacy practices that people use in various literacy events associated with the domain. I will now define some important terms that will be relevant in the remainder of this essay.
* autonomous literacy and ideological literacy: These are concepts introduced by Brian Street (1984, 2003). They are two distinct models of literacy. The autonomous model of literacy sees literacy as something that functions on its own. It is viewed as a collection of skills which will improve the individual’s social and cognitive practices. Street writes that this is a common view in fields such as education and development programmes. Ideological literacy, on the other hand, is a view that implies that literacy is a social practice which is ‘always embedded in socially constructed epistemological principles’ (Street 2003: 1). It does not work independently: it is dictated by a domain’s own social practices and rules. A literacy is rooted its people’s ‘conceptions of knowledge, identity, and being’ (Street 2003: 1). Literacy practices and events can be found in an ideological model of literacy.
* literacy events: Heath defines this as ‘occasions in which written language is integral to the nature of participants’ interactions and their interpretive processes and strategies’ (1994: 74). In other words, a literacy event is a social event in which a written text is central. Barton adds that literacy events are activities which ‘arise from literacy practices and are shaped by them’ (2002: 2). In his book Social Literacies, Street quotes Barton, who says that literacy events may be activities which are done regularly (Street 1995). A common example of a literacy event is a mother telling a bedtime story to her child.
* literacy practices: This concept was introduced by Scribner and Cole, in The Psychology of Literacy (1981). They argued that literacy was not a set of skills, but a set of practices in which people engaged. These practices are socially organised, which means that they are highly influenced by social context and will differ from domain to domain. People’s literacy practices will vary, as everyone’s cultural knowledge is different. Barton defines literacy practice as ‘common patterns in using reading and writing in a particular situation’ (Barton 1994:37). Several literacy practices can be drawn upon in the literacy event that is storytelling: for example, a mother can ask her child to read every other paragraph, or they may discuss the text together once they have read the story.
* functional literacy and critical literacy: When one hears the word literacy, many ideas may come to mind. It is very common to think about its opposite, illiteracy. One may think of the people who learn to read and write through organised literacy programmes. They are taught skills which have been deemed necessary to function in their own society. This is known as functional literacy (Stubbs 1980). Critical literacy is not the opposite of functional literacy; instead, it builds on it. Here is Baynham’s model of language in social context (1995: 22):
The Language as text core and the Language as social process layer are both part of a functional literacy. They involve being able to understand the text itself, and the text’s inherent meaning. Language as social practice is the knowledge of the ideologies and and institutions that surround the text: it involves asking why? This is critical literacy. It depends on functional literacy: one must have a good comprehension of the text itself before one can question what is behind it.
3. How do literacy practices describe a given domain’s literacy?
I am currently doing a BA in Languages (specialising in English) at the University of Bergen, Norway. Since October 2006, I have been an ERASMUS exchange student at the University of Reading. The subjects of the courses I am taking in Reading are quite similar to the ones I was taking in Bergen; however, the courses themselves are very different. As a consequence of this, my own literacy practices when doing various academic tasks have changed. In the next part of this essay, I will contrast the literacy practices I had as a student at the University of Bergen with the ones I have now, as a University of Reading student. I will then discuss how these literacy practices describe each university’s literacy.
3.1 My literacy practices…
I have chosen some common literacy events I take a part in as a student of both universities. They are: attending a lecture, revising between lectures, revising before assessment, and being assessed.
3.1.1 …when attending a lecture
At the University of Reading (UoR), it seems typical to get the lecture notes from the lecturer, all printed on paper. I read these notes as I listen to the lecturer speaking. I highlight text that appears important. If the lecturer says something that is not already in the notes, I write it in the margin, or on the back of the sheets that were given to me. There are often some group activities which involve discussing the text with fellow students.
At the University of Bergen (UoB), it is much less common to get notes from the lecturer. Usually, the lecture’s outline is given, along with some texts the lecturer is referring to during the lecture. I used to spend my time in lectures frantically trying to write down what the lecturer was saying, or whatever was written on the transparencies the lecturer was showing us. Structuring my notes was hard as I did not have much time to do so. There were no tasks to be done in groups.
3.1.2 …when revising between lectures
In Reading, I read the textbook chapters that are relevant to the previous lecture. I download and print more study material (e.g. PowerPoint Presentations) from Blackboard, and I highlight the text that seems especially important. I prepare for the next lecture by reading quickly through the textbook chapters that will be covered.
In Bergen, I used to read the textbook chapters several times, in order to memorise them. I often rewrote my notes so that they would look clearer. This also helped me to remember them better.
3.1.3 …when revising before assessment
In Reading, I am being assessed purely through coursework. I have to write one end of term assignment per module. To prepare for the essay, I revise the lecture notes that are pertinent to the essay. I then read a large amount of textbook chapters and/or articles that are related to my essay’s subject. I photocopy the pages on which I have found important information, and I then highlight it with a marker. Also, I often make a search on the internet (e.g. Google, Wikipedia) in order to get a more global view of the topic.
For most of my modules in Bergen, I had to take one examination which counted for 100% of my final mark. Remembering as much information as possible was vital. I read each module’s main textbook once more, and read through my notes several times. I wrote new notes with the most important material. I made ‘thought maps’ to help me organise the information. I read previous years’ examination questions, and I did ‘practice examinations’ to prepare for the real one.
3.1.4 …when being assessed
When I write my essay, in Reading, I first make an outline of what I want to write. I write my essay on a word-processing programme, which makes it easy to structure my text properly. I use quotations, and refer to my sources.
Examinations in Bergen are quite short and there was no time to structure my essay as much as I would have liked to. I wrote by hand, and I used to jot down everything I could remember about the subject as quickly as possible on a piece of scrap paper. I made a short outline on that same piece of paper and then started writing the essay itself. I rarely quoted my sources.
How do my literacy practices describe the literacies of both universities? In Reading, I have many literacy practices which are related to critical literacy. Speaking about a text in groups, for example, allows the students to find out what their peers think about the text, and may help them to build their own opinion about it. In a lecture, not having to take too many notes enables them to listen to the lecturer giving extra information. Reading secondary literature makes students reflect on the text, and view it from the perspective of different scholars. It gives them a better understanding of the subject. Writing an end of term essay makes the students focus on one area of the module. Reading large amounts of relevant material, all written by various theorists, gives them greater knowledge of the subject, and the ability to discuss it in a critical manner. They can decide to agree with one (or several) of the theories or make up their own. The three layers of Baynham’s (1995) model can be seen at the University of Reading.
In Bergen, the situation is very different. Students do not read much secondary literature: there is usually one or two textbooks per module. The only knowledge they have about the subject comes from these textbooks. Taking notes throughout the whole lecture distracts them from what the lecturer is saying. They are not given time in lectures to discuss the text they are learning about. When revising, either between lectures or before the examination, they must concentrate on memorising the facts they have learnt. The literacy practices that the students engage in while writing their examination essays do not allow for a critical comparison of theories surrounding the subject. They must simply demonstrate that they have learnt the text from their textbooks. Language as a social practice is not often seen at the University of Bergen. The literacy remains at a level that is more functional.
The literacy practices my fellow students and I adopt are strongly influenced by each university’s sociocultural context. Lankshear and Knobel state that ‘[l]iteracies are bound up with social, institutional and cultural relationships, and can only be understood when they are situated within their social, cultural and historical contexts’ (2003: 8) In both universities, I took English: courses such as British Literature, English Grammar and English Phonology. One very important difference between the University of Bergen and the University of Reading is the cultural background of their students. In Bergen, they are mostly Norwegian, having learnt English as a second language. In Reading, the majority of the students are British and have English as their mother tongue.
The literacy practices of all these students are patterned by the social institution which is their university (Barton 2002). At first glance, it almost seems like UoB’s literacy is inferior to UoR’s, but this is incorrect. The universities’ curriculums differ, as they cater to a different audience. In his article Academic Literacies, Street includes a letter from David Howes, who argues that ‘there are different academic literacies for different academic audiences’ (Street 1999: 207). It makes sense that the British students are asked to engage in literacy practices are associated with a critical literacy: at a university level, they should not need to be taught about the English Language as text, or Language as a social process. The Norwegian students, on the other hand, are asked to learn facts about the culture and literature of English-speaking countries, and to learn and apply English Grammar rules. The expectations are different; therefore, the literacies are, too.
Barton writes: ‘literacy practices are purposeful and embedded in broader social goals and cultural practices’ (2002: 4). Why do people learn about English at university? What is their goal? How will they be using their degree? In Norway, a BA in Languages does not open many doors. Most people go on to take a PGCE equivalent, or will be working in a domain that is closely related to languages, such as translation. The University of Bergen’s curriculum, which has an effect on its students’ literacy practices, is built up so that the students will meet their potential employer’s requirements. An English teacher must know who Winston Churchill was; a translator must know the rules of English syntax. It is important to have memorised such information.
In England, it seems like many employers look for graduates of any degree: the subject of the degree is of lesser importance than in Norway. The employers know that university graduates have a wide set of literacy practices and are used to viewing issues from various angles. These skills and practices are developed regardless of which degree students choose to do.
Barton’s quotation in the introduction suggests that a domain’s literacy is best described by the literacy practices its people engage in. I do not fully agree. Brian Street says the following about literacy practices in a literacy: ‘…the whole is in some way greater than the sum of its parts and it is more meaningful to address this unit than to break it down into components…’ (1995: 8). To understand a literacy, one must do more than list its literacy practices. One must understand why people draw upon them in literacy events. To do so, one must have enough information about the literacy’s sociocultural context.
In this essay, I have discussed David Barton’s statement: ‘Literacy is a social activity and can best be described in terms of the literacy practices which people draw upon in literacy events’ (Barton 1994: 34) with reference to my own literacy practices. I have shown that literacy is indeed a social activity, as it is embedded in other social practices, and literacy practices are influenced by the social and cultural context which surrounds them. I have found that it can indeed be described by the literacy practices which engage in, but only to a certain extent. More information about the literacy’s context is needed in order to properly understand why people draw upon certain literacy practices.
5. Reference list
Barton, D. (1994) Literacy: An introduction to the ecology of written language. Oxford: OUP.
Barton, D. (2002) A social practice view of language, literacy and numeracy. [online] Available from:
[Last accessed February 9th, 2007]
Baynham, M. (1995) Literacy Practices. London: Longman.
Heath, S. B. (1994) What No Bedtime Story Means: Narrative Skills at Home and School. In Maybin, J. (ed) (1994) Language and literacy in social practice. Milton Keynes: The Open University.
Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2003) New Literacies: Changing Knowledge and Classroom Learning. Buckingham: OUP.
Scribner, S. & Cole, M. (1981) The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Street, B. (1984) Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: CUP.
Street, B. (ed) (1995) Social Literacies. Harlow: Longman.
Street, B. (1999) Academic Literacies. In Jones, C., Turner, J. & Street, B. (eds) (1999) Students writing in the university: Cultural and epistemological issues. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Street, B. (2003) What’s ‘new’ in New Literacy Studies? Critical approaches to literacy in theory and practice. In Current Issues in Comparative Education 2003 5/2 [online]
[Last accessed February 9th, 2007]
Stubbs, M. (1980) Languages and Literacy: The Sociolinguistics of Reading and Writing. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.