22nd September 2000 at 01:00
REFLECTING ON LITERACY IN EDUCATION. By Peter Hannon. Routledge, Falmer pound;15.99

In public discourse on literacy, questions surrounding its development are often reduced merely to questions about mechanics - the "need" for more teaching of phonics is a case in point. Any contribution which intelligently debates the issues is to be welcomed.

Peter Hannon begins with some questions about what it is to be literate and what literacy is for. He challenges the prophets of doom - the US academic Stephen Pinker, for example, is taken to task for his absurd statement, "We (Americans) are turning into a nation of illiterates".

If Americans are, to continue with Pinker, "the victims of misguided ideas about the nature of reading and how to teach it", why is it that the blighted generation of the Sixties are now the progenitors of the most successful economy the world has ever seen? Americans of that generation are also well above the rest of the world in output of Nobel Prize winners. Poor old America.

Hannon is too polite to deconstruct fully the absurdity of Pinker's assertion, but he seeks reasons for the over-readiness of politicians to seek scapegoats for the ills of society in education: teaching is a soft target when it comes to explaining why much of the population fails to learn to read adequately. That failure has nothing, of course, todo with poverty, inequality or the structure of education funding.

In Reading Lessons (1998), academic Gerald Coles linked the need for politicians to find scapegoats with the need for professional, academic and commercial interests to "discover" easy pedagogic solutions to illiteracy. Politicians and certain academics and publishers, he asserted, live in a comfortable symbiosis of grants, royalties and easy answers to illiteracy. Hannon doesn't go this far, but he asks the right questions and leaves readers to make up their own minds.

He goes on to look at the future of reading and the erosion of formalities (hitherto seen as vital) which, for example, accompany the increasing use of email. As the need for these formalities evaporates, we can ask what they were for. To aid communication? Or to signal membership of a club?

Hannon argues for a "pluralist view of literacy". He discusses theories of literacy development, reflects on teaching methods and examines the way literacy is researched.

Always avoiding the kind of answers many people long for (and which almost as many are prepared to provide), his book won't be liked by some. But it's a fine book - thought-provoking, well constructed and well argued by an author who knows what he is talking about.

Gary Thomas is professor of education at Oxford Brookes University

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