Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group


what literacy educators can learn from the research practices of NGOs

Jude Fransman, Open University

Educator research has a rich history dating back to traditions of Participatory and Action Research and the work of Paulo Freire and (in the context of formal education in the UK) Lawrence Stenhouse (1979). Such approaches foreground the importance of reflexivity as a basis for critically engaging with and improving practice but also emphasize the importance of social action for change beyond the individual. More recently, through the socio-linguistic and anthropological work of the New Literacy Studies (NLS), a series of ethnographic techniques have been used to frame adult literacy and nonformal education programmes in the global South (see Gebre et al 2009; Nabi et al 2009; Rogers and Street 2012). By casting literacy facilitators in the role of researchers, learning is grounded in the critical analysis of socially situated practices and their relationship to other powerful ‘autonomous’ discourses of literacy: a sort of ‘living knowledge’ (Whitehead 1933). However, despite their critical engagement with autonomous models of literacy, NLS scholars are often less critical of the autonomous models of research which they carry into their work. With the gradual erosion of traditional boundaries around the role of academic research in relation to knowledge produced by other actors (including public-sector think-tanks, private-sector consultancy firms, the media and civil society organisations) (McCormick 2013; Shucksmith 2016) comes the opportunity for practitioner-researchers to reimagine the possibilities for practice-based research in sites outside the university.

In response, this Keynote will discuss some of these re-imaginings by drawing on the findings from a 3-year Leverhulme Trust-funded study on the research engagement practices of international NGO practitioners in the UK (Hayman et al 2016). By exploring the ways that research identities (e.g. histories, subjectivities and professional trajectories); research practices (e.g. languages, relationships and methodological and conceptual approaches); research institutions (e.g. structures and processes); and research artefacts (e.g. texts, tools and technologies) are renegotiated in this context it proposes lessons for literacy educators-as-researchers to develop their own alternative research practices, processes, products and profiles.


Gebre, A, Openjuru, G, Rogers, A and Street, B (2009): Everyday Literacies in Africa: Ethnographic Studies of Literacy and Numeracy Practices in Ethiopia Addis Ababa: Fountain Publishers. (See especially Ch.1 ‘Ethnographic approaches to literacy and numeracy’, pp. 1-38.)

Hayman, R., King, S., Kontinen, T., Narayanaswamy, L. (eds.) (2016). Negotiating Knowledge: Evidence and Experience in Development NGOs. Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing.

Nabi, R, Rogers, A and Street, B (2009): Hidden literacies: ethnographic case studies of literacy and numeracy from Pakistan. Bury St Edmunds (UK): Uppingham Press

Rogers, A and Street, B (2012): Literacy and Development. Leicester (UK): NIACE. (See especially Ch. 8 Literacy as Social Practice: using ethnographic perspectives in programme development.)

Shucksmith, M. (2016) How Can Academics And The Third Sector Work Together To Influence Policy And Practice, InterAction, ISBN: 978-1-909447-42-4
Stenhouse, L. (1979) Research as the basis for teaching. Inaugural lecture. University of East Anglia, February 1979. In: L. Stenhouse (1983) Authority, Education and Emancipation. London: Heinemann Books.

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