National Writing Project

Book Review: Literacy and Learning: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and Society

By: Elizabeth Radin Simons
Date: March 2, 2010

Summary: Elizabeth Radin Simons reviews Deborah Brandt's collected essays on the dramatic changes in "literacy sponsorship" over the last century and the implications for teaching and learning literacy today.


Deborah Brandt discusses the history
of literacy and learning.

Lately I've surprised my friends with the questions, "So, how much writing do you do for your work? And what do you write?" I am overwhelmed by how eager they are to talk about literacy on the job; how much there is; how it can be both good and bad; and how it's learned or not.

I've been asking these questions since reading Deborah Brandt's new book Literacy and Learning: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and Society , a combination of previously published essays, previously unpublished talks, and new work. In 2003 Brandt won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Education and the book is part of the series Outstanding Ideas in Education.

The understated academic title of Brandt's book doesn't begin to hint at the wallop this small book packs. Brandt's historical study of literacy suggests startling changes in literacy over the last century.

Consider this finding from interviews of four generations of a single family (Genna May was born in 1889, her great-grandson in 1981): "For members of the community in which Genna May grew up, the ability to write the words of everyday life often marked the end of formal schooling, whereas for Michael May [Genna's great grandson], these experiences served as a preparation for kindergarten."

Brandt predicts that literacy is changing so fast that we have little idea what the adult literacy world of today's kindergarteners will be. What we do know, she posits, is that today's kindergartener, as an adult, will not be able to rely on traditional knowledge but will need to "adapt, improvise and amalgamate" as he or she works "the borders between tradition and change."

Brandt's research raises critical questions for teachers, especially for teachers of marginalized students, since the changing role of literacy has the potential for the greatest damage to the lives of these students.

"Sponsors of Literacy"

Since 1990 Brandt has been interviewing people born between 1900 and 1980 about their histories as readers and writers. Her interviewees, diverse in age, class, and ethnicity, are all from the same county in Wisconsin where she teaches.

Two big findings from her interviews drive her writing: the first is the necessity of historical perspective for educators, and the second is the influences of what she names "sponsors of literacy" on the individual development of readers and writers.

Brandt defines sponsors of literacy as "agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who teach, model, support, recruit, extort, deny, or suppress literacy and gain advantage by it in some way." Sponsors can be secular, religious, bureaucratic, commercial, or technological.

Schools are no longer the major disseminators of literacy.

Brandt's interviews illustrate a stunning shift in sponsors. In the past, chief sponsors of literacy, especially of reading, were the church and state. "Reading was critical to salvation in the ideology of the Protestant church and to citizenship in the ideology of the Republic."

Those sponsors still exist but they have been eclipsed in the last century by business, industry, and government. We know what it means when the church and state sponsor literacy but much less when the major sponsors shift to business and industry.

Anyone working with students is aware that there are literacy influences outside of school, but I didn't have an inkling of how formidable and pervasive the economic sponsors of literacy have become and of their potential to be both positive and pernicious. Brandt writes that the lower academic performance of poor and marginalized students will be further affected by limited access, compared to the access of middle- and upper-class children, to business and government sponsors of literacy.

We are living, Brandt writes, in a knowledge economy where knowledge, most of it codified in writing, is "more valuable than land, equipment, or even money."

Changing Perspectives on Literacy

While I recommend reading the whole book, if you only have limited time, I suggest looking at individual chapters. Start with the foundational chapter 1, "Sponsors of Literacy," which illustrates the change in the individual development of writers through historical economic changes. It also explores Brandt's central concept of sponsors of literacy.

Then choose from these chapters:

Chapter 2, "Literacy in American Lives: Living and Learning in a Sea of Change" looks at two women, one born in 1904 and one in 1971, with similarities of background but different literacy lives because of the sponsors available to them.

Chapter 3, "Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the Twentieth Century," explains what literacy skills people needed at the end of the 20th century and the implications for schools.

Chapter 4, "Remembering Writing, Remembering Reading," reveals differences in interviewees' memories of reading and writing. "[W]hereas people tended to remember reading for the sensual and emotional pleasure that it gave," Brandt found, "they tended to remember writing for the pain or isolation it was meant to assuage."

Chapter 5, "Writing for a Living: Literacy and the Knowledge Economy," covers the benefits and dangers for writers when their texts become major commercial products.

In chapter 6, "The Status of Writing,"Brandt develops her theory about "the transactional fungible quality of writing—the way it is amenable to systems of work, wages and market—that gives writing its unusual status in the history of mass literacy and makes it so different from reading."

Chapter 7, "How Writing Is Remaking Reading," is an elaboration of chapter 6. "For perhaps the first time the history of mass literacy," Brandt suggests, "writing seems to be eclipsing reading as the literate experience of consequence." She considers the consequences when most of this writing is for employers.

Implications of Literacy Shifts

In her concluding chapter, an excerpt from her book Literacy in American Lives , Brandt offers implications from her work. First, with the shift in sponsorship of literacy, "schools are no longer the major disseminators of literacy," but have been replaced by commercial, industrial, and government sponsors of literacy.

Second, with the changes in workplace literacy, parents are bringing all kinds of resources into the home. Brandt argues that "the relationship between parental work and literacy must play a more prominent role in approaches to family literacy."

Brandt's historical study of literacy suggests startling changes in literacy over the last century.

Third, since sponsorship in parents' lives may be very different from sponsorship in the lives of their children, teachers and parents are faced with the dilemma of how to teach reading and writing in genres they may not know and/or that have not been invented.

To use an example from the past, in one of many case studies presented in the book, Brandt talks of a man who in the twentieth century started in an assembly line, was educated by the union to represent workers, and finally became a legal advocate for workers. But as legislation around unions grew, although he worked hard to retrain himself, he was superseded by lawyers trained in union law. His union teachers did not foresee and therefore did not prepare him for the changing literacy demands of his job.

Fourth, the powerful forces of the economy on literacy create ethical questions, especially for students with the least academic access to the sponsors of literacy. Brandt maintains that unless schools and business collaborate to educate students to the realities of literacy in the marketplace, the students will suffer from "the Matthew effect" of accumulated disadvantage on the development of their literacy skills.

Even before I finished this book, I was handing out chapters to teachers in the urban school where I work. One wise seventh grade humanities teacher said, "Well, in a way it isn't new; we should be teaching them how to learn. But am I doing this? I focus on genre; they learn to recognize new genres and decipher their rules of composition. Will that be enough?"

Unclear, but it's a promising beginning for a longer investigation.

About the Author

Elizabeth Radin Simons, a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project, is a school coach in Oakland, California.

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