Resisting Neoliberalism in Education: Resources of Hope

Mary Hamilton / March 17th 2021

This blog extracts some key ideas from our recent book “Resisting Neoliberalism in Education” edited by Lyn Tett and Mary Hamilton and newly published in paperback by Policy Press, Bristol, UK.

Resisting Neoliberalism in Education

Neoliberalism has been widely criticised because of its role in prioritising ‘free markets’ as the optimum way of solving problems and organising society. In the field of education, this leads to an emphasis on the knowledge economy that can reduce both persons and education to economic actors and be detrimental to wider social and ethical goals.

The book provides innovative examples showing how neoliberalism in education can be challenged and changed at local, national and transnational levels in order to foster a more democratic culture. A number of the contributors to the book focus on literacy education, while the overall collection draws more broadly on a range of international contexts across informal, adult, school and university settings.

As attention focusses on how to build a better, sustainable society post-COVID, the messages from this book have never been more relevant. We are at a point where resetting the priorities of the education is essential.

We welcome comments on this blog and would especially like to hear of examples from your own experience of «resources of hope» that offer opportunities for resistance and change.

Resisting Neoliberalism in Education: Resources of Hope

Lyn Tett, University of Huddersfield and Mary Hamilton, University of Lancaster

In one of his last books, Pedagogy of Indignation Freire argues that neo-liberalism is a deeply fatalistic discourse which ‘speaks about the death of dreams and utopia and deproblematizes the future’ (Freire 2004:110). He reminds us that one of the key roles of critical intellectuals is to reproblematise the social reality of the present and to foster critical awareness of alternatives (see Roberts, 2005). Our aim in this book, therefore, is to offer positive examples of resistance to neoliberal education from across sectors and geographical contexts and to show how these enable neoliberalism to be challenged and changed.

Neoliberalism in education

We understand the defining features of neoliberalism to be a system of thought and practical action within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade that involves deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision (Harvey, 2005). In education this leads to a competitive market approach within which educational goods (such as qualifications, curricula, institutional reputation, expert labour) are branded and exchanged in an international arena (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010). This approach prioritises individualisation of achievement and competition rather than collaboration among practitioners and among students. It creates a low trust environment where professionals (and students) have to be monitored and assessed by external yardsticks. The result is that efficiency and monetised values are prioritised over other pedagogical and social values such as diversity, equity, well-being and care. Under neoliberalism education systems have been mandated to develop efficient, creative and problem-solving learners and workers for a globally competitive economy leading to the neglect of its social and developmental responsibilities (Olssen, 2009). These institutionalised practices have been partially accomplished by persuading each individual teacher and learner to treat the effects of neoliberalism as personal rather than structural and so these become accepted by individuals as normal rather than as in need of critique and transformation. A key way in which this acceptance happens is through is the use of a plethora of metrics such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (OECD, 2016). These assessments are used to measure performativity through a focus on market considerations, which does not necessarily reflect the core values of the work, that is, the quality of the teaching, inclusion and relationships (Lynch, 2006).

Our contention is that such a system is in fundamental tension with traditional approaches and understandings of education. Living within such an environment is therefore challenging for all those participating in it. But as Foucault (1998: 95) has argued, ‘where there is power there is resistance’ because resistance involves recognising and questioning socialised norms and constraints through discourse. Whilst discourse ‘reinforces [power], it also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart’ (ibid: 101). Drawing on Foucault provides a way of thinking about resistance that focuses on the role of subjectivity and transgression in refusing to accept the neoliberal practices of performativity (Ball and Olmedo, 2013). This book is an exploration of how people in different positions within neoliberal education are responding to it and where they find resources and strategies to manage the tensions and contradictions they encounter.

Resistance

When we envisage resistance we often think of it as collective, public, political activity but there are many types of resistance. In this book we argue that the concept has two central dimensions: resistance must involve action (physical, material or symbolic) and be oppositional in that actors challenge or subvert dominant discourses and practices in some way. Resistance also needs to be intentional although some actions, such as when practitioners avoid using reporting mechanisms that they consider unfair to the people they work with, may be hidden from the view of powerful authorities. Resistance is also interactional because it is ‘defined not only by resisters’ perceptions of their own behaviour but also by their targets’ recognition of, and reaction to, this behaviour’ (Hollander and Einwohner, 2004: 548). The possible resources and strategies will differ from context to context but a sense of action and of opposition holds these expressions of resistance together.

The different forms of resistance identified by Hollander and Einwohner are usefully integrated within a strand of literature dealing with “everyday resistance”. These are less visible forms of resistance that Scott (1990) links to the notion of ‘transcripts’ (hidden and public) which are established ways of behaving and speaking that fit particular actors in particular social settings, whether dominant or oppressed. Resistance is a subtle form of contesting ‘public transcripts’ by making use of prescribed roles and language to resist the abuse of power – including things like ‘rumour, gossip, disguises, linguistic tricks, metaphors, euphemisms, folktales, ritual gestures, anonymity’ (1990: 137). He argues that ‘most of the political life of subordinate groups is to be found neither in the overt collective defiance of power holders nor in complete hegemonic compliance, but in the vast territory between these two polar opposites’ (Scott 1985: 136). Johansson and Vinthagen (2016) add to this framework the term ‘repertoire of resistance’, which they argue is ‘a combined result of the interplay between social structures and power relations, as well as activists’ creative experimentation with tactics and experiences of earlier attempts to practise resistance, together with the situational circumstances in which the resistance is played out’ (ibid. p. 421). This means that groups develop a collection of ways of resisting that they understand and are able to handle that are embedded in relationships and processes of interaction between the resisters and their targets. These repertoires are organised in specific contexts according to the historical and current power configurations, time, space and relationships in which they are embedded.

Resources of hope

Lilja and colleagues (2017) have demonstrated the link between these forms of ‘everyday’ resistance and more organised civil-society-based resistance. They point out that the latter ‘can encourage and create yet other forms of everyday resistance through being inspired or provoked into new resistant identities’ (p.52). They also show, however, that if resistance is unsuccessful, it eventually discourages action and people put their innovative energies into more productive issues. So, we aim to encourage action by providing resources in this book that are designed to help us find innovative and productive ways of challenging inequalities in education. In particular, we present those that subvert and challenge narrow curricula and pedagogies that privilege the dominant culture. We agree with Williams that we need to have an education system that is redesigned so that it provides full ‘human relevance and control…[and] emphasises not the ladder but the common highway’, [because every person’s] ‘ignorance diminishes me, and every [person]’s skill is a common gain of breath’ (1989: 15).

Getting to this point though, means that we have to engage with a variety of ways of challenging the dominant culture of neoliberalism. Williams (1977) suggests that such challenges occur not only through struggle and action but also through changes in deep structures of feeling and imagination. In particular, he argues that dominant discourses ‘select from and consequently exclude the full range of human practice [yet some] experiences, meanings, and values are nevertheless lived and practiced on the basis of some residue – cultural as well as social – of some previous social and cultural institution or formation’ (p.125). These residual resources were formed in the past, but are still ‘active in the cultural process …as an effective element of the present’ (p.123) through people’s ‘practical consciousness’. In addition to these resources there is ‘emergent’ culture which carries new meanings and values, and ‘depends crucially on finding new forms or adaptions of forms’ (p.126). Throughout the book there are illustrations of the use of both these forms of culture as resources with which to challenge and change neoliberalism so that the full range of knowledge can be expressed within education. The themes raised and the conceptual resources deployed reflect a range of perspectives that have the common aim of addressing questions of how the power of the neoliberal discourse might be resisted in education. the book is organised in five sections.

The first three sections are focused on local contexts of resistance and how it is enacted in the fields of adult, school and higher education. The next section focuses on school education while the final one shows how, even at the transnational level, it is possible to disrupt the neoliberal discourse.

10 Key Strategies

The notion of hope is explicitly referred to by several contributors as central to affirming identity and emboldening action.We have taken Raymond Williams notion of “resources of hope” (Williams, 1989) to draw together the rich variety of responses offered by contributors to the book and to identify what Milana & Rapana (2019: pp. 167-180) call “interstices for resistance” – points where it is possible to intervene to disrupt the dominant neoliberal regime and to help emergent, more emancipatory cultures to take root.

Some of these resources are directly relevant to educational practitioners, suggesting strategies that can be used in teaching or other aspects of institutional practice. Some are resources that can guide educational researchers in designing and carrying out ‘resistant’ research that foregrounds alternatives to neoliberal values. Some are principles and rules of thumb that can be used in both practice and research.

Many involve collaboration with others, with the aim of pooling resources and widening the spaces for action. Such collaborations can be formalised through organized public events and networks but the contributors to this book also assert the value of persisting with what may seem like mundane, everyday, acts of resistance that are based on seeing and seizing opportunities to do and say things differently. Such acts are, they argue, the bedrock for fostering wider change. Below we identify ten key ideas gathered from across the chapters that contribute to such changes.

  1. Many chapters make the point that a core aspect of resistance in a difficult or hostile environment is to find ways to create dialogic, emancipatory spaces which are affirming, positive and culturally sensitive for those participating in them. Identifying and forcing open such spaces requires sustained effort and strong commitment. In practice this can be done via pedagogy and curriculum and making opportunities for professional exchange of experiences, opinions, learning, collective action and mutual aid. It is not just the collective action itself that gets results, but the process of developing this action that builds knowledge useful for resistance. Sometimes it is a matter of looking for the potential in existing places, and perhaps working to revision these.
  2. Prioritising learner perspectives. We need to change the centre of gravity of whose perspectives count within curriculum and pedagogy, to overturn negative classifications of learners and to revision students of all ages as agentic subjects and citizens with rights.
  3. Harnessing communication technologies to amplify local and submerged voices and to model citizenship within educational practice. A local dialogic, emancipatory space has much more power if it can be shared as a model and replicated or extended across many community settings and digital technologies make such sharing readily achievable.
  4. Explicit sharing of core values among practitioners enables them to resist negative changes and to counter neoliberal values of commodification and competition. Underpinning professional values make everyday tactics meaningful and can be effectively supported by informal professional networks and by more formal trade union action.
  5. Fostering Creativity both directly with learners and in dealing with the institutional demands of policy. Narrow, assessment driven curricula can be countered through interdisciplinary partnerships between teachers, visual artists and writers, incorporating performance and artistic activities inspired by indigenous knowledges into the curriculum and multiple modes of expression. Such pedagogies change the dynamic between teachers, children and peers. At the institutional level, creativity involves resourcefulness in reinterpreting policy discourses, finding ways to compromise with these in order to obtain needed resources, looking out for and seizing opportunities to do things differently.
  6. Collaborating with new groups who share similar values; including international colleagues and organizations.. For discursive shifts to happen a wider range of people need to be assembled around the policy tables, creating an enlarged policy space for working on designs for new forms of education.
  7. It is important to use both horizontal (peer alliances) and vertical (institutional) strategies to pressure for change, combining strategies from all interested participants – students, support staff, parents and citizens. Tactical work arounds become more meaningful when combined with a good knowledge of how institutional structures work and awareness of realistic possibilities for change. It is important to develop understandings of how soft power operates, making a technocratic expert system open and transparent so that you can act to intervene if appropriate.
  8. Developing and encouraging a “knowledge commons” using and strengthening possibilities for open access to information by resisting paywalls and the domination of large-scale publishing companies. It is urgent to keep libraries open as physically ungated and welcoming spaces which can offer support for discussion, mutual aid and everyday workplace acts of resistance.
  9. Encouraging both learners and professionals to take shared responsibility for promoting education as a common good rather than assuming it is for someone else or some institutional force to change the neoliberal status quo. This involves encouraging forms of educational provision that are based on active citizenship and inclusive values.
  10. The final key point – and perhaps the core contribution of this book – is about the possibilities of using educational research itself as a resource for hope and for making change. Since many contributors are researchers as well as experienced practitioners, they have developed strong arguments about this which complement the practice-oriented strategies outlined above. Firstly, they assert the importance of documenting local experience and valuing participant perspectives in investigating research problems, Offering alternative concepts and analyses of issues can help people make new meaning of their experiences and to understand that discourses have material social outcomes. This can also be achieved through research which makes institutional systems and spaces of governance transparent through offering information about less visible aspects and dynamics of governance. Researching history can recover lost or submerged knowledges, help maintain and strengthen “residual cultures” and identify continuities in change, evidenced through the actions and statements of certain ministers and officials. Historical research can reconnect us with core alternative values and show the continuity of these values into the present.

References

Ball, Stephen J. & Olmedo, Antonio 2013. Care of the self, resistance and subjectivity under neoliberal governmentalities, Critical Studies in Education, 54:1, 85-96

Foucault, M. 1998. The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, London, Penguin.

Freire, P. 2004. Pedagogy of Indignation, Boulder and London: Paradigm.

Harvey, D. 2005. NeoLiberalism: A brief history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollander, J. A., & Einwohner, R. L. 2004, December. Conceptualizing resistance. In Sociological forum 19:4, 533-554. Springer Netherlands.

Johansson, A. & Vinthagen, S. 2016. ‘Dimensions of Everyday Resistance: An Analytical Framework’ Critical Sociology, 42 (3) 417-435

Lilja, M., Baaz, M., Schulz, M. & Vinthagen, S. 2017. How resistance encourages resistance: theorizing the nexus between power, Organised Resistance and Everyday Resistance Journal of Political Power, 10:1, 40-54, doi:10.1080/2158379x.2017.1286084

Lynch, K. (2006). Neo-Liberalism and Marketisation: The Implications for Higher Education. European Educational Research Journal, 5(1) 1-17. 

Milana M. and Rapana, F. 2019 “The appropriation of cultural, economic and normative frames of reference for adult education: an Italian perspective”, In Resisting neoliberalism in education: national and transnational perspectives, Bristol: Policy Press

OECD, 2016. PISA 2015 Results, Volume 1, Paris: OECD http://www.oecd.org/education/pisa-2015-results-volume-i-9789264266490-en.htm

Olssen, M. 2009. “Neoliberalism, Education, and the Rise of a Global Common Good.” In Re-Reading Education Policy: A Handbook Studying the Policy Agenda of the 21st Century, edited by M. Simons, M. Olssen, and M. A. Peters, 433-457. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Rizvi, F. & Lingard, B. 2010. Globalizing education policy. London: Routledge.

Roberts, P. 2005. “Review Essay: Pedagogy, Politics and Intellectual Life: Freire in the Age of the Market, Pedagogy of Indignation.” Policy Futures in Education 3:4, 446-458. doi:10.2304/pfie.2005.3.4.446

Scott, J. C. 1985. Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of resistance. London, Yale University Press.

Scott, J. C. 1990. Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts. London, Yale University Press.

Tett, L. and Hamilton M. (2019) (Eds.) Resisting neoliberalism in education: local, national and transnational perspectives, Bristol: Policy Press

Williams, R. 1977, Marxism and literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, R. 1989. Resources of Hope. London: Verso

What linguistics could be – a preliminary sketch

These are personal reflections towards ideas on decolonizing linguistics.

What could linguistics be?  Communication is always multimodal.  The long twentieth century project of shifting linguistics away from an illusory abstracted notion of what language might be, according to the “intuition” of white men thinking primarily in English, has, fortunately, long broadened. Although it must be added that this paradigm of thinking itself seeded many fertile signposts towards a decolonisation project. For example since abstracted systematic theories needed to be applicable to all languages, then to be viewed as a linguist in the US in the middle of the twentieth century one had to engage with at least one Indo-European language.  This continues to be a vital component of linguistics courses.  I’d recommend anyone to take even a short course; a brief glimpse into an unfamiliar language; it’s one of the most useful exercises one can take, to broaden horizons on diverse and unexpected ways of thinking. Who would have thought that Mandarin the USA is rendered as “the beautiful country?”  

 

Face with tears of joy emoji in Unicode U+1F602 (according to Seargeant). WordPress would not allow me to upload unless embedded in an image such as this one.

Nonetheless, writing about the discipline of linguistics in general, it can be said that as the influence of Chomsky and his magnificently ambitious Universal Grammar project has waned, linguistics has shifted its attention towards authentic language in use. This entails thinking about the material qualities of language, along with all the other features we might wrap up with the word “context” – although posthumanism is fruitfully calling the possibility of any such peculiarly shaped notion into question. For the time being then I focus on materiality.  Spoken language is as essentially material as sign languages and written language; all make use of diverse combinations of mode.  Materiality is as important if language is spoken between two people, talk is broadcast through a recording technology, or communicated online through texts and images.  Morphemes are units of meaning in a language (manatees/manatee – having encountered the first term in the news this week; I deduce the singular). Written languages may make use of morphemes or have quite other bases, such as being logographic, as Mandarin. The arbitrary nature of matching primary symbols to meanings is well known.  That is to say the “m” of manatee does not convey a meaning to us by itself).  In his fascinating reflection on the links between language, writing and technology, Philip Seargeant shares that emoji, picture images that convey meanings on digital devices, are encoded through essentially arbitrary choices of combinations in Unicode.  What systems we can make use of, on our smartphones, face to face or in any communicative condition, depends on what technologies we have access to and the interlinked factor of our semiotic repertoire. 

The primary insight of Systemic Functional Linguistics – that we make choices from the repertoires available to us to make meaningful communication – was helpful in its turn to functionality from structure, although I admit I always found its frameworks unconvincing. Materiality was not originally highlighted; although writers such as Kress and Van Leeuwen addressed this with their powerful arguments for bringing multimodality into linguistics.  But language was previously always and inescapably multimodal; it has not become increasingly so with the digital revolution; multimodality is an inescapable property of all communication.

An Edwardian postcard from my collection. One of those that evokes contemporary social media communications.

Language is essentially dialogic, that is formed through interaction. I find Bakhtin’s ways of thinking about the communication of meaning through language highly productive. Bakhtin used the term polyvocality to argue that what is integral to all use of language is that our understandings are informed by our histories of use. Our previous interactions with others inform how we understand any language we come across.  In producing, or reusing language we shape our own sense of meaning through responsivity to what has come before and contribute to interactants’ own understandings in turn.  However, Bakhtin and those taking on this dialogic turn, are often engaged with meanings in language; it is the proliferation of text types, of communication channels, that has exploded since the digital revolution that has served to draw more attention to material elements and lay out some of the preconditions for a newly exciting posthumanist project.

But again I draw back from the multidisciplinary posthumanist turn, at least for now, to look again at meaning in language, as a central concern for linguistics.  Rommetveit developed insights by Bakhtin, Volosinov and Kristeva to propose that meanings proffered in interactions are “culturally transmitted drafts of contracts” (Rommetveit 1992: 22). This addresses what he powerfully calls, “the myth of literal meaning” – the argument that no lexical item possesses a meaning untethered from its context of use.  His illustration (yes, one of those abstractions beloved of philosophical linguists that can I admit be so powerful) is that of Mrs Smith who answers the telephone to two enquirers about her husband.  To one she describes Mr Smith as “working” because he is mowing the lawn, to the other as “not working” because he has not gone to his place of employment.  Rommetveit’s proposal of the “culturally transmitted drafts of contracts” makes room for the essential instability of language, the impossibility of any such thing as “literal meaning”, but also for the notion of discourse communities.  For much of the time many of us at least are fortunate enough to sufficiently share meanings with those in our social contexts to get by.  Here, though, “many of us” – my phrase in the last sentence – glosses over relations of power.  I write as a white cis woman in a position of privilege.  What gets heard, what gets understood, what gets taken up: relations of power are inextricable with language in use.  In the linguistics community many are mourning the recent loss of Jan Blommaert.  Future projects on decolonising linguistics will grapple with the concerns that troubled him; what happens to language and literacies – language in all forms then –  in the profoundly inequitable conditions of contemporary globalised capitalism.

To begin with one illustration of power: national governments are associated with defining languages.  That is to say, even if they cannot determine everything, they can assign powerful positions to named languages and fail to recognise others.  An important component in the vitality of sign languages is the degree of official recognition.  The labelling of languages can become synonymous with national boundaries; be extended through empire, be razed to the ground.  One reason I enjoy my single undergraduate lecture on the history of English each year is to explain how the language almost disappeared in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it was the third language of this country below Norman French and Latin; only used by the lowest classes.  If this had continued, it would have died out, but the Hundred Years War with France led to a new emphasis on English.

The concept of translanguaging is shaking up the association of languages with codes and national boundaries, making more visible the enduring impact of colonialism.  Ideas around transduction and transposition have long hovered around Bakhtinian ways of thinking about language, but have are now fruitfully bursting through into other domains of work, as resemiotization is brought to the fore.  Li Wei (2018) argues, “Translanguaging offers a multilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource that human beings use for thinking and for communicating thought.”

In 1984/5 I was learning Slovak in Czechoslovakia, one of only a handful of medium term British visitors in a highly repressive state, controlled by the Soviet Union. The regime was seemingly almost impregnable, having endured decades of oppression since the attempted “Prague Spring” and subsequent military and political control.  I got into the country to study Slovak since I possessed a Russian degree, had attended a Summer school and was sponsored by the British Council.  I learnt Slovak quickly, I can say without false modesty, since the first thing I had to say to people after my arrival was, “I am sorry I am speaking Russian but I am English. I am here to learn Slovak……” and then I would stand a chance of getting to my real question such as where to buy toilet paper.  Only with the rapid preamble would an interlocutor on the street engage with me for long enough to ask my question.  Toilet paper was on sale in stationers, not in grocers, and I soon adapted to a more effective Slovak introduction.  In Czechoslovakia language in every form was not immune from interference.  Russian, for example, had a privileged place in the university.  But nobody’s lives were exempt from linguistic control; even the days of the week were not immune from interference.  The regime would announce that to enhance productivity next Saturday would become a “Wednesday”: all transport timetables, schools, universities and most importantly of all of course factories and farms would all act as if it were Wednesday.  One month the entire weekend, Saturday and Sunday, were obliterated. 

Oneof my photos from Slovakia in 1984. The banners say: “Peace is the idea of socialism”

Censorship was such it seemed as if little subversive communication could get through; policing was as thorough as the guns and watchtowers overlooking the Iron Curtain around Bratislava.  But one evening I was taken to a children’s puppet show.  It had become extremely popular and difficult to get into. Unsurprising perhaps since puppetry, mime and entertainments for children had a strong cultural history and were greatly valued in a regime that permitted so little arts expression.  However, everybody craned their necks and their ears to watch a joke that had escaped the censors; it was a performance of hitting a spoon on a boiled egg – was the pointy or round end hit? This was a much appreciated reference to the bald head of the prime minister.

Traditionally, linguistics has had a focus on speech, sometimes exclusively so.  Even now, occasionally handbooks on research methods in linguistics will firmly hold to this.  In one collection of Research Methods in Linguistics the only chapter on writing treats historical writing as a resource from which we can learn about historical speech.  I was immensely lucky very early in my career to work with Angela Goddard, who later led the introduction of the English Language ‘A’ Level into the UK and did so much to encourage the notion that everybody has a linguistic and semiotic repertoire fertile for research. This remains a wonderful starting off point for investigations of language. 

One of Angela’s practical and enormously influential books

Angela worked in an innovative Department of Human Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Later, owing to standardisation by pan university authorities the name had to be changed; since prospective students would look mostly for departments of “communications” or “linguistics” and overlook “Human Communication”.  I used to wonder if it would be a better title for a linguistics department, finally ridding us of the surely ridiculous divide between “Linguistics” and “Applied Linguistics.”  Now though the posthumanist lenses are prompting a view into the embedding of language and communication into materiality, into all the conditions of the world, nonhuman and human, as endlessly dynamic.  This entails more profound considerations of ethical engagement with the world than linguistics has been used to, it seems to me. Increased attention to power and social justice may be a result of posthumanist enterprises, although this could be an optimistic view.   I’d definitely no longer want to see Departments of Linguistics (with or without “English language”) called Departments of (Human) Communication.  A better reason for avoiding “communication” is that the existing discipline of communication has its own tenets and practices, being far more entwined with media studies and sociology than incorporating insights that only detailed engagement with texts can give us.  So all in all I think the route to take is to forget the divide between “Linguistics” and “Applied Linguistics” but rather discuss decolonising linguistics: what might linguistics be?

Julia Gillen

This is a hasty sketch, written on 17th February 2021.  It does not represent the Literacy Research Centre. 

References (partial, in both senses)

Bakhtin, M. (ed. M. Holquist) (1981) The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M. (ed. C. Emerson & M. Holquist) (1986) Speech Genres and other late essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, J. (2005) Discourse: a critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2008) Grassroots literacy: Writing, identity and voice in Central Africa. London: Routledge.

Chomsky, N. (1980) Rules and representations. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 1-61.

Gillen. J. (2014) Digital Literacies.  Abingdon: Routledge.

Goddard, A. (2012) Doing English Language: a guide for students.  Routledge.

Goddard, A. and Gillen, J. ([2004] 2013) ”Bye Alligator”: Mediated discourse as learnable social interaction: a study of the language of novice users of communication channels. https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/66197/1/Bye_alligator_2004_posted_2013.pdf

Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. (1985) Language, context and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1986) Revolution in poetic language. In T. Moi (ed.) The Kristeva Reader. New York: University of Columbia Press.

Kusters, A., Spotti, M., Swanwick, R., & Tapio, E. (2017). Beyond languages, beyond modalities: transforming the study of semiotic repertoires. International Journal of Multilingualism, 14(3), 219–232. Routledge.

Mercer, N. (2000) Words and minds: how we use language to think together. London: Routledge.

Podesva, R. and Sharma, D. (eds) Research methods in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Rommetveit, R. (1988) On literacy and the myth of literal meaning. In R. Säljö (ed.) The Written world: Studies in literate thought and action. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Rommetveit, R. (1992) Outlines of a dialogically based social-cognitive approach to human cognition and communication. In A.H. Wold (ed.) The Dialogical alternative: towards a theory of language and mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seargeant, P. (2019) The Emoji revolution: how technology is shaping the future of communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

UNESCO: Intangible cultural heritage: Puppetry in Slovakia and Czechia.

Volosinov, V.N. (1995) Language, speech and utterance. In S. Dentith (ed.) Bakhtinian Thought: a reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Wei, L. (2018) Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied Linguistics 39(1) 9-30.

Making a Difference: A Literacies Perspective on Eden North and the Morecambe Bay Curriculum

The Eden Project is an educational charity famous for its Biomes located in Cornwall. It aims to work with people to shape attitudes and knowledge about the local environment and the natural world more generally, to inspire social change and find creative and sustainable solutions to the emergencies we face due to climate change. It aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals related to the environment and emphasises participation and social justice.

A map of Morecambe Bay and its immediate surroundings

The Eden North project is designed to carry through these aims in a new and very different environment in the North of England – Morecambe Bay which is one of the largest tidal bays in the UK, situated on the NW coast near the big conurbations of Liverpool and Manchester. The project has generated significant excitement across all sectors of the region: county offices, businesses, schools, the volunteer sector and more. Recognition of the centrality of the Bay in the lives and interests of the region’s people has acted as a catalyst for additional discussions on educational, economic and social change. Within those discussions, the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (see below) plays a central role. While the Bay is a unique place, the issues that Eden North and the Morecambe Bay Curriculum aim to address are in no way unique to the Bay or to the North of England.

Architect’s drawing of the Eden North   “mussel shell” domes

The Morecambe Bay Curriculum (MBC) is an initiative linked to Eden North, which spans education from early years to college and University level. Its aim is ‘to promote green, technical, vocational and professional pathways to University. The Curriculum will help provide the skills and knowledge needed by employers, build capacity to develop responsible and sustainable new green enterprises and support regional graduate retention.’ Lancaster University is a partner in this initiative, working closely together with further and adult education colleges, local schools, community organisations and businesses.

In this blog post, three members of the LRC share their thoughts on the MBC, looking at it from a language and literacies perspective and in the context of climate change being a global issue faced by people across the world.

Curriculum as Participation

Diane Potts writes:

“We are rightful participants in this democracy” (Burch, 2020, December 29). Those words were spoken by LaTosha Brown, a founderof the Georgia-state, grassroots organization Black Voters Matter. It is one many such groups that have worked over the last decade to ensure the rightful participation of blacks in U.S. electoral processes. In another time and place, the quiet power of these words might not have resonated so forcefully. But amid the social isolation created by a pandemic that disproportionately impacts the economically and socially disadvantaged but also amid the more hopeful discussions surrounding the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (MBC), the words gave pause. For Brown is not arguing for a specific policy or programme nor is her organization seeking to impose their vision of the world on others. What they are working toward is something far more fundamental, the rightness of their participation in determining what that future might be.

A curriculum is a negotiated vision of the future. Within discussions of Eden Project North, negotiations have been open-ended and use of the word curriculum rather loose. For good reason. Heads and Deputy Heads, educational consultants and community members have focused on curriculum as it might be imagined, not details of how curriculum will be decided upon and delivered. Whatever form it takes, Morecambe Bay will be at the curriculum’s centre for while MBC has not been described as a place-based curriculum – at least, not to my knowledge – Morecambe Bay legitimates and circumscribes the project. The Bay, what the curriculum would have us think of as our Bay, bounds participation. Rightness, however, is not so easily addressed.

Rightness requires consideration of how and not only who will be involved. MBC is imagined as formal and informal learning and as addressing learning in and beyond educational institutions. It is a curriculum in which each of us is a source and recipient of knowledge, future knowledge that will be jointly developed but also individual and community knowledge that arises from our unique experiences and opportunities. The Bay’s diverse natural habitats, its relations with peoples and histories and its contributions to our economic, social and personal well-being bring together what is inherently a site of diversity and difference. Referencing the Bay does not, however, answer who we are to each other and who we will need to be in order to achieve the project’s larger objectives. This has implications for the development of the curriculum and not only the curriculum itself.

If rightness of participation is to be achieved, then participative practices for formulating MBC will be diverse. They cannot, for example, be limited to traditions of formal consultation for these traditions have historically excluded many who MBC seeks to involve. Quite simply, the ways in which language is organized and used are not ways that the diverse communities of the Bay recognize as theirs. Too easily, the language of bids, grants and policies hardens into structures and processes that exclude. This is no small matter. Time and again, research in education and more particularly language and literacy education has demonstrated that learners succeed when they see themselves represented in a curriculum and not only represented but represented as they understand themselves. Failure to account for diverse ways of knowing – that is, failure to understand learners as participants rather than recipients – undermines educational initiatives and the larger change efforts of which they are often part. Research in language and literacy education shows this. Research in education more broadly shows this. Educational research carried out by organizations such as the OECD shows this. While Lancaster University’s leadership has been frank in their support of non-academic voices, new practices of participation must be imagined or crucial voices will be excluded from the onset. This makes rightness among the first knotty puzzles that must be addressed, one that will require drawing upon the diversity of expertise across and beyond the university will need to be drawn upon.

Those who have read this far will recognize themes that cut across current academic interest in design-based research (Anderson & Shattuck, 2012; Design-based Research Collective, 2003; McKenney & Reeves, 2019, participatory research methods (Penuel, Riedy, Barber, Peurach, LeBouef  & Clark, 2020) and decades-old work on decolonizing methodologies (Smith, 1999). The thinking will resonate with those engaged in theorizing culturally-sustaining pedagogies, pedagogies that assume rather than advocate for the necessity of rethinking how ways of knowing come together in curricular spaces (Harmon, 2018, Paris, 2012; Paris & Alum, 2014; Prasad & Lory, 2020). My interest rests with schools, teachers and young people engaged not only in curriculum-as-plan but curriculum-as-lived (Aoki, 1993, 2004). This reflects my longstanding involvement as a consultant and as a researcher in participatory practices that extend communities’ capacity to capitalize on existing expertise. The place of language and other semiotic resources in such practices is at the heart of my interests, not as objects of study but as the very means in which and through which we engage in social action. In the language of the day-to-day unfolding of a curriculum, the future is designed (New London Group, 1996/2000; Potts, 2018).

Knowledge, skills, dispositions: language is crucial in all. In his work on the sociology of knowledge, Bernstein (1990, 2001) wrote of recognition and realization rules; of recognizing the relevance of what one knows and of recognizing how such knowledge must be reformulated to gain wider circulation. But what teachers have taught me, those who have worked in ‘the poorest postal code in Canada’ and with children whose parents cook in restaurants, deliver packages and cross oceans to visit families, is that learners must first be supported in recognizing their experience as knowledge. What my limited experience in community work with the First Nations and aboriginal peoples of Canada has taught me is that I may be asking the wrong question. Curriculum work is language work. I imagine the lived MBC as one that begins by understanding itself as incomplete and that recognizes its participants will scribe in knowledge that is unrecognized and unrealized at the onset. Curriculum rewritten as it is lived: participants’ language will be stretched as knowledge is shared.

Where then would I position myself as a participant in this work? Engaged in the front-line of schools’ efforts, documenting, analyzing and accounting for the development and circulation of knowledge in the course of learners’ literacies development. The languaging of MBC and concordant attention to language as social action is an area in which the people of The Bay can be global thought leaders for MBC is unusual in the range of peoples involved from its inception. At a fundamental level, the project recognizes that the work of curriculum design is not separate from the delivery of curriculum content and that the onus is on each of us to learn as well as share. In this, MBC offers participation in an evolving curriculum that simultaneously provides access to privileged semiotic registers, supports reformulation of experience and engages learners in re-creation rather than replication. Participation, reformulating and re-creating: each takes us back to issues of rightness. Teachers know that. Those who have been engaged in the early discussions of MBC know that. The question is how we go forward.

Reading the Word and reading the World: the Challenge of Critical Literacies in the MBC

Uta Papen writes:

To me, the Morecambe Bay Curriculum is a relevant and welcome initiative and I am pleased to see that my institution, Lancaster University, is part of this endeavour. The MBC (and the Eden North Project) is an opportunity for the University to strengthen its commitment to the region, to environmental research, social justice and educational innovation. It is an opportunity to act as a civic university. As a member of the Literacy Research Centre, I am keen to explore what role our work on literacies and languages may be able to play in support of the MBC.

Thinking about the Morecambe Bay Curriculum from a literacies perspective, the relevance of critical literacy to its aims and spirit is the first thing that caught my attention. The MBC, as I see it, seems to be exactly about what Macedo and Freire (1987) spoke about so many years ago: it is about reading the word and reading the world.

Critical literacy, or rather critical literacies, can be defined in various ways. Following Janks (2013) and others, I see it as essentially being about examining the role of language in shaping ideas, values and attitudes and the importance of texts in seeking to persuade. Critical literacy education seeks to equip students with tools to understand and carefully examine texts and the ideas they contain and to do so from a variety of perspectives. Text analysis, however, is not the ultimate aim. With critical literacy, students and teachers are engaging in social analyses (‘reading the world’) and they embark on social action, striving for social change.

To me all this is highly relevant to the aims of the MBC. If this is to be a truly ‘green’ curriculum and a truly transformative initiative, seeking to change local lives and futures, then it will need to adopt a critical perspective of the kind Paulo Freire, Hilary Janks, Barbara Comber and others suggest. It needs to consider the teaching of reading and writing to cover the four dimensions included in Luke and Freebody’s (1999) framework and to avoid a focus on decoding and comprehension only. Thinking about the MBC through the lens of critical literacies also chimes with the points about participation and the joint imagination of social futures that Diane talks about above.

What else does a critical literacies perspective suggest that could inform the MBC and its ambition? A critical literacies perspective suggests an approach to teaching and learning the ‘science’ of climate change that avoids an exclusive focus on ‘facts’, avoiding the complex political, economic and social issues that are intimately connected to local people’s experiences of climate change. Recent comments by Ofsted’s (England’s school inspection service) chief inspector, reported in the media, about climate change and how it ought to be taught in schools, are revealing of the challenges a critical and transformative MBC might face. According to the Guardian, in a very recent debate, Amanda Spielman, responding to calls for diversifying the curriculum, stressed the importance of science in addressing climate change and sustainability. She said “I think if it is not grounded in science there is no real understanding underneath it, it becomes a morality tale or something quasi-religious”. She was reported to have suggested that the curriculum should not be revised in response to a single issue or concern.

If schools have to treat climate change as a purely scientific issue, as Spielman’s words suggest, how will the MBC deal with the complex interconnectivities between ecological change, economic stagnation, social inequalities and local people’s personal experiences of the area they live in? To exclude these complexities would mean to separate science from society and it would be a bit like separating reading the word from reading the world. Critical literacy, to return to my starting point, is not a solely rational endeavour but involves emotions (Papen and Peach, forthcoming).

A related challenge is this: If the MBC has transformative ambitions, how is it to engage with the National Curriculum and its associated assessment regime? If the MBC is to be a truly local and critical curriculum, it is bound to hit against national standards for literacy and education and associated mandatory assessments. For example, how would a focus on critical, green, collaborative, local and engaging learning at primary school level square with the requirements of the Phonics Screening Check or the SATs tests, national assessments that undoubtedly shape what teachers can and can’t do in their daily lessons? In the wake of assessment related curricular necessities and constraints, might the MBC risk being no more than an ‘add on’? Similarly, what about secondary education and the requirements of GSCE and A-levels, which necessarily constrain schools and teachers to teach required exam content and to train students in the genres of subject specific exams?

I may underestimate the spaces available for local engagements with the curriculum. Drawing on local funds of knowledge and local concerns it may be possible to flexibly engage with the parameters of the national curriculum and yet to develop local content that follows the spirit of the MBC’s green ambition. Assessment structures may be a bigger challenge to the MBC, specifically when assessments are high stakes and externally set. It may need to engage with these structures, seeking to change established assessment practices as well as the content of these assessments.

Lifelong and Lifewide: Home and Community Literacies in the Morecambe Bay Curriculum

Mary Hamilton writes:

When I went into the Eden Project website as I began writing this blog, I found a message that the project in Cornwall was temporarily closed while they dealt with the effects of significant flooding. Flooding events are becoming commonplace in the UK, the sea and rain pour onto the land unpredictably leaving devastation and fear behind with long-lasting consequences for the communities they touch. The Eden project emphasises the ways in which it can work with people to make sense of such events, to shape attitudes and knowledge about the local environment and the natural world more generally, to inspire social change and find creative and sustainable solutions to the emergencies we face due to climate change. 

Consistent with the aims of its parent project, The Eden Project North is working with all sectors of the educational system to draw on as much local expertise and energy as possible, and has funded an appointment in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster university to support this work. In offering a way to connect the different spaces where education and learning happen in Morecambe Bay, the project has already taken a radical step.

As Uta says above, developing a curriculum that has radically different starting points from the current English national curriculum presents big challenges for schools – though we might argue that through media exposure and their own lived experience, children’s awareness of the issues of planetary emergency may already have outstripped the existing curriculum and this awareness is waiting to be recognised and harnessed for change. Morecambe Bay and the rivers that feed it, is a vast and moving landscape of water that affects all of us who live here. It has strong industrial and rural connections. It is home to a nuclear power station, a wind farm, a gas field, ship building, railways, fishing, tourism and is famous for its wildlife including the millions of birds that live and travel across it. All these can be starting points for the lived local curriculum that Diane discusses.

A definition of education that includes informal and lifelong learning offers further ways to develop a new approach to curriculum. After school clubs, community activities that cross generations, further and adult education and the university are not subject to the national curriculum in the same way as schools. These are places to experiment with new ideas and make new connections which can in turn affect learning in schools and beyond (Ivanic et al, 2009}.

Some of the roots of the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre lie in such experimentation. My own work has focussed on developing sound theory that sees literacy not simply as a set of technical skills but as a part of social practice, inextricably linked to the context of peoples’ lives, relationships and concerns (Barton and Hamilton, 2012). Such a perspective and the ethnographic evidence and practical expertise on which it is based, resonates with the ambitions of the Eden Project North. Our work can make a crucial contribution to realising these ambitions. It fits particularly well with the aim of drawing on the local  ‘funds of knowledge’ that exist in homes and communities around the Bay to inform curriculum (Gonzales et al, 2006; Moll, 2019), using multiple, alternative forms of learning including art, performance, physical outdoor learning and strengthening the role of strong, collaborative, self-managed, community resources such as local media, advice centres and libraries in supporting learning (Hamilton, 2015).

Literacy, the mastery of the written word, including its new digital forms, is essential to any curriculum and there are choices about how to work with learners to achieve it. These choices determine our attitudes toward language variety and dialect, community languages and how the language resources of newcomers are treated. A theory of literacy as social practice links with international work on literacy and the creation of local post-colonial curricula (Andreotti, 2012). Paradoxically, strengthening the power of the local to inspire learners also develops a bigger sense of history, how we got to where we are now and our connectedness with others in creating alternative futures.

Conclusion

We can see from the three perspectives offered above that The Lancaster Literacy Research Centre (LLRC) has a great deal of expertise about how to develop critical, responsive pedagogies in relation to language and literacy. Together with other perspectives, these can, we hope, feed into the MBC. The roles of learner and teacher are remade through such pedagogies, to create an evolving, living and participatory MBC. Documenting these processes and joint creations will be important and the collaborative ethnographic methods that we have been using for many years can lend support to such effort, so that what happens in the Eden North Project and the MBC can be shared with others, in contexts similar to or different from the Bay, informing their journeys to new curricula and new spaces of learning and exchange.

References

Anderson, T., & Shattuck, J. (2012). Design-based research: A decade of progress in education research?. Educational Researcher, 41(1), 16-25.doi: https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X11428813

Andreotti, V. (2011). Actionable postcolonial theory in education. Springer.

Aoki, T. T. (1993). Legitimating lived curriculum: Towards a curricular landscape of multiplicity. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 8(3), 255-68.

Aoki, T. T. (2004). Curriculum in a new key: The collected works of Ted T. Aoki. Routledge.

Barton, D., & Hamilton, M. (2012). Local literacies: Reading and writing in one community. Routledge.

Bernstein, B. (1990). Structuring of pedagogic discourse, Volume 4: Class, codes and control. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bernstein, B. (2001). Symbolic control: Issues of empirical description of agencies and agents. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 4(1), 21-33.

Burch, A. D. S. (2020, December 29).Turning out the vote in Georgia. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/29/magazine/georgia-senate-runoff-election.html?searchResultPosition=2

Cottafava, D., Cavaglià, G., & Corazza, L. (2019). Education of sustainable development goals through students’ active engagement. Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal.

Design-Based Research Collective. (2003). Design-based research: An emerging paradigm for educational inquiry. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 5-8. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X032001005

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2006). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Routledge.

Hamilton, M. (2015). The Pecket Way: Negotiating multimodal learning spaces in a user-run community education project in Hamilton, M., Heydon, R., Hibbert, K., & Stooke, R. (Eds.). (2015) Negotiating spaces for literacy learning: Multimodality and governmentality. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp201-219.

Harmon, R. (Ed.) Bilingual learners and social equity. Springer, Cham.

Janks, Hilary (2013) Critical literacy in teaching and research Education Inquiry. 4 (2):225-242. DOI: 10.3402/edui.v4i2.22071

Luke, A. & Freebody, P. (1999) Further Notes on the Four Resources Model, Reading Online. http:www.readingonline.org/research/lukefrebody.html

Moll, L. C. (2019). Elaborating funds of knowledge: community-oriented practices in international contexts. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice68(1), 130-138.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review 66(1), 60-91.

Papen, Uta and Peach, Emily (forthcoming) Picture books and critical literacy: using multimodal interaction analysis to examine children’s engagements with a picture book about war and child refugees. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X12441244

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85-100. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.84.1.982l873k2ht16m77

Penuel, W. R., Riedy, R., Barber, M. S., Peurach, D. J., LeBouef, W. A., & Clark, T. (2020). Principles of collaborative education research with stakeholders: Toward requirements for a new research and development infrastructure. Review of Educational Research, 90(5), 627-674. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654320938126

Potts, D. (2018). Critical praxis, design and reflection literacy: A lesson in multimodality. In R. Harmon (Ed.)  Bilingual learners and social equity (pp. 201-223). Springer, Cham.

Prasad, G., & Lory, M. P. (2020). Linguistic and Cultural Collaboration in Schools: Reconciling Majority and Minoritized Language Users. TESOL Quarterly, 54(4), 797-822. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.560

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd.

Oral Literacies: when adults read aloud. Launch of the book by Sam Duncan on 8th January

We are delighted to be beginning the New Year with a wonderful programme of talks, beginning with Sam Duncan’s book launch on 8th January. Free registration for all events will be available from 5th January onwards here.

Posted on behalf of Sam Duncan:

On 8th January, I am giving a short online talk for the Literacy Research Centre for the launch of my new book, Oral Literacies: when adults read aloud. I am really looking forward to this and have been thinking about the different ways I could talk about this book. It can be hard to talk about something you’ve already thought about, talked about and written about so much.  This book also feels like several different things at once.  

As a record and analysis of contemporary adult oral reading practices, it is simply the book I wanted to read. It is the book I assumed existed and that I would be able to dip into in a library somewhere to find out more about the different sorts of ways adults today read aloud. It is the book I thought I should be referencing when trying to write about reading aloud in the adult literacy classroom and trying to disentangle uses of oral reading to develop fluent silent reading and uses of oral reading to develop forms of oral reading that learners wanted to take part in outside of class. It is a version of the book I was surprised to find did not exist. 

This book is also the culmination of a research project that started years before, with small London-based pilot project (Duncan, 2015) that I came to the Lancaster Literacy Research Discussion Group to talk about in 2015, realising on the train home how much more I wanted to find out. And so it developed into a large research bid, and even larger project, Reading Aloud in Britain Today: with 49 interviews instead of 17, across Scotland, Wales and England (rather than within one London borough), alongside a questionnaire (with over 500 participants), Mass Observation directive (now an archive of 160 pieces of writing) and audio-recordings of examples of adults reading aloud (as well as most of the interviews) forming a collection in the British Library Sound Archive. Each of these methods of data collection, and each archive, is focussed on the question of whether, when, where, why and how adults across Britain today might read out loud rather than in silence. Part 1 of the book reports on this research project, its genesis, rationale, methods and findings. Part 2 examines these findings in more depth, and alongside other examples from across the world, exploring oral reading with family, friends and lovers; in working and public life; in religious practice; as part of what we could call our ‘literary lives’; in and for education; and a chapter devoted to the reading aloud that happens in solitude. 

The above are two different ways I could (and probably will) talk about this book. But since it is a very cold December at the end of a particularly bleak year, the way that I’d rather think of the book right now is as a sort of living Christmas-tree ornament, a little house with windows through which we can see the inhabitants only in silhouette. We might glimpse a father and daughter reading aloud to each other from a 1930s house brochure, laughing as they read, or a young man alone at a desk reading a text-book out loud over and over to remember it for an exam. Through another window we might see a woman being ‘wooed’ by her future husband reading her the metaphysical poets, a grandfather recording himself reading Thomas the Tank Engine for his grandson (who will write about it fifty years later), or a man reading aloud to relieve his wife’s constipation. We might see someone eating sausages while reading letters to a cat and someone else listening to a poem on the radio, broadcast from a far-off land and in a language the listener doesn’t understand. A different window might reveal an actor reading aloud a monologue over and over to prepare for an audition, while next door a family chants prayers in unison. We might see two brothers making a cake together, one of them reading each step aloud as they go, and in the background we might hear the sounds of Gaelic karaoke.  

Of course not all the examples of oral reading in the book take place in the home  – some take place in fields, boats, places of worship, schools and universities, book shops, art galleries, chemist shops, supermarkets, townhalls, city streets, cafés and court rooms. But the home, particularly viewed from the outside, is still the best representation of what I was trying to do in the project: to talk about those practices which happen behind closed doors, where our experiences of other peoples’ lives are so limited, and to think about literacy practices in terms of the more and less dominant, the visible and invisible, the audible and the silent, the noticed and the ignored. An adult reading to a child is form of oral reading that is talked about quite a lot; one adult reading to another adult less so. This really was the aim of the project, and the book, to encourage us all to notice and talk about a wider range of reading practices, and the meanings and purposes involved. I look forward to our discussion on the 8th of January, to hearing your thoughts on the book and the possible next stages to this endeavour. 

Duncan, S. (2021). Oral literacies: when adults read aloud. London: Routledge. 

Duncan, S. (2015). Reading aloud in Lewisham: an exploration of adult reading‐aloud practices. Literacy, 49(2), 84-90. 

Investigating and contesting the ‘word gap’ discourse in the UK

Julia Gillen, Lancaster Literacy Research Centre & Cathy Burnett, Sheffield Hallam University

The “word gap” discourse and why it matters

The current global pandemic has had many effects on young children’s literacy education. After months spent in lockdown, many shared worries about how an interrupted education may disadvantage children for years to come, particularly as they don’t all have the same opportunities to learn at home. Limited access to digital devices, poor internet connections and lack of quiet spaces in overcrowded houses all present real problems for many families. We welcome the endeavours by researchers to investigate how the pandemic is impacting on primary literacy education see for example admirable current work by Gemma Moss in England and Ann Devitt and colleagues in Ireland. Here we want to contribute to tackling another underlying issue, one that has a long history: the idea that many families are intrinsically ill-equipped to support children’s learning, and that much of this has to do with language.  

Deficit-based discourses about young children’s literacy are, regrettably, nothing new. We authors of this post became mutually concerned about the “word gap” discourse as yet another instantiation of casting blame, on poorer families, for supposed failings in literacy learning.  There is a long history of such discourses -and a strong strand of resistance and opposition to highly limited ways of considering family literacies at least since the early 1980s, such as exemplified by the work of Shirley Brice Heath in the USA and Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes in the UK.

We, the two authors of this blog post, shared a mutual interest into one current, and major, way of conceptualizing young children’s literacy “failures” as we’ve begun to work together research mobilities in primary literacy education.  (Our collaborators in the wider programme include Bronwen Maxwell and Ian Guest, both of Sheffield Hallam University, and Terrie Lynn Thompson of the University of Stirling).  To briefly introduce ourselves: Cathy Burnett is Professor of Literacy Education at Sheffield Hallam University and current President of the UK Literacy Association. Julia Gillen is Professor of Literacy Studies and Director of the Lancaster Literacy Centre.  Cathy, as an academic and former teacher is very concerned by the way some topics in literacy become attached to professional understandings and can ultimately become harmful in the ways they are expressed, to young children, their families, teachers and policy makers.  Julia, a co-editor of the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy is concerned with the part the media – both mass media and social media – can play in forming, questioning and shaping such discourses. We have come together to share some findings and thoughts about the “word gap” discourse, and yes, we’re going to continue to place quotation marks around it!

Hart and Risley used the term the ‘word gap’ to refer to findings from their 1995 study of the words heard by 42 children in the USA. Extrapolating from the numbers of words that researchers heard spoken to the children during 1 hour monthly visits for about 2 ½ years, they famously estimated that – by age 4 – children in the wealthiest homes will have heard over 30 million more words than children from those with lowest income.  In this post we will put forward some of our findings about how the “word gap” discourse has been appropriated in media, taking UK newspaper coverage as a kind of proxy for social discourse.  Of course, that is not sufficient nor appropriate to find the whole story as to what has happened to the “word gap” in the UK.  We would like, and intend in further research, to investigate far more widely how discourses relating to primary school literacy education move in society and intend a mixed methods research study.  But for this initial post we will present some findings about the current word gap discourse in the UK as reflected through mainstream newspaper media, as a starting point, and some of our ideas about why challenge is needed and why further research might help.

The “word gap” then originated from a single research study in the USA 25 years ago.  We knew from our own experiences of working with teachers and reading the media that it still has a great deal of appeal in the UK today.  We therefore decided first to carry out a Corpus Linguistics study to investigate its recent appearances and treatment in UK newspapers.  Using the Nexus database for all UK newspapers we investigated the “word gap” from 1st January 2010 to the present.  This yielded 63 individual relevant stories, having eliminated other uses of the term and duplicates.

Our first finding concerns the timing of these stories:

Distribution of newspaper stories about the “word gap” by year

Sorting the stories by date was revelatory in that it was for many years occasionally used.  Since 2010 it trickled along by and large for the next seven years. There were a few stories in 2015 which was also a point in time when The Conversation published a piece by Molly McManus challenging the findings of Hart and Risley.  She argued that too much focus on ‘the word gap’ distracts from more pressing issues linked to inequality in education. However, as we shall see, although The Conversation is a way of enabling dissemination of research findings and discussion to the media, the arguments of McManus and indeed other academics who had criticized Hart and Risley’s study was not an approach influencing media coverage.

This  spike in attention to the “word gap” in 2018 coincided with the  publication of Alex Quigley’s bestselling book ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap, and with Why Closing the Gap Matters’, which reported findings from a survey of 1000 teachers that found that ‘Over half of those surveyed reported that at least 40% of their pupils lacked the vocabulary to access their learning’ Also significant perhaps were ongoing findings from the Oxford Children’s Corpus about the loss of words from children’s vocabularies – such as the words for animals, birds and plants which prompted the creation of Morris and McFarlane’s much acclaimed The Lost Words in 2017.

After that there several references appeared in 2019 and then just a couple in 2020.  This is not to suggest that the “word gap” idea necessarily correlated with the years where it was most prominent in newspapers; they are just one aspect of communications in society.  It could be that the topic has become too stale in 2020 for news stories; quite another kind of study would be needed to investigate its presence in different kinds of communications in society, especially among educational professionals. We know the notion is not dead!

Despite the limtitations of this approach then we argue it is worth investigating the presence of a concept in literacy education in mass media, such as newspapers, since newspapers have to connect to their audience’s interests in order to prosper.  Therefore we investigated this small dataset, with the aid of Corpus Linguistics software (specifically LancsBox v 5) in order to explore:

  • How is the “word gap” represented – what does it apparently mean?
  • How are social actors, such as children, parents and teachers represented?
  • Are there any differences between different kinds of newspapers, ie tabloid/broadsheet; political position; national/others?

We now report on these in turn.

Representation of the “word gap”

The word gap is overwhelmingly represented as a problem that exists in society, without any dispute.  Just one story referred to “the so-called ‘word gap’” thus with a double hedge, but then continued to discuss it as if unproblematizable.  The overwhelming majority of articles, 78%, refer to “research” as the source; 14% refer to the “original” Hart and Risley study.  Many do not explain the source of research referred to. The “word gap” is generally explained as a phenomenon that characterizes disadvantaged children from their better off peers. 16% of the stories describe the word gap as being of the size of 30 million, and several of these further associate this with children being three years of age. Precise numbers are an indication of facticity as a news value and are therefore prized by news journalists.

The existence of the word gap is described then as something that causes concern, and then frequently as a difficulty that requires action, which is characterized by verbs such as “struggle”, “tackle” “bridge” and “close”.

Representation of social actors

Children

Children are divided by these stories into two groups: those who “suffer” or are “disadvantaged” by the word gap and those who don’t. The unfortunate group are  represented as being from “lower income” “disadvantaged” or “working class” households.  They are characterized as arriving at school “with low literacy skills” “low vocabulary” or even “unable to speak or read”.  They are contrasted, but usually implicitly, with another group of children, “their peers” without these disadvantages, who are sometimes described in other simplistic ways such as “affluent”.  The disadvantaged group are then held to suffer from persistent deficit, through education and into adulthood.  Occasionally dire glimpses of their future are predicted such as unemployment “at age 34” or even imprisonment.

Parents

Parents are most often characterized as passive recipients of directives or advice. Far more often in the word gap discourse parents are passivated, even in context where this is extremely marked ie. unusual, in headlines, e.g. “£5m to tell parents to sing rhymes and read to youngsters” Metro, April 30th 2018. Parents are recipients of multiple instructions and directives about their behaviour.  Many of these concern what parents are going to be urged or encouraged to do as part of some initiative reported in the news story, such as reading to their child, singing nursery rhymes or in directly school-related discourse “teach their children vocabulary”.  Some directives are not directly or obviously linked to literacy but rather link to the continuing news topic of screen time panic such as “parents should put down their mobile phones” or “impose a digital curfew.”

Occasionally parents are cast as agents, albeit often deficient ones who characterized in ways that are active, although often deficient, e.g. “didn’t read” or “censor while they read”. 

They are occasionally depicted as “caring for” or “loving” their children, particularly in politicians’ speeches, before the “word gap” is discussed with supposed remedies advanced.

Teachers

The representation of teachers is more diverse in these stories than either children or parents. They are quite often recruited to support the word gap discourse with some stories referring to teachers’ beliefs, sometimes as elicted through surveys. Many stories link teachers’ capacities to respond to the word gap, or more generally teach effectively, to their training or lack of it in certain respects.  One aspect of teachers’ attitudes and behaviours that particularly attracts journalistic attention is their attitudes to emojis (more on this below).

Differences in treatment

In national newspapers the word gap story is particularly prevalent in broadsheet newspapers, presumably because the strong message about deficiencies in parenting is easier to communicate to middle-class parents who will see themselves as the right side of the social class/word gap divide.  Sometimes the less right wing newspapers will take an apparently “scientific” approach such as The Guardian’s story headlined, “How babies learn – and why robots can’t compete; (April 3, 2018).  The topic is far less likely to appear in traditional tabloid stories, but, interestingly, can be recruited to create some balance. In “2 ORNOT2; Teachers use emojis to teach kids Shakespeare” in the Sun on May 19, 2018, concern over the word gap is given as the reason at the end of the article for disputing the approach apparently taken by “desperate” teachers.

The word gap topic appears occasionally in regional newspapers, where it is linked to local events.  For example in the Nottingham Post on January 14th 2020 a closure of a mental-health scheme for pregnant mothers by a Conservative-led council is linked by an opposing Labour councilor to risk of widening the word gap. Perhaps the most fascinating evidence of the permeation of the topic into society on “Villages” (for which read “parishes”) in the Loughborough Echo on January 14th 2020 which reports on one local school’s ambition “to close the word gap.”

Where do we go from here?

The “word gap” is a deficit concept- an idea that focuses on what children can’t or don’t do with language.  Through adopting a more positive perspective, other research has arrived at rather different conclusions. Shirley Brice Heath’s study of three communities in the US in the 1980s, for example, illustrated how children learned to use language in different ways as they socialised with those around them.  The ones that were most successful at school were those whose language fitted easily to the way language was used in school. The point here is not that children have no or limited language but that their language use differs from what’s expected and valued in schools. When this happens, children can’t draw on what they know, their progress doesn’t register on assessments designed to measure other kinds of language use, and their ability to communicate can be underestimated by teachers.

If this is the case then why has the idea of ‘The word gap’ gained such traction, and why have references to the word gap recently surged, 25 years after the original study was published? In a way this is obvious – ‘The word gap’ is a snappy phrase, and  linked to a mind boggling (if overly extrapolated) statistic – ‘Did you know that children in low socio-economic groups hear 3 million (yes, 3 million!!) fewer words than the children of professional parents?’  And as so often happens when research is disseminated, the nuances of the underpinning research are lost, along with researchers’ caveats about their methodologies.

But there is other research-  with another slightly less snappy phrase, but far more positive and insightful in our view – that has had far less influence on policy and practice, in England at least. Moll et al. coined ‘funds of knowledge’  to refer to the knowledge children gain through their experiences within families and communities. Research carried out by them and by many others since have found a tremendous wealth of resources and networks in the community that have the potential at least to be drawn upon by schools.  Many succeed in doing this as has been shown by some inspirational practice in the UK and internationally  studies.  Many have argued that building on such resources  provides a productive- and equitable- starting point for language and literacy learning at school – Barbara Comber’s work in Australia for example[1], and Mariana Souto-Mannings in the US[2] ‘Funds of knowledge’ therefore is a powerful response to the ‘word gap’ which has travelled far and wide in the academic literature, has formed the basis of many subsequent studies, and is frequently referenced in postgraduate studies of literacy education. Yet somehow the idea that low income households in the UK hold ‘funds of knowledge’- and are providing valuable opportunities for learning and language use – has failed to take hold with the wider public in England. And to the best of our knowledge it did not feature prominently in recent discussions about opportunities for home learning during COVID-19.


Funds of Knowledge

So why does some research gain greater influence than others in education? How does research enter into conversations beyond academia? What happens as a phrase such as ‘word gap’ circulates among educators and the wider public? What kinds of assumptions are associated with as it is communicated by various different means significant in dialogues among primary literacy educators, online and in other means.  What happens to the “word gap” for example as it is tweeted and retweeted by teachers, academics, consultants and other educators? What kinds of meanings does it gather as it gains momentum? And what does this mean for how we understand the problems that children face and the solutions we devise to address these problems? We hope that continuing research by ourselves, our colleagues and others will address these questions.


[1] Turn-around pedagogies: improving the education of at-risk students

Kamler, Barbara ; Comber, Barbara

Improving schools, 2005-07, Vol.8 (2), p.121-131

[2] Challenging Ethnocentric Literacy Practices: [Re]Positioning Home Literacies in a Head Start Classroom

Mariana Souto-Manning

Research in the teaching of English, 2010, Vol.45 (2), p.150-178