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Issues in Literacy Research: A multi-literacy perspective from a 'new Queenslander'

Peter Freebody
Faculty of Education, Griffith University, Queensland
(Adopted from a presentation to the Annual General Meeting of the Queensland Institute for Educational Research, November 1992.)

There are some things about working in Queensland as a researcher interested in literacy education that are distinctive both in the Australian context and apply even more broadly:

So from these points of view there are certain characteristics about being in Queensland and being able to look at least briefly as a pre-enculturated outsider. Some of these issues interact with certain other theoretical and methodological developments which have happened over the last 10 years that raise interesting questions for a literacy researcher. Some of these questions, in turn, concern what kind of literacy education we might foresee over the next 20 years. What kinds of forces will cut across and shape those developments? Clearly the politics of a multilingual and multicultural society will all be brought to bear. But we will also see discourses being brought to bear from industry and training programs and so on. These will also come to shape how we think about what kinds of literacy education and, for us, what kinds of educational and literacy research we will need to develop as we respond to the forces at work at this point in history.

I gave a talk recently at the Cultural Centre for the celebration of the Queensland Council for Adult Literacy's tenth anniversary. In the course of planning that talk, I looked back at what was going on about 10 years ago - what kinds of things were people thinking about and what was new theoretically and methodologically in research on language and literacy. It seemed to me that when we look back, we find, as a first instance, the cross-cultural research project of Cole and Scribner (1980) with the Vai people in East Africa. Cole and Scribner found that there was a tribe in East Africa that had not been literate but was rapidly become literate. It was in fact becoming literate in three languages: Arabic, English and their native script Vai for which they developed a new script. The functions of their literacy practices were very clearly demarcated among those three particular languages that they learned. They were an Islamic community and they still are. They learned Arabic in order to read from and memorise the Bible so that their literacy and language practices were to do with that kind of activity. They didn't read Arabic in the same inferential, familiar processing sense we might think of as reading. For their personal private lives, for writing letters and signs and so on, they used their native script Vai so what they wrote and how they read what was presented to them were a different set of psychological activities if you like, and finally the governmental official language was English. All of them were to some extent multi-literate, tri-literate in that respect, but there were different kinds of activities. To call them all literacy and pretend one knew what that was in some essential psychological sense would be in fact to not understand the situation very well at all.

At about the same time, we find another piece of work that has had a significant impact on subsequent language and literacy research and theory: the cross-cultural work that Shirley Brice Heath published in Ways with Words (1983). This was an ethnographic cross-sub-cultural study in the United States among working class black, and middle class black and white communities. There was at that time as well the work of David Olson (1980) who was starting to talk about the differences between the forms and functions of written and spoken language. There was also a strong move in the late 1970s towards more ethnographic approaches to every day classroom life and classroom activity. Importantly, the first reports of the functional linguistic research team in Sydney appeared at about that time (Martin and Rothery, 1980), a development that finds its descendants in the various genre-based programs in literacy curriculum.

These initiatives are all, in very different ways, about resisting the temptation to draw easy generalisations across situations in labelling a practice literacy, and to think that we have done ourselves or anyone else a theoretical or practical service in so doing. The imperative has been to look at the everyday situated contextual literacy practices upon which curriculum policy and educational policy might be based. One of the themes of this talk is derived from a comment made by Brian Street (1992): if we don't have principled ethnographic knowledge of the every day literacy practices of the people for whom our schools or our literacy instruction programs exist, in the case of adult learners, our descriptions in the curriculum and policy documents are prescriptions. We are stating what they ought to have or do. We are not in fact drawing some map of what are the functional ways of doing business with literacy in daily life because we have not taken the time to do an ethnographic study of some description of that every day life.

So there are at least two meanings to this term 'multi-literacy'. The first meaning is clearly the more obvious one that we would think of: that is, simply that we have many languages in this country. We have also recent initiatives with respect to languages other than English as a significant and serious presence in our schools.

At the same time we have the spectacle of certain kinds of literacy programs acting in ways that kill off their neighbouring competitors. This is the force of the second meaning of the term multi-literacy. Wolfgang Sachs (1992) from the Centre for Cultural Studies in Munich has studied the life and death of languages around the world. Sachs has claimed that there are about 5,100 distinctive languages in the world today and that 90 per cent of them are spoken in what we used to refer to as the 'third world'. He claimed that at the current rate of linguistic disappearance or what some people call linguistic absorption there will be between three or four hundred of these languages left by the year 2050.

The disappearance rate of languages around the world is very high. Some of those languages are spoken by very small and rapidly declining numbers of people. The case of Papua New Guinea for example is one in which there are documented about 860 distinctive languages, many of them not intelligible at all to local others. But some languages under threat are spoken by large numbers of people. Kurdish is the 40th most populous language in the world and is endangered by politically motivated literacy education programs in the four countries that are host to the Kurdish people (Hasanpour, 1993).

The point we can derive from Sachs' work is that certain forms of literacy instruction are the major agencies of this substantial ongoing linguicide. In other words the presentation of certain kinds of curriculum materials and the use of certain sorts of ways of teaching people how to be literate are militating against community languages to the extent that they are the major causes of language and therefore cultural absorption. A lot of that has to do with the institutionalisation of schooling and the use of non-indigenous literate materials.

In order to respond to that there seems to me to be two things to think about related directly to the two meanings I have outlined in the term 'multi-literacy'. The first is that we need to think about the sorts of materials that are used in classrooms. The second concerns the kinds of literacy practices that different cultures and subcultures engage in, recalling Scribner and Cole's work with the Vai. What are the important ways in which certain literacy practices may not be a good thing?

A nation has a right to expect that an education system that will enhance competencies in the powerful public forms of English language usage for all of its clients. It is also true that schools are part of communities which have the right to expect maintenance of their important ways of behaving and their linguistic and social 'courses of action'. How much literacy education goes on in the preparation of teachers that alerts them to the possibilities of community diversity differentiation? When teachers are posted to communities other than the communities that they have grown up in, how much do they know about how to go about finding out what those local literacy resources are and what the practices of the people in those communities are?

So there is another sense in which the word 'multi-literacy' applies here. Even within any particular first language speaking group where the school system reflects that language, there is a multiplicity of language and literacy practices that go on in and around our daily lives which are not well reflected in the school system. What comes under the heading of 'literacy' generally is a broad set of practices and we actually know culturally a lot more than most commonly conceived sets of profiles or tests or assessments of literacy give us credit for.

James Heap (1989) has produced a useful hypothetical example of the intricacy of literacy practices in the out-of-school world and the ways in which they are embedded in other oral language and socio-cultural practices. Imagine a person acquiring a new piece of machinery, say a fancy new photocopier. The person had one like it before but not quite the same - not quite as fancy. There is a manual and a little set of quick reference cards. The question is: What is the proper, effective 'rational' literacy practice here? Do you go away read the manual, read it all the way through, take some notes and come back and stand in front of the machine? What do you do?

Heap made the point that probably what one does is some sort of text aided functioning - trialing-and-erroring, getting to know the parameters of the quick reference and learning how to get from there to the manual quickly, in and out, when you need to, and so on. There is a whole range of practical literacy skills that we engage in as literate people which are not at all reflected in the way that literacy is put forward as a commodity through the school teaching and testing system.

Larry Mikulecky (1981) had the same conclusion from his research, even though he used a perspective derived from situated cognition studies rather than Heap's ethnomethodological approach. Look at the 17-year olds who are still at school and what they have to do with their reading and writing in contrast with those 17-year olds who left at the end of last year went and got either ticket courses in TAFE or community colleges, or went into jobs. We will find that the people who left school have to read more difficult material and have to do a much wider range of activities. They have to know where to pick the bits out, how to do quick summaries, make quick trial and error references from the written word to the machine or to the object of discussion. The actual sets of literacy tasks facing students in schools are of a much more familiar and narrow range: read the chapter, form the notes, write the essay, and so on. Note that these latter literacy behaviours would be impractical in many of the situations which we do find ourselves.

What has come out of these perspectives for literacy educators and researchers is the development of the 'anthropologist's eye' - to have an orientation less interested in looking at issues of labelling across different situations, transferring this idea to that, and trying to develop a unidimensional or reductionist view of what literacy practices are. Such an interest can hold back on those urges to make transfers and generalisations and is more focused on developing a site-specific and empirically careful understanding of particular kinds of contexts, practices and clients.

Here is where I will to look back to my characterisation of what Queensland will afford in the decades ahead as a place for educational researchers to work in. Choices about theory and research method are evident in policy or curriculum development, so there really is a lot at stake for Queenslanders in the sorts pf decisions that literacy educators and researchers make about what counts as literacy research, what counts as legitimate, well-founded and principled literacy education. If Sachs is right, just by random statistical distribution, a lot of the languages that die will be in Queensland. So questions about research methodology and the way methodological orientations of researchers give support to or change the focus and orientation of policy in curriculum developments are vital over the next 20 years.

James Gee is one of the more interesting and innovative sociolinguists in the United States at the moment. He was here earlier this year at a conference and he made a throw-away remark that, in his opinion, academics and educational researchers don't take their work very seriously. They still have a sense in which it's intellectual work of leisure, an intellectual cottage industry or hobby-farming. But many people, at least indirectly, depend to some extent on decisions that educators make: those decisions in turn are given legitimacy and orientation by the work of researchers. Maybe we do not take the work seriously enough. But it really is very serious work for other people. Language marginalising, language death, cultural alienation and disappearance are all very real, and they happening now. Part of what a research orientation and methodology that focuses on a close examination of situated literacy activities in everyday life has to offer is that it gives us a particular attitude towards differences. Education and educational research are not just about the documenting and legitimatin g of differences, but equally they ought not be about the documenting and legitimating of sameness.


Cole, M. & Scribner, S. (1980) The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Hasanpour, A. (1993) 'The pen and the sword: Literacy, education and revolution in Kurdistan. In P. Freebody and A.R. Welch (eds.) Knowledge, culture and power: International perspectives on literacy as policy and practice. London: Falmer Press.

Heap, J.L. (1989) Effective functioning in daily life: A critique of concepts and surveys of functional literacy. Paper presented to the National Reading Conference, Tuscon, Arizona.

Heath, S.B. (1983) Ways with words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, J.R. & Rothery, J. Writing project: First report. Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney.

Mikulecky, L. (1981) 'Job literacy: The relationship between school preparation and workplace actuality'. Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 400-419.

Olson, D.R. (1980) 'Some social aspects of meaning in oral and written language'. In D.R. Olson (ed) The social foundations of language and thought. New York: Norton.

Sachs, W. (1992) 'One world against many worlds'. New Internationalist, 232, 23-25.

Street, B.V. (1992) Models of literacy in adult education. Plenary Address to the Australian Council of Adult Literacy Annual Conference, Sydney.

Please cite as: Freebody, P. (1992). Issues in Literacy Research: A multi-literacy perspective from a 'new Queenslander'. Queensland Researcher, 8(3), 2-8. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr8/freebody.html

[ Contents Vol 8, 1992 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 5 June 2006. Last revision: 5 June 2006.
URL: http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr8/freebody.html