Kate, Pahl and Roswell, Jennifer (2012) Literacy and Education, Sage: London, 2nd edition – for Journal for the Education of Teachers – Jan 2013
It is refreshing to read a book about literacy – written for teachers and teacher educators – that makes little or no reference to phonics, standardised assessment tests, national curriculum and league tables. Pahl and Rowsell’s
Literacy and Education (2nd edition) has a broader more fundamental scope: how to harness children’s inherent creativity to enable them to become active, engaged, critical and literate citizens in a digitalised world. This theoretically driven pedagogic adventure offers a compelling demonstration of what it means to place learners at the centre of literacy teaching and learning.
The book consists of six chapters each of which address a series of core questions about reading and writing. The reader is allowed to stroll gently through these different notions about the meaning, nature and pedagogical implications of being and becoming literate. ‘Literacy and Education’ starts – in the 1990’s with the ‘New Literacy Studies’ The theoretical turn that provided an empirical basis for the idea of literacy as a social practice is by now well established. Pahl and Rowsell build from this premise to offer several generative notions of literacy as material, as space, as connected to time, as multiple, multimodal and digital.
One striking feature of the book is its layout. Starting with a glossary of key terms, Pahl and Rowsell unfold their exposition through a series of boxed texts which feature vignettes or theoretical explorations; in greyed out boxes they identify key themes for each chapter, points of reflection and activities (for teachers to try out with their students). The book has a good few illustrations and a reasonable scattering of bullet points. This implies something for how the book is to be read and used. Having understood its theoretical underpinning, the reader can quite easily retrace her steps to identify activities to try out and adopt with her students or trainees, or look again at what these complex ideas might mean for her practice.
If ‘Literacy and Education’ – looks or feels like a text book, it does not entirely read like one. Anyone who reads this book seeking guidance – will be challenged. The writers themselves acknowledge this. From a compromise that combines ‘an understanding of literacy as a set of skills with an understanding of how we use literacy in everyday life’ (p5), Pahl and Rowsell acknowledge that many practitioners working within a New Literacy Studies framework may be compelled to conclude that in current educational climates effective literacy learning can occur only outside school settings’ (p109).
None-the-less the text is filled with creative, adventurous ideas about being and becoming literate. Ideas that weave bridges between home and school, that celebrate learners’ identity, that promote agency, that are multi–modal, digital and changing. Pahl and Rowsell then explore what these signify for the materiality of our meaning making. In re-visioning literacy education, this book recreates the classroom as a site of ‘epistemic and intentional inquiry’ (p114).
By the end of chapter one, the familiar ground of the New Literacy Studies is stretched, challenged, re-articulated and exemplified. Ethnographic research which once shaped academic understanding is transformed into curriculum as praxis. From chapter two onwards Pahl and Rowsell pick up the multi-modal literacies of The London School this section ensures that the book has a contemporary feel as the writers point out that ‘multi-modal research into aspects of English and literacy has been held back by linguistic analysis’. They continue to explore the pedagogic implications of studies that redress an over-emphasis on ‘literacy’ as the exclusive domain of the written word. It is from this point, Chapter three, that ‘Literacy and Education’ is at its most interesting as the writers explore communication as image, gesture, movement, music, speech and sound. What does it mean for our teaching if ‘as a mode of communication’ it is possible and credible for ‘the garden’ to become a text (p90)? Their discussion of the materiality of texts which updates the challenges implied by digital literacies, neatly segues into Kress’s work on ‘meaning-as-form’ and ‘form-as-meaning’. I find Pahl’s research on artefactual literacies compelling. The ‘stuff’ of literacy is explored throughout the book, an exploration that comes into its own when weaving meaning making between home, school, identity and community.
‘Literacy and Education’ appropriately marginalises the status of reading and writing as skills. It is the messy, ephemeral and sometimes invisible aspects of home literacy re-created as ‘funds of knowledge’ that Pahl and Rowsell are interested in. They help the reader to understand books as conduits for pleasure, emotion and warmth; with literacy as an expression of identity.
This is a book for established academics, teachers, trainee teachers and teacher trainers. It is a book for parents. It is also a book for anyone who has in interest in literacy, schooling and education. It will provide a comprehensive overview of an area and suggest multiple strands of thought to explore.
It is quite possible that the texts refusal to fetishise literacy as skills is determined by the location of the writers. Pahl, based at the University of Sheffield, England and Rowsell, based in Brook University, Canada do not both work within the same tightly bound policy framework of ideas. The book then establishes that there is indeed an alternative to the impositions of rigorously policed adherence to ‘first, fast and only’ phonics that defines literacy teaching in England. It is possible for teaching to be based on a repertoire of approaches developed in response to the uniqueness of a situation as oppose to pre-packaged and pre-defined ‘good practice’. It is the creativity of ‘Literacy and Education’ that is most appealing about this book. The creativity implied by its grounding in research, its adventurous pedagogy and its insightful appreciation of how policy might be – within a different time, place or culture.
BARTON, D. & HAMILTON, M. 1998. Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community, London, Routledge.
HEATH, S. B. 1983. Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms, Cambridge Univ Pr.
KALANTZIS, M. & COPE, B. 1997. Multiliteracies: Rethinking what we mean by literacy and what we teach as literacy the
context of global cultural diversity and new communications technologies, Centre for Workplace Communication and
KRESS, G. 2009. Multimodality: Exploring contemporary methods of communication, Routledge.
STREET, B. V. 1984. Literacy in theory and practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Dr Carol Azumah Dennis
University of Hull