Governance by Data: Where Next for International Literacy Assessments? by Mary Hamilton

We have hit a crucial time in the field of international literacy assessment. This year sees the first results from the latest developments in international testing. PIAAC (the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) has been conducted in 25 countries, and builds on both PISA and the IALS and is the result of the combined efforts of the OECD and the European Union. In a related development, UNESCO has developed the Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme (LAMP) to provide the diagnostic information required to monitor and improve literacy skills worldwide. At this point, it is a good opportunity to reflect critically on the field of international literacy assessment, its ambitions and achievements and the future challenges it poses – for literacy researchers, educators and policy-makers: The implications of governance by data and the implications of viewing literacy through the lens of large-scale statistical projects.

On June 17th we welcomed literacy scholars, policy makers and practitioners to an international symposium on “literacy as numbers” where we looked at how literacy measurements are developed and carried out, and the cross-cultural social, political and scientific contexts in which they take place. Organized by Lancaster University, the University of East Anglia and the London Institute of Education, the symposium aimed to contribute to the process of reflection and commentary on international literacy assessment. Videos of presentations from the symposium are now on the site, and these give a flavour of some of the issues that were raised in the seminar, the strands of research and theory that converged there on the topic of literacy as numbers.

I come to this topic as a long-time researcher in adult literacy in the UK and someone who has watched the field change from its beginnings in the 1970s as a marginal, informal and fluid area of practice to an internationally specified index of social development. I’ve become fascinated by the process whereby the complex diversities of adult experience and achievement have given way to an ordered field of measurement; how the technical debates surrounding the development of these measurements and the assumptions behind them become hidden from view as time goes on and how the concepts and terminology they generate become naturalized within public discourse.

My specific interest is the ways in which literacy is currently being represented through the lens of numbers and measurement – by scholars and administrators and increasingly in government and media discourses. In my recent book Literacy and the Politics of Representation I explored the work that this form of representation does and the effects and implications of imagining literacy through numbers – from the historical rise of social statistics and the creation of national systems of statistical record to the use of psychometric measurement in education.

State policy makers and international agencies are currently mobilising literacy as number as never before, making a persuasive impact in the mass media and the public imagination. A large amount of work (often invisible to the public) goes into creating and sustaining the credibility of these numbers. International surveys aim to harmonise measurement of literacy and enable cross-country comparisons that will be useful for policy. The science of statistics developed to serve the purpose of the state and its role has always been deeply paradoxical – the enumeration of populations is claimed as part of the ideal of a democratic social order but has also been an integral part of colonial projects.

Numerical measures of literacy are, clearly, not the only ways of defining what literacy is and what it does: there are other discourses of literacy – emancipatory and moral – that invoke human rights and religious principles. But the numbers are very compelling, especially given the social power that is currently mobilised behind developing and promoting them.

One of the powerful aspects of literacy as numbers is that it seems to offer certainty and closure on debates of what literacy is, and is for. The slippery and multiple nature of literacy seems finally to have been pinned down by experts into a rational set of competencies, enabling teachers to get on with the technical business of addressing the skill needs of the millions of adults deemed to be in need of help.

My own view is different. I believe that the debates about the nature of literacy and how to account for the diversity of everyday practices are in fact far from resolved. In fact they are more fascinating and challenging than ever before.  The meanings and practices of contemporary literacy are woven into increasingly complex and rapidly moving mixtures of languages and cultures (named by some as “superdiversity”). They are migrating into the new “virtual” spaces created by digital technologies. In these processes, the nature of literacy is being transformed in unpredicted and as yet unclassifiable ways. I look forward to continuing this discussion via this blog and with the international network formed from the symposium.


Hamilton,M. (2012) Literacy and the Politics of Representation Routledge.

Schleicher, A. (2008) PIAAC: A New Strategy for Assessing Adult Competencies International Review of Education, Volume 54, Issue 5-6, pp 627-650

UNESCO LAMP – Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme

LRDG 8th July: Nancy Guo, An ontogenetic and multimodal analysis of Hong Kong textbooks

The final Literacy Research Discussion Group session for this academic year was on 8th July, when Nancy Guo from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University spoke about her research analysing textbooks used in Hong Kong schools at different levels. 

It was great to have a meeting outside term-time during the Linguistic Department’s July residential for the PhD in Applied Linguistics by Thesis and Coursework students, as the room was packed with people who we don’t often get the chance to see together in one place!  This is a tradition which we could usefully continue in forthcoming years.

Coming from a systemic-functional linguistics perspective, Nancy spoke mainly about applying Matthiesson’s socio-semiotic model for the analysis of contextual variables, showing how elements of this model were oriented to, to different extents, by textbooks designed for different age groups.  She related this to analysis at the lexico-grammatical level, and to changes in the multimodality of the textbooks, and discussed implications for teaching and particularly for textbook design.

This was a stimulating talk, which provoked interesting discussions about the relationships between what is in the textbooks and what actually happens in classroom practice – as you might expect, given the audience and the setting!

Thanks to Nancy for coming, and we are looking forward to the new LRDG programme starting up in October.

Phonics and (N)LS?

Ros Asquith, Lines cartoon, Phonics reeding test

After the school holidays I will start observing a year 1 class (5-6 year olds) once a week to see how they are taught to read and write. I’m excited about this! I know they will be doing phonics. That’s what I want to see. This is rather odd because not so long ago I was very suspicious of phonics. I first came across it and -rather reluctantly- began to teach it when I took over half of an undergraduate module on Language and Education. My part of the module dealt with the role of literacy in education. A big one of course and phonics soon became part of what I was telling my students about. As I said, I used to be sceptical of it, so in my class I tended to dwell more on the whole language approach and I painted a mostly negative picture of phonics. Phonics, clearly, didn’t really fit with my idea of literacy as more than skills. The whole language method seemed to be a much better partner for our (colleagues in the Literacy Research Centre and elsewhere) shared view of literacy as socially situated practice. Phonics and (N)LS – how could these fit? (I put the N in brackets because as much as I like the new in New Literacy Studies, I know that some colleagues feel that the NLS are now old enough to be called LS). But back to phonics and (N)LS.I still don’t really know how phonics fits the idea of literacy as social practice. Isn’t it all about isolated skills? How does that fit the idea of reading and writing as situated, contextual, social…? The only (N)LS concept I can think of and that I would know how to apply to phonics is the autonomous model (and of course the ideological too ). I will have to leave this for now, hoping that after a few months in the classroom I will have come up with new ideas about how I see phonics  as an (N)LS researcher! What I do know is that there must be something that teachers and schools get right when they use phonics to teach kids to read and write. It clearly works in some schools (quite a few) and for some kids (many). Not everywhere and for everybody though. What I don’t quite know is why it works.

I might be wrong of course. Possibly, I start from the wrong assumption. I might be biased because of the children I know (mostly middle class and all attending schools known to be very good) and whose reading progress I can watch. Maybe it isn’t phonics that turns them into readers but something else? What works might be the combination of phonics with some other stuff that happens either at home, in school or in both places? The media talk a great deal about phonics. But the kids only do about 20 minutes of phonics every day. Surely they don’t learn to read and write in those daily 20 minutes. In policy papers the point about phonics having to be integrated with other activities involving reading and writing is made. Journalists don’t seem to be interested in this aspect though. My students always examine newspaper articles dealing with literacy in schools and they tend to talk about phonics, little else.

So that’s what I want to figure out when I start my classroom time: I want to know what happens outside the phonics sessions and how anything that happens during those daily doses of ‘c-a-t’ and Fred talk is drawn on and linked with other activities that go on at other times of the school day. Fred talk, by the way, is a method used by the phonics programme readwriteinc to encourage sounding out and blending of letters. It also requires ‘fred fingers’.  I look forward to my time in the school. 

Welcome to Literacies Log

Welcome to the restarted blog for the Literacy Research Centre at Lancaster University. Unfortunately, the previous version of the blog fell into disrepair (but can still be viewed here).


At the moment, the blog is still being created and updated. In the future, it will be regularly updated, with contributions from those working within the centre and related departments. More information can be found by following the links from the pages in the menu bar.