New Ideas, Changing Practice
by Diane Dagenais
Il faut faire des activités de littératie puis
on ne savait pas trop c’était quoi et puis on le demandait
aux gens puis ils ne savaient pas trop non plus c’était
quoi, donc il y avait beaucoup de flottement dans les concepts.
We have to do literacy activities and we didn’t know exactly
what they were and we asked people and they didn’t know
what it was either, so the concepts were fuzzy.
(French teacher B, Interview 17: 478-681)
Traditionally, francophones used the term alphabétisation to
discuss literacy, but it most commonly referred to developing individual
decoding skills in reading and conforming to the grammatical code
in writing. Painchaud, d’Anglejan, Armand and Jezak (1993)
suggested that alphabétisation did not adequately
capture the semantic construct of literacy as social practice. They
proposed that the francophone community adopt the French neologism littératie1.
Their suggestion drew considerable attention in francophone academic
and professional circles where the introduction of new French terms
is carefully scrutinized to avoid adopting anglicisms.
Their argument formed the basis of a literacy project. The project’s
aims included changing perceptions of literacy and introducing novel
literacy activities in classes d’accueil, Quebec’s
welcoming classes for new immigrant students. As indicated in the
above quotation, the term littératie generated considerable
confusion and endless debates among the francophone educators involved
in this project.
Within the context of this literacy project, my own research was
to document the process of educational change2. In this article,
I draw on discussions presented elsewhere3 to examine how talk about littératie changed
among these educators as they participated in this project. My study
of educational change was informed by political and cultural theories
of organizational change (Candlin 1996; Fullan l991 and 1997; Gilly
1989) that examine change phenomena from the perspective of participants
in innovative projects. According to this framework, as people in
an organization participate in a change project, they construct new
meanings about the content and process of the innovation (the what
and how of change according to Fullan 1991). Thus, I was interested
in exploring how a group of education professionals collectively
and individually interpreted what was meant by literacy in the context
of a literacy project.
My research on educational change also drew on the work of French
social psychologists who proposed social representation (la représentation
sociale) as a construct to articulate how people attribute meaning
to their shared experiences through discourse (Doise 1988; Jodelet
1989). These meanings, or social representations, may be relatively
homogenous, shared by all, or they may be heterogeneous when they
include divergent or contradictory notions that are more or less
shared by group members. For example, the group may have a very similar
social representation about reading instruction or they may have
diverging ideas about it. In the latter case, individuals strategically
align themselves with particular notions about reading instruction
to signal allegiance or opposition to these ideas. Social representations
are thus dynamic and can lead to either group conflict or the negotiation
of new shared meanings.
Definitions of social representation advanced in French scholarship
share some commonalities with Gee’s (1999) discussion of discourse
and Discourse (with a capital “D”). Drawing on French
scholars Bourdieu and Foucault, contemporaries of the social psychologists
working on la représentation sociale, Gee proposed
that discourse, defined as “language-in-use or stretches of
language (like conversations or stories)” be distinguished
from Discourse, which he viewed as “ways of using language…to
identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group” (p.
17). His concept of Discourse and the French construct la représentation
sociale both articulate how language is used to signal group
membership. However, Gee focuses specifically on ways of using language,
whereas francophone scholars who refer to la représentation
sociale primarily emphasize how groups construct meaning and
secondarily consider how meaning is expressed through language and
I applied the concept of social representation to my study of educational
change and analysis of educators’ talk about littératie. The
concept helped uncover how a group’s representation of literacy
can be constituted by diverging ideas. It also helped interpret how
individuals may align with a particular discourse on literacy as
a means of positioning themselves strategically in relation to others.
Drawing on Gee (1996), discourse is conceptualized here as a socio-cultural
expression of beliefs, values, behaviours and ways of talking. It
serves to situate the social identity of individuals and their membership
in particular discourse communities.
My analysis revealed that over the course of the literacy project,
two divergent discourses emerged in the group’s representation
of littératie. At times, participants in this
project adopted a technical discourse that equated literacy with
individual abilities and school practice and, at other times, they
aligned themselves with a social discourse that linked literacy to
larger social phenomena beyond the school context. In what follows,
I describe the context of the literacy project, the research methodology
and the two discourses that constituted the group’s representation
of littératie. I conclude by examining how contextual
factors led these educators to refer to one discourse over another
at different stages of the project.
The objective of the literacy project was to change perceptions
about literacy and literacy practices among educators involved in
secondary school classes d’accueil serving adolescent
immigrants who had been designated low literate. The project grouped
together a range of educators including secondary school teachers,
resource personnel, consultants and administrators from a large urban
school district, representatives from the Ministry of Education and
researchers from two local universities.
During the project, the educators read academic and professional
literature on literacy written in English, particularly texts published
by authors such as Williams and Capizzi-Snipper (1990), Ferdman (1990),
Heinrich (1986), Simich-Dudgeon (1989) and Zamel (1987). In project
meetings they discussed their understanding of literacy and ways
of changing literacy teaching in the classes d’accueil.
As well, the educators planned, developed and implemented a set
of innovative approaches to teaching literacy that had rarely been
used in classes d’acccueil at the time. For example,
whereas the program traditionally emphasized oral language development
and provided students with few opportunities to become familiar with
print, educators in the project decided to have students interact
with a wide variety of print materials. The participating classes
were equipped with reading corners, teachers read books to students
and the latter consulted printed materials independently during daily
silent-reading periods. As well, students corresponded with teachers
on a daily basis in dialogue journals. This was a marked departure
not only from the usual teaching practices within classes d’accueil,
but also from the dominant practices in the broader secondary school
programs where French language lessons focused on teaching grammar
and technical skills in a linear progression and published textbooks
were the sole teaching resource.
In order to examine the change process and the construction of social
representations of littératie, I adopted a qualitative
research methodology. This approach was inspired by school-based
ethnographies that examine meaning making in educational processes
(Bolster 1983) and the lived experiences of participants in school
innovations (Everhart l988).
Data collection approaches included interviewing participants, field-based
observations and collecting relevant documents. In all, thirty-one
interviews were conducted in three fieldwork phases over the two-year
implementation of the project. The individual interviews took place
during school hours and lasted about an hour each. As well, over
eighteen months during the project, I observed classrooms, professional
development activities and meetings between the participants. Moreover,
I gathered every document related directly or indirectly to the project
to glean information about the context. The documents and field notes
served as secondary sources for this analysis to triangulate information
gathered in interviews.
Two Discourses on Literacy
As suggested above, two types of discourse emerged in discussions
about literacy; a discourse focusing on technique and school-based
skills and a discourse referring to the social aspects of literacy
that extend beyond school.
A Technical Discourse
The technical discourse was composed of references to the operationalization
of literacy teaching and approaches to reading and writing instruction.
Literacy was described in terms of teaching activities, observable
behaviours and school language used across the curriculum. One participant
associated literacy with learning to manipulate books:
La littératie c’est le développement de
toutes sortes de comportements qui sont en rapport avec l’apprentissage
de la langue. . . à savoir qu’un étudiant qui
nous arrive, qui ouvre son livre à l’envers, un des
aspects de la littératie à développer, c’est
que cet étudiant-là puisse ouvrir son livre convenablement.
Literacy is the development of all sorts of behaviours related
to language learning…such as a student who arrives, opens
his book backwards, one of the aspects of literacy to develop,
is for that student to be able to open his book appropriately.
(French teacher C, Interview 9: 432-438).
According to another teacher, this development corresponded to an
increased motivation concerning school tasks based on writing. He
described literacy in terms of knowledge and work habits associated
with scholastic activities:
C’est un ensemble d’habitudes et de comportements
scolaires que l’on fait passer par certaines activités
qui touchent beaucoup la motivation des élèves. .
. et qui amène les élèves à se comporter
comme des lecteurs, comme des écrivains, comme des étudiants
qui aiment venir à l’école.
It is a collection of school practices and behaviours that we
communicate through certain activities that address student motivation…and
that lead students to behave like readers, like writers, like
students who like to come to school.
(French teacher B, Interview 2-609-617)
These descriptions were closely related to traditional discussions
of alphabétisation that emphasized a set of discrete
school-based skills and behaviours students must acquire to become
literate. This view of literacy was more narrow and superficial than
the social discourse view.
A Social Discourse on Literacy
The social discourse on literacy made reference to developing a
conscious awareness of the functions of written language in daily
activities. In keeping with this perspective, students were immersed
in a literate environment to learn about the relevance of literacy
in social interactions. In this view, literacy learning extended
beyond the school so that students became aware of literacy in all
C’est de faire prendre conscience aux élèves
ou à ces adolescents-là qu’on est dans une
société où presque tout passe par l’écrit.
It is making the students aware or, for these adolescents, that
we are in a society where almost everything is communicated in writing.
(Consultant B, Interview 22: 919-924)
According to another participant, this awakening would lead students
to understand the place of literacy in their adopted society:
Mais l’idée de la littératie était
beaucoup plus de rendre les élèves autonomes, de
leur donner, tant au niveau de la lecture qu’au niveau de
l’écriture, de leur donner le goût de lire,
la conscientisation de ce besoin dans les sociétés
modernes et avec les technologies actuelles.
But the idea that literacy was much more than making students autonomous,
to give them, as much in reading as in writing, to give them the
interest in reading, the awareness of the need for this in modern
societies and with current technologies.
(Researcher A, Interview 36: 408-411)
Another participant indicated that literacy enabled students to
acquire cultural capital and become members of a society that communicates
through the written word:
C’était nécessairement beaucoup plus large
que de la lecture…c’est à dire que
je développerais chez eux cette perception d’être,
de faire partie du monde des lettrés.
It was necessarily much larger than reading…that is, that
I would develop in them this perception of being…of being
a part of the literate world.
(Consultant A, Interview 8: 1125-1138)
In the first phase of fieldwork, two out of three teachers referred
to a technical discourse on literacy. At this point in the project,
the teachers had just participated in a workshop on school-based
literacy activities. In the second phase of fieldwork, a social discourse
dominated the discussions of literacy and in the third phase, a bi-dimensional
representation took on more importance.
My analysis of interviews and observations of project meetings revealed
that it became difficult for the participants to construct a shared
representation of literacy. Participants were confronted with their
different interpretations of this concept:
Ce qui a handicapé le projet, c’est un petit peu
une différence de philosophie du principe littératie…plusieurs
conceptions de la littératie.
What handicapped the project was a bit of a difference in philosophy
about the literacy principle…several conceptions of literacy.
(Resource Person, Interview 7: 651-727)
Differences in expectations concerning the operationalization of
literacy instruction were the source of heated debates and led to
Il y a eu des débats assez importants; ça nous
a pris un certain temps pour essayer de voir clair, je dirais,
dans ce projet. Le point de départ des uns et des autres
n’était pas clair; il y avait des écarts, je
dirais, considérables quant à la compréhension
même du projet, de la littératie. …Ce
qui a pris plus de temps, c’est de savoir, de définir
exactement qu’est-ce que c’est la littératie
et l’application de la littératie dans une démarche
pédagogique…ça a été un peu
There were important debates; it took us some time to try to see
clearly, I would say, in this project. Each person’s starting
point was not clear; there were considerable gaps, I would say, as
to the understanding of the project itself, of literacy. …What
took more time was to know, to define exactly what is literacy and
the application of literacy in a pedagogical process…that
was a bit more difficult.
(Ministry of Education Administrator, Interview 6:
In summary, the participants constructed a heterogeneous representation
of literacy composed of both technical and social discourses. These
two discourses were not equally important, however, since the social
discourse dominated discussions of literacy in both the second and
third phases of fieldwork. The following section explores how contextual
factors linked to the change process led to a preference for a social
discourse and explains its appeal for participants in the project.
Research on change and the construction of social representations
provide conceptual tools that help us understand why participants
in this project tended to shy away from a technical discourse on
literacy. Before implementing the project, details about pedagogical
practice and literacy teaching were not defined because the people
who initiated the project wanted to distance themselves from innovations
that aim at testing materials or prescribing a particular approach.
This lack of precision about how to operationalize the project may
actually have allowed the participants to retreat to a zone of security
during the change process. Within this zone, they could intervene
in the project in their own way while everyone tried to make sense
of what was meant by literacy and how to change literacy instruction.
Crozier and Friedberg (l977) propose that this type of uncertainty
actually allows members of an organization to preserve a margin of
freedom when they are expected to implement change.
Thus, it is possible to imagine that over time participants may
have affiliated with a social discourse in order to avoid formulating
a more operational definition of literacy. Talking about literacy
in broad social terms may have been more appealing because it was
less risky than talking about it in terms of school practice. The
latter was a thorny issue because there was a lot of confusion and
it became apparent that participants had very divergent ideas about
how to teach literacy.
Moreover, participants who adopted a social discourse on literacy
indicated to all that they supported the objectives of a project
such as this one that promoted equal access to society and school
success for low literate students. The social discourse enabled participants
to subscribe to a shared vision of the future. This corresponds to
the notion of vision building presented by Fullan (1991) in his discussion
of school change. According to Fullan, vision building is a vital
process in educational innovation. Adopting a social discourse on
literacy served to rally the project participants around a democratic
notion that was valued by the group and mobilized them to collective
Similarly, Gilly (l989) suggested that in contexts of school reform,
some participants can choose to affiliate with a particular social
representation for strategic reasons, to signal publicly that they
are conforming to the intentions of the innovation, or conversely,
to resist or mask non-change. In adopting a social discourse on literacy
composed of general statements about society that shift the focus
away from describing actual classroom practice, some participants
may have been avoiding criticism and conflict. It is also possible
to conceive, following Gilly (l989), that participants adopted a
social discourse on literacy because it provided them with a possibility
of maintaining some stability and buying time while they tried to
develop a more concrete and school-based interpretation of this concept.
One can wonder what the impact of adopting a social discourse on
literacy had on pedagogical practice in such an innovative project.
While adopting a social discourse on literacy may have served to
protect participants for a while during the change process and allowed
them to expand their understanding of literacy to include language
processes beyond the school context, it did have an important limitation.
As Carrington and Luke (1997) suggested, discourses on the social
benefits of literacy play an important educational role. They raise
critical reflections on the socio-political implications of literacy
but present few solutions for classroom practice. In terms of this
project, by favouring a social discourse on literacy, the educator
group was never able to clearly construct a shared representation
of how literacy teaching would change. Yet, the fact that several
individuals leaned to a social discourse on literacy and a number
of others adopted elements of both a social and a technical discourse
did not necessarily mean that there was no change in pedagogical
practice or no movement toward articulating how classroom instruction
might change when talking about littératie as opposed
to alphabétisation. It simply indicated that, while
participants were willing to adopt a broader discourse on the social
and political dimensions of literacy, several were still reluctant
to advance a more operational definition of this concept. Thus, it
seems that the degree of pedagogical change in such a project may
depend not only on the importance accorded to a critical examination
of literacy learning in larger society, but in carefully exploring
how introducing a new term like littératie to educators
implies not only a change of terminology or of perspective but a
change in teaching practice as well.
1. Though the use of the term littératie has
gained ground in francophone Quebec and Europe in the last decade,
some educators still refer to alphabétisation. Generally,
the use of littératie is more frequent in academic
and professional circles among those who take the position that literacy
is a social practice.
2. This research was funded by doctoral fellowships
from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
and the Graduate Faculty of l’Université de Montréal.
I gratefully acknowledge the participants in the study who generously
shared their understanding of littératie and thank
reviewers for Literacies for their helpful comments on an
earlier version of this paper.
3. This text is adapted from an earlier article published
in French (Dagenais 2001) and builds on arguments presented in July
2002 at the Portraits of Literacy Conference, University of British
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