The Social Turn in Language and
Literacy Studies
LDC MA lecture on Dec 7th
Brian Street
The Social Turn in Language and literacy
• New Literacy Studies: the social turn in
approaches to literacy
• The social turn in Language Studies: CLT,
Critiques and new directions
• ESRC research project on ‘EAL and Academic
Literacies’; some data taking account of the
social turn
New Literacy Studies
• New Literacy Studies has pointed in a strong direction to
the argument that the study and the teaching of reading
and writing can/ should take into account:
• Literacies in social context
• Ethnographic perspective
• ‘literacy events’ and ‘literacy practices’
• issues of power and ideology,
• immediate pragmatic aspects of social relations as people
communicate using literacy.
Examples from projects in India, Ethiopia, Uganda, Brazil etc.,
Everyday Literacy practices: use of surfaces in India
Learning from the learners; Mehroni, India
Everyday Literacy practices: multiple scripts in
Genres of writing in public spaces: Ethiopia
Church Notices: Uganda Kampala Suburb
Everyday Literacy practices: street scene in an urban
suburb in Brazil
Applications to Educational Contexts
These examples of everyday literacy
activities/engagements might not seem at first glance
related to academic language use,
However, the ethnographic principles would apply in
academic contexts too;
eg as people move across home and school
eg within the educational context there are
multiple variations and social practices, as the
Academic Literacies approach argues
A starting point for such a link might be to build on the
Description and Analysis of features of everyday
literacy practices for educational purposes, as in the
next slide. A similar analysis of features might also be
applied to writing in academic contexts
Description and Analysis of features of everyday
literacy practices to build on for educational purposes
Which languages/ which scripts, for which purposes?
Surfaces/ materials/ resources/ Hand drawn
Orthography –rules, punctuation, spelling etc;
Modality; Combination of visual image and writing eg
Positioning on building eg images to reinforce written
Genres eg notices; books; messages; instructions etc
Notices/ Signs - for information/ instruction/ literary/
Practices associated with texts eg collaborative eg
codeswitching/ meshing
How to use these concepts for pedagogy and for
The social turn in Language Studies
• How might some of these concepts and issues in NLS apply to the study
and teaching of language?
• There has been a ‘Social turn’ in language studies also;
– with regard to the learning of language in general
– and of English as a Second/ Additional Language in particular.
The first move in this direction, calling upon Del Hymes and the
Ethnography of Communication conceptual apparatus, such as
‘communicative competence’, then got somewhat trapped in a narrow
pedagogic frame.
Critiques of this move (cf Leung) have argued that somehow the wider
social context, the ‘practices’ associated with language learning and use
and the potential of the ethnographic perspective have got lost in the aim
of meeting narrow assessment standards, and the public interest in
demonstrating ‘success’. Leung also makes the point that teaching often
requires a degree of certainty in terms of the content of teaching, and a
research orientation may not be always comfortable.
Before addressing such practical outcomes, I now explore what happens
if we attempt to apply some of these concepts to Language Studies:
Ethnography of Communication
Events and Practices
Power and Ideology
The social turn in Language Studies:
Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)
The limitations of the grammar-based approaches were increasingly discussed in the 1960s and
1970s, and the merits of more real-life oriented approaches received extensive attention in the
language teaching literature, drawing especially on Halliday and Hymes
This broadening of the concerns of language teaching to take account of the importance of the
‘social’ in language use provided an important impetus for the development of Communicative
Language Teaching (CLT) within ELT. In a series of papers Canale and Swain (1980a,1980b; also
Canale, 1983, 1984, among others) put forward a theoretical framework for communicative
competence for additional/second language teaching which comprises four component
grammatical competence: ‘knowledge of lexical items and of rules of morphology, syntax ... and
phonology; (Canale and Swain, 1980a:29)
sociolinguistic competence: ‘...the extent to which utterances are produced and understood
appropriately in different ... contexts depending on contextual factors such as status of
participants, purposes of interaction, and norms and conventions of interaction’ (Canale, 1983:7)
discourse competence: ’u]nity of a text... achieved through cohesion in form and coherence in
meaning. (Canale, 1983:9)
strategic competence: ‘... verbal and non-verbal communication strategies that may be called
into action to compensate for breakdowns in communication and speaker actions that can ‘...
enhance effectiveness of communication ()’ (Canale, 1983:11).
The influence of the concept of communicative competence has not dimmed in thirty years. It
would be no exaggeration to say that it has set the parameters for curriculum and pedagogic
discussions in language education worldwide.
Critiques of CLT
• ‘There is, however, a difference between the conceptually and
analytically oriented discussions on the social dimensions of
language and language use, and the ways in which they have been
rendered as principles in language teaching. The conceptual insight
that there is an intimate connection between socially situated
meaning and language form (e.g. Halliday), and the research
imperative that communicative competence is to be established
empirically through ethnographic observations (e.g. Hymes) have
been recontextualised in the CLT frame as teaching (and learning)
how to do things with language, using ‘appropriate’ forms of
language, implicitly normed on what native speakers would say.
Modal verbs such as ‘would’ and ‘could’, for example, are often
presented as appropriate choices for polite expressions,
Pedagogically this kind of information is interwoven into teaching
and learning activities’ (Leung, 2011)
• ‘In one way or another, communicative competence in ELT has
come to be understood in terms of learners’ capacity to reproduce
what putative native speakers would say in any given projected
scenario’ (Leung, 2005).
Dewey on CLT
• … the CLT paradigm is generally characterized in ELT
literature as a shift in focus away from the formal
properties of language. The earlier centrality of
grammatical structure came to be replaced by an
emphasis on the way language functions
• As the notion of communication gained momentum in
CLT, however, it increasingly tended to be interpreted in
the curriculum as clear definable functional objectives,
such as ‘accepting an invitation’, ‘making a complaint’
and so on. From the early 1980s on, the word
‘communicative’ came to be strongly associated with a
notional-functional syllabus (Dewey, 2012)
• Cf the shift from ‘function’ to ‘meaning’ in Social
‘Multilingualism, Discourse and Ethnography’
Gardner and Martin-Jones (2012: 1) argue (in 2012 Multilingualism, Discourse and
Ethnography Routledge, London):
Over the last two decades, sociolinguistic research on multilingualism has been transformed.
Two broad processes of change have been at work:
Firstly, there has been a broad epistemological shift to a critical and ethnographic
approach, one that has reflected and contributed to the wider turn, across the social sciences,
towards critical and poststructuralist perspectives on social life.
Secondly, over the last ten years or so, there has been an intense focus on the social, cultural
and linguistic changes ushered in by globalisation, by transnational population flows, by the
advent of new communication technologies, by the changes taking place in the political and
economic landscape of different regions of the world.
These changes have had major implications for the ways in which we conceptualise the
relationship between language and society and the multilingual realities
of the contemporary era. A new sociolinguistics of multilingualism is now
being forged: one that takes account of the new communicative order and
the particular cultural conditions of our times, while retaining a central
concern with the processes involved in the construction of social difference
and social inequality.
ESRC research project on ‘EAL and Academic
• A recent ESRC research project on ‘EAL and
Academic Literacies’, by myself and Constant
Leung has attempted to apply some of these
ideas to the learning and teaching to be found in
the last years of school and the first year of
University, in selected sites in the London area.
• I will describe some of the findings and discuss
how they might point to future directions in the
development of the ‘social turn’ in language and
literacy studies.
ESRC research project on ‘EAL and Academic Literacies’ :
Aims and Methods
As the UK school and university student populations become increasingly linguistically and
culturally diverse, there is an urgent need for an informed view on how the education system
can support students’ academic language and literacy developments.
This research focused on the English language and literacy demands experienced by
ethnically diverse students at school and university including: UK-based 'non-traditional'
students from social/familial backgrounds where participation in university education has not
been an established norm; and ethnolinguistic minority students who comprise both UK/EUbased students and (particularly in university) international students from other parts of the
world. Many of the latter group are speakers of English as an additional/second language
The study used ethnographic perspectives to investigate academic language and literacy
practices of staff and students in:
– two schools in which there was high density of ethnolinguistic minority students and
from where a significant number of the final-year sixth formers went on to university,
– three university sites with a significant number of ethnolinguistic minority students.
– three academic subjects as case studies of the range of academic language and literacy
practices that students encounter: in schools - English, Business and Biology ; at
university, English and Communication, Life Sciences and Management,
The research focussed on:
-deployment of the range of language registers and genres conventionally associated with a
particular subject or discipline
-differences and mismatches between student and tutor expectations regarding academic
Levels for Analysis of some classroom data
Texts and Practices
Interpersonal exchange
Lexical Substituion
Multiple literacy texts
Visual Texts and Layout
• (Data from Biology lessons at the Advanced Subsidiary
level at West Town School in London (pseudonym)
Interpersonal exchange
The teacher (H) says:
• H: it’s in your text book if you want to have a look but
it is too confusing for some people so maybe you want
to leave it.
• One of the students, N, responds;
• N: that’s well horrible. Are you calling me dumb now?
• H: if I was I would tell you to your face but I am not
• N: but you are implying it aren’t you
• H: no not at all
Lexical Substituion
• H: what is the posh name for things being
moved around?
• N: it moves from place to place
• H: yes so moves around
dispersal is one that is one of the words they
would use in the exams
• HV:so we are going to use our science words
And not our GCSE words so nutrients
Multiple literacy texts
• H: I have tried to write it as clearly as possible [on the
Interactive White Board] because if you look at it in the
book and the information that is around it is very wordy
and hard to understand
• what is an endosperm?
• have a quick scan through
• that paragraph or two
• The text books on their own, are clearly seen as a problem
and the teacher tries to help the students learn how to
‘read’, or ‘scan’ them
• Students’ own written material, including essays, are used
as part of the lesson
Visual Texts and Layout
• T: there’s two pictures down there
you have got the one on the left is for mono
and the one on the right is for di
again there are two seed pictures in your books
that you can look at as well
explain how the seeds are spread around so this
picture this one this one discuss it four bullet
points you should be able to explain four bullet
Some Conclusions
• Dominant Curriculum and Policy texts emphasise
content, referential uses of language, ‘function’,
• Observation of Classrooms from perspective of
social practices, NLS, ethnography, indicate much
more is going on:
– Social relations; texts and practices; multimodality;
Implications for ‘performance’; social inequality;
pedagogy; multilingualism?
Dewey, M 2012 ‘Beyond Labels and Categories in ELT’ in Leung, C and Street, B Eds. English a changing medium of
education. Multilingual Matters
Gardner, S and Martin-Jones, M 2012 Multilingualism, Discourse and Ethnography Routledge, London
Halliday, M. A. K. (1973). Explorations in the functions of language. London: Edward Arnold.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1975). Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London: Edward
Halliday, M. A. K., McIntosh, A., & Strevens, P. (1964). The linguistic sciences and language teaching. London:
Hymes, D. (1972). On communicative competence. In J. B. Pride & J. Holmes (Eds.), Sociolinguistics (pp. 269-293).
London: Penguin.
Hymes, D. (1977). Foundations in sociolinguistics: An ethnographic approach. London: Tavistock Publications.
Hymes, D. (1994). Towards ethnographies of communication. In J. Maybin (Ed.), Language and litercy in social
practice (pp. 11-22). Clevdon: Multilingual Matters, in association with Open University.
Leung, C. (2005). Convivial communication: recontextualizing communicative competence. International Journal of
Applied Linguistics, 15(2), 119-144.
Leung, C. (2010). Language teaching and language assessment. In R. Wodak, B. Johnstone & P. Kerswill (Eds.), The
Sage Handbook of Sociolinguistics (pp. 545-564). London: Sage.
Leung, C., Harris, R., & Rampton, B. (1997). The idealised native speaker, reified ethnicities, and classroom
realities. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 543-560.
Street,B 1984 Literacy in Theory and Practice, CUP: Cambridge
Street,B 1993 edCross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy, CUP.
Street,B 1995 Social Literacies: Critical perspectives on Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education,
Longman: London
Street,B 1997 “The Implications of the New Literacy Studies for Literacy Education”, English in Education, NATE,
vol. 31, no. 2 autumn

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