Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Re-Thinking Literacy as a Process of Translation

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Re-Thinking Literacy as a Process of Translation

Article excerpt


I have been involved in various aspects of literacy teaching and research for over twenty years. This included workplace literacies, literacy teaching with Australian Indigenous adults, collaborative research and production of digital educational resources with Indigenous communities, and most recently, school teachers' literacy practices. This paper draws on all of these experiences, and associated ethnographic research, to propose a new way of thinking about literacy teaching. It is not intended to provide definitive answers but to raise questions and think differently about seemingly intransigent problems for literacy educators working with socially marginalised learners.

I will present this paper in an inductive mode as a series of four case studies, or vignettes, from which I draw inferences. In this way I hope to lead the reader through the process of my thinking about how socially marginalised learners move between different modes of literacy. Through understanding the translations involved in this movement, I suggest that we can better understand what we mean by literacy. This has important implications for literacy pedagogies. I begin with the concept of multiliteracies, as proposed by the New London Group (2000).


The New London Group (2000) proposed that a new understanding of literacy is required because of two main features of contemporary life: changing literacy practices as a result of computer technologies, and increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in a globalised world. They argued that 'Literacy pedagogy ... has been a carefully restricted project--restricted to monolingual, monocultural, and rule-governed forms of language' (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000, p. 9). As an alternative they suggested a 'pedagogy of multiliteracies': 'One in which other modes of meaning are dynamic representational resources, constantly being remade by their users as they work to achieve their various cultural purposes' (The New London Group, 1996, p. 64). The most helpful explanation for illuminating the ideas I am tracking through the vignettes I am offering, however, is encapsulated in the following:

the most important skill students need to learn is to negotiate regional, ethnic, or class-based dialects; variations in register that occur according to social context; hybrid cross-cultural discourses; the code switching often to be found within a text among different languages, dialects or registers; different visual and iconic meanings; and variations in the gestural relationships among people, language and material objects. Indeed, this is the only hope for averting the catastrophic conflicts about identities and spaces that now seem ever ready to flare up. (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000, p. 14).

The question which I am asking in this paper concerns the ways students learn these complex multiliteracies and how we facilitate that learning. I want to explore the implications of these ideas in practice with reference to the situation of a range of marginalised communities with which I have worked.

Mills (2006) conducted an empirical research study into the application of multiliteracies as pedagogy in a typical low socio-economic Australian classroom with twenty-five nationalities and 8% Indigenous children. In her study of this upper primary class with a teacher identified as trained in multiliteracies, Mills found that 'dominant students, who were familiar with the discourses of Western schooling, gained greater access to multiliteracies that their marginalised counterparts' (Mills, 2006, p. 146). Mills (2006, p. 132) frames the findings in terms of the degree to which culturally non-dominant students drew from their existing cultural resources and conditions on the use of home discourses. She suggests that: 'The successful enactment of multiliteracies must begin with a very different set of assumptions about meaning making and culture . …

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