A social perspective on language, literacy and numeracy
The concept of 'a social perspective' is established in the research literature. David Barton and the Adult Learners' Lives team identify what it means in practice.
Literacies and numeracies
Taking a social perspective on language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) involves paying attention first and foremost to the everyday contexts, purposes, and practices in which language, written language and numbers play a part, including home, work and community, as well as educational contexts. People's everyday lives are complex and varied, and the roles of languages, literacies and numeracies in them are equally complex and varied. There are many varieties of any language, many 'literacies' and many 'numeracies', varying from context to context. For example, the ways in which language and numbers are used in a betting shop are very different from the ways they are used in a kitchen, which are different again from reading, writing and working with numbers in educational contexts. The LLN classroom context is very different from the contexts of people's everyday lives, and sometimes the language, literacy and numeracy being practised in the classroom is hard to relate to other contexts.
Reading and writing for a purpose
The social perspective does not view literacy and numeracy as itemised, transferable skills. Focusing on skills narrows attention to linguistic and numerical patterns, distinctions and rules, and to 'reading', 'writing' and 'calculating' as if they were processes which are easily detachable from context. But we don't just 'read' and 'write': we always read and write something for a particular purpose, in a particular way, in a particular time and place.
Many people who come to LLN provision read, in their everyday lives, texts which are entirely different from those they are invited to read in classes, and they read them with specific purposes. For example, the magazine AutoTrader would be read for the specific purpose of keeping up to date with the car industry.
Adult learners' lives
A social perspective on teaching and learning takes account of learners' lives, of the classes they attend, and of the social interaction between participants. It recognises the substantial differences between learners' lives, particularly as regards their motivations and goals, and the wider social context, including the institution in which the provision is located, the practices which are typical in that context, and the policies within which the provision operates.
Research has shown (1) that the contextual factors which can shape learning include:
- learners' and teachers' beliefs about learning, teaching, language, literacy and numeracy;
- learners' and teachers' motivations, goals and intentions for the class;
- the resources learners bring with them to learning from their everyday experience;
- the nature of the curriculum and teaching materials;
- the political and institutional context which enables and constrains what can be done in class;
- the socio-cultural context for learning, including issues of inequality.
Research has also shown (1) that the aspects of learning/teaching events which are significant are:
l the physical context for learning;
- the approaches to teaching;
- the nature of the social interaction in the classroom;
- the construction of identities in classroom settings.
Creating learning opportunities
The main finding of research in the 1960s and 1970s on different methods of language teaching was that learners differ in their knowledge and their needs and that these differences are more important than the methods or techniques used. The research suggested that it is useful to conceptualise teaching as 'the creation of learning opportunities', from which different learners will benefit in different ways. This emphasises the active role of learners in setting their own agenda, and engaging in learning opportunities on their own terms.
By taking a social practice view of LLN, teachers can ensure that provision starts from learners' lives, and that the elements of the core curriculum are not ends in themselves, but are encountered in the context of relevant and meaningful learning opportunities.
Professor David Barton is director of the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre
(1) Reports on the Adult Learners' Lives projects, including full references to the research referred to in this article, will be published by NRDC in the near future and will be available on the website. NRDC will also publish practitioner guides to the social practice model.