Review: Literacy and Education

Jieun Kim
Literacy and Education by James Paul Gee. New York: Routledge, 2015. 148 pp.
[PDF Version Here: Review: Literacy in Education]

Gee’s recent scholarly work, Literacy and Education, elucidates how the concept of literacy, starting in the early 1980s, came to be seen not merely as a mental exercise but as a social and cultural practice. In a relatively concise format, Gee presents a good overview of his subject and an in-depth look at how perceptions of literacy have changed—from seeing it simply as the cognitive ability to read and write to a vital socio-cultural discourse. This book covers nearly three decades of literacy studies conducted by Gee, a Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, and explores the diverse ways in which his work has been adopted and transformed by other scholars. Most importantly, Gee affirms that literacy must be studied from the vantage point of many different disciplines in order to adequately address the inequalities in literacy education and to validate all children’s experiences with literacy. Gee reviews the decades-long arc of his own scholarship to provoke readers into asking and then answering for themselves the important question, “What is literacy?” Addressing primarily educators and scholars, Gee writes with clarity and insight, and he organizes his chapters logically and gives them titles that reveal the complex interrelationships between literacy, spoken language, learning, new technologies, human experience, and various social discourses. Gee poses questions to encourage us to view literacy as a kind of cognitive and linguistic socialization, and to study it in relation to other discourses and identities as well as new media, technologies, and other novel forms of learning as a viable way to ensure that all children can become fully literate and thus succeed in school and in society at large.

Divided into four chapters, this book explores issues of commonality and diversity, fair play and inequality, and belonging and isolation. The first chapter provides background on the author and his enduring commitment to literacy and education, and it examines the relationship between literacy and language. The second chapter focuses on scholarship from the 1980s that critiqued the traditional view of literacy as largely an individualized cognitive exercise. The third chapter, titled “The Social Mind,” analyzes the cognitive, physical, and experiential aspects of literacy and learning. The final chapter investigates the impact on literacy of digital media and other new technologies.

Chapter 1 begins with the author’s own story—his early interest in African-American school children, which prompted him to pursue literacy studies. Gee conducted research in many schools, analyzing verbal statements made by African-American children during organized “sharing-time.” He soon realized that their teachers were unaware that these children spoke with a unique vocabulary and syntax that came from their early socialization at home, tied to the historical experiences of African Americans. Gee understood that children’s language and literacy abilities are bound up with their experiences of commonality and diversity, fairness and inequality, and belonging and isolation; that such socio-cultural experiences profoundly enrich their language, making it unique and different; and that such difference should not be construed as wrong or indicative of failure. The author asks, “How could a child bring a language practice to school that was so socio-historically and culturally recognizable and significant and yet, nonetheless, could be constructed as a failure, indeed a failure at language?” (p. 11). Gee urges us to study different types of speaking connected to different purposes, goals, groups, practices, and institutions to broaden our understanding of literacy; he strongly recommends that teachers reflect on their own literacy practices to uncover any biases they might have. Gee believes that educators from various disciplines, equipped with different skills, insights, and methods, should work together to support children who bring to school competing forms of literacy and learning that they acquired at home, in their immediate neighborhoods and broader communities. While we face massive inequality and many serious problems in our modern, high-tech world, human beings share a common desire to communicate despite the amazing diversity of human languages. Gee maintains that we should view language, literacy, society, and culture through the lenses of both commonality (unity) and diversity.

In chapter 2, Gee outlines various theoretical frameworks, locating his own stance within the New Literacy Studies point-of-view that perceives literacy as integral to identity politics and as a socio-cultural, rather than merely cognitive, practice. Gee asks, “Why should poverty or a minority group membership affect how a child learns a skill like reading in school?” (p. 23). While many literacy scholars addressed that question in the 1980s, others paid closer attention to how children read and write during their time spent away from school. Scribner and Cole (1981) found that “different types of literacy and different uses of literacy allow people to practice different skills and, thus, become good at different things” (p. 27). Other scholars, including Havelock (1976) and Ong (1982), repudiated the long-held myth that being literate equates to being “civilized.” Building on that work, scholars began to challenge many other assumptions within literacy studies. Unlike traditional concepts of literacy, which emphasized the differences between “literacy” and “orality,” Street (1984) divided literacy into an “autonomous model” (a set of value-free skills such as decoding print into sounds) and an “ideological model” (literacy as an ideology-inflected social practice). Freire (1970, 1973, and 1985) also viewed literacy as a deeply ideological practice, arguing that literacy is never politically neutral. Scollon and Scollon (1981) maintained that mastering a new type of literacy is akin to learning a new language and involves a change in identity and culture. Eventually, the “New Literacy Studies” (NLS) grew out of this scholarship and Gee became a leading adherent (Gee, 1989). Many scholars within NLS looked beyond Street’s autonomous model of literacy, asserting that literacy involves multiple practices that engage print literacy, multimodal texts, and new digital and social media. Gee maintains that while NLS did address the genuinely cognitive aspects of literacy, most NLS scholars perceived literacy in much broader terms, so they focused on the relationship of literacy to “the world and people interacting in it” (p. 63).

Chapter 3 interrogates the close connection between literacy and the human mind and body, learning, and lived experiences to explain how performing oral language—a child’s own vocal experiments as well as conversing with other children and, especially, with adults—affects a child’s early literacy development and success in school. Gee argues that if we accept that literacy is more than just a cognitive ability, then talking (language), doing (action), and being (identity) must be studied together. Connecting human experience to new perceptions of the human brain and cognition, learning, literacy, and the practice of oral language, Gee emphasizes how important it is for literacy scholars to examine a child’s home life, before the child enters school, to show how the early development of oral language and vocabulary building along with extensive talking with parents correlates with a child’s later success in school.

In chapter 4, Gee investigates how the very idea of “literacy” has broadened and been reconceived as multiple literacies with words, signs, and deeds being enhanced, augmented, and transformed by new, primarily digital, technologies. The impact of these new technologies on our current understanding of literacy elicits important questions. With the emerging power of digital media and new forms of learning, how do they connect to and impact oral language? How are they transforming oral and written language and changing their ecologies? Gee tackles these questions with respect to literacy, language, and learning. He thinks it is more important to help children relate to and understand learning, speaking, and reading than merely to provide them with high-tech digital media. As achievement gaps in literacy, learning, reading skills, and all kinds of knowledge grow, Gee implores us to value every child and “to ensure that the experiences and learning that all children get at home are honored in school” (p. 107). Doing so would showcase the plurality and diversity of children’s experiences and validate those experiences within the school environment to facilitate improved learning for everyone.

Literacy and Education makes a vital contribution to contemporary scholarship, for it examines literacy from theoretical and practical viewpoints. Gee perceives schools as just one among many sites of literacy, along with competing forms of literacy that exist outside of school. He emphasizes how important it is to recognize that non-school sites also contribute to children’s literacy training because schools are too often privileged as literacy’s most cherished home. Today, schools face myriad challenges as they attempt to give students the necessary skills to succeed in our modern high-tech globalized world. Gee exhorts us to consider what skills are not on offer in far too many of our schools and to strive to rectify that situation. Since literacy is just one facet of the highly complex interaction between language and literacy, Gee argues that the proper study of literacy demands an interdisciplinary approach that brings together scholars from many different disciplines, whose diverse skills, insights, and methodologies are needed to elucidate the multifaceted practice called “literacy.” Gee suggests that enhancing literacy could have profound effects worldwide. As we encounter massive social and educational inequalities both at home and abroad, what role could literacy play in addressing these problems? By posing this question, Gee hopes to prompt educators, teachers, and scholars alike to pursue further literacy research “in the service of new forms of life and new worlds” (p. 135).


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Freire, P. (1973). Education for critical consciousness. New York: Seabury Press.

Freire, P. (1985). The politics of education: Culture, power, and liberation. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Havelock, E. (1976). Preface to Plato. MA: Harvard University Press.

Mitchell, C. (Ed.). (1989). Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: Essays by James Paul Gee [Special issue]. Journal of Education, 171.

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Scollon, R., & Scollon, S. B. (1981). Narrative, literacy, and face in interethnic communication. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1981). The psychology of literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Street, B. (1984). Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jieun Kim is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; email

Copyright © 2016 by the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English.

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