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Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (1992) 12, 31-48. Printed in the USA.

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SOCIO-CULTURAL APPROACHES TO LITERACY (LITERACIES)
James Gee
There has emerged, over the last decade or so, a fairly cohesive body of
work centered around a socio-cultural approach to literacy (e.g., Cazden 1988,
Cook-Gumperz 1986, Gee 1990, Graff 1987, Heath 1983, Pattison 1982, Scollon
and Scollon 1981, Street 1984). This work argues that the traditional view of
literacy as a private mental possession which can be quantified and measured in
terms of discrete decontextualized skills is deeply inadequate. To see why this is
so, consider the following simple argument centered around the notion of "read-
ing" (Gee 1989).
Literacy surely means nothing unless it has something to do with reading
(there is an analogue of this argument where "writing" replaces "reading").
"Read" is a transitive verb. So literacy must have something to do with being
able to read something. And this something will always be a text of a certain type
(or genre: Martin 1989, Swales 1990). Different types of texts (e.g., news-
papers, comic books, law books, physics texts, mathematics books, novels,
poems, advertisements, etc.) call for different types of background knowledge and
require different skills to be read meaningfully (Bleich 1988, Kress 1989).
To go one step further: No one would say anyone could read a given text
if he or she did not know what the text meant. But there are many different
levels of meaning one can give to or take from any text. And this point does not
just apply to "fancy" texts like poems, novels, legal briefs, political tracts, and
religious texts. For example, consider the (mundane?) warning below from a
bottle of Tylenol (Gee 1989):
WARNING: Keep this and all medication out of the reach of children.
As with any drug, if you are pregnant or nursing a baby, seek the advice
of a health professional before using this product. In the case of acciden-
tal overdosage, contact a physician or poison control center immediately.
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32 JAMES GEE
This text gives rise to a whole host of questions: Why is the Tylenol
company telling us about medicines in general ("all medication," "as with any
drug"), not just their own? Why does the warning address me (a male) as a
"you" who might be pregnant? Why does the warning use the (non-existent)
word "overdosage," instead of the perfectly good "overdose"? What do I do if
my overdose wasn't "accidental," and why does the warning refer to "accidental
overdosage" not just simply to any "overdosage"? If (as the bottle says else-
where) eight pills in 24 hours is the maximum dosage, does "immediately" in the
last line mean I should rush down to poison control if I have had ten pills in 24
hours? Depending upon how you answer these questions, and a host of others,
you will "read" the warning differently.
Thus, whatever literacy has to do with reading, reading must be spelled
out, at the very least, as multiple abilities to "read" texts of certain types in
certain ways or to certain levels. There are obviously many abilities here, each
of them a different type of literacy, one of a set of literacies (Bruce, Gee and
Michaels 1989). Now, one does not learn to read texts of type X in way Y
unless one has had experience in settings where texts of type X are read in way Y
(Gee 1990, Heath 1983, Kress 1989, Rose 1989, Scollon and Scollon 1981).
These settings are various sorts of social institutions like churches, banks,
schools, different sorts of classrooms within schools, government offices; or
social groups with certain sorts of interests like chess, politics, baseball cards,
comic books, physics, linguistics, or what have you.
One has to be socialized into (apprenticed to) a practice to learn to read
texts of type X in way Y, a practice other people have already mastered (Rogoff
1990). Since this is so, one can turn literacy on its head, so to speak, and refer
crucially to the social institutions or social groups that have these practices, rather
than to writing and reading in and of themselves. It is also possible to refer to
the complex and variable ways in which people are socialized into these social
institutions or groups (Schieffelin and Ochs 1986).
When this is done, something odd happens: the practices of such social
groups are never just literacy practices. They always also involve ways of
talking, interacting, thinking, valuing, and believing. Moreover, when one looks
at the practices of such groups, it is next to impossible to separate anything that
stands apart as a literacy practice from other practices. Literacy practices are
almost always fully integrated with, interwoven into, constituted part of, the very
texture of wider practices that involve talk, interaction, values, and beliefs
(Bruner 1990, Gee 1989; 1990, Guerra 1991, Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines 1988,
Willinsky 1990).
I will call these practices which involve an integration of ways of talking,
interacting, thinking, valuing, believing, and, often, of reading and/or writing,
"Discourses" with a capital "D" (Gee 1989; 1990; in press, see also Foucault
SOCIO-CULTURAL APPROACHES TO LITERACY (LrTERACIES) 33
1985, Macdonell 1986, Myers 1990). A Discourse is a socio-culturally distinc-
tive and integrated way of thinking, acting, interacting, talking, and valuing
connected with a particular social identity or role, with its own unique history,
and often with its own distinctive "props" (buildings, objects, spaces, schedules,
books, etc.). Socio-cultural approaches to literacy argue that literacy is inherently
plural (literacies) and that writing, reading, and language are always embedded in
and inextricable from Discourses (social practices, cultures, and subcultures, or
whatever analogous term is used). Writing, reading, and language are not private
psychic possessions of decontextualized heads, nor are they generalized skills
isolable from specific contents and contexts.
A Discourse is a sort of "identity kit" which comes complete with the
appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to
take on a particular role that others will recognize. The following are some
examples of Discourses (enacted within a given cultural context): being an
American or a Russian; a man or a woman; a member of a certain socioeconomic
class; a factory worker or a boardroom executive; a doctor or a hospital patient; a
teacher, an administrator, or a student; a student of physics or a student of
literature; a member of a specific classroom or classroom practice (e.g., writing
conferences); a member of a sewing circle, a club, a street gang, a lunchtime
social gathering, or a regular at a local bar.
How does one acquire a Discourse? (We all have many.) It turns out that
much that is claimed, controversially, to be true of second language acquisition
(e.g., Krashen 1985) is, in fact, more obviously true of the acquisition of Dis-
courses. Discourses are not mastered solely by overt instruction, but by encultur-
ation ("apprenticeship") into social practices through scaffolded and supported
interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse (Lave 1988,
Rogoff 1990). This is how native languages and initial home-based Discourses
are acquired. It is how we acquire all later, more public-oriented Discourses.
One can always ask about how much tension or conflict is present
between any two of a person's Discourses (Rosaldo 1989). Some degree of
conflict and tension (if only given the discrete historical origins of particular
Discourses) will almost always be present. However, for some people, there are
more overt and direct conflicts between two or more of their Discourses than
there are for others. For example, many women academics feel conflict between
certain feminist Discourses and certain standard academic Discourses (e.g.,
traditional literary criticism); many Afro-Americans feel conflict between their
home- and community-based Discourses and mainstream school-based Discourses.
When such conflict or tension exists, it can deter acquisition of one or the other
or both of the conflicting Discourses, or, at least, affect the fluency of a mastered
Discourse on certain occasions of use (e.g., where other stressful factors also
impinge on the occasion, such as in an interview).
34 JAMES GEE
MIND IN SOCIETY
Over the last few decades there has been a "revolution" in the study of
cognition that has given rise to the "mega-discipline" of cognitive science (Leiber
1991). Cognitive science has, by and large, taken a computational view of the
mind (Sterelny 1990). On this view, the mind manipulates representations in
virtue of their form or structure, not their content or the contexts in which they
are relevant. For example, faced with the following syllogismAll swans are
white / Sally is a swan / Therefore Sally is whitehumans (and computers), it is
argued, can conclude that it is valid, not in virtue of any thought about Sally and
swans, nor in terms of any interest or lack of it in swans, but in virtue of the
general schematic form of the propositions that make up the syllogism: All X's
are Y / a is X / Therefore a is Y.
Socio-cultural approaches to literacy call into question this formal and
decontextualized view of thinking. Recent work on cognition has turned up many
cases where humans appear to think in terms of content and context, not in terms
of general rules and decontextualized structures (Manktelow and Over 1990,
Rogoff 1990). And this seems to be the way humans are built to think; they are
not just instances of "mistakes" (i.e., not just "performance" phenomena that belie
their "competence"though this argument is always open to computationalists as
a way out, however much handwaving it may involve).
As an example of the content-and-context tied nature of human thinking
and problem solving, consider the two tasks below (typical of a whole line of
research on human inferencing; see Bruner 1990, Manktelow and Over 1990,
Shweder 1991). These two tasks are logically identical. Therefore, if the mind
works in terms of logical structure, people should by and large answer these
problems in the same way. But this does not happen (Manktelow and Over
1990:103-116). Rather, a great many people get the second problem (logically
speaking) "right" (the first and fourth cards) and the first problem "wrong" (also
the first and fourth cards).
Task 1. Drawn below are four cards. Each card has a letter on one side and a
number on the otheryou can only see one side here, of course. Here is a rule
about these four cards:
If there is a vowel on one side, then there is an even number on the other side.
Which card or cards must you turn over to decide whether the rule is true or
false?
SOCIO-CULTURAL APPROACHES TO LITERACY (LITERACIES)
Task 2. Imagine that you are the manager of a large department store. You have
to inspect sales receipts at the end of the day to ensure that they have been
properly filled out. The rule is:
If any purchase exceeds $30.00. the receipt must have the signature of the
department manager on the back. Which receipt or receipts must you check?
35
Front of a
Receipt
1 chair,
$75.00
Back of a
Receipt
Approved
J. Jones
Front of a
Receipt
1 lamp,
$25.00
Back of a
Receipt
Approved
People appear to do tasks like these on a non-logical basis. They tend to
do better if the task involves concrete situations of the sort they are familiar with
in their daily lives. In fact, the human mind may work in a yet more concrete
and specific way here: When tasks like those above are couched in terms of
benefits to be gained and costs to be paid, people are even better at them. For
example, Cosmides (1989) used a conditional like If a student is to be assigned to
Grover High School, then that student must live in Grover City in a selection task
like those above. In one version of the task, she explained that Grover High was
a better school than the alternative (attending is a benefit) while Grover City was
a rougher area than its neighbor (living there is a cost). In a second version, she
simply told the subjects that this rule would allow the Board of Education to
assign the proper numbers of teachers to each school (and made no mention of a
cost/benefit situation). Twice as many correct choices were made in the first
version as compared with the second.
Humans tend to think quite well when something (like catching cheaters)
is at stake, and less well in more abstract and decontextualized settings. And,
indeed, work in neuropsychology, primatology, and anthropology is beginning to
suggest that social alliances, and the need to deceive and detect deception (calcu-
lation and not computation, one might say) was the driving evolutionary force
behind primate intelligence and the eventual development of specifically human
intelligence (Gazzaniga 1988, Lewin 1988).
THE COGNITIVE EFFECTS OF LITERACY (LITERACIES)
Much traditional work on literacy has made claims that literacy in a
generalized sense (which I have just argued doesn't exist) leads to generalized
content-and-context free "higher-order cognitive skills" (which I have also argued
don't exist). The whole question of the cognitive effects of literacy was redefined
by the groundbreaking work on the Vai in Liberia by Scribner and Cole (1981).
36 JAMES GEE
Scribner and Cole argue that specific social practices of (Western-style) formal
schooling, not some generalized literacy skills, give rise to what our (not neces-
sarily someone else's) culture thinks of as "higher" cognitive functions, such as
abstract decontextualized thought (and writing). Furthermore, different sorts of
social practices give rise to different sorts of mental effects.
In addition to literacy in English acquired in formal school settings and
used for governmental and educational purposes, the Vai have an indigenous
(syllabic, not alphabetic) script passed down within the community and with no
connection with Western-style schooling, used primarily for keeping records and
for letters. Since some Vai are versed in only one of these forms of literacy,
others in both, and still others are nonliterate altogether, Scribner and Cole could
disentangle various effects of literacy from effects of formal schooling (which
affected only the English literates).
Scribner and Cole examined subjects' performance on the sort of catego-
rization and syllogistic reasoning tasks our culture associates with "higher order
thinking." Vai literacy did not enhance performance on these sorts of tasks (nor
did Arabic alphabetic literacy, which some Vai also have). In contrast, literacy in
English, the only form associated with formal schooling, was associated with
some types of decontextualization and abstract reasoning:
A convenient way of grasping the role of school is to consider first those
tasks on which it was the highest ranking determinant of performance.
These were: explanation of sorting, logic explanation, explanation of
grammatical rules, game instructions (communication), and answers to
hypothetical questions about name switching. All of these are "talking
about" tasks.
... Once we move away from verbal exposition, we find no other
general patterns of cross-task superiority.
... school fosters abilities in expository talk in contrived
situations. All primary influences of schooling in the present research fit
this description (1981:242-243).
Scribner and Cole did not find that schooled, English-literate subjects,
many of whom had been out of school a number of years, differed from other
groups in their actual performance on categorization and abstract reasoning tasks.
They simply talked about them better, providing informative verbal descriptions
and justifications of their task activity. However, those who had recently been in
school did do better on the tasks, suggesting that both task performance and
verbal description of task performance improved as a result of schooled literacy,
but the former was transient unless practiced in the years after school.
There is another very important finding in the Scribner and Cole work.
Each literacy was associated with some quite specific skills. For example, Vai
script literacy was associated with specific skills in synthesizing spoken Vai in an
SOCIO-CULTURAL APPROACHES TO LITERACY (LITERACIES) 37
auditory integration task (repeating back Vai sentences decomposed, by pauses
between syllables, into their constituent syllables), in using language as a means
of instruction, and in talking about correct Vai speech. All of these skills are
closely related to everyday practices of Vai script literacy. For instance, the
ability to synthesize spoken Vai appears to follow from the large amount of
practice one gets in synthesizing language when decoding a syllabic script that
does not mark word divisions. (To construct meaning out of a chain of syllables,
the Vai script reader must often hold a sequence of syllables in working memory
until the unit of meaning, what words the syllables belong to, is determined.) Or,
to take another example, the Vai in writing letters often discuss the quality of the
letters and whether they are written in "good Vai." This practice appears to
enhance their ability to talk about correct speech on a grammar task.
Scribner and Cole, on the basis of such evidence, opt for what they call
"a practice account of literacy." A type of literacy enhances quite specific skills
that are practiced in carrying out that literacy. Grandiose claims for large and
global cognitive skills resulting from literacy are not, in fact, indicated.
More recent work has tended to stress the connection between different
ways of thinking and larger cultural world views and values (not deficits). For
instance, Shweder (1991) shows that a concrete-relational style of thought (in
referring to persons) is typical of Oriyas in the town of Orissa in India, as
opposed to the abstract style typical of many Americans. Oriyas, asked to
characterize someone, are liable to say something like "She brings cakes to my
family on festival days," or "He curses at his neighbors," while Americans are
more liable to say "She is friendly," or "He is aggressive and hostile." This
difference, however, Shweder argues, is unrelated to variations (either between
the Oriyas and Americans or among the Oriyas themselves) in cognitive skill,
intellectual motivation, available information, linguistic resources, literacy,
economic or social status, or amount of schooling. "By elimination, we are led to
consider the way a culture's world view and master metaphors per se influence
the relationship between what one thinks about and how one thinks" (1991:129).
For Shweder, the Oriyas' context-dependent thinking is but one aspect of their
broader sociocentric "organic" (or holistic) view of the relationship of the
individual to society, as opposed to many Americans' "egocentric reductionist"
view of "person-in-society."
SOCIO-COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT
Socio-cultural approaches to literacies usually adopt some version of a
Vygotskian approach to development (Vygotsky 1987, Wertsch 1985a). For
Vygotsky, human thought is always and everywhere mediated by cultural "tools"
with their own distinctive social histories, whether these be devices like hammers
or computers, or representational systems like writing or logic. How a tool is
used is always determined by the Discourse in which it is embeddedit has no
generalized meaning or function apart from specific social activities which render
it "useful" and which it in turn shapes:
38 JAMES GEE
The idea of tools for thought is an apposite...metaphor for thinking about
thinking. It says that thinking is fundamentally interdependent with the
traditional intellectual artifacts, representational schemes, and accumulat-
ed knowledge of some cultural or subcultural community. It says
that...the life of the mind becomes an extension or an analogue of, or an
appendage to, cultural artifacts and their built-in design features (Shweder
1991:98).
The child always learns to use the cultural tool first and foremost in
social activity with others, social activity which has a characteristic "shape."
This "shape" (suitably transformed in the process) progressively becomes part of
the mental equipment of the child, who can then carry out the social activity "on
her own" "in her head" where it still ever bears the traces of the social as its site
of origin and continual renewal. (Often now Vygotsky is supplemented by
Bakhtin in regard to the inherently social nature of all language and thought: see
Holquist 1990, Wertsch 1985b.)
In Vygotsky's view, then, the child's individual mental functioning
develops through experience with cultural tools in guided participation with more
skilled partners (adults or more expert peers). It is crucial, however, that this
guided participation be centered on those problems that the child can currently
solve only with more expert help, but which, with that help, she will soon be able
to solve on her own (Newman, Griffin and Cole, 1989). Other sorts of problems
are either too easy or too hard.
The key role of "expert guidance" can be seen in the research of Rogoff
and her colleagues (summarized in Rogoff 1990). In a planning task using a map
to plan a trip to get materials for a school play, nine-year-old children who had
collaborated with adults performed best; children who had worked with peers
trained to employ the optimal strategy in the task performed no better than those
who worked with untrained peers. Almost all the children working with adults
were active participants, observing or participating in decisions, whereas fewer
than half the children working with trained peers were active participants. The
presence of a partner may be irrelevant unless the partners truly work together in
problem solving.
This is not to say that collaboration among peers is not useful. In
circumstances where children have practice in interaction, coordinated parallel
activity, guidance, and collaboration, then cooperative classroom learning, in
which peers work together on academic tasks and provide one another with
motivation and feedback, is highly efficacious (Rogoff 1990: Ch. 9 for a survey
of the literature on peer collaboration). Without this practice, however, peers can
do harm to each other.
Rogoff (1990) suggests that collaboration with "experts" and collaboration
with "peers" at more or less the same level of expertise (so long as children are
SOCIO-CULTURAL APPROACHES TO LITERACY (LITERACIES) 39
practiced in real collaboration) are important for different goals (see also Forman
1987). Emphasis on expertise may be most important when the goal is the
development of new viewpoints and skills (Tudge 198S). Equality of status may
be important when the primary goal is to change someone's perspective on an
issue or problem. Thus, for example, Kruger (1988) found that eight-year-olds
who had discussed moral dilemmas with their peers progressed more in their
moral reasoning than did children who had discussed the dilemmas with their
mothers. The more interactive logical discussion of partners' ideas that
characterized peer conversations were positively correlated with the progress in
moral reasoning. In another study (Light and Glachan 198S), children working
together on a logic game made significant advances in skill from pre- to post-test
if they discussed their differences of opinion, but not otherwise.
The significance of relative expertise of partners, however, is not yet
resolved. The crucial factor appears to be the extent to which partners share in
problem solving and establish a common ground for their interaction. Less
skilled partners may provide the challenge to more skilled peers to develop new
ways of expressing notions; such notions could otherwise be taken for granted in
interactions with a more familiar and skilled partner.
SCHOOL SUCCESS AND FAILURE
One central issue that has energized a good deal of work on socio-cultural
approaches to literacies is the fact that a disproportionate number of children from
certain social groupslower socio-economic and certain minority groupsfail in
school. The character of the failure problem can be seen particularly clearly if
we consider the Bristol Language Project in Great Britain, a longitudinal language
development study of a socio-economically representative sample of children born
in the Bristol area (Wells 1986). The school success of these children at age ten
related strongly to the children's preparedness for literacy upon entry to school as
judged by a "Test of Knowledge of Literacy" given at age five (the test examined
whether or not the child could turn a book right side up, tell the text from the
pictures, point to a word and a sentence, and name or sound out letters). The
results of this test, in turn, related directly to early preschool literacy practices in
the home (e.g., story book reading). Finally, both these literacy practices and the
results of "The Test of Knowledge of Literacy" related most directly to the
children's social class. If the children's early home-based preparedness for
literacy is still strongly predicting their success in school at age ten, then school
itself is not having much of an impact, save to make the rich richer and the poor
poorer. Current research coming out of the project continues to show the same
sort of picture: the success of these children at age fourteen in foreign language
classes correlates quite highly with their family backgrounds; e.g., social class
and parental education (Skehan 1989).
Now, the actual knowledge and skills tapped by the Knowledge of
Literacy test are not what is really crucial. They are merely a by-product of an
early socialization into particular types of school-based literacy practices and their
40 JAMES GEE
concomitant Discourses (values, beliefs, ways of acting and interacting, as well as
talking, reading, and writing). Recent studies of the relationships between home,
social class, and school success in the U.S. context stress the complexity of the
relationships here, but do nothing to impugn the basic message of the Bristol
study (Snow, et al. 1991).
Socio-culturally situated studies of school failure have, by and large, had
three different emphases (Trueba 1989, special issue of Anthropology and Educa-
tion Quarterly 1987): discontinuities between the culture (values, attitudes, and
beliefs) of the home and school (Tharp and Gallimore 1988); mismatches in
communicative practices between non-mainstream children and mainstream
teachers that lead to miscommunication and misjudgments (Gee, Michaels and
O'Connor in press); and the internalization of negative stereotypes by minority
groups who did not choose to be made part of the U.S. (e.g., Afro-Americans,
Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans) as well as a concomitant focus on
school as a site for opposition and resistance (Fiske 1989, Ogbu and Matute-
Bianchi 1986).
However, these three emphases become parts of one larger picture within
an overall socio-cultural approach to literacy. Discourses integrate values,
beliefs, and ways of acting and interacting with ways of using oral and often
written language. They are integrally connected to identities and often incorpo-
rate oppositions to other Discourses. They are acquired through apprenticeships
that allow learners to accomplish with others what they cannot yet accomplish
alone. Thus, acquiring a new Discourse always involves risk in terms of gaining
a new identity and possibly losing or undermining old ones; it also involves the
vulnerability of "looking incompetent" while engaged in guided participation in
the zone between what one can do only with others and what one can do alone.
If the apprentices do not trust the teachers who will socialize them into new
Discourses, no real development can take place (Delpit 1986; 1988, Erickson
1987). And trust requires that the teacher be sensitive to the apprentice's other
Discourses (especially home- and community-based Discourses), acknowledge the
oppositions and conflicts that exist among Discourses, and be aware that the
"same" words and actions mean differently in different Discourses (and mean
nothing outside of any Discourse).
CONCLUSION
Socio-cultural approaches to literacy question several related common-
sense assumptions inherited from the discipline of cognitive psychology. Three of
these assumptions are as follows: 1) thinking and speaking are functions of
individual minds; 2) literacy is an individual mental skill involving the ability to
read and write; and 3) intelligence, knowledge, and aptitude are states of individ-
ual minds.
In line with these assumptions, the failure problem becomes a problem
that resides within individuals. This approach keeps us from situating the
SOCIO-CULTURAL APPROACHES TO LITERACY (LITERACIES) 41
problem in, and seriously changing, the institutions (schools) and the society that
perpetuates it. A socio-cultural approach to literacies replaces the three common-
sense assumptions above with the following socialized and historicized versions
(Gee 1990; in press, Mishler 1990): 1) thinking and speaking are functions of
social groups and their specific Discourses; 2) literacy is a social skill involving
the ability to take a functional part in one or more of a given social group's
Discourses, attained through guided participation and built on trust; and 3) a good
part of knowledge (what people have a right to claim to know) resides not in their
minds, but in the social practices of the groups to which they they belong.
Intelligence and aptitude, as measured by tests, are artificially constructed
measures of aspects of social practices taken out of context and attributed to
individuals.
ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Anthropology and Education Quarterly. 18.4. 1987. [Special issue on socio-
cultural approaches to literacy.]
This issue contains important papers dealing, from a socio-cultural
perspective, with the disproportionate failure of minority students.
Contributions stress issues of cultural discontinuities, communicative
mismatches, and the development of trust between teachers and students.
In general, this journal contains many good papers relevant to socio-
cultural approaches to literacies.
Bruner, J. 1990. Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
One of the founders of the "cognitive revolution" contends that its
fixation on the mind as an "information processor" has diverted it into
formal and technical issues that leave out persons, their intentions, and
their creation of meanings. Bruner, with a strong emphasis on the role of
narrative in human thinking and interaction, attempts the beginnings of a
psychology that will grasp the social-cultural interactions through which
mind constitutes and is constituted by culture.
Delpit, L. D. 1988. The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating
other people's children. Harvard Educational Review. 58.3.280-298.
An important paper (companion to Delpit 1986) arguing that process
approaches to literacy, which emphasize process over product and leave
students to discover formal aspects of writing and reading out of their
own experiences, often leave criteria for success with school-based
literacies tacit, thereby empowering those mainstream learners who
already know them or who are adept at inducing them given their prior
42 JAMES GEE
home and educational experiences. Focusing on lower socio-economic
Black learners, the paper argues that there are times when teachers need
to tell students explicitly the rules of the game by which school-based
literacies, classrooms, and mainstream society operate.
Edelsky, C. 1991. With literacy and justice for all: Rethinking the social in
language and education. London: Falmer Press.
This volume develops, with special reference to bilingual education, a
holistic view of school literacy practices in their social, cultural, and
political contexts, as well as an incisive criticism of a skills-and-testing
approach to literacy. The book is particularly strong in its integration of
theory and practice and contains good discussion about actual classroom
practices. Further high points include a thoughtful critique of Jim
Cummins' influential work in bilingual education, as well as several
chapters delineating the risks and possibilities of Whole Language views
on literacy and schooling (Edelsky refers to Whole Language as a
"theory-in-practice"). These latter chapters correct a number of impor-
tant misunderstandings and misuses of Whole Language philosophy.
Fiske, J. 1989. Understanding popular culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
This volume differentiates mass culture (the products put out by capi-
talistic society) from popular culture (the ways in which people use,
abuse, and subvert those products to create their own meanings and resist
subordination). It also analyzes popular "texts" (e.g., socio-culturally
situated uses and decodings of ripped jeans, romances, tabloids, and
popular TV shows) to unveil class, race, and gender dynamics in modern
society. Fiske provides many examples of literacies embedded in
Discourses which are outside schools and mainstream contexts of power
and influence.
Gee, J. P. 1990. Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London:
Falmer Press.
This volume surveys work on orality and literacy and develops a theo-
retical foundation for a socio-cultural approach to literacies rooted in the
notion of Discourses; as such, it stresses the inherent connections be-
tween literacies and ideologies. It goes on to develop a view of applied
linguistics in which literacy and educational issues are central and con-
tains many analyses of socially situated texts.
SOCIO-CULTURAL APPROACHES TO LFTERACY (LITERACIES) 43
Guerra, J. C. 1991. The role of ethnography in the reconceptualization of
literacy. Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human
Cognition. 13.1.3-9.
Based on research on the literacy practices of an extended Mexican-
immigrant family, this paper argues that the concept of literacy must be
pushed to its outer limits and include oral activities which are not tied to
written texts, but which involve abilities traditionally related to writing
and/or reading (e.g., the ability to analyze, discuss, and interpret ex-
tended chunks of language). This "newsletter" is a prime source for
contemporary work on social cognition and socio-cultural approaches to
literacies.
Mishler, E. G. 1990. Validation in inquiry-guided research: The role of exem-
plars in narrative studies. Harvard Educational Review. 60.4.415-442.
Given the context-and-content specific nature of human thinking and
action, socio-culturally situated research on literacies usually adopts
qualitative research approaches. Mishler offers a reformulation of the
notion of validation, one suitable for interpretive qualitative research.
Mishler grounds his notion of validity in concrete exemplars or models
of such research practice (three of which he discusses in this paper).
Myers, G. 1990. Writing biology: Texts in the social construction of scientific
knowledge. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
This volume is an excellent example of how socio-cultural approaches to
knowledge and literacy blur the border between "pure" and "applied"
research. Myers, a composition theorist, looks at grant writing, journal
papers, and popular science writing, showing how scientific "facts"
emerge from the processes of writing and revising; from responding to
criticisms and suggestions from colleagues, editors, and referees; and
from interactions between writer, academic community, and broader
audiences. Excellent textual analyses demonstrate how form and meaning
are inseparable from each other and from the social practices in which
they are embedded. This volume is a contribution also to the burgeoning
field of the sociology of scientific knowledge and practice.
Newman, D., P. Griffin and M. Cole. 1989. The construction zone: Working for
cognitive change in school. New York: Cambridge University Press.
This important study discusses how experiments can be done and evalua-
ted once psychology moves out of the laboratory and views cognition as
socially situated and rooted in the specific nature of concrete tasks and
activities. It also shows how lower-socioeconomic and minority students
come to master new school-based ways of thinking (such as classification)
which the teacher may assume to be already in place and which main-
44 JAMES GEE
stream students have already mastered. Just when these students are ready
to pass the fact-based tests rooted in these ways of thinking, which the
mainstream children have already passed, the teacher has moved on to a
new unit. Thus, these students both learn (without the teacher knowing it)
and fail.
Rogoff, B. 1990. Apprenticeship in thinking. New York: Oxford University
Press.
The thesis of this book, developed in a Vygotskian and cross-cultural
framework, is that the rapid development of young children into skilled
participants in society is accomplished through children's routine, and
often tacit, guided participation in ongoing cultural activities. This occurs
through observation and participation with others in culturally organized
practices. Rogoff stresses the socio-culturally situated and interactive
nature of cognition based on interactions between peers, between adults
and children, and between environment and learner. The book also
provides an interesting comparison of Piaget and Vygotsky.
Rose, M. 1989. Lives on the boundary. New York: Penguin Books.
Rose presents a superb discussion of the actual demands for ways of
talking, writing, reading, and valuing called for by different academic,
social, and intellectual settings. Rose, who grew up in poverty in Los
Angeles, explains in concrete fashion what it took for him and his stu-
dents (in a variety of literacy settings) to gain apprenticeships in specific
literacy practices. He also discusses the ways in which mainstream
institutions deny true apprenticeships to many students with very real
untapped capabilities.
Shweder, R. A. 1991. Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural
psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
This volume offers an approach to psychology that stresses context,
content, and culture instead of central processing mechanisms and formal
decontextualized representations. Shweder presents many cross-cultural
demonstrations of how culture and psyche are co-constructed. This is the
sort of psychology that underpins a socio-cultural approach to literacies.
Snow, C. E., et al. 1991. Unfulfilled expectations: Home and school influences
on literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
This volume documents a longitudinal study of lower socio-economic
children. The literacy environment of the home, the mother's education,
and the mother's educational expectations for the child were the most
powerful home influences on word recognition and vocabulary skills. At
school, sufficiently challenging basals encouraged word recognition,
SOCIO-CULTURAL APPROACHES TO LITERACY (LITERACIES) 45
while a variety of reading materials and an emphasis on inference ques-
tions encouraged vocabulary growth. Variables reflecting emotional and
organizational dimensions of family life related strongly to writing.
Contacts between teachers and parents over academic matters were
strongly associated with improved schoolwork and gains on reading
achievement. Reading comprehension was sensitive to a wide array of
home and school variables, with no one variable standing out as most
important. Four years later, when the children were in high school, the
researchers' optimistic expectations for the earlier higher achievers in the
group were not met. (This occurred because the researchers failed to
realize, in my opinion, that literacy is not a matter of how you fare on a
test, but how fully you are a member of a specific Discourse or socio-
cultural practice in thought, word, deed, and values.)
Swales, J. M. 1990. Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
This volume presents an excellent general discussion of the functioning of
genres as conventional ways in which various academic Discourses carry
out their routine intellectual tasks and offers a close look at one genre,
academic research reports. The notion of genre is playing an increasingly
crucial role in literacy research as the site where access into Discourses is
often achieved or failed. The book will help to reinvigorate English for
Special Purposes (ESP) education for college non-native speakers and
writers.
Tharp, R. and R. Gallimore. 1988. Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning,
and schooling in social context. New York: Cambridge University Press.
The authors provide an important synthesis of a Vygotskian approach to
education with a culturally sensitive psychology. This synthesis supports a
highly successful educational program built around the cultural values and
assumptions of the minority children involved, the Kamehameha Elemen-
tary Education Program (KEEP) in Hawaii (later extended to schools in
California and Arizona). Tharp and Gallimore see all learning as the
ongoing development of discourse ability as they seek to establish a new
"science of pedagogy."
Trueba, H. 1989. Raising silent voices: Educating the linguistic minorities for the
21st century. Cambridge, MA: Newbury House.
Trueba provides a discussion of minority language education (bilingual
education, sheltered content courses in L2, and ESL) from a socio-
cultural perspective on cognition and literacy. Within the historical,
social, and economic contexts of minority education, with due regard for
interactions between learning and culture, the book describes successful
bilingual education programs, legislation affecting language minority
46 JAMES GEE
education in the U.S., teacher empowerment, and the role of school
administrators in the implementation of language minority programs.
Wertsch, J. V. 1991. Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated
action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wertsch integrates Vygotsky and Bakhtin to offer an approach to the
mind that stresses the cultural, historical, and institutional contexts of
thought. The key analytic device is the notion of cultural tools ("media-
tional means"), especially various sorts of linguistic devices in terms of
which different types of "higher order" thought become possibleboth at
the individual and the social levels. The last three chapters develop
Bakhtin's ideas about how whenever we speak or write we "borrow" the
"voices" of others; that is, we borrow the characteristic ways of speaking
and writing of particular social or cultural groups, historical periods, or
social institutions. Thought and language become socially shared,
extending beyond the skin, and always inhabited by others from whom
we have borrowed.
Willinsky, J. 1990. The new literacy: Redefining reading and writing in the
schools. New York: Routledge.
This volume brings together advocates of whole language, process, and
socially interactive approaches to literacy with those who have spoken out
for students silenced through the politics of gender, color, and social
class. Willinsky argues for a New Literacy that is not totally absorbed in
overcoming writer's block or boredom, but wrestles with the promise of
empowerment inherent in some literacy practices. The volume contains
many good descriptions of teachers and classrooms.
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