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


 

Rebellious Writing: contesting marginalisation in Edwardian Britain: new book

I’ve been very pleased to contribute an Afterword to this wonderful book on ordinary writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, edited by Lauren O’Hagan of Cardiff University.

I began my Afterword by thinking about some of the reasons why the beginning of the twentieth century holds such resonance for many of us:

“The Edwardian era offers an ideal opportunity for the study of ordinary writing and rebellion in Great Britain and Ireland.  It is beyond our collective reach and memory; yet, as we might have recently glimpsed the very last survivors of the Great War, we know that for them it was the age of their parents and ancestors, whose actions directly affected their lives. It is a most intriguing period, recognizably modern with contemporary parallels in political tensions, including rethinking British relations with Europe –and Ireland – as well as class conflict borne out of gross inequalities.”


In my opinion the chapter authors, writing on a diverse range of topics, have done an excellent job in filling out the framework that O’Hagan set: drawing on the new history from below; ethnography of communication; (new) literacy studies; and the anthropology of writing. The book is released by Peter Lang on 28 September 2020 and further details are available here.

Denise de Pauw: The glass collecting job

Have you ever met anybody who enjoys applying for jobs?  Unlikely! Similar to the way in which  hospitals are associated with sickness, looking for a job is associated with either dissatisfaction or insecurity. I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that online job applications are repetitively dull, or difficult, not to mention demotivating experiences, especially if done without a helping hand. Nevertheless, they are the norm- a norm which has also been actively embraced and expanded by government employment policy, which seeks to use digital employment services as a lever to “get people online”.

My research focuses on the experience of migrants looking for jobs online, something that all benefits claimants in the UK have been mandated to do since the 2012 Welfare Act. I look at intersections between literacy practices and discourses in online job searches, to find out why, regardless of their education level, looking for work online appears to be difficult for many migrants. In my analysis, I look at job applications in separate but interconnected layers of talk, actions, resources, texts, discourses and underlying motivating activity. In this talk, I present an application for a glass collecting job as an instantiation of a literacy event, in which I challenge popular discourses about the ease and convenience of online job applications with the reality of my participant’s experiences.

Learn more about Denise De Pauw’s research with this YouTube video