Kalantzis and Cope, Debating Functional Literacy

Here is the story of literacy pedagogy so far. In its earlier modern forms, didactic literacy pedagogy was based on the idea that the world in general and language in particular can be described in terms of ‘facts’, regularities and rules. A lot of what was taught was abstract and often not very relevant to the practicalities of reading for meaning and writing with a functional or communicative purpose. However, the rules were never taught simply for their own sake. By teaching parts of speech, by demanding standards of correctness, by being prescriptive about the supposed facts of language, teachers were also teaching students some lessons of social discipline and order. With its transmission pedagogy and rote learning, didactic literacy pedagogy was the cultural tool for classrooms preparing students who would respect authority and reliably take orders.

‘Don’t split infinitives.’ ‘Say “she did it” instead of “she done it”. ‘Say “isn’t” instead of “ain’t”.’ Sometimes these sorts of rules were simply a waste of time, or even themselves ‘incorrect’ for many social contexts. Yet even in its most superficial moments of pedantry, didactic pedagogy had another social function, and that was to exclude, to mark as wrong and even to fail discourses that the school curriculum labeled incorrect—incorrect, that is, by the measure of the self-appointed ‘standard English’ of educated and powerful people. The logic of didactic literacy pedagogy was to serve up a universal ‘standard’, with pretensions to factualness and cultural universality, to pass those who found the standard and its underlying cultural logic congenial, to fail those who didn’t, and then to put the consequent differences in social and educational outcome down to individual ‘ability’. Given the truth of this situation of power, many teachers felt compelled to subject students to the apparent rigours of the standard, national language. This was their chance to succeed at school, and in life.

Then came what we have called ‘authentic pedagogy’. Central to this literacy pedagogy was individual student motivation instead of the rule-driven authoritarianism of traditional literacy teaching. The theory posited a concept of ownership. Student texts were owned by their writers, and the teacher was no more than a resource assisting the student when called upon, a facilitator rather than the font of fixed knowledge about language. Student experience and what they wanted to say would now be brought to the fore rather than language facts and the rules of ‘correct’ speaking or writing.

We have briefly retold the story of didactic and authentic literacy pedagogies in order to make the distinctions clear between both of them and functional literacy. Taking authentic pedagogy’s critique of didactic curriculum as given, from a functional literacy perspective, how do we explain when authentic literacy pedagogy fails and how it fails?

Authentic pedagogy fails when it does not engage all students. This happens in part because it is culture bound, with its prescriptions for individual control, student-centred learning, student motivation, purposeful writing, individual ownership and the power of voice. This matches the moral temper and cultural aspirations of white, middle-class children from households whose sensibilities are child-centred. The skills, sensibilities and resources these children bring to school, that reflect their social and economic backgrounds, mean they are more positively predisposed to do well at school. The pedagogy of immersion ‘naturally’ favours students whose voice is closest to the literate culture of power in modern society. Or at least, this is what we find out when we look at the formal outcomes that the school values or tests. Moreover, authentic pedagogy sometimes turns out to be no more motivating than didactic pedagogy, for instance in the case of students who do not see the immediate point of learning literacy or even like school. In these subtle ways, it has not contributed to reducing educational inequities, given the inequities in the social value placed on ‘different’ voices in the world outside school.

Furthermore, far from elevating teachers to the role of professional, it often reduces them to the role of manager. What often transpires is an eclectic, fragmented, worksheet curriculum. Moreover, the analogy of orality and literacy in the process writing and whole language approaches to literacy simply does not work. This is not to say that orality does not play a big part as an underpinning for writing and reading. It does. However, orality and literacy are surprisingly different as modes of meaning making, not only in their discursive structures (ways of using language) but in the different nature of the learning process that is involved (the social location of that learning and what it takes to learn each mode). Consequently, ‘natural’ literacy learning can at times become an inefficient use of time and resources. It leads to a pedagogy which encourages students to produce texts in a limited range of written genres, mostly personalised recounts. This is why the texts generated in the original process writing classroom (‘choose your own topic’; ‘say what you feel like saying’) often end up monotonous and repetitive. As a consequence, some key textual genres are neglected. The most powerful written genres are those most distant from speaking in their purpose and form—for example, scientific reports which attempt to objectify the world, or arguments which are especially designed to persuade. In fact, these genres often speak in a deliberately depersonalised voice, a rhetorical strategy which has the effect of sounding authoritative.

The development of the ‘genre literacy’ approach needs to be explained in the first instance in terms of the politics and sociology of Australian education. Didactic curriculum was officially abandoned in Australia in the 1970s, although as in the USA and elsewhere in the world, its habits persist in many classrooms. There seemed to be very good educational reasons for this at the time—reasons that are still as strong today as they were then. Yet by the 1980s it was clear that its replacement, the new progressivist curriculum (which we call ‘authentic pedagogy’) was not necessarily producing superior educational outcomes. It was not producing any noticeable improvement in patterns of educational attainment. In fact, all it seemed to do was make teachers’ jobs harder by giving them a huge amount of responsibility to construct ‘school-based curriculum’. This meant that, despite the official paradigm shift, in practice many teachers found it more comfortable to stay with their old ways of teaching.

This is why the genre-based approach to literacy has created so much interest.

Yet, like all pedagogies, functional literacy is at times controversial. And educational controversies soon become political. The supporters of what we have called in this book ‘authentic pedagogy’ claim that genre literacy is just the wolf of didactic pedagogy, dressed in sheep’s clothes. It seems to mean learning formal ‘language facts’ again. This is why it is sometimes claimed that genre literacy teaching will lead us back to the bad old days of authoritarian classrooms where some students found the authority congenial, and they succeeded, while other students found the authority uncongenial, and they failed. The advocates of didactic pedagogy, on the other hand, don’t like functional grammar because it uses an unfamiliar metalanguage.

Sometimes, functional literacy pedagogy does indeed slip into a way of interacting with learners that feels like the more structured approach of didactic literacy pedagogy. However, in its strongest and most innovative moments, the functional approach used by genre literacy teaching represents a different educational paradigm from either didactic or authentic literacy. It is based on an understanding of the nature of language quite different from that of traditional grammar. Not only does it move beyond traditional grammar and the didactic focus on mainly literary texts, it also goes beyond the process pedagogies which stress ‘natural’ learning through immersion in experiences of ‘doing’ writing and reading.

If the debate around functional literacy is a vibrant one, the debate within this paradigm is at times just as vibrant. Within the ‘genre school’, participants have debated literacy along two related axes: the one linguistic and the other pedagogical. Taking the linguistic element of the debate first, just what is this concept of ‘genre’? Here the debate within the genre school is mostly between adherents of the Martin line[1] and those whose sympathies lie in the direction of the Kress view.[2] Kress expresses concern about Martin’s project of classifying genres of educational practice. Teachers keep stumbling over important ‘new’ texts which just don’t seem to fit the generic descriptions. What if something is not quite a report, not quite a recount and not quite a procedure? The process of classification, Kress argues, seems at times to be heading in the direction of a new formalism, where the ‘correct’ way to write a report is presented to students in the form of generic models and exegeses of schematic structure.

In fact, Kress qualifies the idea of genre still further. ‘The important point is to be aware of the fundamental tension around genre, uneasily hovering between regularity and repeatability on the one hand—the effect of social stabilities and of regulations erected around text to keep them close to ‘convention’—and the dynamic for constant flux and change on the other.’[3] Kress is less interested in classifying textual forms than he is in the generative potentials of using certain kinds of text for certain social purposes. In a sense then, he has remained closer to the origins of genre literacy in Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics. The important point is that register is not a basis for classifying texts into formal categories, but a tool for analysing texts in their infinite variety and subtle variations. That key for functional literacy learning is not to learn particular genres, but to recognise the many social purposes that texts are used for and how to do this in different ways.

And another difference: Kress starts by describing the social relations between the participants before he begins to take apart a text. In other words, Kress wants us to interrogate the context first, the situation and purpose of the text. Martin, on the other hand, advocates ‘a semiotic theory of the social’ and starts with the text itself. That is, he wants us to start with the text, then move from an understanding of its structures to an explanation of its structures in terms of the context in which it is located. By disentangling the layers of register (voice) , genre (text type) and ideology (purpose)  in text, Martin believes that the critically literate reader will be able to discover all they need to know about text to understand its social purpose and to analyse its meaning. The tendency of Martin’s approach to genre, Hasan argues, is to make it seem that text is a finished product to be described rather than a process to be explained. All too easily, this can lead to a kind of structural formalism—writing genres as following textual recipes—which does not reflect the fluid social and textual relations that characterise text in context.[4]

Turning now to the pedagogical element of the debate, some members of the genre school, while agreeing in principle that it is important to be explicit about text structure and its relation to social activity, argue that the formalistic tendencies and their tendency to present textual recipes, take us dangerously close to a revival of a didactic pedagogy. Kress fears this might fuel the slide into educational authoritarianism, taking schooling back to the most didactic of pedagogies. From where he stands, Kress calls for more openness about curriculum contents, and principles of generativeness or creativity in literacy curriculum instead of procedural principles of modelling that lead to the transmission and reproduction of rigid textual forms.[5] Martin, on the other hand, argues that the only beneficiaries of open curriculum and active learning in the mould of authentic pedagogy have been already privileged students and that empowerment of marginalised students requires that they are inducted into the discourses of power. He also argues that language structures and choices need to be unpacked if students are to understand the ways texts are manufactured and used.[6]

When it comes to the pedagogical details, the ‘wheel’ model involves telling learners how they should write. Student achievement is marked in terms of how well they realise the predetermined generic structure types. Despite the reading work that exposes students to authentic examples of the genre early in the curriculum cycle—while they read and research in preparation for a piece of writing in science, for example—in practice textual form is largely presented in an static way at the modelling stage. The joint construction stage is then meant to help students internalise the form exemplified by the model so they can reproduce that form in so-called ‘independent’ construction. This involves taking certain genres at their word because they are regarded as powerful, and on this basis recommending that they should be taught to groups of students historically marginalised by the school literacy. It also leaves out of the curriculum other kinds text—of everyday life, popular culture, ethnic or peer groups, and new media spaces—that might appear to be of less educational value but which are nevertheless culturally important in students’ lives.

To a certain extent, functional linguists of all persuasions would agree that genre literacy should open students’ educational and social options by giving them access to ways of talking about language that is of educational significance and social power. However, standing alone, this view tends to ignore the fact that many of the textual forms which constitute powerful genres also at times reflect deceptively ideological frames of cultural reference. Report is a genre that appears to be factual and voiceless. Far from it, reports carry powerful human agendas. The apparent neutrality of report is not just because it has a descriptive function. It is also a convenient pretense, an attempt at times to cover up human interests and agendas. Narrative is a genre that appears, if one takes its own textual devices at its word, to have its origins in personal creativity. Far from it, narratives are the products of social experience, and the reader of a narrative is as much a part of the meaning making process as the author of the text being read. The reader is in a position even to disrupt narrative and read things into it which its author never intended. Also in the real world of text making there are few ideal genres circulating that fit strictly into neat and consistent patterns.

Indeed, one of the problems of some versions of genre literacy is the genres it values are those found in the traditional, didactic curriculum. Just because certain genres can be identified as those that have been required for success in school in the past does not mean that schools should redefine these as genres for success in the future. Indeed, fixed classifications of genre may even mean that teachers lose sight of where the real power lies. Those who are really innovative and really powerful are those who creatively adapt, transform and even break conventions, not those who reproduce them. To become ‘good readers’ and ‘good writers’, students should be encouraged to be critical and not just toe the generic line. Indeed, the most insightful and powerful texts succeed so well precisely because they cross generic and cultural boundaries, rather than do the genre ‘right’.

Moreover, schools must take the cultural and linguistic diversity of their social setting into account. The worst practices of genre literacy not only tend towards a didactic pedagogy. They also resemble the cultural assimilationist model of education. These versions of genre literacy pedagogy seem to propose that there are certain genres of social power and it is the particular mission of school to deliver these to those groups marginal to the cultures and discourses of power. In a similar situation, didactic literacy pedagogy simply failed students not attuned to ‘standard’ English, the literary canon and the culture of literacy. It then linked the subsequent ‘results’ to individual ability.

It is not our task as educators to hand down the language of power in an uncritical way, with all their cultural and ideological biases—such as reports that represent themselves as voiceless, and narratives that express the voice of the creative, literary individual. This would be to assume that what teachers identify as the language tools of power are intrinsically better than the language tools used in students’ families and everyday lives.

However, the explicitness of a functional approach to literacy need not necessarily produce a one-way didactic pedagogy. Rather, it could involve a backwards and forwards conversation about the genres of the texts of students’ everyday lives, comparing and contrasting these with new or unfamiliar texts of educational and social success. In this approach, curriculum is a dialogue between the culture of schooling and the cultures of students, the relation between students’ ways of speaking and the discourses of educational access. It is a matter of genuine give and take.

In such a dialogue, difference is a potential resource for access. Students who come from historically marginalised cultures have a unique resource for unpacking the hidden cultural agendas and linguistic wiles of discourses unfamiliar to them. To come back to our generic examples, such students might be able more easily to see through reports, with their feigned voicelessness. Or they might be able to see through narratives that ostensibly flow from the pen of the creatively original, individual author. They can do this because these sorts of texts immediately stand out as strange ways of speaking. For students from more affluent backgrounds, these genres may appear much more natural.

A genre literacy curriculum could be a site where the cultures and the discourses of the margins are also a subject for literacy curriculum, used not only to highlight by contrast the structures and purposes in the discourses of conventional school success and social power, but perhaps also to reshape these so that they are more potent, or more explicit, or more subtle. Instead of one-way transmission, functional or genre literacy might be able to foster the cross-fertilisation of discourses and the cross-cultural hybridity which is potentially an enormously creative asset in a society that recognises and values its diversity.


Adapted from: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 1993. “Histories of Pedagogy, Cultures of Schooling.” Pp. 38-62 in The Powers of Literacy: A Genre Approach to Teaching Literacy, edited by B. Cope and M. Kalantzis. London: Falmer Press. || Amazon || WorldCat

[1] Martin, J.R. 1992. English Text: System and Structure. Philadelphia: John Benjamins. Martin, J.R. and Joan Rothery. 1993. “Grammar: Making Meaning in Writing.” pp. 137-153 in The Powers of Literacy: A Genre Approach to Teaching Writing, edited by B. Cope and M. Kalantzis. London: Falmer Press.

[2] Kress, G. 1990. Linguistic Process and Sociocultural Change. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press. Kress, Gunther. 1993. “Genre as Social Process.” pp. 22-37 in The Powers of Literacy: A Genre Approach to Teaching Writing, edited by B. Cope and M. Kalantzis. London: Falmer Press.

[3] —. 2003. Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge. p.102.

[4] Hasan, Ruqaiya. 1992. “Contexts for Meaning.” pp. 1-59 in Georgetown University Round Table ’92: Theme: Language, Communication and Social Meaning. Georgetown University.

[5] Kress, Gunther. 1993. “Genre as Social Process.” pp. 22-37 in The Powers of Literacy: A Genre Approach to Teaching Writing, edited by B. Cope and M. Kalantzis. London: Falmer Press.

[6] Martin, J.R. Ibid.”A Contextual Theory of Langauge.” pp. 116-136.


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