Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

What Literacies?

“Well, what are we talking about exactly?” Defining terminology in research and education policy is about demarcating territories so that they can be understood, responded to and provisioned. It is about evolving frameworks that best delineate the opportunities and challenges we presently perceive before us. RaPAL are arranging an online pre-conference debate and co-ordinated conference workshop on a change in terminology in England and Wales: (functional) English/ Maths vs literacy/ numeracy and which reflects themes in many current debates internationally. My experience, for what it is worth, is that literacies are specialist terms laden with technically developed meaning and political ideological positioning for those in the field. They did not come to be familiar to or well understood by the man on the street, business or anyone else really – neither the term nor the plethora of previous qualifications.

This, and the ever-demands of demonstrating distance travelled and standards achieved, has led to a recent terminology change in England and Wales educational policy, which has seen ‘literacy’ dropped after a couple of decades in the institutional limelight, and has been found to have fed through to naming conventions on the front line. We are interested in what these terms mean to stakeholders and the implications of the change. The pragmatic/ political reasons for the adoption of the umbrella terms ‘English’ and ‘Maths’ appear to be a population’s sense of clarity as to what they mean (debatable as this may be) and its association with the ‘gold standard’ of GCSE English and Maths in the UK. English, Maths and ICT are terms ‘understood’ by all. Quite what is then meant by them and what education should encompass is to be defined in negotiation between the various stakeholders, a lot of which is currently going on. The exact provision/ curriculum content has been highly variable regardless over the last few decades, though the consistency and degree of standardisation of the various initiatives such as Skills for Life and specialist teacher training qualifications has allowed us to speak a shared national ‘language’ on the topic and enabled this meaningful debate (amongst other benefits). The Functional Skills qualifications at least are flexible and can be delivered across a range of curriculum ‘content’.

It is useful here to reference NALA’s recent report, Doing the maths: the training needs of numeracy tutors in Ireland, 2013 and beyond, where they look, in Chapter One of their Literature Review, at Defining Numeracy in itself and in relation to mathematics and literacy. They refer to concepts of ‘big’ and ‘small’ numeracy and Maguire’s (2003) Concept of Numeracy which posits a continuum from Formative, through Mathematical, to Integrative (i.e. ‘big’) numeracy, which mirrors the PIAAC conception of situated literacies. They also compare functional with critical mathematics and the requirements of mathematical concepts. We may find in England and Wales that our use of the term literacy regresses to a ‘small’ concept in low entry level provision; while the rest of the world continues to expand a ‘big’ concept of situated literacies. Do we agree that the terms English and Maths now supplant previous notions of literacy, numeracy and ESOL?

It is worth noting that in Scotland, celebrated for its situated social literacies perspectives, the young people’s Curriculum for Excellence maintains English and Maths as specialist subjects while maintaining students’ literacy and numeracy as a responsibility for all. England and Wales have moved on from a set adult curriculum in the Functional Skills qualifications and focus on assessing products created to brief for implied skills and knowledge, while leaving implementation of the development of these to local initiative and unitised sub-provision.

These terminology changes in England and Wales appear to have led to a potential political merging of demarcation between established discrete curriculum areas without explicit rationale, e.g. numeracy and mathematics skills or English and ESOL. For example, the Functional Skills Maths curriculum does not include higher level manipulation such as algebra but is promoted as comparable with GCSE Maths, which does. Functional Skills English has been postulated as an examination for ESOL learners, without restriction or comment on the topic (vocabulary) areas that appear in the exams for example. To what extent does this merging enable us to better respond to the needs of learners’ profiles? What adjustments to teaching and learning approaches do these shifts entail? How do we ensure that the mixing and loading does not lead to breakdown? The forward impact on curriculum provision; teaching, learning and assessment; and success rates remains to be explored.

What Literacies?

The key questions that appear to be on the table for debate are:

– What is your experience of the use of terminology around Literacy/ Numeracy/ English/ Maths? What are your learners’/ students’ views?

– in what meaningful ways do the terms English and Maths match to literacy, ESOL and numeracy, and in what meaningful ways do they not?

– Are there teaching, learning and assessment practices that are particularly relevant in the context of this discussion?

– Does the use of terminology around Literacy/ Numeracy/ English/ Maths matter anyway?

What do you think?

Maguire, T, 2003. Engendering Numeracy in Adults, Mathematics Education With a Focus on
Tutors: A Grounded Approach, (unpublished Ph.D thesis) University of Limerick, Ireland.

Papers for reference include:
Richard Edwards, Roz Ivanič & Greg Mannion, 2011 The scrumpled geography of literacies
Mary Hamilton and Amy Burgess’ 2011 Back to the future?: functional literacy and the new skills agenda


  1. RaPAL, UCU, NIACE Conference 2013
    14.25 Workshops – Session 2
    2.1. ‘Literacy’ phased out of Adult Education?
    Sarah Freeman, Sallie Condy and Tara Furlong

    This workshop will offer an opportunity for participants to review why the term Adult Literacy is being phased out of the post-16 years provision in England and how the expression Literacy has been used in mainstream adult education over the past 40 years. We will discuss the implications of the term ‘Literacy’ being replaced with ‘Functional Skills English’.
    Literacy or English? Presentation
    Quotes to Prompt Discussion
    Discussion Notes from Conference Workshop

    • salcondy

      Having typed up the notes from this workshop, I was really struck by the idea of the context playing a key part in practitioners’ choices. Generally we adapt our approaches to the context in which we are learning and teaching and so it seems is the case with our use of terminology and interpretations of literacy/ English maths/Numeracy. So for promoting ‘literacies’ to learners we can use what appeals to learners; for discussing with colleagues we can use short hand ‘technical terms’; for partnership work with employers we use ‘English’ because they understand and value this. Interesting how that leads me to thoughts of situated literacies and different literacies associated with different domains of life (Barton, Hamilton & Ivanic, 2000). The workshop, our thinking and practices seem to align with this.

      Barton, D. Hamilton, M. & Ivanic,R. (2000): Situated Literacies. London, Routledge.

  2. I find this debate really interesting. Although, we can and do adapt our language to suit our context and audience, it must be very difficult for those new to the sector to keep up! At NIACE, we are want to strengthen the understanding amongst adult learning stakeholders and policy makers, that ‘Life Skills’ are important and inter-related. These include literacy, numeracy and ESOL, digital, civic, health and financial capabilities.

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