Over the last thirty years in English and Welsh State primary education, successive governments have placed increasing emphasis on ‘raising standards’ in literacy. Children’s attainment or otherwise of these ‘standards’ is measured through regular testing of their ‘basic skills’ in reading and writing. At present the key skills are viewed as phonics, grammar, spelling and punctuation, and reading comprehension. However if Literacy is viewed as a Social Practice (cf Street 1984; Barton and Hamilton 2000; Barton 2007) the acquisition and application of such basic skills is only a part of what people do when they practise literacy. As well as these ‘basic skills’, literacy is context embedded, used to achieve social goals, and imbued with the policies and ideologies of the social settings in which it occurs (Street 1984). Such a perspective on literacy offers a way of understanding what human agents think they are doing when they practise literacy in the social world. In terms of the literacy agenda in state primary schools, it offers a way of investigating the relationship between children’s interpretations of the process of being taught to read and write in school and the literacy practices those children produce in order to participate in school-assigned literacy activities.
“The presentation will focus on the children’s interpretations of the adults’ practice of grouping them according to their perceived levels of ‘attainment’ or ‘ability’”
At the BERA conference this year I will present a paper drawing on an ethnographic study of five-year-old children encountering the formal literacy curriculum in a London primary school in their first year of compulsory schooling. The study took a Literacy as a Social Practice (LSP) perspective to explore the relationship between the social context of schooling and the literacy practices young children reproduced in the classroom. Analysis of a range of data – including video and audio recordings, interviews, photographs and documents – supported a detailed and careful investigation of the literacy practices the children reproduced in order to engage with school-assigned literacy tasks. The BERA presentation will focus on the children’s interpretations of the adults’ practice of grouping them according to their perceived levels of ‘attainment’ or ‘ability’ relative to established ‘norms’ of literacy acquisition. Such practices are viewed within schooling as a valuable method of ‘tailoring’ children’s learning more precisely to ‘need’ (DCSF 2009). However, analysis of the data suggests that the children’s interpretations of such groupings: a) associated evaluations of individual children’s moral worth with their appointment to particular groups; b) informed the exclusion of children ranked as ‘lower attaining’ from examinable group literacy tasks; and c) prompted competitive participation in schooled literacy. This analysis suggested that in the early stages of compulsory education the children were aware of adult classroom practices such as observation, assessment and grouping; and that their interpretations of such practices were accounted for in their in-school reproduction of literacy practices. Thus, whilst the children did indeed attain the desirable ‘basic skills’ in literacy, they were also developing values, attitudes and beliefs about firstly the particular requirements of practising literacy in a schooled context, and secondly about themselves and their peers as literacy practitioners.
From a Literacy as a Social Practice perspective such interpretations are key to understanding how the children chose to participate in school-assigned literacy tasks. However, in an educational climate that focuses on ‘progress’ and ‘attainment’ of ‘basic skills’, there is limited scope for considering the meanings young children have for the literacy they encounter in school and how those meanings affect their development of literacy practices. Without such considerations, policy-makers and practitioners have only a partial view of what happens when young children encounter the process of being taught to read and write in school. This presents a problem for education policy since, as Brian Street said: ‘…the processes whereby reading and writing are learnt are what construct the meaning of it for particular practitioners’ (Street 1984 p.8). It is thus plausible that the values, attitudes and beliefs about literacy young children develop in the early stages of schooling continue to affect their literacy practices throughout their school careers and beyond. It is therefore important for young children’s lived experience of being taught to read and write in school to be given greater consideration in the development and implementation of literacy education policy.
BARTON, D., 2007. Literacy: An Introduction to the ecology of written language. Second ed. Oxford: Blackwell.
BARTON, D. and HAMILTON, M., 1998. Local Literacies: Reading and writing in one community. London: Routledge.
DCSF., 2009. Breaking the Link Between Disadvantage, Everybody’s Business. Nottingham: DCSF Publications.
STREET, B., 1984. Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Presentation details: Literacy as social practice – Tuesday 5th September 2017, 15.50 FUL-110