Blogpost by Brian Street: Academic Literacies

The Academic Literacies approach to supporting writing in Educational contexts has over the last two decades developed into a well-established international field of research.  Aclits was grounded in New Literacy Studies (NLS)/ Literacy as Social practice (LSP), which conceptualized literacy as social practice rather than an asocial, set of generic  skills. Specifically the theoretical shift in these fields has been from what I term an ‘autonomous’ model of literacy which assumes reading and writing are ‘autonomous’ of social context so just need to be taught at a universal level, to what I refer to as an ‘ideological’ model, which recognises that literacy practices vary across cultural contexts, including in the university context across different fields and disciplines (Street, 1984). To learn the writing required for a particular discipline, then,  involves more sensitive attention to context and meaning than is offered by the autonomous model or the study skills approach that has followed from it. The major methodological contribution is the use of ethnographic perspectives in literacy research and training, whereby teachers try to find out what the learners already know and then build on that.

The consequent model of Academic Literacies (AcLits) arose from an ESRC-funded research project (1995) by Lea and Street involving ethnographic study of academic literacy practices in UK universities. This was originally reported in 1998 in the journal Studies in Higher Education. In this project, Lea and Street revealed that skills- and text-focused models dominated much theory and practice, but that these models did not account for the situational factors impacting on students’ acquisition of the literacy required by specific disciplines. By contrast, the AcLits model requires researchers to investigate the variety of academic literacies evident in particular contexts, drawing upon ethnographic methods which involve an ‘emic’ perspective, watching and following what participants are actually doing rather than imposing external – ‘etic’ – perspectives. In this case the practices of those learning to write in academic genres or styles may involve  different disciplinary requirements in terms of argumentation, genre, information structuring and rhetorical styles. As a result the research identified the need for changes in teacher education, which involves supporting subject teachers with the development of students’ literacy and enabling them to use ethnographic perspectives to analyse the existing literacy practices associated with their field and the associated student needs, rather than imposing a general model on all academic writing as in the provision of support programmes external to the subject disciplines.

AcLits has also been influential in the field of English for Academic Purposes in similar ways, shifting attention from a standardised and generic model of ‘English’ to a recognition of varieties and contexts. There has been positive research from the King’s AcLits group, for instance.  Leung and Street (2012) have argued that researching with the AcLits approach involves conceptual transformation in the teaching of English, both spoken and written, of the kind signalled above in the shift from an autonomous to a social perspective on language and literacy practices. There are multiple varieties of what counts as ‘English’ and that required for specific purposes in specific contexts will need spelling out and justifying more carefully in the new global world. Wingate and Tribble (2012) have challenged the apparent dichotomies emerging from the Academic Literacies perspective and argued for a synthesis of AcLits and text-focused approaches. They have developed an AcLits-informed instructional model that uses text as the basis of teaching and learning.
All of these debates are on going and there are currently attempts in South Africa, Brazil and France as well as the UK, to work through the implications of all of this for actual learning and teaching programmes in higher education.
Some Refs
Lea, M., & Street, B. (1998). Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157-172.
Lea. M. R. and Street, B.V. 2006 “The ‘Academic Literacies’ Model: Theory and Applications” Theory into Practice Fall Vol. 45, no 4 pp. 368-377
Leung, C., & Street, B. (Eds.). (2012). English – a Changing Medium for Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Leung, C. (2008). Second language academic literacies:  converging understandings. In B. Street & N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education (Vol. 2, pp. 143-161). New York: Springer.
Street, B. (1984). Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Street, B 2009 “‘Hidden’ Features of Academic Paper Writing” Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, UPenn Vol. 24, no 1, pp. 1-17
Wingate, U. & Tribble, C. (2012) The best of both worlds? Towards an English for Academic Purposes/Academic Literacies writing pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education, 37, 4, pp. 481 – 495.

ESRC Projects

ERSC Research Grant RES-062-23-1666, Feb 2009 – Jan 2011 (Constant Leung and Brian Street) Modelling for Diversity: Academic Language and Literacies in School and University.
ESRC Research Grant (ref: R000221557) Oct 1995 – Sept 1996  (Mary Lea and Brian Street) entitled: “Perspectives on Academic Literacies: An Institutional Approach”


5 Comments on “Blogpost by Brian Street: Academic Literacies”

  1. SteveO says:

    As I understand it, a communication-as-power perspective is significant within the Academic Literacies approach. I currently understand this to imply that it is quite possible to interpret all communication as embedded with implicit manifestations of power (in wide-ranging variations), whether we are more-or-less aware, or unaware of it. Implicit in this is that teachers and students need to recognise that power potential might be in play all the time, e.g. when we read, write, listen and speak, and that a kind of democratization of power is possible, e.g. in higher education to the reader/writer. Implicit, in turn, shoulld we need to remind ourselves of this, and more-or-less explicitly remind students too? If so, what kind of meta-narrative form(s) should this take, for it to have any effect, assuming this is the right approach in, say, the EAP classroom?


  2. Ian Bruce says:

    My response is a fairly indirect answer to Steve’s questions. However, in commenting, I would like to outline my own take on Academic Literacies and the issue of the power relations inherent in academic writing.

    When applying any theory of literacy, discourse or writing process to the task of teaching academic writing in an EAP context, it is important to evaluate critically how the theory is actually operationalized, and what it contributes to pedagogy. Academic literacies (AcLits) employs the critical theory approach to research, an approach that has a socially transformative agenda. In the original Lea and Street (1998) article, it was stated that “an academic literacies approach views the institutions in which academic practices take place as constituted in, and as sites of, discourse and power. It sees the literacy demands of the curriculum as involving a variety of communicative practices, including genres, fields and disciplines” (p. 159). In keeping with this focus, AcLits researchers tend to use critical ethnography to identify the socially-constructed power relations that influence and constrain the writing (and reception) of academic texts in disciplinary contexts.

    Certainly when considering the social context within which writing occurs, it is important to take account of the relative power relations that operate, relations that influence such elements as writer positioning and audience. However, this must also be integrated with a consideration of other contextual knowledge elements, such as disciplinary epistemology (including the research methods employed in validating or proving knowledge), subject-specific lexis and prior textual knowledge. In addition, it is also important to consider more general rhetorical, text-organizing procedural knowledge as well as the operation of linguistic systems at the level of text, including reference, deixis and other ways of achieving coherence.

    AcLits theorists would probably claim that their approach subsumes each of these other knowledge elements. Therefore, the question becomes one of staging and emphasis in terms of what drives the syllabus and pedagogy of an EAP writing course. Should the syllabus and its realization be centrally focused on the power relations inherent in the disciplinary discourse within which writing takes? Or should the curriculum be organized around genres as a basis for cycles of learning that facilitate examination of their socially-constructed, procedural and linguistic elements? I favour the latter approach, and would argue that a genre-based approach provides a suitable framework for examining power relations inherent within disciplinary discourses in conjunction with the complex range of other knowledge elements drawn upon by academic writers (see Bruce, 2011, pp. 118-139).

    Bruce, I. (2011). Theory and concepts of English for academic purposes. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave
    Lea, M., & Street, B. (1998). Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157-172.

    Ian Bruce
    Senior Lecturer
    Applied Linguistics Programme
    University of Waikato
    New Zealand


  3. SteveO says:

    There would seem to be the potential for interesting EAP pedagogical exploration here, when mixed in with other recent EAP practitioner ideas:

    Brian mentions Wingate and Tribble’s (2012) development of ‘an AcLits-informed instructional model that uses text as the basis of teaching and learning.’

    Ian favours a ‘genre-based’ approach to syllabus and pedagogy, within which, amongst other things, disciplinary power-relations might be examined.

    Julie King on an earlier blog post here (‘How to become a usefully ignorant EAP Teacher’) cites McWilliam’s (2008) ‘meddling in the middle’ view of a co-creative teaching and learning dynamic, where the teacher is also a co-learner (by implication, with teacher power-relationship awareness involved).

    Steve Kirk ( appears to suggest that teacher talk may have been/may still be over-anathematised within EAP – a possible residual influence of ELT approaches to pedagogy? Steve, rather, explores the idea that TT in EAP needs to be looked at in terms of ‘mediating learning’, and refers to Scrivener and Underwood’s recent apparent re-apprasal of ‘guide-on-the-side’ pedagogy in ELT (especially, lobbing things into the middle and withdrawing).


  4. Ian Bruce says:

    Just a point of clarification. Brian says that Wingate and Tribble have developed an AcLits-informed instructional model that uses text as the basis of teaching and learning. However, in their article, Wingate and Tribble (2012) are careful to point out that their model:

    “stands in contrast to the Academic Literacies approach as it
    (a) calls for explicit attention to textual exemplars from genres which are strategically important for students, and,
    (b) makes use of Vygotskian notions of scaffolding . . .” (p. 482)

    Their approach is AcLits-informed in that it accounts for social practices. However, because of the centrality of genre and text, I feel that there article largely mirrors the ideas that I advocated in my posting in relation to academic writing instruction.

    Perhaps the differences being discussed here relate to a degree of emphasis on social processes, and what you decide to use as an organizing principle when confronted with the task of creating an EAP syllabus for a course to teach academic writing, such as in a particular disciplinary context.

    Wingate, U. & Tribble, C. (2012) The best of both worlds? Towards an English for Academic Purposes/Academic Literacies writing pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education, 37, 4, pp. 481 – 495.


  5. […] transdisciplinary, and international field of research. According to Brian Street, writing for the Teaching EAP […]


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