Discovering erudition in a recipe

Local Literacies
November 13, 1998

In popular parlance literacy is usually thought of in terms of an ability to read a text and write a coherent paragraph. But the authors of this book believe this is to take an excessively scholastic view, and go on to explore every conceivable area of life where reading and writing are of use to the individual. They do this by focusing upon the reading life of one town, Lancaster, interviewing individuals in depth while recording all written language on display from graffiti in the streets to the formal proceedings of the local allotment association. The result is a closely argued study over 300 pages, not always easy to read in itself but important for discussion about the importance of reading skills in today's schools.

The authors maintain from their researches that there are six areas of everyday life where reading and writing are of central importance. The first three are uncontentious: others before have already described the importance of literacy for organising life (calendars, address books and appointment diaries), personal communication (letters and cards) and private leisure (books, magazines and newspapers). But David Barton and Mary Hamilton believe that there are three more vital areas of literacy commonly missed out by scholars.

Under "documenting life", they list mastering items such as birth certificates, recipe books and records of car maintenance. In "sense making" they include reading instruction booklets and guarantees, becoming a local expert on a particular topic such as a child's illness, and boning up on a variety of legal grievances. Finally, their category "social participation" covers contributing to newsletters, writing to local newspapers, signing petitions and participating in political activity.

The authors were surprised to discover in their researches how adept so many of their participants had become in mastering one or more of these areas. An element of self-selection may have played a part too (not everyone approached was willing to be interviewed at such length). Yet all the descriptions here of such "vernacular" literary practices contain the ring of truth: this is the sort of everyday reading and writing that does indeed go on locally, as anyone at all involved in their own communities will know for themselves. The four chapters each recording the reading life of one person are particularly interesting, since it is rare to ask anyone once they have left school what exactly they do with their literary skills in the detail found in these pages.

The authors state that vernacular literacy is nearly always learnt informally and is hardly ever separated from practical use. But although the cultural value of this type of literacy is generally dismissed as not "real" writing or reading, the skills involved are often integral to social relationships developed in a locality. Schools have the potential to introduce pupils to these practices, but the authors believe that the national curriculum is actually reducing the varieties of literacies encountered and taught in the classroom.

Other questions remain. To what extent might other communities produce very different results from those found in Lancaster, a town with a distinctive history and a strongly surviving sense of belonging? How might advancing social and technological change radically alter the picture described here during the next decade? What is the importance of the workplace for developing particular literacies of their very own? It is a tribute to this book that it opens up new areas of enquiry at the same time as pressing home its central point about the limited way mass literacy has so often been discussed both in the past and at the moment.

Nicholas Tucker is lecturer in cultural and community studies, University of Sussex.

Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community

Author - David Barton and Mary Hamilton
ISBN - 0 415 17150 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £17.99
Pages - 299

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