Reviews 2015

Researching Literacy Lives: Building Communities between Home and School

Researching Literacy Lives: Building Communities between Home and School. Teresa Cremin, Marilyn Mottram, Fiona M. Collins, Sacha Powell, and Rose Drury. London: Routledge, 2015. 188 pages. $160.00 (hardback).

The connective tissue between a child’s home literacy practice and his or her school literacy practices has long been elusive, ignored, or hidden from the formal school setting, creating a mismatch in a child’s overall literacy identity. In Researching Literacy Lives: Building Communities between Home and School, Teresa Cremin, Marilyn Mottram, Fiona M. Collins, Sacha Powell, and Rose Drury effectively communicate the results of a transformative research project that set out to bridge that mismatch. The book is structured into topical chapters written by pairs of authors that function like encapsulated research articles within the context of the complete project. This organisational model works well to reveal the theoretical framework, methodology, implementation, and results of the yearlong study. Focusing on 18 teachers as researchers, from diverse educational settings throughout the U.K., the study investigates their work to learn more about their students’ home practices of literacy through the ethnographic lens of home visits. Not only did the teachers explore the home literacy of their students through these visits, but they also worked with the research team and each other to further understand their own constructions of literacy. The end results demonstrate that this deeper understanding of their student’s literacy practices served as a transformative agent. Seeing a more complete picture of their students as literate individuals helped them to move into a deeper connectedness with both the students and their families. Through this research process many of the teachers recognized a need to have more inclusive educational practices regarding literacy in the classroom, which makes the content of this book even more enticing for teachers and literacy researchers alike.

The power of this book is that it is grounded deeply in theory which is then fully realized through the action of the participants. Central to the first chapters is a theoretical framework which clearly establishes the need for a broader definition of literacy through a focus on the use of ethnographic study to determine home practices of literacy. Much of this exploration was considered through the lens of respecting the students’ natural "funds of knowledge" as conceptualised by American educational researcher Luis Moll and his colleagues in their work with Hispanic children’s literacies in the late eighties and early nineties. While the initial study was based on the work of Moll, it diverged as well, with a greater emphasis on the teachers as the researchers and a goal of guiding them to reframe their conception of literacy. In part this was accomplished through empowering teachers to engage with students and families as an ethnographer rather than as a scholarly expert on literacy. Coming into family settings as a seeker and not a provider of knowledge allowed for a different power dynamic between the teachers, students, and parents. Most of the teachers found this power realignment disconcerting at first, but after multiple interactions with students in their homes or neutral settings, the openness this created was exceedingly valuable. In chapter three the authors develop a deep trustworthiness of their work, transparently sharing the methodology of the study. While much writing about research projects can be dry and detached, setting the reader as a distant observer of a scientific study, this book is crafted in a way that it appeals to both researchers and teachers. By including case study excerpts at the end of many chapters, the authors make the studies come alive in concrete and meaningful ways. The ethnographic approach also gives the study a compelling voice of the teachers and students themselves coming across the pages directly.

While the theoretical underpinnings are clearly explored, it the authors’ embodiment of the theory into the real-world application through the actions of the participating teacher researchers in the field that engages the reader. Through this study the teachers began to realize the vast diversity of what literacy means in the home behaviours of their students. A more complex picture of their students’ literacy practices emerged from this work, and they began to realise that "reading written text is only a part of the creation of meaning, a child employs multiliteracies to understand and manipulate the many texts that can be read, from toys to books to online games..." (Sekeres 405). By seeing their students’ literacy practices in a new light, the teachers also began to distinguish how their views of literacy had been shaped to exclude such practices as valuable. As we are progressing to a more multimodal world in general, it is important to consider this more complete understanding of student literacy. In our current educational system, as the authors recognize, many of the formal measures of literacy in schools do not honour, and at times stifle, this enhanced view. Much of the formal definition of literacy rests on an emphasis on qualitative measures of literacy and overlooking practices of home. In their work on recognizing new literacies and utilizing them in the classroom, researchers Pahl and Roswell recognize this concern very directly. They state that "[t]here is a clear gap between the way we are teaching reading and writing and the sophisticated set of practices students use outside of school" (3). Yet, the teachers in this study demonstrate that a changed perception of literacy allows for a recognition of that gap. It is only through that awareness that teachers can begin to build a bridge between what students already know and the academic literacy that they are expected to understand. The measurements of literacy and emphasis on standardisation many not be changing, but this book validates a more nuanced approach to literacy that can transform the pedagogical practices of classroom teachers.

As the authors succinctly state, "unless the dominant discourses around literacy are disrupted within schools and more widely, then children’s cultural social, and linguistic assets will remain sidelined, with significant consequences for student learning" (Cremin and Drury 26). Researching Literacy Lives: Building Communities between Home and School not only provides one model for a deeper understanding of home-school interaction; it also represents a call to action. While not every teacher may be able to take up a year of home visits, the study demonstrates that there is pedagogical power when teachers tap into students’ funds of knowledge and honour their lived literacy in an authentic manner.

Sara K. Sterner
University of Minnesota, USA

Works Cited

Pahl, Kate, and Jennifer Rowsell. Literacy and Education: Understanding the New Literacy Studies in the Classroom. London: Paul Chapman, 2005.

Sekeres, Diane Carver. "The Market Child and Branded Fiction: A Synergism of Children's Literature, Consumer Culture, and New Literacies." Reading Research Quarterly 44.4 (2009): 399-414.