BALID Discussion 8: Ethnographic Approaches to Understanding and Teaching Literacy (Brian Street and Alan Rogers)

Alan Rogers and Brian Street

The use of ethnographic approaches to the training of adult literacy and numeracy teachers in the context of developing societies, where large numbers of persons are either completely or largely unschooled, has grown apace in recent years. The question then arises whether such practical forms of training may also have a contribution to make to understanding literacy and to the teaching of literacy in the context of European societies, and indeed more widely, where the educational contexts are so different.

Literacy in Development

The concepts of „literacy‟ and „illiteracy‟ in the context of international development („developing societies‟) have special meanings which spring from that context. Two factors have helped to create these meanings.

First, there is the fact that in most such countries, large numbers of adults have had no formal schooling or only very inadequate schooling; so that „illiteracy‟ usually means „unschooled‟. Indeed, in a number of languages, there is no word for „literacy‟ or „illiteracy‟, so to that the query, „Are you literate?‟, the response will often be, „I have never been to school‟. In multi-lingual societies, despite attendance at school, many remain unable to use key scripts or language (e.g. a majority or national language). There is considerable demand for literacy learning.

Secondly, national „literacy levels‟ are one of the indicators of development set by international aid bodies such as the World Bank and United Nations agencies; „increasing the literacy level‟ is one of the more important goals of international development. The fact that such figures are based on inadequate measures (self- reporting or the proxy measure of years of schooling) is widely recognised but they are still promulgated widely. Thus there is also a requirement for literacy enhancement.

In this context, then, „literacy‟ has come to mean learning programmes to increase the number of adults in any society who possess „literacy skills‟ (whether they use them or not). „Literacy‟ (with a capital letter) is seen as a single and universal skill which adults can learn through a formal learning process based on a centrally produced and universally applied school-like literacy textbook (primer) in one-size-fits-all programmes; and this learning can be measured through a standardised test.

In Western societies, without the heavy pressure of international aid agencies, and where it is assumed that the vast majority of the society have engaged in extended forms of effective schooling, „literacy‟ and „illiteracy‟ tend to have rather different meanings – indeed two meanings. On the one hand, it means helping children to master the skills of the reading and writing required in school. For adults, it tends to mean the ability to function in particular situations – in a particular language or with a specific kind of document or activity; so that „legal literacy‟ means the ability to cope with legal proceedings, „financial literacy‟ means the ability to understand and take decisions in financial matters. Literacy learning programmes then are aimed at specific groups or specific purposes – for U K children in Sure Start or the Literacy Hour; and with adults, for immigrants who may already be „literate‟ in their own language but not in the main language of their new hosts; or parents whose skills may be inadequate to help them encourage their children with their school work etc.

Ethnographic approaches: literacies, not literacy

In both arenas, there has sprung up in recent years a new ethnographically-based approach to „literacy‟ which suggests that „literacy‟ is best viewed not as learning programmes but as activities which everyone engages in in the course of operating within their lifeworlds.

In development contexts, these approaches are spreading from two main sources. First, anthropological studies of different social contexts have added complexities to contemporary assumptions about „Literacy‟ as a universal basic skill which a person either possesses or does not possess, which (it is said) is essential for all development, and which, if grasped, can be applied to any context. It was discovered that different literacy practices were employed by different people for different purposes – for example, religious literacies or workplace literacies as well as the formal school-based

literacies. Further studies (e.g. Prinsloo and Breier 1996) have demonstrated „the plurality of literacy‟. Secondly, growing concern among aid agencies, government officials and adult educators about the ineffectiveness of expensive adult literacy campaigns in achieving a reduction in the percentages of those defined as „illiterate‟, so that the rates fell only slowly, hardly keeping pace with population increases, has led to a search for new ways to promote literacy.

The ethnographic approach addresses some of these issues. In what has come to be called The New Literacy Studies, (Barton et al 2000; Baynham and Prinsloo 2009 etc), „Literacy‟ is not seen only as an activity which takes place within an educational institution but mainly as a variety of social activities which take place in daily life – the workplace, the family, the community, the market place etc. Ethnographic studies (e.g. Street 2001; Robinson-Pant 2004 etc) show that such activities are much more widespread than is often assumed; that they involve many different forms of reading and writing, including symbols and forms of lay-out, in what is now called multi-modal literacies; and that they are done for many different purposes, religious activities (engaging with the Bible, hymn book, Qu‟ran or suras, for example), commercial or occupational work (keeping notes of stock or credit given in a shop, for example, or paying bills), personal or family purposes (letters or lists, notes to or from school, using a calendar etc), or bureaucratic reasons (filling in forms such as registration of births, marriages and death, application for a driving licence, or for bank accounts, for example) etc (Street 1984).

And these (often informal) everyday literacy practices are very different from the more academic literacy taught in school or in adult literacy learning programmes; the gap between the everyday and the formal literacy of the classroom is often very wide. Which is why so many of these literacy activities have not been recognised as „Literacy‟, even by those who engage in them. They are „hidden‟, invisible from most surveys (Nabi et al 2009), often dismissed as „vernacular‟, „local‟, indeed as „not being literacy‟, because they do not conform to the rules of school-room literacy.
The „power to name‟ which the educated elites assume is their right leads them to assert what is „Literacy‟ and what is not; and so such informal literacy practices are ignored or demeaned as not important. And many of those who engage in such activities also assume that these are not „Literacy‟; indeed, in many cases, they are

being performed unconsciously, embedded within some normal activity of life such as shopping, cooking, playing sport, social interaction etc.

This understanding of literacy as a wide variety of social practices within a specific context and for a specific purpose rather than as a single decontextualised skill which can be applied in any situation has spread widely in the so-called „developing countries‟; for it seems to meet some of concerns about „Literacy‟ in a context where the numbers of those labelled as „illiterate‟ remains high, despite adult literacy campaigns, and where the relative failure of costly adult literacy programmes has created a reluctance to engage in widespread literacy campaigns and an interest in new ways of helping adults to develop their literacy and numeracy skills. Some programmes now combine economic or community development activities with learning an appropriate set of literacy and numeracy skills, an „embedded literacy‟ in vocational training programmes. Family literacy too is a feature of literacy in developing countries, and the use of traditional stories and proverbs etc to develop further opportunities for reading (and writing) – all these call for surveys of existing literacy practices. Thus, rather than assuming that any context has no „Literacy‟, the ethnographic approach looks at what is going on (including the hidden literacies) and seeks to build on these activities to learn new forms of literacy.

The LETTER Project

If, then, we are to build on the existing literacy and numeracy practices of the learners, two kinds of training programmes for organisers and teachers of literacy learning programmes are needed. On the one hand, ethnographic ways of identifying the existing literacy and numeracy practices of the learners need to be developed, for (as we have suggested) many of these practices have been learned informally and are hardly conscious even to those who use them. Secondly, once some of the everyday literacies and numeracies have been identified by the planners and teachers, training in how to build on these to learn new literacy practices is needed; for it is not immediately obvious how informal and local literacies can be developed into other, often more formal, literacies. But to ignore the informal literacy and numeracy practices of the learners, and teach a new Literacy is hardly the most effective way of helping learners to change their perceptions of themselves and of literacy, or to develop further their capabilities. For such people, as much research shows, formal

literacy classes might be off-putting, whilst addressing their existing literacies may need further explanation.

Hence arose the LETTER Project (Learning for Empowerment Through Training in Ethnographic Research), a training programme that brings together ethnographic approaches to researching local literacies and educational approaches to learning and curriculum development. Started in India from discussions between Nirantar, a local women‟s non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to Women‟s Empowerment Through Education, the programme commenced in 2005 with a series of workshops arranged by Nirantar and ASPBAE (Asia-South-Pacific Bureau of Adult Education). Funding was obtained from various sources, and two workshops were held with participants from Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. The main focus was on exploring everyday literacy and numeracy in local communities using ethnographic-style methodologies. A short example of this kind of work was given during the first workshop in Delhi; everyone went out into the streets to look at how different people managed their literacy and numeracy activities (for example, a taxi driver or woman selling goods in the market). Following the first workshop, the participants then undertook a longer study of everyday literacies at home before bringing their case studies to the second workshop for feedback and further development. A book based on these two workshops was written and published, Exploring the Everyday: ethnographic studies of literacy and numeracy (Nirantar 2007), and since then, Nirantar has been developing new teaching-learning approaches based on the findings of such surveys. For example, making a survey of existing everyday literacies led to the identification of calendars as widely practised form of literacy (both reading and writing); the learners then examined different kinds of calendars, secular and religious, solar and lunar, the different uses of calendars, including by men and women, different years (e.g. academic, religious, legal etc) and so on – all of which provided opportunities for both teachers and learners to learn more, not from a textbook but from materials hanging on their own walls.

The key element here is to help the literacy teachers and their trainers to learn about the existing community literacy and numeracy activities of each particular learning

group – indeed, to help the learners themselves to become more aware of what they do and what they feel about literacy (Rogers 2008).

The project then moved to Ethiopia, where a group of about twenty trainers of literacy facilitators from around the country participated in a series of three workshops. The first was devoted to ethnographic approaches, again with a field visit during the workshop; then each participant individually or in small groups, undertook a more detailed case study at home. The second workshop finalised these case studies and began work on curriculum development. The third workshop, attended by a senior member of Nirantar on behalf of the India LETTER workshops, finalised both strands especially the curriculum development strand. In some cases it was possible to build a new curriculum with new teaching-learning materials, in other cases the findings from the surveys could be built into the existing primer-based curriculum. Thus in the functional literacy textbooks provided by the state, each lesson (malaria; farming practices; marketing etc) could be supplemented by an exploration of the local literacy and numeracy practices relating to the topic in the textbook. Again a book was written and published, Everyday Literacies in Africa: ethnographic studies of literacy and numeracy in Ethiopia (Gebre et al 2009).

Currently a programme is being held in Uganda, linking Makerere University with Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), Kwa-Zulu-Natal University (South Africa) and Kings College London and the Institute of Education, London (UK). The involvement of some of those engaged on the Ethiopia and India programmes ensures that LETTER is a rolling programme in which both the trainers and the participant learners build on previous workshops. As in the earlier programmes, ethnographic- style studies of local literacies are being completed; curriculum building has been started. Two new features are the writing of reading material for learners, using ethnographic approaches to explore original (oral) material such as local stories, and secondly, each of the participants has been asked to develop and teach a short programme in literacy for adults using ethnographic material. Thus training for teaching (including some micro-teaching exercises) is part of the LETTER Project now. A publication of case studies of everyday literacy and numeracy practices in Uganda and their application in adult learning programmes is being prepared.

It is important to appreciate that LETTER is not presented as an exclusive alternative to existing adult literacy learning programmes but as an additional resource. It seeks in a practical way to train those who train literacy teachers (facilitators, animators, tutors) how to examine the local everyday literacy and numeracy practices of the communities from which adult literacy learners come, so as to build new learning programmes on existing activities and perceptions.

The findings of ethnographic studies

The ethnographic research projects undertaken have consisted of small-scale detailed case studies – not necessarily typical case studies from which wide-ranging generalisations can be drawn, but „telling‟ case studies from which widely-held assumptions can be challenged and from which lessons can be learned.

Some of the findings are particularly significant for the development of literacy learning. For one thing, „Literacy‟ turned out to be much more complex than simply decoding written texts. Most of the focus of the „Literacy in Development‟ approach was on reading rather than writing; but ethnographic studies showed that in the everyday lives of many men and women, there was rather more use of writing than reading. In any case, we came to realise that reading and writing work hand in hand; they engage in a dialogic relationship, each reader making meaning of the text through the use of their own experience and funds of knowledge, while at the same time the writer anticipates the meanings the reader will make of the text by imagining the experience which the reader will bring to the meaning-making. Such a view of reading involves the reader in taking a critical perspective, interpreting what has been written and establishing a social relationship with the writer; it is not just a technical breakdown of the linguistic features of the text (phonemes) as in much literacy teaching. The reader is not a passive receiver of the message but is an active participant in helping to construct the meaning of the text. Reading, like writing, is a social activity undertaken within a particular socio-cultural context and for a specific purpose.

Further, ethnographic studies have revealed that literacy is rarely „pure‟ in the sense that it just involves written text; rather it is usually multi-modal, that is it involves other modes such as visual, oral, kinaesthetic, and it is also often multi-script as well

as multi-lingual. Time and again, such studies showed that those who are labelled by the educated elites as „illiterate‟ do engage in everyday literacy and numeracy practices, partly with the willing help of others in what is called „mediation‟ (Mace 2002), but also individually, using a wide range of strategies to create their own literacy and numeracy practices. These are rarely the formal literacy and numeracy taught in the classroom but are often „made-up‟ literacies and numeracies of their own or shared in their community. Decisions as to which literacy or numeracy practices are to be used by whom in which contexts, which modes should be employed, which literacies should be valued and which should be regarded as inferior (various terms are used, such as „vernacular‟, „informal‟ or „local‟, to describe these other literacies), are being taken every day; it is these decisions and the assumptions on which they were based that are now being explored by ethnographic studies. The perceptions of what counts as literacy, and the perceptions people labelled as „illiterate‟ hold about themselves and about Literacy are becoming more clear, especially the „shame‟ element that many so-called „illiterates‟ feel about themselves.

Applying the model to Western contexts.

In the world of international development, then, it is adult educators rather than school agencies who have become aware of the gap between the various forms of everyday literacy and numeracy which ethnographic approaches revealed and the very different forms of literacy being taught in the literacy campaign classes. These formal programmes do not „start where they are‟, do not build on the existing literacy practices of the literacy learners, do not use their prior learning and everyday experience as the basis for new learning. Indeed, teachers often assume that the „illiterate‟ learners do not have any relevant experience of literacy, that they (the teachers) are filling empty spaces, what Freire termed the „banking‟ model of literacy teaching. If we are to get away from that formal model to a more effective model, new tools are needed to discover the actual practices and perceptions of learners – hence ethnographic approaches.

In „Western‟ societies, where the theoretical approaches outlined above mainly emerged, there is less evidence of their application in practice. The newer understanding of „literacy‟ as a set of varied social practices (multiple literacies), has

of course grown strongly in the West, but in that context, understandings of the gap between home practices and school teachings are much more evident among those concerned with children‟s education or with higher education (academic literacies) than in adult or continuing education. Shirley Brice Heath‟s Ways with Words (1996 edition) identified this gap as long ago as 1983; and recent work has concentrated primarily on schooling or college (e.g. Pahl and Rowsell 2005; Larson and Marsh 2005). A study of the gap between the home and school numeracy practices (Leverhulme 2005) was a major step towards an understanding of the many different numeracy practices in the socio-cultural context. And „family literacy‟ is a key theme, primarily in policy circles for the benefit of schooling. Adults have less frequently been a feature of this work (see however Papen 2005; Fowler and Mace 2005).

This gap between what the learners and teachers practise in their daily lives and what they seek to teach and learn in the classroom is the essential element which links both the ethnography and the pedagogy together. We would argue that, for both adults and children, all new learning builds on prior learning, so that it is vital to identify the prior learning relevant to the new learning, to find out what are the existing literacy and numeracy practices already learned – and not assume there are no such practices. And we would argue that one of the most potent ways to engage in such investigations is through the use of ethnographic approaches.

There are several strands to Western concerns for literacy development. One is the relative ineffectiveness of much schooling in literacy and numeracy. Another is directed towards migrant populations who are often required to learn new literacy and numeracy practices within their host societies. Second (or further) language learning is accompanied by new forms of literacy acquisition, on occasion in a different script. A third is in the field of higher education in the form of „academic literacies‟; ethnographic studies of the forms of literacy expected and used in academic contexts have resulted in learning programmes into new forms of literacy, especially but not exclusively for international students.

There are of course difficulties in conducting surveys of the existing literacy and numeracy practices from populations who come from a wide diversity of backgrounds

and who are physically (though not culturally) separated from these backgrounds;
and so it is easier to assume a deficit of literacy rather than undertake time-consuming ethnographic surveys of existing literacy and numeracy practices in everyday life.
But there are reasons why such an ethnographic approach can be useful, not just in relation to developing more effective schooling for children but also for adult learning programmes. For adults come to such programmes bringing with them their whole- life experience and perceptions, including their feelings about literacy, some of which will be helpful to new learning, some of which will form a barrier to new learning. And this experience includes their own specific literacy and numeracy practices which have been developed over many years within their own socio-cultural contexts. In both school and adult learning programmes, it is important to know and understand what the learners bring with them.

Clearly asking and discussing with the participants is one key element in the process of discovering the existing everyday practices, understandings and perceptions which the participants bring with them. But because these are everyday activities, because they are often performed habitually, unconsciously, or because they may not be defined by the participants as „literacy‟ or „numeracy‟, such discussions alone cannot reveal the full complexity of the existing practices. For this, ethnographic-style observation and engagement will be a necessary part of the tools of the educator. We need to see “what is going on”; even better, we need to help the participants to see for themselves what is going on.

Ethnographic-style research need not always be conducted „on‟ a target group; it can most effectively be conducted „with‟ or even „by‟ the target group. Getting the learners, both children and adults, to conduct surveys of their own literacy and numeracy practices is an exciting and productive process leading to new learning among both teachers and learners. There is a common myth about ethnography – that it is conducted in a detached way on an external subject, so as to understand that which is strange (especially the „primitive‟) or at least that which is different from the researcher. But ethnography challenges the assumptions on which the researchers themselves build their own programme; it leads not just to an examination of the „other‟ but to critical reflexivity of oneself. Ethnographic-style research tries to understand all that is going on, including with the researchers themselves.

Thus in teaching reading, writing, literacy and numeracy in their widest sense, all educators, in so-called developing societies and in the so-called West, with both adults and children, need to understand what is going on, not just in general terms (e.g. “all women do this or that” and “all children need this or that”), but what is going on in this particular context at this particular time for this particular purpose; what such women are actually doing; what the power relationships are between the educator-researcher and the participants; what sort of chemistry is going on when the new material meets the older material, etc. And that calls for ethnographic-style surveys in specific contexts: the approach is applicable to all contexts, both „developing‟ and „Western‟.


We want, then, to get away, in both developing societies and the West, from the view that defines „literacy‟ as „literacy teaching‟, and rather to see learning literacy as a social activity which takes many different forms in different contexts; and we feel that we will not see that unless we use ethnographic approaches. In this paper, we have illustrated this point by referring to a project we have been involved with, LETTER. Although originating in the context of international development, we see this programme as having relevance to countries such as Denmark and the UK. The ethnographic approach is relevant for learning programmes whether with adults or children; and it applies to both reading and writing.

In both contexts, we would argue that understanding how learners regard literacy and numeracy and how they are already engaging with it is an essential first step towards helping them to learn more. And developing detailed local ethnographic perspectives through case studies will be a particularly effective tool for challenging assumptions and generalisations about both literacy and learning. Ethnographic explorations of the everyday are a necessary part of any pedagogic activity, whether with adults or children, whether in Europe or in the contexts of international development.

We recognise the problems with this approach. It is much easier, much less effort, to teach a standardised course, to use the set textbook, than to explore (with the student-

learners) new territory, to innovate, to create new teaching-learning materials and to cope with wide ranges of differences, to measure the „soft outcomes (confidence and engagement) rather than the hard outcomes (standardised test results) (see Campbell 2007). But such an approach is more effective, for the gap between what is learned in the classroom and what is practised at home is now being used as a tool of learning, not an obstacle to learning. And for both student and teacher, it is much more fun.


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