28.02.2007

Why literacy practices?

Traditionally, studies in language teaching and learning have treated reading, writing and the mastery of grammar as separate individual skills and almost self-evidently examined the practices of foreign languages and mother tongue separately. In this project, a more social and holistic view of language is adopted as literacy is seen as a transferable ability to master the textual worlds in varying forms and contexts both in the mother tongue(s) and foreign languages. Literacy is thus interpreted as a social practice, something people do with various texts to participate in the meaning making in social communities. Literacy practices include the construction of knowledge, values, attitudes, beliefs and feelings associated with the reading and writing of particular texts within particular contexts. (See for instance: Street 1984, Baynham 1995, Barton & Hamilton 1998, Barton et al. 2000).

Literacy practices are realised in particular events, in concrete occasions where texts are used and where acting and interacting around the texts can be identified. Events are embedded in larger contexts, literacy domains, such as school, work and community (Street 2000, Barton 1994, Barton & Hamilton 1998). The relationship between literacy and the domains is dialogical. For example, literacy practices at school are shaped by the institution, but at the same time they are enforced, renewed, transformed and even ignored by the out-of-school literacy practices. Nevertheless, the curriculum, textbooks, tests and classroom practices regulate and determine what counts as literacy and what kind of literacy practices are valued in society (Luke 1996). Therefore, literacy can never be regarded as objective and ideologically neutral. All uses of text are shaped in and by their social contexts which means that even the most established and institutionalised conceptions of literacy can be traced back to social and cultural conventions, needs and values (Gee 2000).

As a growing number of individuals use technological means for communication, linguistic activities come to shape the ways in which we view and use language in a “post-typographic” world. (Lankshear & Knobel 2003, Lemke 1998, Reinking 1998). Scholars are beginning to acknowledge the fact that the changes taking place also expand the notion of literacies, and it has become more accurate to talk about multiliteracies. The concept captures the growing diversity of culture, language and forms of texts within an increasingly global community and within the multiple modalities of communication (e.g. The New London Group 2000, Cope & Kalantzis 2000, Kress & van Leeuwen 2001). It involves, therefore, not only the ability to produce and interpret texts, but also a critical awareness of the relationships between texts, discourse conventions and social and cultural contexts. A multiliterate person can be an active participant in the different interaction chains in contrast to just being handed information to, being interacted with on the terms of the other participants (Warschauer 1999, 2003).

Through participation in different (multi)literacy practices individuals make sense of their identities, manifest their membership of groups, and their ownership and authorship to texts (Gee 1990, Cope & Kalantzis 2000, MacCleod 2004, Bartlett 2005). Thus, literacy practices are situated social and cultural acts of identity (Ivanic 1998, Lankshear 1997). Consequently, identities can be seen as dynamic – multiple, changeable, negotiable, and contextual. Schools as institutions have the power to categorise social identities. These categories are inscribed in cultural models of schooling and constructed through teachers’ interactions with learners, but also through, e.g., curriculum and materials design (Hawkins 2005). In order to function in a knowledge society, one has to understand what kind of literacy practices society values (e.g. critical literacy), and how to show competencies to gain affirmation and recognition (Hall 2002).

The approach to language pedagogy adopted in this research incorporates socio-constructivist (Scardamalia & Bereiter 1994, Breiter & Scardamalia1996, Resnick et al. 1991) and sociocultural (Lee & Smagorinsky 2000, Lantolf 2000, van Lier 1996; Warschauer 2003) learning theories that emphasise the interdependence of social and individual processes in the co-construction of knowledge. In this line of thinking, learning takes places in interaction both in formal and informal contexts. The idea of multimodal pedagogy is in perceiving learning as a non-linear transparent process where the individual and group learning needs are addressed in a more efficient way, and learning tools, working modes and use of different media are built around the learning process and not the learning content (Taalas 2005). A central aim of multimodal pedagogy is to promote learners’ self-directedness through individual goal setting and self-assessment.

Overall, assessment is an essential element of multimodal pedagogy. A comprehensive and multifaceted definition of literacy requires that assessment is considered as part of learning giving support to its various processes and objectives (Kalantzis et al. 2003). Through assessment, certain understandings of knowledge and assessment are legitimised, and assessment also indicates what type of knowing and learning are valued. Learners construct their identities with the help of assessment and feedback; furthermore, these contribute to their perception of how well they master the content and practices and how they will relate to them in the future. Thus, the relationship between learning, teaching and assessment practices is dialogical, as all three influence one another.

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