Gender and Literacy Blog

Educational discourse in England has moved away from the term “adult literacy” which is now referred to as “functional skills.”  However, the Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe (EPALE) is one place where discussion about adult literacies and learning is alive and well. For International Women’s Day earlier this month, David Mallows from the NRDC in London collected blog posts about gender and literacy. These can be accessed from the EPALE site, including this one by LRC member Vicky Duckworth  and they are well worth the read.




Languages, the census and the National Health Service

‘Welcome to the Head and Neck Outpatient Department. If you want to change the language touch one of the buttons below’. This invitation to choose your preferred language for checking in seems like a perfect use of technology to broaden access to a service and engage with a diverse public.

NHS check-in

However, there are a number of odd things about this check-in screen.

To begin with, the choice of languages. Apart from English, there are seven: Gujarati, Gaelic, Italian, Latvian, Polish and two versions of Chinese. However, these do not seem to be chosen on any obvious basis. According to the 2011 census, the 10 non-English languages with the highest numbers of speakers in the district (those who declared their ‘main language’ as one other than English) were Polish, Greek, German, Gujarati, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Bulgarian. The last of these had just over 100 speakers (out of 134,000 people in the district overall). Italian was a few places behind; Latvian, with 14 speakers, a long way down the list. There were no speakers of Gaelic recorded at all.

There is a reasonable amount of overlap between the languages offered on the screen and the list derived from the census, but even so it raises questions: why Gaelic (spoken in distant parts of Scotland) rather than Welsh, spoken relatively close by? Why Italian but not Greek?

An alternative way of deciding on the languages to offer would be by proficiency in English. For example, in the national census, of the people who claimed French as their main language, only 5% said they knew little or no English. Greek and Spanish are around 10%. On those grounds, one might decide there was little need for a French, Greek or Spanish option. On the other hand, 17% of people whose main language was Arabic or Bulgarian said they had poor or no knowledge of English, so those languages still seem to have a stronger claim to be included.

A second peculiarity of the check-in screen is the way the languages are labelled. ‘Gaelach’ for Gaelic is simply wrong: this word means ‘Irish’. The expected label would be ‘Gàidhlig’ for Scottish Gaelic, or ‘Gaeilge’ for Irish Gaelic. ‘Latvisk’ is the Danish (or Norwegian or Swedish) for ‘Latvian’ but the Latvian for ‘Latvian’ is  ‘latviski’ or ‘latviešu valoda’. Furthermore, the Chinese labels say ‘Cantonese’ and ‘Mandarin’ but the actual distinction should be (and probably is) between the traditional script (used in Hong Kong and Taiwan) and the simplified script used in mainland China. That is the distinction made in the language options in the Hospital Trust’s own website, which shows a different range of options – Polish, Urdu, Gujarati, Turkish and the two versions of Chinese – ‘Simplified Chinese’ and ‘Traditional Chinese’ (see screenshot below). Although in the British context, most of the ‘simplified’ readers would be Mandarin speakers and most of the ‘traditional’ readers would be Cantonese speakers, the real difference is in the form of the script, not the language.

University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust - languages

This does not inspire confidence in the quality of the translations in the automated check-in, nor does it seem very respectful to the speakers of the languages concerned. Imagine you are a speaker of English, and are invited to press a button labelled ‘Inglish’.

All this raises issues of how the National Health Service – and other public services – engage with multilingualism (and, of course, multilingual literacies). Although in the past, language information has been very scarce in England, this is arguably not so any more. The 2011 census in England broke new ground. Language questions had previously been asked in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but never in England, and the census authority, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was not convinced of the case for one. However, the ONS eventually became convinced that there was a need for language information, and the 2011 census included two questions on language: ‘what is your main language?’ and (if the answer to that was a language other than English), ‘how well do you speak English’.

In the consultation period before the 2011 national census in England, many people within the health services were arguing for a language question to be included on the census questionnaire. For example, Peter Aspinall, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Health Services Studies at the University of Kent, urged the National Health Service to press for the inclusion of language questions in the 2011 census, citing ‘pronounced ethnic disparities in health and health care’ Aspinall (2005: 364).

So how is the information gathered being used? It is not necessarily the case that the census is the best way to collect language information, and it can be argued that the quality of the information collected (or of the questions asked) is not of the desired standard. Even so, it is not clear that the information is being used at all. Perhaps the NHS lacks the resources to exploit the language information which we now have. Which leads to the question: who makes decisions about languages other than English within the NHS, and on what basis?

References and sources

Aspinall, Peter J. 2005. Why the next census needs to ask about language: Delivery of culturally competent health care and other services depends on such data. BMJ 331, 363–4

Office for National Statistics, 2011 Census. Table DC2210EWr – Main language by proficiency in English (regional).

Office for National Statistics, 2011 Census. Table QS204EW – Main language (detailed), local authorities.


Contested space: The representations of literac(ies) on primary classroom walls

Wendy A. Crocker, PhD,

University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

What is the role of the materials displayed on classroom walls? In my recent presentation to the Literacies Discussion Group at Lancaster, I shared the evolution of a project that grew from a niggling question that I have had as a teacher, an elementary principal, and now as a researcher: What is the relationship between what is displayed on the walls of primary (age 4-8) classrooms and the literacies of those students? In this post, I present an overview of that talk, and highlight some of the discussion from the assembled scholars.

The role of environment

There is general acknowledgement in the literature that the environment is important for learning. Indeed Loris Malaguzzi contends that the environment is the “third teacher” in Reggio-inspired pedagogy, placing the furniture arrangement, materials, and décor on par with the teaching/learning that takes place in a space.  Further, programmatic curriculum documents remind teachers of primary grades in Ontario, Canada that their classrooms should reflect “the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of those who use the space” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 20)

Beliefs about literacies

In this work, I look through the theoretical and analytical lenses of local literacies (Barton & Hamilton, 1998), multiliteracies (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000), and geosemiotics (Scollon & Scollon, 2003) to consider the tensions between authentic expressions of children’s learning of literac(ies) and evidence of the prescribed literacy mandates of an accountability culture.



Project overview and themes in the data

The project was conceived of as a photo case study, and grew to include 31 classes across five schools in the same rural southwestern Ontario area. The data set comprises over 3000 still shots which have been analyzed by class, across grades in a school, and across grades and schools to identify commonalities in what is seen on the walls of a classroom or in the classrooms of a particular grade.

In setting photos side by side and making comparisons grade by grade, I identified themes related to: teacher created and teacher purchased materials; the height placement of particular materials; behaviour charts/motivational materials; the privileging of English print materials in light of a student population that possessed several non-English literacies; and the surprising amount of what I term “institutional literacy” – the documents that are important for the safe running of a school but that have little impact on student learning.

Literacy Group Discussion

I shared 150 photos in grade by grade amalagams (all five schools represented) with the scholars at the discussion group. We spent 20 minutes examining the photos and discussing our observations, raising many of the points that I had uncovered in my analysis of the larger data sets. What surfaced in the conversation was the privilgeing of print and demonstrations of “correctness” in evidence as the grades grew closer to the grade three year (age 8) the grade at which the provincial standardized test in reading, writing, and math is administered in Ontario.There was discussion about inheriting décor (i.e. an alphabet train above the display board) and the related cost of creating an environment that is visually appealing.

Findings and next steps

From this study, it appears that the walls of primary classrooms are contested spaces where the literacies of the students vie for display space.  Mulitliteracies, as expressions of multiple languages and meaning-making, were rare. Demonstrations of school and print literacy rival the institutional literacy expressed as maps, charts, and directions mandated by the Ministry of Education and the central office of the Board for the safety and regulation of those in the school building. Further, the washback effect of large scale literacy and numeracy assessment measures places materials suggested as “best practice” by the Ministry (e.g., anchor charts, success criteria) in competition for limited display space in classrooms.

Building on this rich foundation of photo data, the next phase of this study involves conversations with the teachers to determine how they determine what is displayed on the walls, and their perceptions of whose literacies dominate the contests spaces of primary classroom walls.



Barton, D., & Hamilton, M. (1998). Local literac(ies). New York: Routledge.

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (2009). “Multiliteracies”: New Literacies, New Learning. Pedagogies, An International Journal  4 (3), 164-195

Ontario Ministry of Education (2014). The third teacher. Capacity building series. Student Achievement Division. Retrieved from

Scollon, R. & Scollon-Wong, S. (2003). Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World. London: Routledge.



Comic Explorations: Comic strips in qualitative research

Chris Bailey, Sheffield Hallam University 

During my recent LRDG talk I shared data from my ethnography of an after-school Minecraft Club in comic strip form. Here I will briefly elaborate on how comic strips came to form an integral part of this project. My adoption of the comic form was not a case of me bringing an existing skill to my project; rather it arose as a need that emerged from the project itself. I use comic strips in two main ways: as a form of transcription, and as a means of exploring theory.

Comic Strips as Transcription

My first use of comic strips followed the funeral of a virtual horse. During their Minecraft play, children role-played a funeral for a horse that had ‘drowned’. This was captured using video (in the room) and a screencast of my screen (in the game). When I attempted to produce a multimodal transcription of this episode, using text alone, I felt that my written output did not represent the nature of the events I had observed; it felt like a reduction of what I had seen. As I gradually added visuals to my written account I realised that I was creating a form of comic strip. Rethinking my approach to transcription led me to produce around 25 more such comic strips, based on episodes from the club, identified by me and the participants.

horse funeral comic

Comic strip transcripts have been used by others (Plowman and Stephen, 2008). My particular take on these combine visual data relating to the on- and off-screen action seen in the club, alongside the children’s speech and additional scene-setting comments. The ‘Horse Funeral’ comic uses mainly on-screen visuals, whereas some of the other comics draw more heavily on action in the room; an additional example of this technique can be found in Bailey (2015).

Comic Strips as Methodology

My use of comic strips spread beyond transcription to the development of my methodology. The pages below begin a longer exploration of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) image of thought, ‘the rhizome’, using my own staged screenshots from the game itself. The rhizome was fundamental to my methodological approach, which I called ‘Rhizomic Ethnography’.


Where Minecraft screenshots felt insufficient, I turned, nervously, to pen and paper. Drawing did not come naturally, however the process helped me both to exemplify and expand my thinking. This chimes with Sousanis’ (2015) assertion that such techniques can lead to an ‘unflattening’ of ideas. The act of drawing pushed me well beyond my own comfort zone, also giving me an unexpected emotional attachment to the ideas I was seeking to explore.



These comic strips were produced with the help of the application Comic Life:

Bailey, C.(2015) ‘Free the Sheep’. Literacy, Early View[online]:

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F.(1988) A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Plowman, L. and Stephen, C.(2008) ‘The Big Picture? Video and the representation of interaction’. British Educational Research Journal, 34 (4)541 – 565.

Sousanis, N.(2015) ‘Unflattening’. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.