New Literacy Studies and Curriculum

This week’s readings introduced us to the concept of New Literacy Studies (NLS) and the debate that surrounds literacy as it is traditionally defined. To briefly summarize some of the concepts surrounding NLS the debate comes down to theories surrounding the autonomous model of literacy vs the ideological models of literacy. In the autonomous model literacy in itself will have effects on social and cognitive practices. In other words if you have a high level of literacy or are described as literate you will function well in society and be capable of higher level cognitive functions simply because literacy in itself drives the social and cognitive development and function of an individual autonomously and drives the individual to acquire higher levels of literacy regardless of social conditions. For NLS the opposite response to this view is the ideological model of literacy which acknowledges that the concept of literacy is rooted in culture and society. As Street describes it is “embedded in socially constructed epistemological principles” (2006, p.37).  Ideological views of literacy inherently believe that literacy is a social act and therefore cannot be separated from its cultural and social connections. Therefore, ideological views of literacy and NLS with its shift to broader understandings of literacy practices within a social and cultural context are becoming increasingly related to how we construct curriculum. This can be boiled down to the “the learning to read vs. reading to learn” argument. Autonomous Literacy believes “learning to read” drives literacy, whereas Ideological Literacy says that “reading to learn” creates literacy with in social construction and must be culturally relevant. This Ideological Literacy theory stresses the importance of different ways of knowing and the socio-cultural aspects of education and curriculum theory.

We were also asked to look at a curriculum and evaluate ways that each of the theories are present (or absent) in current curriculum for an area we may teach once we have graduated. I have chosen to look at the curriculum for the ELA 9 course in Saskatchewan. I have chosen to do so because I feel that literacy as it was traditionally defined is directly linked to the study of language- reading and writing. If you want to find the place that may have the largest struggle between the two definitions of literacy I feel that ELA is a great place to go. This is a curriculum that is based heavily in language and therefore will debate the value of the traditional autonomous literacy theories against new literacy theories quite voraciously. For many years ELA was simply English and housed the majority of what many believe or would have defined as literacy skills. English was the reading and writing of the “three R’s”. It was fundamental to the education of all students that they learn the rules and how to “properly” read and write in “standard” English. This is where you skilled and drilled grammar lesson. It was the English class that brought you the study of the “classics”,  the understanding of universal themes, etc. It is easy to see, however, that even the mention of the “classics” implies that there is some ideological system at work in the design and understanding of literacy in the old curriculum of the “English” class. As we look at the updated curriculum there are many clues that we are steering away from a more “traditional” approach to understanding literacy and language and starting to head more towards a Ideological curriculum that empowers all sorts of literacy and students within a  socio-cultural context. ELA, or English Language Arts, even as a simple switch in terminology as opposed to English suggests that there is an implicit understanding that there are multiple literacies at work in the study of English. ELA is not simply reading and writing. It is comprehending and responding, it is composing and creating, and it is assessing and reflecting– all of which is done within a socio-cultural context. Students are asked to view multiple literary texts (written, oral, multi-media) from multiple perspectives (Indigenous, European, Saskatchewan-based) and respond in many ways. The struggle remains however in some of the outcomes that require students to write in essay formats, to understand how to “use pragmatic (e.g., language suitable for intended audience), textual (e.g., author’s thesis or argument, how author organized text to achieve unity, coherence, and effect), syntactic (e.g., parallel structures), semantic/lexical/morphological (e.g., connotation and denotation), graphophonic (e.g., common spellings and variants for effect or dialect), and other cues (e.g., fonts, colour) to construct and to confirm meaning.” (ELA 9.3a, Saskatchewan Curriculum). So although much of the curriculum has been pushed to understand the importance of literacy from a NLS viewpoint there are still areas that reflect a belief in the value of traditional forms and definitions of literacy.

I think it is difficult to pinpoint what form of literacy is more prominent in the curriculum autonomous or ideological. The language of many of the outcomes seems to be formed around ideological ideas of literacy but at the fundamental core of the curriculum many of its goals still reminisce ideas about traditional autonomous views of literacy. As I further critique the curriculum it may become more clear as to which is truly the prominent view of literacy in the ELA curriculum.

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