19th May 2000 at 01:00
LITERACY, POWER AND SOCIAL JUSTICE. By Adrian Blackledge. Trentham Books pound;13.95

Literacy, Power and Social Justice adds to an already extensive literature on the need to take children's home environment into account when thinking about how they learn. But while initiatives such as the Language in the National Curriculum project helped us understand the importance of critical language awareness, the message of literacy experts has not reached such a wide audience.

Much of the work in this field has been carried out by anthropologists and ethnographers, perhaps the best known being that of Shirley Brice-Heath. Adrian Blackledge cites her work as evidence of the way in which the literacy practices of some homes closely correspond with those found in schools.

Children brought up in such households tend to fare much better at school than those brought up in homes where the practices are not so closely matched.

But work in the United States and the Unied Kingdom has shown that understanding the literacy practices of different communities, particularly from non English-speaking ethnic minorities, benefits pupils.

Adrian Blackledge's book intelligently builds on this work by examining a Bangladeshi community in Birmingham. What is new about his study is the way he uses the work of the psychologist Vygotsky, who wrote extensively on the way in which language supports learning, to help explain how pupils are supported in the home by adults.

The main thesis of the book, however, suggests that assuming literacy is the acquisition of a set of discrete skills is mistaken. Blackledge argues that literacy develops within a cultural context. Failure to recognise this is to disadvantage some of our most vulnerable pupils. For, as the title suggests, literacy is not only about decoding words on a page but about access to power and social justice.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer at King's College London

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