Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Academic Literacy Across the Curriculum

  • Jon-Philip Imbrenda
  • Michael W. Smith
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_115


This entry examines academic literacies across the curriculum with respect to the orientations scholars have developed to the nature of the knowledge of reading and writing required for academic literacy and to the extent to which that knowledge is generalizable across different texts and different contexts. The focus is on reading and writing here as these are the most prevalent modes of participation in academic settings, recognizing both that students engage in a wide variety of other literacies outside school and that both in-school and out-of-school literacies could be enriched by a more permeable boundary between those settings. The questions of if, when, and how learners transfer or appropriate knowledge across domains and contexts has long been of interest to educational psychologists, and research in academic literacy has paralleled those debates (Smagorinsky and Smith 1992). Three distinct understandings have emerged: academic literacy as general knowledge, as genre-specific knowledge, or as membership in a community of practice. How teachers and researchers view the nature of literacy across classrooms, disciplines, and content-areas is largely a function of how they have been informed by the three views. Each differs in its assumptions toward the nature of knowledge itself, the extent to which literacy embodies a kind of knowledge, and the manner in which literacy instruction should be approached. Drawing upon influential research and theory, this entry will describe each view and address its theoretical and pedagogical assumptions.

The General Knowledge View

The governing assumption behind a general knowledge view of academic literacy is that the robust strategies employed by expert readers and writers are common across domains and disciplines. The general knowledge view has proven to be highly influential in the structure and organization of conventional educational curricula, as evidenced by the extent to which English and language arts classrooms are held as the primary arenas in which reading and writing are taught, as well as the role of first-year composition courses across most universities as the chief means of preparing incoming students for the demands of reading and writing that will follow in their later coursework. It is assumed that what students learn in such settings will transfer to other contexts. Teachers and researchers who embrace a general knowledge view hold an a priori belief that reading and writing, as forms of activity, involve a set of essential processes that operate independent of the specific type of text being read or written or the context in which the activity is being carried out. Although recent, large-scale reform efforts have begun to consider the role of discipline-specific approaches to reading and writing in the design of curriculum and instruction, the general knowledge view is still largely dominant in educational practice.

General knowledge views of academic literacy are rooted in an understanding of learning as individual cognition. For example, driven by Piaget’s notions of accommodation and assimilation, schema theory (Anderson and Pearson 1984), one manifestation of the general knowledge position, articulates the role of individual cognition in the processing of written text. Comprehension is understood as the interaction between a reader’s existing knowledge, or schema, and the new knowledge encountered through the activity of reading. A schema represents a summation of abstracted knowledge that organizes what is known about a collection of cases which may differ in their particulars. To understand what has been read is either to encode it onto a mental representation that matches with a preexisting schema or to modify a preexisting schema so as to accommodate the new information. Anderson and Pearson (1984) demonstrate the schematic basis of reading comprehension through a series of experiments in which readers are presented with deliberately ambiguous texts. In one example, the text could be read as a description of a prisoner escaping a cell or as a wrestler escaping a hold. The initial inference made by each reader to determine which schema to activate dictates how subsequent information is processed. Schema theory reflects a general knowledge orientation toward literacy because it takes as its locus of concern the individual reader’s cognitive equipment as opposed to the linguistic demands of specific text types or contextual circumstances surrounding the activity of reading. Whereas the nature and variety of schema will differ across individuals, the general knowledge position holds that all readers employ schema in similar ways.

In writing theory, the role of individual cognition as the basis for general knowledge is most clearly reflected in cognitive process models that describe the mental systems involved in the composition of a text. By analyzing a series of think-aloud protocols carried out by writers of varying degrees of expertise, Flower and Hayes (1981) developed a dynamic model for the writing process as the interplay of the task environment, the writer’s long-term memory, and the various cognitive activities involved in the actual writing of a text: planning, translating, and reviewing. By categorizing the cognitive elements of the writing process, scholars compared the strategies employed by expert writers with those employed by novice writers, revealing, among other things, valuable insights into how writers set and adapt goals, anticipate audience needs, and make microlevel choices about style and diction. As a result, the emphasis of composition instruction shifted from product to process. Learning to write could be framed as developing declarative understandings of the elements of the process coupled with facilitated opportunities to engage the process across a variety of tasks. Although differences across writers and tasks invite different ways of engaging the cognitive processes involved in writing, the processes themselves are essentially the same according to the general knowledge position.

General knowledge views of academic literacy have given rise to the importance of metacognition as a distinct aim of both research and instruction. Guided by the belief that students develop as readers and writers when they approach texts with the appropriate schematic resources and master the robust strategies employed by experts, research design and classroom practice have introduced methods for making such strategies visible artifacts of analysis and bodies of content. Teachers and scholars have become just as interested in how a text has been read or composed as they are in the resulting understandings or written products. The underlying hope is that, if literacy involves a set of universal processes, those processes can be named, taught, practiced, and transferred.

More recently, scholars in composition have called into the question the universality of literacy processes while still maintaining a general knowledge orientation toward composition instruction. Downs and Wardle (2007) argue that the best approach to composition instruction is one in which inquiry into writing itself is the curricular focus. In other words, the field of writing studies should be the central topic of a writing course. Taking as their framework the notion of threshold concepts – discipline-specific concepts that must be mastered before one can engage in the actual work of a particular field – Downs and Wardle (2007) assert that the general knowledge of writing most relevant and useful to students involves key understandings of writing itself: that it is highly contextual, that written texts mediate activity, that reflection is a part of the writing process, etc. While several widely adopted textbooks suggest that this view has gained uptake among university writing programs, there is less evidence that middle and secondary classrooms have developed comparable interest. However, the work exemplifies efforts to make general knowledge approaches more compatible with genre-specific and communities of practice views of academic literacy.

The Genre-Specific View

Critics of the general knowledge view oppose its focus on individual cognition as the primary agent in literate activity. They argue that literacy is not solely a cognitive phenomenon – it includes social, cultural, and historical forces that shape the habits of mind and patterns of reasoning that involve written texts. One such view focuses specifically on the social functions carried out by typified forms of texts, or genres. While broad similarities among text types such as narrative or expository are visible on a macro-level, genre theorists attend to the microlevel differences among text types within these broader categories. For example, even within the broad category of narrative, there are key differences in the forms and functions of allegories, ironic narratives, epistolary novels, etc. Because they are socially constructed, microlevel genres reflect a specialized kind of knowledge that cannot easily be generalized across contexts, especially in situations where different genres have few similarities, or with genres that operate within esoteric communities, such as social science reports. Consequently, advocates of a genre-specific view of academic literacy favor the analysis of specific genres in order to identify the strategies most relevant to reading and writing particular kinds of texts. Literacy, in this sense, is not a kind of general knowledge but a repertoire of task-specific proficiencies.

Traditionally, genre studies aimed to classify text types according to shared rhetorical elements. Miller (1984) first theorized genre as a representation of conventionalized social purposes. Typification – the patterning of text types over time – is a cultural process through which social action can be carried out. Rather than viewing genre as a function of the formal properties of similar texts, it is understood as a level of meaning in which personal, idiosyncratic motives are mediated through typified, rule-governed textual structures. Genre is rhetorically significant because it mediates social action: it is a set of normative, interpretive rules that allow for cultural artifacts to carry meaning. For students, genres are the vehicles through which they can participate in the literate activities of the classroom community.

Genre-specific orientations toward reading examine the relationships between the conventional features of particular text types and the interpretive strategies readers bring to those text types. Understanding a written text is neither a strictly objective matter of correctly decoding the words on the page nor is it a strictly subjective matter of the word’s potential to evoke a response. Instead, it is an act of coordinating the autonomous elements of the text itself with the readers’ capacity to arrive at culturally viable understandings. According to Rabinowitz (1987), culturally viable understandings are genre-dependent. Different genres, he argues, invite and reward different interpretive operations. He details how authors count on shared understandings of genre-specific rules as they play out across different types of texts. Rabinowitz (1987) offers a metaphor to make his case. Reading a text, he proposes, is like building a swingset. Given the right parts, the task is easily accomplished as long as the builder knows what it is he or she is building. If the builder is given the parts without knowing what it is he or she is meant to assemble from them, the task becomes far more demanding. Comprehending or understanding a text is a reflection of the reader’s familiarity with the type of text being read and his or her capacity to attend to the appropriate details accordingly.

Scholars from the Sydney School have championed a genre-specific approach to the study of writing. Working from a functional linguistics framework, they construe genre as a configuration of meanings realized through language (Martin and Rose 2008). Written texts are approached with respect to their functional purposes in cultural activity. Such purposes operate paradigmatically – the organization of language enacts culture because it reflects the choices a writer makes among the options available for making meaning within a diverse, but ultimately bounded, system. Language realizes culture on three dimensions: interpersonal, ideational, and textual. The interpersonal dimension enacts social relations among interlocutors. The ideational dimension construes activity through discursive patterns. The textual dimension organizes the flow of information with respect to the mode of communication. Taken together, the three dimensions coalesce into patterns which thereby form integrated systems, or genres. Martin and Rose (2008) characterize the taxonomical insights gained from this approach as mapping culture. Pedagogically, the aim is to develop systematic understandings of genres so that they can be taught explicitly to primary school students to prepare them for the types of writing they will be expected to do in secondary school.

Teachers and scholars working from the general knowledge position seek to identify procedural understandings that are robust across different texts and tasks. Teachers and scholars working from a genre-specific position instead seek to identify particular strategies and structures called for by particular text types. Such analyses yield instruction designed to provide students with a repertoire of task-specific proficiencies to aid them across a range of academic settings.

The Communities of Practice View

A third approach to academic literacy across the curriculum reverses the focus from the individual learner to the context in which learning takes place by foregrounding the nature of participation in the social activity of academic life and shifting genre-specific knowledge into the background. In this sense, genre-specific knowledge is seen as a product of social participation rather than the gateway into such participation. Literacy is not as much a matter of proficiency with specific text types as it is a matter of understanding the values, customs, and conventions of communities in which reading and writing are central activities. Such understanding develops through acculturation into communities of practice. A primary belief held by scholars working from this tradition is that knowledge is always situated in context. Whereas the general knowledge view pursues universal process that is essential to the activities of reading and writing regardless of the context in which those activities are being carried out, the communities of practice view reject the possibility of such universal processes because thought and language are fundamentally social and their origins are rooted in lived experiences rather than cognitive processes.

The term communities of practice, as it applies to literacy theory, is attributed to Lave and Wegner (1991), whose ethnographic studies of apprenticeship among tailors in West Africa highlighted the impact that participation in communities has on literate activity. They observed a kind of learning that was rooted in everyday, informal activities as opposed to the formal, decontextualized approach to learning dominant in schools. As a result, they came to understand learning as an aspect of how the nature of participation within communities of practice changed over time as participants developed mastery of the specific, ongoing, interdependent activities that comprised the communities in which they were situated. Powerful learning, they argued, resulted from legitimate peripheral participation in these day-to-day activities. Communities of practice must endow learners with positions of relevance through which they can gain access to full participation as their roles in the community change over time. Consequently, general knowledge develops as a product of situated practice, not vice versa.

Scholars associated with the New Literacy Studies have embraced a communities of practice view in their ethnographic studies of literacy across a wide range of cultures and communities (Street 2003). Literacy is understood not as a discrete phenomenon but rather as a means through which social activity is mediated by texts. Hence, the object of study is not literacy as a set of processes nor is it the nature of text types; rather, the focus is placed on literacy events, or social activities carried out by participants in a community of practice in which reading and writing serve as a mediational means. Street (2003) problematizes an emphasis on individual learners in literacy research by distinguishing between autonomous and ideological models of literacy. An autonomous model of literacy is analogous to a general knowledge view in that it assumes literacy is a universal set of processes which operate independent of context and promote positive cognitive outcomes. An ideological model, on the other hand, begins with an assumption that literacy is not a neutral set of skills and proficiencies but rather a social practice embedded in socially constructed ideological principles. Street (2003) introduced the term literacies to reflect this distinction. What constitutes being literate in a culture reflects the epistemological beliefs of the dominant forces within that culture. Literacy, in this sense, is always a contested terrain in which tensions between dominant and nondominant ideologies play out. Members of communities who hold nondominant orientations toward reading and writing must either submit to the dominant ideologies or develop inventive ways to hybridize the literate practices ushered through these dominant ideologies in response to local circumstances. For this reason, a large body of work stemming from the New Literacy Studies involves generating rich ethnographic portraits of local literacy practices in order to better understand the underlying ideological conflicts that arise from the institutional demands of formal schooling.

It is uncommon for scholars who embrace a communities of practice view to focus solely on either reading or writing, as doing so implies a putative division between those activities that competes with an interest in literacy events as holistic occurrences through which literate practices can be inferred. Bazerman (1988) offers a notable exception in his seminal, genre-based analysis of the experimental report in science. Although he sets out to characterize the rhetorical features of the genre and the extent to which they reveal how writers of scientific reports utilize conventions of language to respond to empirical exigencies, his analysis illuminates the predominant role of communities of practice in mediating the potential for written texts to convey meaning. Within communities of practice, readers and writers carry shared values, assumptions, and epistemologies that stretch beyond the words contained within a single text. Efforts to negotiate those shared assumptions largely inform the rhetorical options available to a writer. Experimental reports in science, widely held to be objective accounts of empirical facts, are instead very much social constructions themselves, shaped by the demands set upon them by the communities in which they are imbued with socio-ideological value. Communities of practice function as activity systems, mediating the production and dissemination of knowledge through written texts so as to reinforce their own values and purposes. A writer working within a community of practice does not merely reproduce a genre – he or she extends it in order to respond to immediate circumstances using the rhetorical apparatus available within that community. Consequently, in such a view, genre-specific instruction is limited because it does not carry with it the broader social purposes involved in writing. Genuine involvement with a community of practice is necessary to fully inculcate a student writer into the values, customs, and conventions that underline the creation of a text.

A communities of practice view of academic literacy across the curriculum affords a valuable lens into the extent to which perceived differences in literate abilities are in fact differences in cultural, ideological, and economic orientations toward written texts and their importance as mediators of social activity. By rejecting an autonomous model of literacy, reading and writing are no longer viewed as skills or proficiencies individuals either possess or do not possess. Instead, the locus of concern is understanding ideological differences in what constitutes literacy and adapting institutional practices so as to accommodate those differences. However, two notable criticisms of the communities of practice view have emerged. First, in its tendency to emphasize the local, a communities of practice view risks ignoring the relatively common features of literacy as it plays out across different contexts. Literate practices often come to communities from the outside, and they bring with them meanings that extend beyond the perspectives of participants within those communities. Communities of practice may not refute the existence of universal literacy processes; instead, they may offer insightful variations on those processes. Secondly, few practical applications of a communities of practice view to formal education have gained feasibility on a large scale. Whereas central tenets and evocative discoveries gleaned through the general knowledge and genre-specific views have found their way into curriculum and instructional practice, the communities of practice view has proven more useful for uncovering flaws than for proposing viable solutions. Many foundational assumptions of the communities of practice view are incommensurable with the institutionalized routines associated with formal schooling, and a paradigmatic shift in the way that education is structured and implemented would be necessary to fully satisfy the multiplicitous view of literacy embedded within the communities of practice approach.


In short, scholars investigating academic literacy across the curriculum have been informed by significantly different theoretical perspectives. These different perspectives result in different foci of study, different methods, and different approaches to instruction. General knowledge views tend to result in studies that examine the processes by which readers and writers make meaning. Instructionally, this view promotes an emphasis on teaching robust strategies and metacognitive reasoning. Genre-specific views tend to focus more on examinations of texts themselves in order to describe the key features that allow texts to mediate discrete social activities. Instructionally, this view favors analysis of specific reading and writing tasks in order to cultivate strategies specific to those tasks. Lastly, a communities of practice view tends to rely on ethnographic accounts of how texts mediate everyday activities. Instructionally, this view favors including a broad range of literacies in school curricula and fostering an understanding of and respect for the multiplicity of ways in which people use texts in their lives.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Seidel School of Education and Professional StudiesSalisbury UniversitySalisburyUSA
  2. 2.College of EducationTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA