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Framing Languages and Literacies: Socially Situated Views and Perspectives

reviewed by Jose W. Lalas - November 22, 2013

coverTitle: Framing Languages and Literacies: Socially Situated Views and Perspectives
Author(s): Margaret R. Hawkins (ed.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415810566, Pages: 240, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Framing Languages and Literacies: Socially Situated Views and Perspectives, Margaret Hawkins creatively identified and gathered scholars who share their popularly cited and seminal theories and offers the much-needed perspective of describing languages, literacies and learning as socially-influenced processes and their linkages to power, equity, and social justice.  Literacies (in the plural form) is used in the book to imply the variety of forms, modes, and contexts beyond reading and writing where meaning-making of the word, objects, events, relationships, and situations is a common occurrence in human lives. Literacies, perhaps defined here as “the ability to convey, construct, and take meaning through representational forms,” include reading, writing, viewing, as well as the knowledge processes of “experiencing, conceptualizing, analyzing, and applying” in a variety of social contexts and modalities (Cope & Kalantzis, 2013).  

It is quite interesting that at this moment when Common Core and achievement gap are the most talked about topics in K-12 education, this book reminds us of the need for a rational discourse and critical reflection on the pedagogical merits of this national preoccupation and the theoretical pathway for understanding the concepts, perspectives, approaches, policies, and classroom practices related to language, literacies, and learning.  Hawkins makes it clear in the introduction of the book that it seeks to “1) clearly articulate and explicate major social perspectives and approaches in language and literacy studies; 2) provide the genesis and historical trajectory of each approach; 3) offer the author’s perspective, rationale, and engagement; 4) demonstrate how the approach has been taken up and utilized in research and scholarship; and 5) investigate implications for educational policies and practices” (p. 5). In a nutshell, what the book does for me is to make me ponder how powerful our understanding of the past, current, and future educational innovations including Common Core and achievement gap could have been or could be if the “socially situated views and perspectives” presented in this book are somehow intentionally infused in policy making, program implementation, and pedagogy development in K-12 and teacher preparation.  Although not an easy-to-read book for those who do not particularly love theorizing, this book will hold any reader’s interest and stimulate one’s curiosity on the influences of social, cultural, economic, historical, and political issues on literacy, language learning and teaching, and language policy.  The thrust of this book reminds me of Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception of language, literacy, and learning which “in a Bakhtinian sense, with whom, in what ways, and in what contexts we interact will determine what we stand to learn” (Ball & Freedman, 2004, p. 6).

As Common Core conversations and training sessions flood school districts, and teacher preparation institutions to some degree, with honest and dedicated intentions to accelerate academic achievement of K-12 students through knowledge of content across the disciplines (Fisher, Frey, & Alfaro, 2013) and high-level comprehension and analytical reading skills as well as better understanding of how to teach writing, listening and speaking to prepare young students for college and career (Calkins, Ehrenworth, & Lehman, 2012), there is an apparent absence of theoretical formulations that could strengthen the positive thrust of Common Core.  Similarly, along the effort to narrow the persistent achievement gap between high-achieving White and various Asian American students on one side and the low-achieving African-American and Latino-American students on the other side (Schott Report, 2012), what is not thoroughly presented or totally missing is the explanation, across major perspectives, of why and how “children who differ from the mainstream in language use, ethnicity, cultural background, socioeconomic status and dis/ability status experience school failure” (p. 3).

Framing Languages and Literacies: Socially Situated Views and Perspectives provides a very strong set of potential explanations for why language and literacy teaching as a social event matters and how learning can no longer be considered “aseptic, impartial, or value-neutral” (p. 2).  Hawkins explains that “Most compelling to me, perhaps, is the common focus on how forms of languages and literacies connect to and play out in human lives ... and inextricably intertwined with who we are (individually and collectively) and who we can be” (p. 8).  

Hawkins presents an exciting array of scholars who explain their personal involvement in the genesis of their theoretical perspective and its implications for research, practice, and even policy.  All the nine chapters demonstrate socially situated views and while they are written by different authors, the “voices” that reverberate from these separate scholarly chapters are mutually complementary in projecting the importance of social context in learning and its significant role in language and literacy education.  Clearly and quite effectively, the chapters theoretically discuss and project an advocacy for multiliteracies including digital literacies, indigenous language recognition and revitalization, biliteracy continua, critical literacy, and literacy as a multimodal, multicontextual meaning-making process.  As one reads each chapter, expect to need some moment to think about, clarify, and reflect on the meanings of the very rich collection of theoretical concepts and vocabulary words used in discussing the socially situated views and perspectives and their interconnections with language, literacy, and learning.  

The most exciting chapter for me is James Paul Gee’s Discourses In and Out of School: Looking Back.  Gee talks about the notion of Discourse, in big letters to differentiate it from just a language conversation event.  He explains “primary Discourse” as one’s everyday “ways with words, deeds, things, thoughts, and feelings” under various social, economic, cultural, and political situations.  As an example of one of the many research studies he cited, Gee states that school children with “primary Discourses” that resemble many “secondary Discourses” such as school practices would perform better in those situations where the set of social and cultural practices is compatible with them.  He explains that children who learn to read as a Discourse process rather than as an “instructed process” take on an identity as a school-based reader as his or her primary Discourse lifeworld and thus, do well in reading.  Gee emphasizes the important roles of Discourse, academic language, and the view of knowledge and meaning as connected to “people’s experiences of situated action in the material and social world” (p. 71) as a set of foundations for learning.

Another very illuminating chapter is the one by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis on “Multiliteracies:” New Literacies, New Learning.  Cope and Kalantzis stress the “equality” and “equity” reasons for aspiring for multiliteracies to gain the opportunity to have access to material resources, enhanced capacity for community participation, better employment, and personal growth.  According to them, meaning-making is a complex social event and the modalities of meaning must include written language, oral language, visual representation, audio representation, tactile representation, gestural representation, representation of one’s feelings and emotions, and spatial representation.  It is very important for teachers, teacher educators, and all educational leaders to understand that knowledge processes must include experiencing the new and the known, conceptualizing by naming ideas and with theory, analyzing functionally and critically, and applying appropriately and creatively.

In two separate chapters, one by Allan Luke on Regrounding Critical Literacy and one by J. R. Martin on Systemic Functional Linguistics, the importance of the need for contexts and practices of literacy that consider its cultural, social, cognitive, and linguistic complexity is articulated.  Luke stresses the balance of the role of authentic voices of participants in cultural circles for transforming social relations and material conditions and understanding critical discourse analysis.  He points out that “all texts are potentially ideological, and hence should be the subject of critical analysis and scrutiny” (p. 145).  Martin implies the need for students to master the range of textual genres that required them to understand the social functions of the lexical and syntactic domains of language.  To contribute to the enhancement of literacy instruction and learning across disciplines, this chapter articulates with diagrams the various functions of language, levels of abstraction, typology of secondary school history genres and its spiral curriculum, and topology of theories of literacy instruction.  Martin emphasizes the conception of systemic functional linguistics (SFL) as applicable to literacy instruction as it is “driven by a concern for social justice” and inspired by “Halliday’s conception of linguistics as an ideologically committed form of social action” (p. 42).

The dynamic chapter by Nancy Hornberger on Biliteracy Continua opens up a more fluid, broader, and global conceptualization of biliteracy.  With biliteracy generally defined as a phenomena of being able to communicate and understand in two or more languages in and around writing, Hornberger lays out a biliteracy continua framework and describes with research support each of the framework’s four sets of continua: contexts of biliteracy, development of biliteracy, content of biliteracy, and media of biliteracy.  She explains the current contexts of biliteracy to include not just the array of language components and events and such cues as intonation, syntax, or vocabulary and other linguistic options but also sociolinguistic concepts such as frames, intertextuality, habitus, expectations, and local or global spaces that signal social power and inequality.  Related to the development of biliteracy is the recognition of the notion of “translanguaging” which may refer to young people’s engagement in varieties of discursive practices and use of “varieties of language including standard, regional, class, and youth-oriented varieties as well as parodic language to take up, resist, and negotiate multiple academic and heritage identity positionings” (p. 159).  Through her selection of related literature on the content of biliteracy, Hornberger cites works on funds of knowledge, codes as meaning-making, and multiple identities across socioeconomic, gender, ethnic, and transnational lines.  The media of biliteracy focuses not only on the complex structures of language but also on language varieties, registers, genres, accents and other media forms within social contexts and practices.

In his chapter, Jim Cummins reiterates the usefulness of the distinction he has formulated between conversational fluency, which he calls Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS), and academic language proficiency or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).  He enumerates the range of educational contexts where the BICS/CALP distinction has influenced policy, curriculum, instruction, and assessment issues related to second language learners and bilingual students.  

The chapter by Vaidehi Ramanathan on situating English and the vernaculars in the postcolonial period and the chapter by Teresa McCarty on indigenous literacies are important reminders that literacy, language, and learning have deep historical, social, and cultural roots.  Ramanathan presents her research on the differences between the “minimal levels of learning” of K-12 students who use the vernacular and those who use English as the medium of instruction.  Not surprisingly, the English-medium students show more sophistication in writing essays and are more engaged in textual reading while the Vernacular-medium students focus on skills development and survival English.  However, she also points out that the vernaculars, while being devalued and equated with being backward, “become the very resources by which communities heal themselves” (p. 101) and become instrumental in educating the diverse community through civic engagement.  McCarty reinforces the marginalizing impact of colonial powers on indigenous languages.  She narrates the struggle for survival and revitalization of languages including Mayan, Zapotec, Alaskan native languages, Navajo, Maori, Hawaiian, South American native languages, and other indigenous languages.  Her examples illustrate “the literacy continuum in practice, showing that there is no single, uniform literacy but rather multiple and hybrid ways of using language to construct and represent community knowledges and worldviews” (p. 184).

The final chapter by Steven Thorne on Digital Literacies reiterates literacy as “a social practice and not merely an individual or cognitive one … and contests the notion of literacy as primarily a brain-local skill involving an individual engaged in deciphering and producing graphically rendered language.”  He shares a number of studies using a wide array of technology-mediated practices including Internet use in learning a second language, foreign language learning, college level ESL, an advanced placement Spanish course in high school, online gaming, and representation in blogs, wikis, and Youtube and other websites.  He argues that in technology mediation, “digital tools and environments are agentive participants in communicative setting…” and that “literacy education would benefit from being more inclusive of the social and semiotic practices, digital and otherwise, that constitute everyday communicative action in the contemporary lifeworlds of students” (p. 212).

Definitely, this book, while very interesting and intriguing on the way literacy, language, and learning are viewed as “socially-situated” events, might be challenging and frustrating for someone who is looking for a “quick fix” on how to teach K-12 students to become better readers and writers, more critical thinkers, and better prepared for college and career.  It is not a practical “how-to-do” resource for teachers, administrators, curriculum developers, and staff development providers.  It is a provocative and an inspiring book for those who aspire to understand the “what,” the “why” and the research on the influence of social, cultural, as well as historical contexts on literacy, language, and learning.  It is a perfect book for serious scholars, teacher educators, graduate education professors, literacy and language consultants, and graduate students who are courageous and reflective in exploring critical explanations about the role of “situated social practices” and “acknowledging languages and literacies as constructed and utilized between people in situated communicative activities” (p. 4).  However, this will be an equally perfect book as a common reading for group discussion for K-12 administrators and teachers who are committed to raising their conceptual understanding of the interactive connections among teachers, students, communities where students live, and school cultural practices.  This book will be excellent for school districts’ “think-tanks” as discussion material for deepening their understanding of theory and research related to literacy, language, and learning from a variety of socially-situated perspectives and social justice lenses.


Ball, A. F., & Freedman, S. W. (2004). Bakhtinian perspectives on language, literacy, and learning. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Calkins, L., Ehrenworth, M., & Lehman, C. (2012). Pathways to the common core: Accelerating achievement. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2013). Literacies. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Alfaro, C. (2013). The path to get there: A common core road map for higher student achievement across the disciplines. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Lent, R. C., & Gilmore, B. (2013). Common core CPR: What about the adolescents who struggle … or just don’t care? Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.

Schott Foundation for Public Education. (2012). The urgency of now: The Schott 50 state report on public education and Black males. Retrieved September 25, 2012, from www.blackboysreport.org.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 22, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17329, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:14:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Jose Lalas
    University of Redlands
    E-mail Author
    JOSE LALAS, currently a professor of literacy and chair of teacher education, has been involved in teacher preparation for 24 years as faculty in both public and private universities. In addition, he also directs the University of Redlands' Center for Educational Justice, a forum that sponsors research efforts, policy symposia, and critical awareness training on issues related to K-12 education and leadership for social justice. He co-authored two published books: Omni-Education: A Teaching and Learning Framework for Social Justice (2006) and Instructional Adaptation as an Equity Solution for English Learners and Special Needs Students (2007). Recently, he has written education articles and commentaries related to teaching performance assessment, adaptation pedagogy, and teacher disposition. His most current on-going research work focuses on student engagement and achievement gap and the influence of social and cultural capital, social class, funds of knowledge, and poverty. Lalas works with doctoral students conducting dissertation studies on K-12 issues and leadership in K-12 schools. He co-presents with his doctoral students at American Educational Research Association studies using critical race theory, funds of knowledge, and Bourdieu's social and cultural capital as theoretical frameworks. He is currently an elected school board member of the Corona-Norco Unified School District, a seat that he held from 1990 to 2003 and from 2008 to the present.
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