Local Literacies – what are they and how can they be described? Celebrating the work of Brian Street. This blog was written by Kate Pahl, School of Education

Introducing Brian Street

Brian Street, who has died this year aged 73, was a Professor Emeritus of Language and Literacy at King’s College, London. From his work, stemmed a body of work that became known as the ‘New Literacy Studies’.

In developing countries there is sometimes a lack of understanding of the nuances and complexities of local literacy practices. Here, I celebrate the work of Professor Brian Street, whose work for BALID (The British Association of Literacy in Development) is still very important for researchers interested in literacy and language practices in developing countries.


What do we mean by Local Literacies?

We all have a lot to learn from someone who enabled everyday literacies to be attentively understood and listened to. This is particularly important in countries where World Bank officials might have said there is ‘no’ literacy and thus dismissed the everyday texts that lie all around us. However, a more attentive lens might uncover a plethora of inscriptions and literacy practices, on walls, inscribed within carpets, woven, written, visually and orally described.


See figure 1 Inscribed name in a home


What is the New Literacy Studies?

The idea of the ‘New Literacy Studies’, and in particular, the idea that all literacy practices were ideologically constructed, even apparently ‘neutral’ skills-based literacy tests, had a lasting influence on how literacy was understood, leading to a fundamental re-thinking of the ways in which research in literacy has been carried out. Brian’s ideas enabled a generation of researchers to value ‘local’ literacies as being equally ‘valid’ and important to ‘school’ or ‘academic’ literacies, but simply different but not inferior.


Books about Literacy in Development Contexts

Brian wrote and edited many books in this field, including ‘Social Literacies’ (1995) and ‘Cross Cultural Approaches to Literacy’ (1993). Many of his books were collectively created and produced. An example of Brian’s work was a small book published by the ‘Nirantar’ collective of literacy teachers in Nepal called ‘Exploring the Everyday: Ethnographic Approaches to Literacy and Numeracy’ (2007).  In this book, adult literacy educators in Nepal identified and recorded the plethora of everyday literacies around them, to complex notations on walls regarding health checks to inscriptions within homes in multiple languages and scripts. Recognising and crediting this process of researching local literacy practices was typical of Brian’s deep egalitarianism.


Power, ideologies and change

Brian was deeply attentive to issues of power and also how things could be framed differently through an anthropological lens. He carried out his fieldwork in villages in Northern Iran.  Brian’s insight from this study was to observe and record the different literacies he saw around him – from ‘maktab’ or market literacies to Mosque literacies, and then school literacies, all differently inscribed and notated. This became written up in his book ‘Social Literacies’ (1995). Brian’s influence on the field of literacy is immense – he generated nearly a half a century of thinking. He never encouraged academics to sit still but to move and to change, always questioning and always focused on the everyday as much as the local and the particular. In this article, written in 1997, he says,


Advocates of the NLS may have felt that their approach has meant going against the grain, challenging dominant ‘ways of knowing’ (Baker et al., 1996): but it may be that the grain is not simply that of a ‘dominant’ society with which they can feel romantically in conflict but that of their own deepest desires and fears. We all have to live with the psychological and social consequences of the new theories. (Street 1997:52).


We all have a lot to learn from these theories. I strongly recommend his work in the context of a radical vision of literacy in developing countries. What it has done for me in Rotherham was to ‘see’ the ways in which literacy is practiced and understood and to support different and compelling ways of knowing that surface everyday understandings of literacy in new ways (Pahl 2014). For example, these images show literacy inscribed in within an image of nails (figure 2) and within a sampler (Figure 3), collected from a home in Rotherham.


See Figure 2 Nail Art


See Figure 3 Sampler


By recognising these practices as literacy we have come to new ontological understandings of what literacy is – and what it could be.


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