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Literacy and Education


By James Paul Gee Cost: £22.49 Publisher: Routledge Pages: 148 ISBN 978-1-138-82604-5


Reviewed by Aileen Ackland Aileen Ackland is a senior lecturer at the School of Education, University of Aberdeen where she teaches and researches in relation to community and adult education. Her doctorate research explored the power relations between theory, policy and practice in the adoption of the 'social practices approach' in the Scottish Adult Literacies initiative.


This slim volume by James Gee is the latest in Routledge's series of books on Key Ideas in Education. Described as 'virtuosic', these short introductions to critical topics promise dialogue and conversation with seminal figures. James Gee is certainly an inspirational writer in the field of literacies and was hugely influential on my own thinking as I researched how a social practices perspective of literacies was construed in theory, policy and practice in Scotland. I approached this book, therefore, with great anticipation. It is a book which is easy to get drawn into, quick to read and may be a catalyst for flashes of insight. If you are looking for a comprehensive guide to the topic, as implied by the title, you may, however, be disappointed.


The tone is mainly conversational as Gee tells the reader stories – of his own development as a researcher, of the emergence of the New Literacy Studies, of the changing practices of literacies in society. The writing is rich with metaphor as he explores how literacy 'left the mind and wandered out into the world'. Gee wanders through the world of literacy, illuminating with stories diverse literacies practices from the epic poets of ancient Greece to contemporary digital games designers.


The book is in four chapters: Introduction; Literacy; The Social Mind; Digital Media. The chapter titles, and indeed the section headings, however, are not particularly helpful and this is a book best read, I think, as a stimulating conversation in four movements. It is not a text book and as an introduction to the topic its merit is in provocation rather than explanation. As with any conversation, it is uneven, sometimes tangential, occasionally maddening. There were times when reading that I wanted to stop and ask why, remonstrate or argue back. I found it an engaging read.


In the preface, Gee justifies his decision to limit the references in the text to major accessible sources. These references are ample and a reader provoked to consider alternative understandings of literacy might use these references to explore the territory in more depth. I hope readers encountering this book as an introduction to a social and cultural perspective of literacy will be encouraged to delve deeper. I have a concern that some important ideas are not made explicit enough in this book to challenge prevailing assumptions about literacy.


The word education is used in the title but it is mainly schools and schooling which are dealt with in the text. There is much that is relevant to adult education but very little is made explicit and although I believe Gee's overall argument is to question the privileging of school literacy, it is not always easy to follow the thread of this argument through the different stories. Vital points such as that school achievement and status are not the only markers of success are relegated to bracketed asides.


Chapter three deals at length with parenting and gives examples of the myriad ways in which 'educated parents' prepare children for the expectations of school literacy.


In contrast, in chapter one Gee has 41


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