Literacy as a social practice


There are different domains of literacy such as work, social and the home. Within these domains, people use what Barton & Hamilton (1994, p.4) term as literacy ‘events’ and ‘practices’ as opposed to ‘skills’. They suggest that by ‘using an everyday event as a starting point provides a distinct view of literacy’. The continue to suggest that most literacy interactions are thought to come from the contexts in which we learn in classrooms, however, these don’t always match the settings in which we actually use literacy. Barton & Hamilton (1994, p.4) note that ‘everyday literacy gives a richer view of literacy which demands a new definition of literacy, a new way of thinking about what is involved in reading and writing’. We did an activity that demonstrated the benefits of viewing literacy in this way where we had to think about different literacy skills, and then think of the events concerned. I chose to look only at emails in the ‘events’ column.

Skills Event/practices we follow
Writing·         How to respond

·         Etiquette – register

·         Audience/purpose


·         Skim

·         Scan

·         Gist

·         Detail

Computer skills

·         Thesaurus

·         Spell checking

·         Using the internet to generate ideas/proof read

Emails – How often you access themSemantic fields/jargon

Deleting junk

Don’t read/open everything

Organising emails into folders etc

Use email, bookmarks, books, leaflets etc to ‘park’ information

Link between devices/technology increase

The benefit of this was even as a tutor, it was far easier for me to generate ideas, contexts and set my mind rolling through the possibilities. It’s common sense to try this approach in the classroom. Learners often report that they were bored in school, and saw no point in learning grammar, or writing stories a they had little connection to their real-life practices. Some learners make the link between planning a story, and planning a letter and can easily transfer these skills to different situations subconsciously, however, not everyone’s the same.

In that case then, with adult learners, it seems natural to focus on ways in which they actually use language, or are likely to in future rather than futile attempts to teach/learn something socially worthless at that time. Something which I have always thought of with ESOL is the bottom line of language is to communicate. Every time I had a ‘bad’ lesson, or thought I’d not covered much, or to much success, I resorted back to this as a positive; they had some practice with a native speaker, which yes could have had more worth, but they still had an experience that more likely than not reinforced particular points.

I see literacy in a similar way, but with a different aspect. The purpose of language is to communicate. So, if classes are difficult because learners don’t fit neatly into a little box and in many ways they’re not ‘ready to fully engage, why insist they practice writing emails or complete a worksheet they will struggle to use as a point of reference? We’ve already established that language is not fixed, and there are new and emerging literacies enabling us to take the language to places it’s not been before. This 2010 article from The Guardian highlights how literacy as a social practice has changed how this household operates. Use of the internet and social medias are a new can now be considered a new literacy and domain in which we operate on a daily basis. Subsequently, a new set of ‘rules’ have been constructed and their ‘best practice’ is constantly evolving. Even if you compare both Facebook literacy with Twitter literacy best practices, we can see there are distinct differences between the two such as layout features, grammar and new leases of life for punctuation, in particular ‘#’.

Why not just ask learners what they use literacy for and start from there? To many this might seem obvious, but as I’ve mentioned before, since I started teacher training (since 2007) I have witnessed countless ‘worksheet workshops’. It still happens and is imposed, doing nothing for those trying to bring individuality to literacy.

Social Practices

Some examples of social practices, with sometimes differing purposes could be:

  • signs and notices, and the language used in them
  • newspapers
  • reading aloud with others potentially listening
  • learners might need the tutor in a similar way as they might use a friend or neighbour – they need to know what to do, but their attitude and language towards an authoritative figure as opposed to a friend or someone they trust may change how this is spoken about
  • social practices in life/in the classroom are often different
  • finding/researching prices etc
  • recording an answerphone message
  • taking notes from an answerphone message

Social Networks

We started to think of our social networks and thought about the following points:

How do your emails reflect the different social networks to which you belong?

Thinking, and reading just my work emails, it is evident that I belong to a number of social networks, with slight shifts being seen depending on the purpose of the email and my feelings at the time. For example, I am quite a chatty and informal person and try to be that way with the people I work with. When I was studying for my degree, the power exuded from text quite frankly freaked me out. I saw language as not only a means of communication, but a tool to control. And since language is all around us, it made me take a step back to think about how I communicate with people. I spent some time in my early twenties trying to show myself in the best light. That was until I realised that I’d rather be a ‘say it how it is’ kind of person, than a bullshitter who uses big words to confuddle others.

Getting back to my work emails, this has had an influence on how I choose to put myself across in my later twenties. I try not to show power, and adapt my language to my audience. That said, in this blog, I think I’m mainly writing for myself, as a way for me to understand what I’m doing on this course. I do sometimes flip my register, but try to be as true as I can.

With managers, I try to use contractions, say my points politely, but bluntly, and convey my thought processes through my messages. There have only been a handful of times that I’ve been really formal, and that’s usually when I’m approaching new people, people in very corporate roles, or when I’m asking one of my team to do something. On the whole though, I’m as informal as I’d be when talking to my friends, with the odd joke and light-heartedness here and there.


Do any of your emails or literacy practices associated with them reflect a particular balance of power?

I noticed that the purpose in some received emails in my inbox are to instruct, however this is done in different ways, depending on the task being instructed and by who. Their mood at the time of writing is also conveyed, with one email being quite short and to the point, depicting a formal and decisive tone. This tone gave the impression that they were not to be ‘messed’ with. Whether I had annoyed this person prior to them sending the email, or whether they were affected by others before the email was sent are contributing factors to how the message has been put across, my understanding of it, and therefore how it was received and actioned.

A reprimand from a manager can display power, but also emails from others, including emails from staff. I know I have kept instructional emails short and to the point when I have asked someone to do something, and it hasn’t been done. One reason is to reduce ambiguity and convey more subconscious messages about my intentions, and another to ensure the text can’t be mis-read.

In the classroom, the balance of power can be seen through the documents we put in front of our learners. From enrollment forms, to feedback, ILPs to classroom displays. It all contributes to the power relationships of language and its users. Students don’t often chose their reading material and power is maintained often by register; it can unknowingly exclude. This is something I haven’t thought of in too much depth before to be honest but it is a completely valid point, and something which I’m going to try to take forward to my lessons by taking a selection of material/a box of leaflets etc that they can choose from. In terms of the forms which we use as an organisation, I usually use a mix of using the form as a type of initial assessment, but I always speak to the learner to see if they are comfortable in completing it orally with me acting as scribe, and even if there’s a hint of difficulty, I won’t let them struggle. It’s important to recognise and ask learners to discuss the literacy practices they do already to determine the steps going forward, and to use any information on the learner from form filling to inform future practice.

Things to think about, and take forward

  • We need to recognise what practices learners have, rather than it always coming from the tutor. I could ask them what they already do, and what they could do to explore possible work for the future.
  • We need to recongise learners’ feelings and how to potentially diffuse them if needed. Quite often, I’ve found literacy learners to have some behavioural issues, difficulties with power (not only confined to literacy practices), possible undiagnosed conditions, substance use (and misuse).
  • Discuss what makes them feel uncomfortable, and why, and strategies they can come up with to use when those difficulties arise.
  • Social practices in life and in the classroom are often different
  • Post on getting learners to select their own texts and to discuss how they use literacy already
  • Look at CC and evidence of lit as social practices
  • Apply this approach to own teaching practice


Barton, D. & Hamilton, M. (1994) Literacy: An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language. Oxford: Routledge

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