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Language and Literacy in Social Practice sample essay

Language and Literacy in Social Practice is one of a set of four readers which looks at literacy and language practices as they are moulded and shaped by the cultures of the societies they serve. Edited by Janet Maybin, the book is a collection of key articles by seminal writers in the field who investigate the role of language and literacy as part of social practice.

Broken down into four sections, the book begins with articles by Malinowski, Dell Hymes, Halliday and Volosinov and sets the scene for an anthropoligical/historical exploration of the sophisticated interaction and interrelationships between language, culture and social structure. Section two then provides ethnographic accounts of recent research by researchers like Taylor and Heath who document detailed evidence of literacy practices in a wide range of situations.

They show in effect how literacy practices are very much the product of economic, religious, cultural and political processes and in particular the profound effect of differing socio-cultural expectations on the educational experiences and successes of learners at the macro level of the family and the local community.

Section three moves away from a local focus to review literacy practices from a cross-cultural and historical perspective drawing on the writings of Street, Graff and Gee to look at literacy and language not so much as competencies and skills but rather as a product shaped by sociocultural parameters and some socioeconomic ‘myths’.

The final section draws on the cultural and historical perspectives presented thus far and adds the further specific dimension of the political aspects of language planning and teaching to investigate how literacy and language teaching is very much a product of the rhetoric of governments and a tool to control and disposses minorities and to maintain a status quo that is elitist and exclusivist. What then is the value of Maybin’s book?

It certainly doesn’t work as a sourcebook or a handbook of how to improve literacy practices in any given situation – and nor is it meant to. What it does work as is as a body of readings for reflective practitioners who would like to explore the significance of the crucial place language and literacy teaching holds in most Western societies and to look at the ways in which even the most ‘mundane’ literacy practices are heavily influenced by discrete parameters of culture, society and history.

Its merit lies in the way that it, through historical perspective, social theory and current research, strongly encourages the reader to value what McGinitie has referred to as ‘the power of uncertainty’. Language and Literacy in Social Practice forces the reader to consider the complex and interrelated nature of language learning and the nature of literacy acquisition as value laden activity – value laden because of the variety of social factors which vie for dominance in the formation and maintenance of a majority Discourse. The structure of the book is logical and easy to follow.

For myself, I found the first section to be the least valuable in terms of what it had to offer me, but, given its intention to provide a theory base for the sociological perspective of language as a social semiotic, it achieved its aim adequately. What was much more thought provoking were the articles in section two which detailed the ways in which literate practices were inextricably related to social and cultural practices and values. Of particular value to me as well were the articles by Rockhill on Gender, language and the politics of literacy and Paolo Freire on Adult literacy processes .

Language and Literacy in Social Practice is not a book of readings preaching to the converted. Rather it is a thought provoking collection of writings which will encourage the sensitive literacy educator to examine again the values one transmits. Particularly in the culturally plural Australian context, Maybin’s book provides readings that, while not specific to the Australian context, are nevertheless very easily transferrable in the principles and understandings they embody.

So much so that if one were to carefully think through and implement by negotiation the broad principles outlined in the book, Language and Literacy in Social Practice could well serve as a blueprint for a policy framework for literacy education in any society that truly valued its cultural diversity and which was determined to provide the sort of education that would question the status quo. Additionally, it would offer all participants real access to those constructions of empowering literate behaviour that are the staple of the disourse practices and power relationships of everyday life.

It is not, I don’t believe, overly strong when Rockhill says that ‘the politics of literacy are integral to the cultural genocide of a people… ‘. Language and Literacy in Social Practice raises the sorts of issues that will help us re-examine our own personal politics to prevent just that sort of ‘cultural genocide’ no matter how well intentioned or how genteel our motives. It is a book for all educators, cutting across cultures and specifics, providing a body of thought that, if it doesn’t change existing practice, will at the very least strongly encourage a reappraisal of what it is that one actually does in the classroom.

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