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Researching Everyday Literacy Practices - Student Projects
This is the guidance given to students carrying out projects investigating everyday literacy practices. On the right you can find examples of the posters they produced.
David Barton, March 1999
Students on the Literacy Studies course carried out a range of projects investigating literacy practices in an area of their choice. There were thirty five very different projects. Some consciously investigated their own lives, such as a study of morning breakfast time around the kitchen table in one family; this showed a variety of practices and got down to the details of how the daily newspaper is shared out between family members. Another student looked through her collection of photos, taken over several years in many places; she brought together the ones containing writing, reinterpreting the records of her life through the lens of the literacy associated with it.
Several studied everyday activities, such as buying a Mother’s Day card, buying a lottery ticket, writing a letter to a newspaper, buying a new car. The activity of buying a card was broken down into a set of consecutive literacy activities which were photographed. The lottery ticket raised issues of where the legal information which the seller has to provide competes with the practical information which the buyer wants. Writing to the newspaper revealed the complex planning in the act of writing and the reactions to it, the talk about a text. As with many projects, buying a new car raised issues of confronting a literacy practice one is only partly familiar with.
Some were routine everyday activities; others were new ones involving learning, such as fitting a new carburettor on a car. Like other situations, the student was surprised at the many texts dealt with in this activity, which she had assumed was not a particularly literate activity.
Some studies started from specific places and the students studied the texts and practices in the places. These included studies of restaurants, pubs, churches, libraries, bookshops, a family planning clinic, a video store, a dance agency and an auction market. Two Chinese-speaking students investigated the literacy practices around celebrating Chinese New Year in a restaurant; they could provide an insider account and explain the meaning of visual displays which outsiders see as decoration. Again, the detail and particularity of their investigation revealed practices, such as the inversion of Chinese characters to symbolise a particular meaning, which are often by-passed. Another local restaurant, which is part of a popular chain, was packed with written instructions on how to act, including how to order food and how to find a table; these were accompanied by forms to fill in and written signs indicating that a table is occupied. Activities which a few years ago would have been oral and culturally known are being subtly transformed.
The studies of pubs revealed some of the many different functions which literacy can serve. The ubiquitous "Do not..." notices led to an interesting discussion of how prohibition usually implies that the activity is a possible or likely activity, and how the force of orders is often mitigated by humour. Looking at different pubs suggests that in modern pubs literacy is intertwined with visual decoration and that literacy artefacts are an important part of contemporary design. Irish theme pubs in England use literacy to create an atmosphere of Irishness, but it is probably a commercial Irishness distinct from the atmosphere of pubs in Ireland.
The studies of churches showed how the activities of worship are strongly mediated by texts and most of the oral activities in churches have a textual basis. These texts range from seemingly permanent religious books to short-lived hand-written notes hung on a prayer tree, a good example of the materiality of writing. A children’s library and a children’s bookshop were observed and both revealed the wide variety of ways in which adults support and scaffold children’s initiation into new literacy practices, those of buying books and borrowing books.
With the family planning clinic, the students collected many of the documents available and displayed them on a poster. It was in the act of making the poster, sorting documents, juxtaposing, comparing them that they realised the extent to which the documents are gendered and how men and women are positioned very differently in terms of family planning. The study of the video store reinforced the idea of the complexity of a seemingly simple task like choosing a video; and the dance agency showed again how much different literacy there is in a place where literacy is not its main aim. In the auction market, which is a work-place for the participants, specialist knowledge is required and much of the written word is not comprehensible to an outsider.
Several studies investigated aspects of student life, including studies of specific places such as the radio station, the main square on campus, a porters lodge and a student kitchen. The presenter in the radio station is surrounded by literacy in order to carry out the oral task of speaking on the radio. In the main square of the campus there are many notices and displays and the issue becomes not how to read notices, but how to avoid reading them. The thought which has gone into the positioning of posters is often not apparent to the reader; and there seem to be special ways of getting information by partially reading from a sequence of identical notices one is rushing past. The porters lodge is a location for many different activities all drawing upon different literacy practices, from meeting friends, to checking mail and finding out information. The student kitchen raised a complex set of questions about the use of posters and notices to assert cultural identity and ownership, and how they are interpreted differently according to people’s own cultures.
Some started off from specific texts such as the London Underground map or types of texts, such as graffiti or word puzzles. There are many ways in which the map is used when it is in its original location of an underground station, but the map has also moved out of this location and has become a cultural icon. The graffiti was found to be situationally specific and to vary a great deal according to where it was. Graffiti supports a range of speech acts including conversations, threats and arguments. The study of word puzzles kept close to the practices, focusing not just on the texts but also dealing with how people actually use them in their lives.
One student examined rear window car stickers, another night club flyers and a third looked at writing on T-shirts. These studies raised issues of how people use literacy to express their identity and again reinforced the idea that every area of life is imbued with literacy and how people may participate in practices unwittingly or unintentionally. With car stickers people keep ones chosen by previous owners and people wear T-shirts with writing far removed from its original location or written in languages they do not understand. In the night club fliers the literacy was an integral part of decoration and fashion. Another student collected and examined lists; from people around her she kept what are usually transient and ephemeral documents; as well as the familiar lists of what to do that day or for shopping, this disposable literacy included a list of arguments for and against ending a personal relationship. In these studies they started from the texts and then investigated the practices surrounding these texts. Others started out from different symbolic systems, including a study of shorthand and one of the dance notation labanotation. The shorthand study included a discussion of how its use is changing with the rise of new technologies and the study of labanotation included a discussion of how its practices are similar to those surrounding writing systems. There were two studies of electronic communication, one of email and one of chatting on the web; they demonstrated how these forms of writing have many characteristics associated with spoken language, but also that there are distinct forms of electronic writing, each influenced by different aspects of the media.
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