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Discourse co-ordinations within adult literacy teaching

Bobby Harreveld
This article addresses the question of who benefits from a case study investigation into the politics of identity co-ordination by a group of adult literacy teachers working in regional, rural and remote communities of Central Queensland. The benefits of this research will be shown to be theoretical, conceptual and pedagogical in nature. Theoretically, there are benefits from testing Gee's (1996a) argument that there is indeed a 'big D' notion of Discourse through which certain kinds of teachers define themselves as different from other kinds of teachers. Conceptually, this means that viewing literacy in social terms fosters the investigation of the nature of adult literacy teachers' work and their identification with a particular social network. Pedagogically, teachers and teacher educators benefit because the study reports on the ways in which these adult literacy teachers claim agency for professional power and responsibility in their pedagogical practices enacted in regional, rural and remote communities.

Who benefits from case study research into the work of adult literacy teaching in regional, rural and remote communities in Central Queensland? As an adult literacy teacher and teacher educator, I would claim that the first person to benefit from this research is myself because undertaking this study has functioned as my ongoing professional development for the last five years. However, this paper argues that the outcomes from this research are also of benefit to theoretical, conceptual and pedagogical understandings of the work of adult literacy teaching, as they seek to address the key question, 'What D/discourses of identity constitute and co-ordinate the work of adult literacy teaching?'

This work is undertaken within the policy and funding parameters of Australia's vocational education and training (VET) system. The establishment of the VET system coincided with, and it could be argued was a consequence of, a range of social, economic and political changes in industrially 'developed' countries - changes that resulted in inexorable pressures to develop 'smart', 'self-regulating' workers (Gee, Hull & Lankshear, 1996). The significance of the use of the concept of 'literacy' as a 'fast capitalist' tool to build the capacity for 'capitech-intensive work' (Aronowitz & DiFazio, 1999) is at the heart of this research. 'Fast capitalism' (Gee, Hull, & Lankshear, 1996, pp. 24-48) is a term that describes high speed changes in work practices and social identities as products and services are created and mediated, via smart technologies, to meet supposed needs and desires of diverse groups of people constructed as consumers. Therefore this investigation into the work of adult literacy teaching is undertaken from a socio-cultural approach that enables it to be situated with its social, cultural and historical contexts within a particular geographic area. The theme of change weaves through the study as teachers mobilise, and are mobilised by, fast capitalist agents of change.

The first section will provide a background briefing to this research-in-progress. In the second section, the particular research terrain of the study will be discussed, including dilemmas and decisions undertaken to date. The theoretical and conceptual benefits of Gee's (1991, 1992, 1996a, 1996b, 1997) 'big D' and 'little d' D/discourse theory will be examined in the third section. The paper will draw attention to the usefulness of this theoretical position as a way of contributing to further understandings of the concept of 'literacy' itself. Finally, based upon data from initial analysis, the fourth section will identify emergent benefits to conceptually framed pedagogical practices of those people working as adult literacy teachers in this research study.


The significance of a perceived lack of trained adult literacy teachers in regional, rural and remote communities in Central Queensland lies in constructions of what constitutes adult literacy teaching, who gets to be an adult literacy teacher, and what is expected of such people. The provision of such education in Central Queensland was primarily intended to foster and support people's participation in vocational education and training (VET), which in turn echoed the Australian National Training Authority's (ANTA) brief to skill Australia (Australian National Training Authority, 1994). Established by the State government's (then) Vocational Education Training and Employment Commission (VETEC), the Queensland Adult English, Language, Literacy and Numeracy (QAELLN) Council's policy (Department of Employment, Vocational Education and Training and Industrial Relations, 1994) was to implement the National Collaborative Adult English Language and Literacy Strategy (NCAELLS) agreed to by State and Commonwealth Ministers in 1994.

QAELLN's concern about barriers to provision in rural and remote areas echoed findings from a number of reports during the early 1990s (see, for example, National Board of Employment, Education and Training & Australian Language & Literacy Council, 1993). The findings from three particular recent research studies have been significant in determining the focus and potential benefits from this study into co-ordinated identities of adult literacy teachers and the work of adult literacy teaching: Castleton, Schiffman and Richards (1995); Garbutcheon Singh, Harreveld and Hunt (1997); and Luke, Herschell and Bahr (2000).

Investigating 'teacher identity' in this study has meant investigating 'changes in work'. Helsby's (1999) research into the changing structures, cultures and agency of teachers' work in the United Kingdom found that:

Teachers can be quite effective and efficient change agents, with minimal start-up and re-tooling investments when compared to technological infrastructures and capital-intensive plant and equipment often needed for massive economic and industrial change. As agents of change, teachers can also be used to influence the social infrastructures and cultural conditions necessary to facilitate change.

However, to achieve this it is necessary to govern the terms, conditions and credentials of their jobs so that they embody the prevailing change policies. In the context of education, such control can be attempted primarily through curriculum documents and funding mechanisms such as those instigated in the Australian VET system's chosen discourse of competency based education. Within this framing though, teachers can also function as effective and efficient s aboteurs of change processes and/or catalysts for change of a different nature from that intended by the system within which they are working.

The benefits of continuing research in the area of adult literacy teaching in regional, rural and remote communities lies in the ability to recognise the changing demographics of who gets to be an adult literacy teacher, plus the mutating and evolving work practices of adult literacy teaching within shifting local and global flows of socially, culturally and economically framed information, technology, power and people.


In this research, a combination of Yin's (1993, 1994) and Merriam's (1988, 1998) approaches to case study is used in the research design. Combined, their interpretations of case study as a research design provide a rigour to the conduct of the research's data collection, collation and analysis. At the same time, the case study facilitates the collection of a wide range of data from both library and field research, including interviews, participant observations and artifact collection, that are used to build the conceptual and temporal boundaries of the case. The study covers a period of time from 1996 to 2001, with twenty-six research participants selected from teachers who participated in three professional development courses in adult literacy teaching conducted in Central Queensland.

Using this combined approach to my case study research design, together with Gee's (1996a) approach to discourse analysis, has meant that all the rich experiences of my own life as an adult literacy teacher were able to be utilised in a 'systematic unpacking of the conceptual world' (Geertz, 1983, p. 22) of literacy in which I was working with my colleagues as the facilitator of these professional development courses. On the one hand, it was an advantage not to have to find time and money to spend 'in the field'. On the other hand, I experienced many of the ethical and emotional dilemmas that come from having 'quasi-insider' status (Jarzabkowski, 2001, in this issue; see also McConachie, 2001, in this issue).

As this research study is now at the stage of the detailed data analysis, I am even more conscious of the ethical dilemmas and concerns that this process brings with it (Merriam, 1988, 1998). For the first few years of the study, I was using action research because I saw it as a very practical means to work with my colleagues on these professional development courses with eventual extension, reconstitution and even reformulation of our knowledge about adult literacy and the work of being an adult literacy teacher. While this approach works for some people (including myself), in particular research studies (see, for example, Garbutcheon Singh, Harreveld & Hunt, 1997), in this particular research study it was not suitable for me.

As time went on, it became obvious that while my colleagues did not mind writing assignments to pass their professional development course, and they kindly gave permission for these to be used, together with taped audiovisual sessions and interviews, they were not engaged in a doctoral research study. They were not interested in taking the joint participation any further than it had already gone, because there were no further benefits for them. I also could not distance myself from our work-based interactions as it became increasingly difficult to manage the relationship between 'the researcher' and 'the researched'. Therefore, while allegiance to a qualitative paradigm was retained, a methodological divorce was necessary because the study was not progressing.

Following advice from my supervisors, it became evident that what I really needed to rejuvenate the study was to do a case study with a clear research design. This enabled me to return to my initial reason for beginning the research, namely a desire to increase my knowledge and understanding of the concept of literacy and its relationship to the work of adult literacy teaching.


Underpinning this research study has been an alignment with a particular theoretical perspective about the concept of literacy. Gee's (1991, 1992, 1996a, 1996b) D/discourse theory that has been developed to encompass understandings of literacy 'as a plural set of social practices - literacies' (Gee, 1996a, p. 46). There is a robustness about Gee's big D' and 'little d' D/discourse theory that is positioned around the premise that:
[w]hen we write or read, speak or listen, we coordinate and are coordinated by specific identities, specific ways of using language, various objects, tools, technologies, sites and institutions, as well as other people's minds and bodies (Gee, 1996a, p. 6).
Gee argues that it is not just the words themselves that are important, because the 'big D' Discourses are constructed not only by the language, but also by the objects, tools, technologies, sites and institutions (through which meaning is negotiated) that are put together in such a way that 'others recognize you as a particular type of who (identity), engaged in a particular type of what (activity) here and now' (Gee, 1996a, p. 18; emphasis in original).

It is at this juncture that his theory is of most use to investigations into the concept of literacy itself and the teachers whose work is dependent upon particular understandings of this concept as enacted through policy induced curriculum documents and funding guidelines. In Gee's theoretical stance, the capital 'D' is distinct from the 'small d' of discourse. The 'small d' refers to the 'language bits' that are used within a Discourse. These 'language bits' are understood to be the words, phrases, sentences and utterances used in oral, written and visual communication acts. To have meaning within a Discourse, its discourse (language bits) actually has a structure that is recognised by the people who operate within that Discourse (Gee, 1996a; 1996b).

Herein lies the seductiveness of this 'big D/little d' relationship for explaining what is happening as the social actions or the discursive practices of these adult literacy teachers are both created and constrained by the social structures of the VET system within which they work in their local communities, as well as by themselves as individuals re/negotiating their practices (Gee, Hull & Lankshear, 1996; Helsby, 1999). From the initial stage of data analysis, it is evident that there is a 'discursive dissonance' among three major co-ordinating forces that contribute to these teachers' professional identities: their own discursive practices; expectations of their students and the local community; and expectations of the VET system itself.

While these issues are explored further in the study, the brief extracts below serve to illustrate the tightrope teachers walk between memories of what teachers were, and should be, and what they themselves are prepared to be. Maggie[1] believed that adult literacy students 'hold outdated expectations of us as practitioners' and that 'the concept of the role of teacher has undoubtedly changed during this century, particularly in the last forty years' (ALT, 1996)[2]. Peter elaborated this point with his perception that there is no shared understanding of the concept of literacy itself because:

... when you get employers, people from industry committees and so on advising TAFE or whatever - their understandings of what literacy is differ ... simply going to be what they experience as literacy for themselves. (Peter, VT, 1996)[3]
Essentially this and other data help build the 'big D' of an adult literacy teaching Discourse because they record the teachers' values and beliefs, motives and assumptions about their work as they interact with their students and the system within which this work occurs.

Now at the level of detailed discourse analysis, the ways in which language is used as a 'broker' that acts as 'an agent' (Lankshear, 1996, p. 23) on behalf of the respective interests of the teachers and the VET system itself can be inve stigated. The 'system's language bits' or discourse are represented by library research texts such as the key curriculum documents with which these teachers work, for example the National Reporting System (Coates, Fitzpatrick, McKenna & Makin, 1995) and syllabus documents such as the latest Certificates I and II in Vocational Access (Department of Employment, Training and Industrial Relations, 1999). The teachers' 'language bits' or discourse are represented through the audio/videotaped verbal exchanges as well as in written assignments of the professional development courses, and semi-structured interviews.

To get at a sense of 'being' an adult literacy teacher, it is necessary to delve more deeply into teachers' speech, writings and actions that they mobilise in particular ways to make their meanings known, and through which they are in turn recognised as adult literacy teachers. Gee's (1996a) use of five interrelated linguistic systems in his discourse analysis processes facilitates this because it utilises the prosody, cohesion, discourse organisation, contextualisation and thematic organization of lines (clauses or sentences) and stanzas of text (Halliday & Hasan, 1976, 1989). Therefore, this approach to discourse analysis identifies the ways in which these teachers use language to co-ordinate their social identities and practices.

Together, the identification of a 'big D' and a 'little d' D/discourse co-ordinated by these teachers facilitates an understanding of the ways in which they see themselves - that is, their identities. The benefit of this theoretical perspective on D/discourse theory lies in its transferability to investigations of changing socio-cultural worlds of work. In combination with its use to investigate constructions of the concept of literacy within these work Discourses, this theoretical perspective also has the potential to benefit the pedagogical practices of adult literacy teaching within the Discourses.


Through this theoretical alignment with D/discourse theory and Gee's (1996a) processes of discourse analysis, the concept of literacy itself benefits. For a teacher of 'literacy' and teacher of 'literacy teachers', the search for ways of examining the concept that made sense not only to myself, but also to other teachers and teachers-in-training, has been ongoing. As already stated, the socio-cultural approach to thinking and theorising about language makes sense in the context of this study because it calls explicit attention to the role of language, that highlights Lankshear's (1996) 'cultural brokerage' idea. Freebody and Luke's (1990) 'family' of literacy practices or literacy roles is also based upon this approach to literacy and is used to underpin the syllabus documents with which these teachers must teach. In summary, the view that language is part of a family of social practices which mediates 'the larger processes by which groups socialise and educate their young into the social practices - the Discourses that constitute their way of life' (Gee, 1996b, p. 21) is one that focuses on the concept in a theoretical sense. Yet this does not necessarily mean that it is acceptable to or understood by teachers as a conceptual framing for their work.

A major challenge to this socio-cultural understanding of the concept of literacy is to translate it into formal learning situations under the VET system's umbrella of curriculum control and public funding accountability. Maggie argued that the uniqueness of adult literacy teaching is its process-based approach; an approach that she thinks explains, 'why it's such a grey area' (Maggie, IN, 2001)[4]. Giroux's (1992, p. 81) concept of 'border pedagogy' helps us to understand the technologies of 'power, language and practice' that produce and legitimate the diverse 'moral and political' regulations of adult literacy teachers' work. Their pedagogical practices are their intellectually, emotionally and ethically imbued actions that are representative of their views of the concept of literacy itself. Therefore, when the teachers' concepts of literacy meet the community's concept of literacy, which has never heard of the system's concept of literacy that is in turn based upon theorists' concepts of literacy, there is the potential for a discursive dissonance. This means that the teachers' idea of literacy teaching-in-action may/may not conflict with that of the system's idea of literacy, which in turn may/may not conflict with the students' and the community's idea of literacy.

Essentially, mandated learning outcomes and competency based performance criteria expressed in syllabus documents used by adult literacy teachers in Central Queensland seek to ensure that students can:

Karl argued that 'language is the key to improved literacy ... language is the tool we use to define our reality. Literacy is the way we use that language' (Karl, ALT, 1996)[5]. However, the language used to talk about literacy in curriculum documents, journal articles and books is not always a language with which all teachers and trainers in this study would identify. Karl found that 'I can't talk like that; I don't even think like that' (ALT, 1996) while Terry wanted 'simple terms and plain English' (ALT, 1997). Therefore, for them adult literacy teaching is a process of relating the 'doing to the knowing' (Marjan, ALT, 2000). For ex-school based primary and secondary English teachers, adult literacy teaching engages them in an opposite process of going 'from the knowing' (about language-in-use) 'to the doing' (or using language in various non-school Discourses).

The benefits in this area of the study are that it validates languages and actions that enable teachers to co-ordinate professional identities around who they are and what they do according to their own values, beliefs and attitudes about what is 'right' for them and their teaching practices. There is a discursive dissonance that has the potential to disrupt the D/discourse hegemonies of:


From initial findings from this research-in-progress, it is concluded that benefits are found in increased understanding of the theory and concepts of literacy that underpin the pedagogical practices of adult literacy teaching in regional, rural and remote communities in Central Queensland. This is a case study of changing work in the education 'industry'. All these participating teachers have been teachers or industry trainers of something else - and now they are also teachers of 'literacy'. Therefore, their former professional identities are changing or have changed as a result of their engagement in this type of work. As they are changing in this respect, so too is the world around them. This has meant changing terms and conditions of their job as the VET system has evolved, plus as a consequence change in the types of people they have as students.

Therefore, Gee's (1996a) D/discourse theory and a socio-cultural approach to the concept of literacy (Freebody & Luke, 1990; Gee, 1991, 1992, 1996a, 1996b; Lankshear, 1996) are of benefit to this study that documents and critically analyses these teachers' pedagogical practices through wh ich they express their thoughts, assumptions, feelings and emotions that drive their actions as adult literacy teachers.


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  1. Pseudonyms are used for all research participants.
  2. Coding: ALT, 1996 = adult literacy teaching assignment from the 1996 course.
  3. Peter, VT, 1996 = Peter speaking on a videotaped session, 1996.
  4. Maggie, IN, 2001 = Interview with Maggie conducted in 2001.
  5. ALT, 1996 = adult literacy teaching course assignment from the 1996 course.
Author details: Bobby Harreveld is Lecturer in Professional and Vocational Education in the Faculty of Education and Creative Arts at the Rockhampton campus of Central Queensland University.

Address for correspondence: Ms Bobby Harreveld, Central Queensland University, 240 Quay Street, Rockhampton QLD 4680. email: b.harreveld@cqu.edu.au

Please cite as: Harreveld, B. (2001). Discourse co-ordinations within adult literacy teaching. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 138-151. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/harreveld.html

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Created 12 Dec 2004. Last revision: 19 Dec 2004.
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