An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language

Second Edition

David Barton

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This book is intended as an introduction to literacy studies for students and for general readers. It is also aimed at specialists in one area of study who wish to understand the significance of literacy studies for their own work. The book explores competing definitions of literacy in contemporary society and examines the theories of language and learning which underpin new views of literacy. It also aims to provide a coherent view of literacy which can act as an antidote to the narrow technical views of reading and writing which are common in much public discussion, in the media and in political speeches.

This updated second edition brings together recent developments in a coherent manner, by showing how new research has contributed to our understanding of literacy. Since the publication of the first edition there have been many detailed studies of literacy practices in different settings. This new edition contains summaries of this research and provides extensive references to further research. There is also a section devoted to how literacy research is carried out.

There is now an international network of researchers contributing to the field of literacy studies and I am grateful to the many people I have talked to and corresponded with over the past decade, especially those who have organized seminars and conferences. The field has been taking great strides forward and this progress has been conducted in a collaborative and friendly way across many international boundaries. I owe particular thanks to the members of the Literacy Research Centre at Lancaster University, who have contributed to my thinking immensely, especially Yvon Appleby, Mary Hamilton, Rachel Hodge, Roz Ivanic, Karin Tusting, Uta Papen and Anita Wilson. Karin Tusting has helped in the development of this second edition in detailed ways, especially in contributing to the parts on workplace literacies and on new technologies; equally importantly she has suggested sections to shorten and has tried to keep me to a timetable for finishing this work. Of course I take full responsibility for the gaps when trying to keep up to date with this rapidly expanding field.

David Barton
Lancaster University
April 2006

Preface to the first edition

I mistakenly thought that writing an introductory text would be a simple and straightforward task; I assumed that simple to read meant simple to write. As I became more and more immersed in my project, I came to realize how wrong I had been and how difficult it is to be simple. I hope I have succeeded.

This book does several seemingly incompatible things at once. First, it is intended as an introduction to the growing field of Literacy Studies, accessible to the interested general reader as well as to the beginning student. It is also aimed at the specialist in one area of the field who wishes to have an up-to-date introduction to other related areas. Finally, I want to contribute to current discussions of literacy by articulating a coherent view of literacy, as an alternative to the narrowly technical views of reading and writing which are common in much public discussion, in the media and in political speeches, as well as in some areas of education and research.

There are several ways to read this book. It is possible to start at the beginning and read straight through to the end; alternatively, many of the chapters can be read independently: feel free to jump about and miss chapters out. To make the text easier to read I have put many of the references and extra examples into notes at the end, so a more detailed reading is also possible, with one finger in the endnotes.

I am conscious of my use of language. I do not use the supposedly generic personal pronouns he and she. As you can see, I am happy to use the word I in recognition of my self in writing. I use the word we but in several ways, so be aware of whether you are included when I use it, or whether I am drawing you along unwillingly with me. I try not to use we when I mean I! I am probably inconsistent in my use of tense, sometimes being in the past, sometimes the present and sometimes the future. My use of people’s full names is erratic – I hope it is not gendered. While it is probably inevitable that thinking about literacy makes one reflective about one’s own writing, I will avoid the temptation here to write pages about my own literacy practices, and about how I wrote this book; I will save that indulgence for another occasion.

I acknowledge the influence of many people. I am grateful to Charles Ferguson and Shirley Brice Heath for letting me realize many years ago that I did not have to measure spectrograms for ever and that literacy is a reasonable interest to pursue. Since that time, in the past decade I have talked to many people about literacy at meetings and conferences in Europe and North America. I owe a debt to all of them, especially Michael Cole, David Olson and Catherine Snow. Many colleagues who are also friends have contributed: including Brian Street, who has always been extremely generous in his support; Mukul Saxena and Mary Talbot, who commented on parts of the manuscript of this book; Kenneth Levine, who updated the table in chapter 2 for me; and especially David Bloome, Mary Hamilton, Roz Ivanic, Janet Maybin and Catherine Macrae who took the time to provide me with many detailed comments on the whole enterprise.

At Lancaster I have been grateful for support from colleagues in the Centre for Language in Social Life, and especially to staff and students who have participated in the activities of the Literacy Research Group over the years, including Rachel Rimmershaw, Sarah Padmore and Simon Pardoe. I am grateful to my colleagues in the Department of Linguistics for maintaining a sabbatical system which encourages people to take time off for writing and research, despite external pressures to constantly reduce this time. Above all, the endless discussions with and enthusiasm from Mary Hamilton and Roz Ivanic have contributed much to this book. Of course I take responsibility for all errors, omissions, confusions and lack of clarity which remain. Meanwhile, I have learned a great deal.

David Barton
Lancaster University

An integrated approach to literacy


Rapid technological and social change is affecting what we know and how we communicate. The nature of knowledge and the nature of communication are changing in fundamental ways, and literacy is central to this. Throughout the world, issues of literacy have moved to the top of the political agenda and in public debate everywhere there is perceived to be a crisis in education; literacy has become a contentious issue in schools and colleges, in the community and in political debate.

More than one hundred years after the introduction of compulsory schooling we do not have an educational system which turns out happy well-educated people. This can be demonstrated in many ways; with reference to reading and writing, it is generally agreed that around 10 per cent of adults in countries like Britain and the United States are not satisfied with their levels of literacy. After three decades of adult literacy provision in such countries, what was thought of as a minor social problem has not been solved; rather, basic education provision for adults now has to be seen as part of normal educational provision. Pressures are coming from governments and elsewhere for education to account for what it achieves and there are new demands from rapidly changing technologies. This is happening throughout industrialized countries. Meanwhile, in developing countries there is a realization that literacy rates are not increasing in the ways optimistically predicted before the year 2000 and there are debates on how to achieve ‘education for all’.

Competing views of what education is for are being made more explicit. People may disagree about the nature of ‘the crisis’ but there is public unease about what is going on. The purpose of schools and education has often been taken for granted: more and more it is now being called into question. Questions about reading and writing turn up in a wide range of places: in discussions about falling standards in education; in calls for Plain English in documents; in debates about the economic cost of education, the requirements for a trained workforce, the effects of new technologies on our lives, the need for adult literacy provision.

All sorts of people talk about literacy and make assumptions about it, both within education and beyond it. The business manager bemoans the lack of literacy skills in the workforce. The politician wants to eradicate ‘the scourge of illiteracy’. The radical educator attempts to empower and liberate people. The literary critic sorts the good writers from the bad writers. The teacher diagnoses reading difficulties and prescribes a programme to solve them. The pre-school teacher watches literacy emerge. These people all have powerful definitions of what literacy is. They have different theories of literacy, different ideas of ‘the problem’ and what should be done about it. Public discussion in the media is often at odds with what is going on in schools. Ideas about a ‘literacy crisis’ are constantly in the newspapers but public discussion of literacy issues is not very sophisticated; there is widespread ignorance about language, and the most simplistic approaches are latched on to.

Part of this current conflict revolves around what is meant by literacy and to some extent the disputes can be viewed as struggles between different definitions of literacy. The aim of this book is to try to understand the different ways in which people talk about reading and writing, and to draw together new views of literacy which have been developed in different areas. The question I am asking throughout is: what is literacy? In exploring this topic, I will cover many very different aspects of literacy. There are two starting points for the discussion: first, that of examining people’s everyday reading and writing; and, secondly, the many areas of study which are contributing to new understandings of literacy.

Literacy in everyday life

The first starting point is people’s everyday lives and how they make use of reading and writing. In going about their ordinary daily life, people today are constantly encountering literacy. This is true for most people in the world. Imagine a person waking up in the morning: they may well be woken up at seven o’clock in the morning by an alarm which turns on a radio automatically. The first voice they hear might well be someone reading the radio news to them, a written text which is being spoken. Going for breakfast, they pick up the newspaper from the door mat along with some mail. Breakfast, in England at least, might consist of drinking a cup of tea while listening to the radio, browsing through the newspaper and opening some letters. Other people might be present, adults and children, and they might participate in these activities. Already, at the beginning of the day, there have been several literacy events, each quite different from the other.

I have used this example elsewhere; I like it because it demonstrates that how people use literacy is tied up with the particular details of the situation and that literacy events are particular to a specific community at a specific point in history. The scene I describe may be very familiar to you or it may seem very distant. The precise details may not be right: there are many countries today where mail and newspapers are not delivered to the door in time for breakfast. I was thinking of Lancaster, England; in seemingly similar places such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania or Lancaster, Ontario things may be very different. It is only in some cultures that it is thought normal to start the day sitting at a table and simultaneously to listen to a radio, read a newspaper and drink a cup of tea, and where it may be acceptable and polite to ignore other people eating at the table, or to talk intermittently to them while reading. What is polite or acceptable in one situation may not be in another, and such behaviour might not be accepted at a different time of day or with different people present.

There are several other things about literacy which this example illustrates. The first point to be made is that literacy impinges on people in their daily lives, whether or not they regularly read books or do much writing. Literacy is embedded in these activities of ordinary life. It is not something which is done just at school or at work. It is carried out in a wide variety of settings. For the school child much of the literacy in the home may be quite unlike that encountered in the school classroom. Secondly, several people can be involved in reading or in writing, and they may participate in various ways, each treating the written word differently. There are many ways of reading in a particular situation with a particular text. The various texts are recognized as distinct and are read in different ways – there are many ways of taking meaning from the text. Listening to the news broadcasts, scanning the morning papers, sorting through the different letters in the mail may all involve different participants acting in different ways.

This example has been concerned with reading, but there may well be some writing involved. Around breakfast time there may be a hurried letter to be written to the teacher, or a school form to be filled in. There may be a note to be left for someone, or a bill which has to be paid urgently. People write reminder notes for themselves at the beginning of the day and write in diaries and on calendars. Some people get up early to write personal letters or log on to their email before the bustle of the day begins.

Using an everyday event as a starting point provides a distinct view of literacy. The most common views of literacy start out from the educational settings in which literacy is typically taught, that is, the school classroom. The dominant definitions in society, then, are school-based definitions of literacy. These views of what literacy is are often at odds with what people experience in their everyday lives. This can be in a very straightforward way where the kinds of reading and writing which people do in their everyday lives are different from those done in school. It can be in people’s more general conceptions of literacy. Everyday literacy gives a richer view of literacy which demands a new definition of literacy, a new way of thinking about what is involved in reading and writing.

The main area for research on reading and writing up till now has been education. The main focus has been on individual learning. The main research paradigm has been psychological. Again this has been the most common approach. However, it is not just educators who are interested in literacy. If we look elsewhere, it is obvious that the more we dig at literacy, the richer it is. A wealth of recent ideas which are not encompassed by standard theories flood in from history, anthropology, sociology and a range of other disciplines. These ideas provide the second starting point for the exploration of literacy.

The study of literacy

There are many aspects of literacy to account for. Across a wide range of disciplines there has been an explosion of interest in literacy. Topics which were not mentioned a few years ago are now being researched and there is so much work going on that it is difficult to keep up with the books and articles which are being published. There are many strands of research taking the subject in different directions. It is necessary to bring these strands together, and much of this book will be devoted to doing this. To give an idea of what is ahead here is a brief list of some of the areas where there has been renewed interest in literacy and where we might look for ideas. The individual people working in these areas are moving in the same direction and I want to point to the unity of ideas in these seemingly diverse topics.

Across a range of disciplines the term literacy has become a code word for more complex views of what is involved in reading and writing. In each of the following subjects, people are making some contribution to the contemporary study of literacy:

  • historical development
  • the study of different cultures and subcultures
  • oral cultures without literacy
  • languages, scripts, bilingual literacy
  • written and spoken language
  • situated cognition
  • social understanding of science and of new technologies
  • processes of reading and writing
  • pre-school literacy, emergent literacy
  • learning in schools
  • learning at home, in the community, at work
  • adult learning, adult literacy, adults returning to study
  • the politics of literacy, literacy and power

These are the topics I will be drawing upon throughout the book. I will provide references to work in these areas as they are encountered. In all these areas people are questioning what is meant by literacy. Although there are similarities, in some ways these different approaches with different philosophies underlying them are asking different questions and using different methodologies. There needs to be a way of talking about literacy which begins to bring together the many facets described so far. I will provide an overview of current approaches to literacy in these different areas at the same time as ensuring that they contribute to a common understanding of reading and writing. This is a complex interdisciplinary endeavour and I hope that the idea of an ecological approach, the subject of the next two chapters, will provide enough common threads to weave the topics together.

At different points in history disciplines go forward at different rates; in the past two decades the pace of change in the study of reading and writing has been rapid and the new field of literacy studies has come into existence. It is important to realize that there has been a significant paradigm shift going on in this area. It is exhibited in various ways, one of the most visible being the explosion of books, papers and conferences on the subject. The shift is in a particular direction. Many of the recent works I will refer to begin with summaries of changes in views and they are all shifts to some social perspective.

Another phenomenon is the plethora of reviews, reviews of reviews, special issues of journals and conferences devoted to the topic of literacy, each beginning with a discussion of what is meant by the word. There are even whole books devoted to defining literacy (such as Venezky et al., 1990). Writers, including myself, see the need to examine the metaphors and theories we are starting from. One way of going forward has been to regard the taken-for-granted ideas as myths, to list the myths associated with aspects of literacy and then to counter them.1 While there has undeniably been a paradigm shift in the study of reading and writing, these changes are also part of more general trends in the social sciences of being more reflexive, focusing on the particular, and of being interdisciplinary. Like other shifts, this one is also leading to conflicting ways of talking about the topic and struggles over the meanings of words. A major goal of the book is to destroy common myths and widely accepted but wrong ‘truths’ about reading and writing, in order to build a different view. This will be evident in each of the topics covered.

Outline of the book

Chapter 2 is concerned with the need for a new way of thinking about reading and writing. It examines some of the metaphors which have been used when talking about literacy. Having outlined what is meant by a theory and the importance of metaphors in language, it explores some of the different ways of talking about literacy, including everyday usage, and how these metaphors are theories of literacy. Definitions of literacy from politicians, researchers and dictionaries are examined. The area of literacy studies is introduced and a final section discusses the metaphor of ecology and its potential application to the area of literacy.

Chapter 3 is an overview of what it means to think in terms of the ecology of literacy, arguing that literacy is best understood as a set of practices which people use in literacy events; that it is necessary to talk in terms of there being different literacies; that literacy practices are situated in broader social relations; that literacy is a symbolic system used both for communicating with others and for representing the world to ourselves; that attitudes and awareness are important aspects of literacy; that issues of power are important; and that current literacy events and practices are created out of the past.

Chapter 4 is about researching literacy practices. It describes methods for researching literacy practices and provides examples of research which has been carried out into everyday literacy practices. It then discusses several examples of multilingual literacy practices, then the ways in which all aspects of literacy are gendered, and finally examples of research into workplace literacy practices.

Chapter 5 explores contemporary ideas about language which are necessary for a sophisticated view of literacy. It provides a constructivist view of language, and it emphasizes the various discourses which different literacies are part of. Writing results in texts, which can be used, analysed and dissected, and they are connected to each other by intertextuality. Several examples of texts are used as illustrations in the book. The idea of reading as taking meaning from texts is covered. Finally, the various senses in which language, and especially literacy, mediates our experience are described.

Chapter 6 covers views on differences between written and spoken language, and how they have developed from ideas of listing differences, through notions of continua from written to spoken, on to ideas of configurations of language which utilize both written and spoken. Chapter 7 includes a brief description of different writing systems and some of the difficulties in making comparisons between them, and a discussion of writing in relation to other notations such as number, music, maps and visual layout. This is linked to the general discussion throughout on the limits of literacy.

Chapter 8 examines some crucial points in history and how they can provide insights into areas as diverse as: the learning of literacy, levels of literacy in society, literacy and technological change, and literacy and power relations. The first part, the archaeology of literacy, looks at the origin of writing, how it arose out of earlier systems, its relationship to social structure, and the wide range of functions existing from the beginning. Issues around the importance of early Greek literacy are covered, along with discussion of problems with the idea of writing evolving. A section on the social history of literacy looks at the importance of the development of printing in changing social practices, and the gradual development of a literate culture. The historical basis of contemporary literacy is covered through an examination of popular literacy and the introduction of compulsory schooling.

Chapters 9 and 10 turn to young children and the learning of literacy. As well as having ideas about language embedded in them, views of literacy also contain theories of learning. The roots of literacy are identified in learning to speak and in the practices associated with home literacy events. Views of learning which cover both written and spoken language are drawn upon. Emergent reading and writing are covered, along with the importance of children’s developing awareness of language.

Chapter 11 explores two metaphors common in public discussion about reading and writing and in education: these are, first, ideas about literacy being a skill and, secondly, literary views of reading and writing. This includes discussion of how professional writers, mainly novelists, talk about the act of writing. What goes on in schools, the actual literacy practices, are the subject of chapter 12. School practices are described in brief, along with some of the ways in which schools as institutions sustain certain views of literacy. Some of the research on links between home and school is covered.

The next chapter, chapter 13, turns to adult literacy, covering literacy campaigns in developing countries as well as recent questions raised in industrialized countries. It includes a section on how ordinary people, especially those who identify problems with reading and writing, negotiate their day-to-day lives. The values and purposes underlying literacy campaigns are discussed. The ecological fact that languages are currently dying out at a phenomenal rate is pointed out, along with some discussion of the role of literacy in supporting endangered languages. In the final chapter some suggestions are made of how schools and adult literacy programmes can take account of these views of literacy, and some directions are suggested for developing an ecological view of literacy.