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”