50 years of the UK Literacy Association

Back in July many of us went to the University of Sussex to the 50th International Conference of the UK Literacy Association.  In my opinion it’s a superb organisation I’m very proud to be a member of, combining robust good sense, sound research and a powerful commitment to foster children’s imagination.  The latter is particularly apparent in its support for children’s literature; I’ll never forget, for example, hearing Malorie Blackman talk at an earlier UKLA conference.  This passion for books is something shared by some of the best contributors to the National Council for the Teaching of English – a US conference I visited in 2012. There I encountered the indefatiguable Donalyn Miller, who tirelessly discusses children’s literature and the power of reading via Twitter (@donalynbooks) to her 47k followers. Many folk in both organisations are interested in books, whether accessed by print or new media.

My excuse for writing about the UKLA conference now, perhaps a little late, although of course we are still in the UKLA 50th anniversary year, is that I’ve come across this superb blog post by Eve Tandoi about the Sussex conference. It’s brought back some good memories, engaging carefully with the views of the plenary speakers in particular.  I think I would just add that I was at the time very aware of the controversial nature of Ken Goodman‘s claims about literacy.  He raised quite a Twitter storm when suggesting that it would be better to abolish the teaching of literacy as such, rather embed it in purposeful, authentic work with children.  He is very critical of SATs that are so narrow that they demand, especially in less privileged classrooms, teaching to the test and endanger the sense of excitement in learning that children start out with.

Finally, then, I’ll share the short abstracts of the symposia by my colleagues and myself at the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre.  If you’re interested in learning more about any of this work, do contact any of us directly or look at our webpages.

Many voices of literacy: polyphony in Literacy Studies research.

These linked symposia from the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre reflect on the value of researching literacy as a social practice to enable us to hear and engage with the multiple voices and perspectives of different participants in literacy research.  We have a tradition of research which reveals the multiple capacities and creativity of people’s everyday literacy practices.  Ethnographic and interpretive methodologies seek to make visible, and sometimes to empower, the voices of those who are often silenced by the pseudo-objectivity of governments, policy-makers, large-scale survey research and other dominant voices.

The first session, on researching literacies in educational settings, continues an established area of interest.  The second, on researching digital literacies, reflects on an area which challenges and forces us to develop our established ways of doing research. They are followed by a discussion led by our discussant Brian Street.

Session 1: Polyphony in educational settings

Papers in this session focus on educational settings, addressing how literacy research can engage with the voices of teachers and learners positioned within centralised policies, formal, decontextualised assessments of achievement, and measurement against national and international league tables.  We have a tradition of working with teachers and literacy practitioners, understanding their role as active agents who bring their voices, experiences and understandings of learners to negotiate policy frameworks.

Diane Potts: “Teachers as knowledge workers: Positioning professionals in discourses of accountability.” A multimodal discourse analysis of teachers’ digital accounts of classroom literacies practices and educational stakeholders’ responses to these texts illustrates the challenge for educators attempting to take up a position within policy debates.

Mary Hamilton: “Representations in policy: positioning key voices, occluding others.” Examples of the powerful imaginaries of literacy and literacy learners that circulate widely in the media, government and popular discourse.

Uta Papen: “Studying phonics policy and practice: how the voice of policy is heard by literacy teachers.” A detailed analysis of how synthetic phonics and the new Phonics Screening Check are presented in policy documents and how the policy is put into practice by teachers and children in primary school classrooms, based on critical discourse analysis with classroom ethnography.

Session 2: Polyphony in digital literacies

In researching online practices, moves towards harvesting ‘big data’and applying techniques such as corpus analysis and visualisation can indicate broad trends and developments.   However, without an ethnographic perspective we risk divorcing digital content from its originators, occluding the perspectives and voices of the people engaging in these practices. The presenters will each address an approach to researching individuals’ perspectives on and practices in online literacy.

David Barton: “Technobiographies –  bringing the self into research.” A methodology for researching the range, variety and changes in people’s contemporary language practices. This also acts as structured way for students to reflect on their own life histories with technologies, as an introduction to studying new media.

Julia Gillen: “Adopting a new kind of professional voice: a literacy studies approach to a Twitter case study.”  A case study of an individual’s developing use of Twitter, drawing on ethnographic methods, examined in their sociohistorical context and through interactions involving others.

Karin Tusting: “Language use on an internet forum: voices of collaborative learning on Mumsnet.”  Detailed analysis of vernacular literacies for learning in online settings, developing an example of collaborative learning about parenting practices from the Mumsnet talk forum.


“What is a letter?” Interdisciplinary symposium, Oxford, 2-4 July 2014

I was fortunate to be invited to give a paper at the interdisciplinary symposium: “What is a letter?” earlier this month, by the organisers, Marie Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig and Caroline Socha.

It is hoped that the papers presented will be published and meanwhile there are full details of the programme, including abstracts, available from the symposium blog.  Rather than try to cover the main programme here, I thought I would mention a few side shoots from my experience there.  One such is a mind map produced (after I’d had to leave) which I think does a good job of summing up concisely some of the themes raised. For me, many of the issues that are often raised in Literacy Studies appear here; such as materiality, social practices and text trajectories, albeit sometimes expressed with different terms.

IMG_5175 mind mapA highlight of the extra-mural activities for me was the invitation to view some of the special collections of the Bodleian library.  We were introduced to some of the most interesting items by the Keepers, headed by Chris Fletcher.  The most fascinating letter for me was one written by John Evelyn to Samuel Pepys.  Of course these are the two most celebrated diarists of their age (if not for all time) in England, but what was salient at this point in their correspondence was their interest in naval affairs.  Evelyn was a board commissioner, concerned with sick and wounded sailors as well as prisoners of war while Pepys was clerk of the acts to the Navy Board. Evelyn’s letter, written apparently while he was indisposed, included this marvellous sketch of the Dutch fleet making a raid up the Medway in June 1667. This map (pasted into a book into which such letters have been collected) is so marvellously detailed it includes a key to the ships and even details of sandbanks.

IMG_5101 Evelyn map


An event I missed at the end of the conference was a workshop on letter locking by Daniel Starza Smith (Lincoln College, Oxford) and Jana Dambrogio (Conservator of special collections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).  From talking with them earlier, I know they are interested in many of the historical practices concerning, for example, folding letters to go through the post when envelopes aren’t available. IMG_5219 tuck and sealJana had shown me how letters were folded in the Soviet Union during WW2.  Here is another kind of example of folded letter.

folded letter

I’m certainly sorry I missed that workshop.

My own contribution was a paper about writing Edwardian postcards. There is a short illustrated summary here.

A couple of other papers at the symposium also drew upon an earlier work from the Literacy Research Centre, the book Letter Writing as Social Practice, edited by David Barton and Nigel Hall.

Post Literacies in the linguistic landscape


What could be more iconic of the British Empire than the red pillar box emblazoned with the monogram of the monarch? Both South Africa and the Irish Republic kept their pillar boxes after independence but the Irish ones were promptly repainted in green, while the remaining South African ones are still red. Meanwhile in both countries they provide a space for displaying official language policy. The South African one (photographed in 2012, but probably unchanged for at least 20 years) reflects the Apartheid-era policy of treating English and Afrikaans as equal official languages in accordance with the 1910 constitution, but ignoring the rest (there are now 11 official languages under the 1996 constitution). The Irish pillar box (photographed in 2006) shows English (the second official language according to the constitution of the Republic) and Irish (the ‘national language and first official language’), in that order (i.e. the second official language first). In both the South African and cases, exactly the same content is given in both official languages and the fonts and letter sizes are identical for both, metaphorically establishing the languages as equally important.

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Despite the South African constitution declaring 11 languages now to be official, the most recent incarnation of the posting box is just in one language – English. the same, incidentally, is true of the stamps.


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PhD studentship: Online development and assessment of deaf learners’ English literacy

Our colleagues at the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS), University of Central Lancashire, are offering the following PhD studentship.

Reference Number: RS/14/02

Applications are invited for a full time PhD (via MPhil). The studentship is tenable for up to 3 years full-time for a PhD (via MPhil route) [subject to satisfactory progress] and is open to both Home, EU and International applicants. The bursary will cover the cost of tuition fees at the Home/EU rate plus a maintenance grant of £3000 per year. International Applicants may apply but will be required to fund the difference between Home/EU and International Fees. The successful applicant will commence on 1 October 2014.

Project Title – Online development and assessment of deaf learners’ English literacy

Project Description
The iSLanDS Institute is pleased to invite applicants for a full-time PhD studentship focusing on the assessment of deaf learners’ literacy and the development of a virtual learning environment for the acquisition of written English by deaf Indians.

English language literacy for deaf communities is a strategic growth area for the iSLanDS Institute. There is an emerging recognition of the valuable role of sign bilingualism, and pedagogy relying on the medium of signed languages, in the development of deaf people’s English literacy. The Institute has considerable experience in creating online resources for language teaching, including a pilot project in which we established an English Learning Platform for deaf students. The studentship holder will make a substantial contribution to both the applied work and to the theoretical base surrounding the development of deaf literacy, by empirically determining how to perform more accurate assessments of deaf learners’ English language levels.

In summary, the studentship holder will play a key role in our work on deaf literacy by concentrating on the following:

1) research on content design for a virtual learning environment aimed at teaching English to deaf sign language users in India and at least one other country;
2) analysis of the English language output from these learners against the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

Applications are invited from candidates with a postgraduate degree at MA level. We will prioritise sign language users, but given the limited pool of people who are proficient in a sign language, we will also consider non-signers who are willing to learn sign language during their time at UCLan.

Informal enquiries may be directed to Professor Ulrike Zeshan email: uzeshan@uclan.ac.uk

Requests for an application pack (quoting the reference number RS1402) should be directed to the Research Student Registry. Tel: 01772 895082 or email: researchadmissions@uclan.ac.uk

Closing Date: 23rd May 2014
Provisional Interview Date: 20th June 2014