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Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies: Instances of Practice

reviewed by Jessica Zacher - June 07, 2006

coverTitle: Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies: Instances of Practice
Author(s): KatePahl and Jennifer Rowsell (Eds.)
Publisher: Multilingual Matters, Clevedon
ISBN: 1853598623, Pages: 268, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

In this collection of essays from around the world, editors Kate Pahl and Jennifer Rowsell have tried, and, to a great extent, succeeded in presenting work that combines theories from New Literacy Studies (e.g., Street, 1996) and multimodality (e.g., Kress, 1997). Assuming their audience to be fellow researchers, instructors, and graduate students familiar with at least some concepts of NLS and multimodality, Pahl and Rowsell have divided the book into four sections:  the first on identity in multimodal communicative practices, the second on multimodal literacy practices in local and global spaces, the third on crossing in literacy practices, and the fourth on multimodal communicative practices in pedagogical settings. However, as a reader and reviewer, I created four other constructs that helped me to understand and assimilate the key messages of the works presented.  These constructs, binaries that are represented in each chapter in some way, are:  global/local, in-school/out-of-school, First World/Third World, and public/private. Below, I highlight the ways these constructs are visible in each essay, focusing more attention on those studies whose authors’ methods and findings were particularly robust (Marsh; Janks & Comber), as well as on the essays that offer distinctly useful information for those who wish to learn more about subjects as diverse as discourse analysis (Alvermann), numeracy studies (Street & Baker) and weblogs (Knobel & Lankshear).  

Jackie Marsh’s chapter, the first in the volume, serves as a fine introduction to these binaries. Marsh uses categories from Cairney and Ruge’s (1998) study of young children’s engagement in digital literacy practices—or what Marsh terms “communicative practices” to cover a broader range of practices than those that imply “lettered representation” (Kress, 1997 as cited in Pahl and Rowsell, 2005, p. 20)—to reanalyze data from three of her own studies.  These categories represent ways that children engage with technologies in the home, and they show us how critical it is to attend to increasing global/local, in-school/out-of-school, and public/private dichotomies.  The categories from the 1998 study were communicative practices for forming social relationships; accessing or displaying information; pleasure and/or self-expression; and development of skills, knowledge, and understanding in relation to language and literacy. Marsh adds her own lamentably un-explored category of “communicative practices for identity construction and performance of self” (pp. 34-35). The issues brought up in this section about “the role of the globalization-localization dialectic” in the ways children “adopted and adapted cultural icons, artifacts, and narratives in order to articulate aspects of identity” (p. 35), leaves the reader wanting to know more, which is perhaps why Marsh closes the section with a reference to another of her own studies (Marsh, 2005).     

Two of Marsh’s most surprising findings are the social nature of young children’s engagement with digital literacies, and the way many parents have positive attitudes towards their children’s media usage “in contrast to the negative stance of some educators” (Arthur, 2005, as cited in Pahl and Rowsell, 2005, p. 33). Like virtually all of the authors whose studies follow this one, Marsh wants us to quit offering curricula that are “outmoded and irrelevant” in terms of how families live their lives in “complex spaces in which globalized narratives are localized on a micro-level” (p. 35).  Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear’s extremely informative chapter on weblogging (Ch. 4) illustrates quite clearly how multimodality on the Internet is making classroom curricula “outmoded and irrelevant” (Marsh, p. 35) by analyzing what kinds of writing are “powerful” on the Internet in the world of weblogs. Their analysis highlights the yawning gap between the multimodal literacies of the “blogosphere” on the one hand and the classroom on the other. It also shows how difficult it is for educators to cross over from their more traditional literacy practices, by examining several failed attempts to bring Internet-based writing into classrooms. They do, however, offer suggestions for how to use the blog format and purpose in school to bridge the technology gap.  

As Brandt & Clinton note in their afterword (Ch. 12), the written word still wields authority over the oral, but “the rise of writing and the development of mass authorship, [and] an intensifying focus on writing as part of economic and social production, even at young ages” (p. 258) is new. They argue that “it may be in the identity of the writer that the tensions between old and new forms of literacy are at their most salient [because] writing is moving from an ability to persuade an audience to an ability to attract an audience, to an ability, at its most powerful, to attract a market” (ibid.). In some senses, Millard’s chapter (Ch.11) on “fusion literacy” sits on this gap between “old” and “new” forms of writing, while addressing Knobel & Lankshear’s desire for meaningful and useful technological change in classrooms. Echoing Dyson’s (1997) notion of “permeability,” and citing Bruner (1997), Millard shows classroom teachers’ attempts to create “mutuality” in their classrooms, in their quest to foster critical thinking and erase in-school/out-of-school technological dichotomies.  The notions of “attracting a market” and the way the writer’s identity matters in such a “new” world are brought up in the afterword but echo in Millard’s findings as well as in Knobel & Lankshear’s arguments about the blogosphere.

Three other chapters fall in this category of mismatches between in-school/out-of-school literacy practices and public/private binaries. The first of these is Sue Nichols’ piece (Ch. 8) on the “six thinking hats,” a pedagogy for thinking borrowed from the corporate world (De Bono, 2000) that is used in many Australian primary schools.  She describes the approach, which categorizes thinking into six discrete cognitive orientations, “exploits multiple modalities and genres” (p. 175), and then asks fruitfully “what kinds of relationships to knowledge this approach to thinking can enable, support, and discourage” (p. 182). She has included brief answers to this question in the form of segments of classroom dialogue, and has also written a concise analysis of how our need to “exteriorize knowledge in the knowledge economy” (Lyotard, as cited in Pahl and Rowsell, 2005, p. 174) has led teachers to buy into such a globalized discourse on thinking.  

Jennifer Rowsell’s essay (Ch. 9) on textbook production as both the creation of multimodal texts and an interplay between various political forces follows in this same vein. In addition to tackling issues of local/global (discussing national publishers who use local brands or ideas to seem localized) and public/private (looking at textbooks made for use in public pedagogical sites by people grounded in private workplaces), Rowsell also describes the multimodality of textbooks, showing how publishers use a variety of font sizes, colors, and illustrations to make their products more desirable to mass markets. Like a few of the other authors in this volume, Rowsell uses Appadurai’s (1996) theories to address the phenomenon of globalization. Her particular analysis “deals with a financescape (Appadurai, 1996) in that educational publishing quite clearly concerns the relationship between production and consumption” (p. 195).  Although she focuses on the effects of the UK’s “National Curriculum” and Canada’s “Standardized Testing” movements on textbook quality, variety, and publication, her arguments also show some of the reasons why “No Child Left Behind” has changed the face of textbook publishing in the United States (see also Altwerger, 2005). Julia Davies’ chapter (Ch. 3) on Wiccan websites has the potential to illuminate these messy dichotomies of in-school/out-of-school and local/global, but she spends too much time discussing how theories of spatiality and literacy work together (cf. Leander & Sheehy, 2004). She does not devote enough discussion explaining key issues such as why she chose Wiccan girls’ sites over a different set of sites, why this particular population should be of interest to us, or how she collected and analyzed the data. The lack of clarity in these areas made it, for me, the least useful chapter in the collection.  

All of the above chapters deal with local/global and in-school/out-of-school binaries, as well as, to some extent, public/private issues. Hilary Janks and Barbara Comber’s chapter “Critical Literacy Across Continents” (Ch. 5) is both the highlight of the collection and the clearest illustration of First World/Third World dichotomies. Comber and Janks have long been interested in critical literacy (cf. Comber & Simpson, 2001; Janks, 2000), and in this chapter they report on one phase of a comparative action research study. Comber worked in South Australia with a teacher named Wells at an urban school, while Janks worked with Sethole, the principal of a Johannesberg township primary school. Both the Australian and South African educators were already participating in community improvement projects at their respective sites. Comber and Thompson wanted to understand “how children engage with their place in the world and how ‘critical literacy’ might make new resources available for the neighborhood as a social practice” (p. 97). The choice to do a comparative study in an urban Australian school and a township in South Africa makes the First World/Third World dichotomy viscerally clear; it also allowed them to better understand “the relationship between ‘habitus’ and ‘habitat’” (Bourdieu, 1999) in order to “open the way for thinking about the local in relation to the global” (pp. 98-99).  

I will not describe the details of the two studies, which become interrelated almost immediately because of an exchange of child-made books and people between the two schools, but I will say that this chapter offers a concise, clear discussion of how the local and the global intersect, showing how the “children’s lived realities led to the production of substantially different artifacts” (p. 98) on each continent, and how the “local is never parochial” (ibid.). That is, the studies show how in the process of producing “very specific” texts for “very specific readers elsewhere....young people in both places collectively thought about what was significant about the ways in which they live their lives. Such an approach emphasizes the reconstructive elements of critical literacy, the need for students to learn to design texts that represent their interests in powerful ways” (Janks, 2000, as cited in Pahl and Rowsell, 2005, p. 115).  

The two chapters that follow Janks & Comber contribute to the collection’s First World/Third World study:  Pippa Stein and Lynne Slonimsky’s study of the literacy practices of three different families in different townships in South Africa (Ch. 6) and Cathy Kell’s (Ch. 7) analysis of the trajectories of one woman’s written text in another South African township. These authors all rely on Bernstein’s (1996) concepts of classification and framing in their analyses, and all discuss events in South African townships. Although there is an ample amount of data presented in each, I did not find these studies as thoroughly presented as the one by Janks & Comber. Stein & Slonimsky’s findings seem too foregone; in one of the three families, one child “does not invest her ‘self’ in interpreting” (p. 127) the text, and thus, she “may be relatively inured to messages about social relations and identity communicated in and through texts” (ibid.) because of her family’s literacy practices. They conclude that “if she does not develop other orientations and constructs of text through participation in other forms of literate practice, she may begin to find the demands of school learning becoming more and more difficult as she proceeds to higher levels” (ibid.). The parents may be more savvy—the authors do a good job of conveying family literacy practices and their contextual usefulness—but these arguments reminded me too much of Heath’s (1983) Ways With Words findings from over 20 years ago, findings that are strangely not cited in this study.  

Cathy Kell (Ch. 7) takes on issues of context as she trails a woman’s written text in a black township outside of Capetown, South Africa, in a community house-building association. She uses the concept of “recontextualisation” drawing on Bernstein and others to study “meaning making processes as they traverse social groups, time, and space; without falling into the problems of autonomisation or mode-determinism” (p. 149).  In this analysis, Kell focuses on one analytic unit or “trajectory” that she calls “writing a wrong,” in which a woman who seems to have little social power has a problem with her newly built house, gets no attention at housing meetings, and then writes her story down. A variety of people read the text and it becomes an issue that the community quickly solves. The woman—Nomathamsanqa, or Noma—had been thought of as “someone that couldn’t say anything” (p. 154), but after her story had been shared and put into print she had some power to make her life change. Kell’s explanation requires a lot of background knowledge about the context of the research, and not enough is given. There is also too much theory crowding in and not enough thorough explanation of what her arguments—some of them against a “binary concept of the local and the global” (p. 166)—might mean to those working in adult literacy.  

Two small chapters offer brief ideas for further research. The first is Donna Alvermann’s (Ch. 2) discursive analysis of a 750-word excerpt from a much longer online interaction between one of her graduate students (Kevin) and an adolescent boy (Ned) about a local, socially conscious rap group. Alvermann uses her analysis of Ned’s exchanges with Kevin to refute the “not-yet-adult” cultural model many of us hold about adolescents and adolescence; Ned was often the more knowledgeable of the pair, or “knew certain things” (p. 54) that Kevin did not. In addition, Ned and Kevin seemed to accord “relatively equal status” to each other’s e-mailed contributions,” (ibid.), thus erasing any notion of Ned as inferior in terms of knowledge, age, or rank to Kevin.  Almost as much time and space in this piece is spent on the methods and analysis as for telling us what counts about the findings, which is acceptable given the small data set. Alvermann’s point is that we need to be aware of “the power of situated meaning to trigger specific cultural models of youth and their literacies” (p. 55) and use them when we can to foster greater engagement. For those who want an example of how to use discourse analysis to see imbalances and challenges to cultural models, and for how to look closely at language, positioning, and identity enactment through e-mail exchanges, this chapter is highly recommended.  

Finally, Brian Street and Dave Baker bring up some considerations about numeracy and numeracy practices, which they liken to literacy practices. They point out the extreme multimodality of numeracy events, and include a few brief examples; most notably, a “hundred board” lesson example, in which the teacher’s “mode-switching” was problematic for children who did not see an immediate link between her oral statement, “thirty nine plus ten take away one,” and her subsequent written statement,  “39 + 10 -1” (pp. 229). This chapter is of interest to multimodal researchers because it points out the multimodality of many numeracy practices and urges us to look further; in addition, it shows some of the taken-for-granted assumptions classroom teachers make as they “mode-switch” in their teaching of math. A final suggestion, not made but implied, is that we look as closely at the ways home numeracy practices are allotted variable social capital in school, with varying academic results for students.  

The title of this book, Travel Notes for the New Literacy Studies: Instances of practice, is an accurate one. From South Africa to Australia, the United States to Canada, and across the blogosphere, the collection offers several new perspectives on pressing issues that should demand our attention. Many of the chapters address a widening gap between varied digital literacies out of school and in (Marsh; Alvermann; Davies; Knobel & Lankshear; Milard, this volume; see also Hull & Schultz, 2002); some of these gaps are related to the softening border between the public/private dichotomy (Nichols, ; Rowsell, this volume). At the same time, First World/Third World gaps continue to widen, and those in the Third World seem the least likely to benefit from more modern technologies (Janks & Comber; Stein & Slonimsky; Kell, this volume).  

One benefit of consciously bringing New Literacy Studies and multimodality work together is that we can see glaring inequalities between worlds in increasingly vivid ways. For example, Millard’s subjects wrote persuasive letters to their headteacher arguing for and against allowing Pokémon cards in school, while students in the South African school described by Janks & Comber wrote about “Y for Youth” in an alphabet book and note that “many youths are dying of HIV/Aids” (p. 111). These disparities do not make me question the value of the work done in more privileged arenas; instead, they highlight the need for more work on both ends that helps students “develop a critical awareness of their own and others’ preferred modalities and ways of expressing meaning” (Millard, this volume, p. 251). These huge gaps in equity have existed for some time and neither multimodality nor NLS has been able to ameliorate them single-handedly; however, some of the work in this collection gives us hints about how to address these gaps in our teaching, research, and writing.


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Hull, G., & Schultz, K. (Eds.). (2002). School's out!: Bridging out-of-school literacies with classroom practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Janks, H. (2000). Domination, access, diversity and design: A synthesis for critical literacy education. Educational Review, 52(2), 175-186.

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Leander, K., & Sheehy, M. (Eds.). (2004). Spatializing literacy research and practice. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

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Marsh, J. (2005). Ritual, performance, and identity construction: Young children's engagement with popular culture and media texts. In J. Marsh (Ed.), Popular culture, new media and digital technology in early childhood (pp. 28-50). London, UK: RoutledgeFalmer.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 07, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12534, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:38:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Jessica Zacher
    California State University, Long Beach
    E-mail Author
    JESSICA ZACHER is an Assistant Professor in Teacher Education and Liberal Studies at California State University, Long Beach. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education. She investigates issues of multiculturalism and difference in elementary language arts classrooms. She has a chapter in the forthcoming book Bourdieu and Literacy Education, edited by Allan Luke & Jim Albright, as well as other published work on multicultural curricula and students’ identity work. Her current project involves exploring the ways that urban children, including many second-language learners, experience highly structured language arts curricula at a high-poverty Southern California school.
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