Learning to read from a social practice view:
Ethnography, schooling and adult learning
The Author(s) 2017. This article is an open access publication.
Abstract This paper looks at some issues around ‘‘learning to read’’ from the viewpoint of
a social practice concept of literacy for both child and adult literacy. This calls for an
ethnographic approach that, although increasingly common in the ﬁeld of adult literacy, is
less common in the policy and practice of schooling; there, a more decontextualized
approach predominates, seeing one form of literacy as a universal norm to which all adult
literacy learning needs to conform. And—on the whole—in literacy education, schooling
predominates, although there are signs in the United Nations Sustainable Development
Goals (SDGs) of increasing awareness of the importance of a wider approach to adult
learning for the achievement of the SDGs. This will increase the need for an ethnographic
approach to both children’s and adults’ literacy-learning programmes.
Keywords Learning to read Social practice Schooling Adult literacy Ethnography
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Challenging the dominant approach to learning to read
It now seems to be widely acknowledged that the dominant approach to learning to read
(and write) is to see literacy as a basic skill that an individual either has or does not have.
The result is that the world can be divided simplistically into those who are illiterate and
those who are literate. In this view, learning literacy brings with it automatically cognitive
beneﬁts and, with these, economic, social, and cultural beneﬁts. Learning ‘‘literacy’’ is seen
Brian Street left this paper in an advanced state of preparation; with his consent, Alan Rogers has edited and
completed it. It is substantially as Brian would have ﬁnalized it.
Formerly of King’s College London, London, UK
to be essential not only for ‘‘development’’ but for all forms of modern living. And there
are standardized ways of teaching reading (and writing): cognitive psychology approaches
that place an emphasis on classroom practices and see systematic letter sequences, phonics,
or syllabic construction as essential for all learners, especially children. This view, that
literacy in itself has consequences irrespective of context, has tended to dominate edu-
cational thinking, a view I have described as an ‘‘autonomous’’ model of literacy (Street
1984). As with many people working in the ﬁeld of literacy in international contexts, I ﬁnd
myself challenging this dominant perspective, put forward by many agencies, which we
might characterize as a ‘‘skills approach’’.
An alternative perspective shifts the focus from schools and from children and instead
sees reading and writing as always taking place in some speciﬁc sociocultural context. One
is never ‘‘learning to read’’; one is ever only ‘‘learning to read some speciﬁc text or other in
a speciﬁc context’’. It is this sociocultural context and the practices that take place within it
that give reading (and writing) its meaning.
A number of literacy projects in recent years have, in fact, taken a more social view of
literacy and of learning than has been evident in the dominant policy perspectives. This
social view emphasizes that before launching into literacy programmes and interventions,
it is necessary to understand the literacy practices that target groups and communities are
already engaged in (Freebody and Welch 1993; Prinsloo and Baynham 2013).
Researchers trained in ﬁeldwork methods and sensitized to ways of discovering and
observing literacy practices on the ground have conducted studies into these everyday
practices and their relationship to the programmes designed to alter them. Programme
planners at times now include these ﬁndings in projects from the earliest stage (Prinsloo
and Breier 1996; Yates 1994) and feed them into the campaign design and development.
Many others in different parts of the world, such as Barton, Hamilton, and Ivanic (2000)
and Papen (2005) in the UK, and Kell (1996) and Kalman (2005) in South Africa and
Mexico, respectively, have written extensively on this issue. They all conﬁrm the
importance of taking context into account in the planning and implementation of literacy
and numeracy learning programmes. In this issue of Prospects, for instance, Negassa,
Rogers, and Warkineh write that, whilst ‘‘there is an individual cognitive component to
learning (see Abadzi in this volume) …there is also a social element; the learning process
…always takes place in ‘situated activities’. Without the social interaction, the cognitive
would not take place; and the form that the cognitive process takes is shaped by the
‘situated activity’ of which it is a part’’. All this work, then, emphasizes the social
dimension of learning to read.
Literacy as social practice
The term ‘‘literacy as social practice’’ (LSP) has, to some extent, replaced the earlier term
‘‘new literacy studies’’ (Gee 1990; see Street 1993,1995b) on the grounds that it switches
the focus of attention away from the products of academic research to the many and varied
users and contexts of literacy. The concept of LSP refers to the nature of literacy in use. It
leads to quite new ways of understanding and deﬁning what counts as literacy—an
approach that has profound implications for how reading and writing are learned and
taught. If literacy is a social practice, then it varies with social context and is not the same,
uniform thing in each case. LSP recognizes the plurality of literacies—that there are
different literacy practices that carry with them different values and affordances. This
means that LSP has implications for policy, both in current national approaches to literacy
learning and also in such international perspectives as are expressed in the UN Sustainable
Development Goals (SDGs) (see below and Street 2016). Whereas the UK National Lit-
eracy Strategy, for instance, sees what it calls ‘‘the basics’’ as the key focus for literacy
education—involving such surface features of language and literacy as rules of grammar in
the traditional sense and rules for phoneme/grapheme relations—the LSP approach shifts
from such narrow views to the larger social and ideological contexts (Street 1995a). By
addressing these conceptual issues, I hope to engage practitioners, researchers, and poli-
cymakers in reﬂective debate.
That literacy is a social practice is an insight both banal and profound. It is banal in the
sense that, once we think about it, it is obvious that literacy is always practiced in social
contexts. Even school, however artiﬁcial it may be accused of being in its reading and
writing teaching methods, is a social construction. The site of learning (whether at school
or within adult-literacy programmes) has, like other contexts, its own social beliefs and
behaviours into which its particular literacy practices are inserted (Street 2005); whether in
school or adult-literacy groups, what is being learned is not the same concept in each
In contrast with the dominant ‘‘skills’’ view, I have posited an ‘‘ideological’’ view of
literacy, in which I argue that literacy not only varies with social context and with cultural
norms and discourses (regarding, for instance, identity, gender, and belief)—what might be
termed a ‘‘social’’ model—but also that its uses and meanings are always embedded in
relations of power. It is in this sense, I suggest, that literacy can be seen as ideological: it
always involves contests over meanings, deﬁnitions, boundaries, and control of the literacy
agenda. For these reasons, it becomes harder to justify teaching only one particular form of
literacy, whether in schools or in adult programmes, when the learners will already have
been exposed to a variety of everyday literacy practices (Street 2016). If we see literacy
simply as a universal technical skill, the same everywhere and for all people, then the
particular form being taught in educational contexts (where formal schooled literacy is
often treated as the only kind of literacy there is) becomes the universal standard, which
naturalizes its socially speciﬁc features and disguises their real history, ideological justi-
ﬁcations, and practices, and which delegitimizes all other forms of literacy. On the other
hand, if we see literacy as a social practice, then that history and those features and
justiﬁcations need to be spelled out, and students need to be able to discuss the basis for the
choices being made in the kinds of literacy they are learning—particularly who decides
what they should learn.
The ideological model of literacy, then, offers a more culturally sensitive view of
literacy practices as they vary from one context to another. It is about knowledge: the ways
in which people address reading and writing are themselves rooted in conceptions of
knowledge, identity, and being. Knowledge is also always embedded in social practices,
such as those of a particular job market, a particular religious culture, or a particular
educational context, and the effects of learning a particular literacy will be dependent on its
particular context. Literacy, in this sense, is always contested, regarding both its meanings
and its practices; hence, particular versions of it are always ‘‘ideological’’ in that they are
always rooted in a particular worldview and in a desire for that view of literacy to dominate
and to marginalize others (Gee 1990; Street and Besnier 1994). The argument about social
literacies (Street 1995b) recognizes that how teachers or facilitators and their students
interact is already a social practice that affects the nature of the literacy being learned and
the ideas about literacy held by the participants, especially the new learners and their
positions in relations of power. It is not valid to suggest that literacy can be ‘‘given’’
Learning to read from a social practice view: Ethnography…
neutrally and then its social effects only experienced afterward. I argue below that many of
the policy statements about literacy that we see in the public domain fail to take account of
the social practices embedded in different contexts for learning and using literacy.
Research in the ﬁeld of Literacy as Social Practice (Barton et al. 2000; Pahl and Rowsell
2006; Robinson-Pant 2004; Street 1995b,2005) has addressed issues of how literacy is
learned in many different contexts, of which school is only one. By engaging in reading
and/or writing in contexts such as communities and workplaces, learners come to terms
with a variety of issues that they are not necessarily conscious of learning explicitly. As
Negassa, Rogers, and Warkineh state, in this issue, ‘‘The current interest in ‘lifelong
learning’ has directed attention to ‘informal learning’—the learning that takes place
throughout life outside of formal and nonformal educational and training programmes’’.
These are terms that we may have to learn and develop in order to elaborate on the social
practice perspective and its implications for learning.
How, then, can we know about such social practices? I argue that an ethnographic per-
spective can be helpful in addressing the local uses and meanings of literacy—that is, in
discovering what people are doing with reading and/or writing in speciﬁc social contexts
(see Rogers and Street 2012).
In recent years there has been growing awareness of the value of qualitative,
ethnographic approaches to educational research and the contributions these can
make to development planning. Ethnographic research can be utilised at all stages of
the project cycle, from project identiﬁcation to project appraisal and can help to
complement more positivist statistical surveys by revealing the cultural and social
dimensions which may positively or adversely affect how a project is taken up.
I will then call on an ethnographic approach that is concerned with attempting to
understand what actually happens in relation to reading and writing in their social contexts.
The ﬁndings of the ethnographic approach to literacy may lead to different measurements
of and claims for outcomes, and to different curricula and pedagogies from those employed
in many traditional programmes.
Rather than appealing to large statistical data sources where the methodological validity
rests on what Mitchell (1984) terms ‘‘enumerative induction’’ based in representative
sampling, an ethnographic perspective is founded on ‘‘analytic induction’’. Instead of
looking for a representative sample, the ethnographer looks to another kind of inference
involved when analytical statements are made:
What the anthropologist using a case study to support an argument does is to show
how general principles deriving from some theoretical orientation manifest them-
selves in some given set of particular circumstances. A good case study, therefore,
enables the analyst to establish theoretically valid connections between events and
phenomena which previously were ineluctable. From this point of view, the search
for a ‘‘typical’’ case for analytical exposition is likely to be less fruitful than the
search for a ‘‘telling’’ case. (Mitchell 1984, p. 239)
Green and Bloome (1997) and others have pointed out that such a perspective need not be
restricted to anthropologists. In fact, an ethnographic perspective is already evident in the
work of many educationalists, linguists, and social commentators. Such ethnographic
accounts of literacy, then, can, in Mitchell’s (1984) terms, provide ‘‘telling cases’’ of what
literacy means to different populations of users, focusing on the cultural and institutional
locations of such meanings, using analytic induction, and avoiding the ethnocentrism
involved in narrow, dominant approaches.
There have now been many very fruitful studies of literacy using ethnographic per-
spectives (Gebre, Rogers, Street, and Openjuru 2009; Nirantar 2007; Openjuru, Baker,
Rogers, and Street 2016; Prinsloo and Breier 1996). And the results are impressive.
Multiple forms of literacy can be seen—a literacy family, if you like, which includes
religious literacies, many different occupational literacies, family/domestic literacies,
bureaucratic literacies, academic literacies, etc. Of these, the formal literacy of the school
taught to young people and to adults is simply one member of the family, and it is often
different from the informal literacies that the learners, adults and children, encounter in
their everyday lives (few people bother with punctuation or capital letters when writing
shopping lists, and few feel incorrect grammar and spelling prevent them from under-
standing when reading grafﬁti). This gap between the taught and the everyday literacies is
wide and hard to bridge. Ethnographic studies show that the world cannot be simply
divided between literate and illiterate, and that everyone engages with literacy practices in
their own way, mediation being particularly important; often they do not see their own
practices as ‘‘literacy’’. These studies show empirically that there are multiple ways of
learning to read: Rafat Nabi and colleagues’ detailed studies (2009, pp. 65–97) show
conclusively that some people do, in fact, learn to read through word recognition, however
much educational psychologists may deny this possibility (Abadzi 2010). Ethnographic
studies deny that there is only one literacy and one way of learning to read (and write).
The implications of this conclusion for the policy and practice of helping adults and
children to learn to read are profound. Below, I note a few of the policy statements on
education and literacy and cite some critiques from a social perspective that colleagues
Learning to read, adults as well as children: The contribution
of the Sustainable Development Goals
In September 2000, the United Nations Millennium Declaration set out goals (MDGs) to be
reached by 2015, the main focus of which was eliminating poverty, hunger, and disease.
Because states did not reach the Education for All goals by the deadline (Convergence
2004), in 2015 new participants met to set up Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is
here that we ﬁnd more explicit attention to literacy and education than in the MDGs; for
example, SDG-4 includes the statement, to ‘‘[e]nsure inclusive and equitable quality
education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’’.
Again, however, the focus seems to be mainly on schools and children, although in the
follow-up to the SDGs, adult learning has received rather more attention. For instance, a
sustainable development framework was put forward at the World Education Forum held
in Incheon, Republic of Korea, in November 2015. In this framework, given the title
‘‘Equitable and Inclusive Quality Education and Lifelong Learning for All by 2030:
Transforming Lives through Education’’ (UNESCO 2015), the participants ‘‘reafﬁrmed the
Learning to read from a social practice view: Ethnography…
vision of the worldwide movement for Education for All initiated in Jomtien in 1990 and
reiterated in Dakar in 2000’’. Indeed, they recognized that the previous policy had not
entirely worked: ‘‘We recognize with great concern that we are far from having reached
education for all’’ (UNESCO 2015). The reasons for this dilemma and the issues involved
in the new policy are key matters for us to discuss here.
An international seminar held in the UK in April 2016 attempted to provide some
answers to the question of why these previous policy positions seem not to have succeeded.
The seminar linked this to a more precise question: Why have adults been marginalized in
the past, and what needs to be done to bring adults more clearly into the mainstream? (see
In response to this question, in a background paper to this seminar, Alan Rogers (2016)
noted: (1) the relative absence of adult learning from the implementation of the Education
for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), despite statements in the
policy documents as to the importance of adult learning; (2) the almost complete absence
of adult-education practitioners from the discussions leading up to the formulation of the
education goal SDG-4 (see for example, UNESCO 2014); and (3) the current prioritizing
of children in many of the discussions on the implementation of SDG-4. He does, however,
see some change, as have a number of colleagues, especially in the inclusion of adult-
learning targets in almost every one of the 17 SDGs, either explicitly or implicitly. He
notes that ‘‘since 1990 the concept of lifelong learning/education (LLL/E) has become
more common in educational policy contexts in developing countries’’ (Rogers 2016). In
support of this, he cites the recent IIEP statement that ‘‘[t]he new Sustainable Development
Goals conﬁrm the importance of ensuring life-long learning opportunities for all’’ (IIEP
News, 14 January 2016). This leads him to ask whether the conceptualization of lifelong
learning/education (LLL/E) as embracing both SDG-4 and the other learning targets would
help to ensure a greater provision for adults. The questions this leads to, which are relevant
to the debates in this issue of Prospects, are ‘‘How can we avoid this discourse being
rhetorical? Can such a LLL/E agenda which covers both SDG 4 and the other learning
targets be operationalised? And how can its learning outcomes be measured?’’ (Rogers
A number of those attending the Uppingham Seminar commented on Rogers’s account
(all quotations come from papers on the Uppingham Seminars website, UppSem 2016). Ian
Cheffy agrees that ‘‘the learning needs of adults have received relatively little attention in
the last 15 years’’, and offers an explanation from a psychological perspective: ‘‘Somehow
I think that human survival instincts enter into this! Adults, especially parents, prioritise
children since they are the ‘hope for the future’. Parents want their children to have better
opportunities than they had—and this spills over into public policy. Unfortunately it’s hard
to change human survival instincts!’’ (UppSem 2016). He does, however, also offer a more
‘‘social’’ explanation; namely, ‘‘the desire of the international community to focus on a
limited range of speciﬁc development goals concerning many aspects of development and
not education alone, as seen in the MDGs’’. And he takes encouragement from the new
SDGs in that they do not reduce the focus on education to simply one of primary schooling
but are now concerned with education at all levels—lifelong learning—a point that Anna
Robinson-Pant in the same seminar also recognized. So, Cheffy states, ‘‘[T]he thinking
about education for all ages which was a feature of the 2000 Dakar Education for All
agenda has now been integrated (with updating) into the SDGs themselves’’. He concludes
on a relatively positive note: ‘‘This at least opens up opportunities for international
development efforts to pay attention to the needs of adults without in any way stepping
outside what are now set up as the priorities’’. For instance, he assumes that ‘‘the Education
2030 Framework for Action document which was formally adopted at UNESCO in
November (UNESCO 2015) will not be overlooked’’. This UNESCO statement ampliﬁes
the 10 targets within SDG-4 and gives a good deal of recognition to the needs of adults and
an emphasis on lifelong learning for children, youth, and adults. It indicates that, within the
lifelong-learning framework, ‘‘special measures are needed to address the needs of adult
learners’’, particularly as concerns relevant skills for employment (TVET) and basic
There is, then, Cheffy argues, an important balance to be established here, between
focusing, on the one hand, on the role of adults in relation to the schooling of children but
also, on the other hand, on ‘‘the need to recognise the contribution which adult literacy
makes to children’s schooling, even if it concentrates simply on parents learning to read
Another contributor to the discussions at the Uppingham Seminar on the adult-learning
dimensions of the SDGs, Mari Yasunaga, also asks, ‘‘Why is adult education neglected?’’
She offers further explanations: ‘‘[S]ome funding is in fact made available beyond formal
adult education contexts, for instance to communities, NGOs, the private sector and donors
involved in grass-root level activities, workplace education, etc., about which a state and/or
non-state actors may not have a complete picture’’. So, an important issue here might be to
follow through on the funding streams and recognize that some support is being given for
the adult level, even if it is not deﬁned as ‘‘adult education’’ but as skills development, or
women’s empowerment, or health projects, etc.
An additional theme worth highlighting, Yasunaga asserts, is the importance of
‘‘[m]aking the learning outcomes and beneﬁts of adult education/literacy more visible’’.
She suggests that some of the recent international reports do, in fact, show that ‘‘an
evidence base regarding the multiple beneﬁts of ‘education’ is expanding’’, citing the
UNESCO report Sustainable Development Post-2015 Begins with Education (UNESCO
2014). Yasunaga adds that we need to take into account ‘‘the principles of family literacy
that avoid separating adults and children’’. So, whilst the dominant policy perspective in
the SDGs may be a general notion of ‘‘universality’’, in fact we may need to give more
attention to recurrent education, or adult learning and education (ALE). It will take
ethnographic approaches to the analysis of such programmes to reveal the extent of this
provision for adult and intergenerational learning.
Anna Robinson-Pant, UNESCO professor of adult literacy and learning for social
transformation at the University of East Anglia (UK), also commented on issues raised in
the Uppingham Seminar. Her work leads her to explore the policy documents more closely,
and she advises us to examine more deeply the language used to describe what is going on
in the contexts under discussion. She pointed out some of the changes in the policy
documents: ‘‘There are repeated statements in the 2030 Framework for Action where there
is a strong emphasis on gender equality and empowerment of women and girls as cross-
cutting the dimensions of sustainable development—for instance one heading states ‘A
world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality, and all legal, social and
economic barriers to their empowerment have been removed’’’. The (at least, rhetorical)
commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment in the 2030 agenda presents,
she suggests, an important opportunity to look at what assumptions about learning and
education could contribute to these aims. And here she draws on Rogers’s (2014) dis-
tinction between informal learning and education to explore what kind of adult learning/
lifelong education might support the targets in SDG-5 (to achieve gender equality and
empower all women and girls). Adult learning (particularly awareness raising) seems to
underlie most of the Goal 5 targets (e.g., ‘‘enhance the use of enabling technology’’) but is
Learning to read from a social practice view: Ethnography…
not stated explicitly. Thus, she proposes that, once again, deﬁnitions and terminology need
more reﬁned attention.
However, the participants quoted here do not necessarily all agree; in this case,
Robinson-Pant questions some of the more negative readings of the SDGs in relation to
adult education expressed in some of the seminar papers. As she puts it, ‘‘[M]y reading of
the SDGs (particularly as compared to the MDGs/EFA agenda) is much more positive
…—in that I saw only two of the Goal 4 targets (4.1 and 4.2) as focused exclusively on
children and schooling. As I consider there is a reasonable emphasis on adult learning in
the other targets, the issue for me is less around ‘the absence of adult education from SDG
4’ and more around ‘what kind of education or adult learning is envisaged within each
target?’’’ Indeed, she notes that SDG-4.7 seems to mark a signiﬁcant shift away from the
3Rs and formal skills/education, with the potential to support informal and nonformal
learning around global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity, gender equality,
and so on.
If, then, we are looking for explanations for why the dominant policy perspective has
tended to focus on children rather than adults, we might look beyond narrow practical
constraints and instead examine more closely some of the assumptions behind different
forms of political commitment. Both children’s and adults’ education are often supported
for reasons other than learning; spending money on children’s schooling rather than on
adults has been seen by some, for instance, as a vote winner, since many adults have
expressed a preference for the education of their children over that of themselves. It is here,
once again, that ethnographic approaches are needed; it seems important to look at what
the other agendas (subplots) might be. And there are issues here that we might need to
pursue more closely in the global North as well as in so-called developing countries, as
governments and NGOs attempt to develop policies that, at least rhetorically, respond to
the UNESCO and SDG statements (Street 1995a).
In this article, I have argued that the dominant approach to learning to read (and write) is to
see literacy as a basic skill that an individual either has or does not have, so that the world
can be divided into illiterate and literate; that learning literacy automatically brings with it
cognitive and other beneﬁts; and that there are standardized ways of teaching reading (and
writing) to both children and adults. I suggest that adopting a ‘‘literacy-as-social-practice’’
perspective on learning to read (and write) challenges these assumptions for both children
and adults. Using ethnographic approaches, LSP shows that there are multiple literacies
(Street 2015) and multiple ways of learning literacy—that a ‘‘single-injection’’ model of
teaching literacy is less effective than a lifelong- and especially a ‘‘lifewide-’’ learning
model. And I have argued that this helps us to see how adult learning of literacy has been
relatively neglected in both policy and practice in favour of primary schooling, and that the
new emphasis on the Sustainable Development Goals provides an opportunity for
redressing this imbalance.
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Brian Street (United Kingdom) is Professor Emeritus of language in education at King’s College, London,
and visiting professor of education in both the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania,
and the School of Education and Professional Development, University of East Anglia. Following ﬁeldwork
in Iran in the 1970s, he has written and lectured extensively on literacy practices from both a theoretical and
an applied perspective. He has a longstanding commitment to linking ethnographic-style research on the
cultural dimension of language and literacy with contemporary practice in education and in development. He
has conducted lecture tours, workshops, training programmes, and research in a number of countries
including the USA, South Africa, Nepal, India, and Singapore and was involved in LETTER Projects in
Ethiopia and Uganda. In 2008, he received the Distinguished Scholar Lifetime Achievement Award from the
National Reading Conference in the USA.