Is this a “literacy revolution”?

Hello and welcome to March!

In 2009 I read an article in Wired magazine that reported on the Stanford Study of Writing and I was very struck by this quote from the leader of the study, Dr Andrea Lunsford, who said, “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.” (Lunsford, 2009 in Thomson)

This impressed me as a very strong statement, so I looked a little closer at the study.

Basically, the team at Stanford followed 190 students for about five years and asked to analyze every piece of writing the students did – in total they analyzed 15,000 pieces of writing.  The first finding was that students do a lot of writing – this was not really a surprise – they’re students – they’re supposed to do a lot of writing!  But it was the second statistic from the study that really interested me.  The students reported that 38% of the writing that they do is NOT for school.  Lunsford calls this “life writing” and she includes things here like poetry, posters, blogs, messages, social media updates.  This really fascinated me and it really alerted me to the language teaching applications of this study.

Here’s a short video of Dr Lunsford talking about the study (it’s a little dry, but she says some very interesting things).

Andrea Lunsford

I don’t know about you, but I’ve usually found that writing is the skill that students are the least overjoyed to practice in the classroom!  But this and other studies show that people are writing more and more in their everyday lives, so why aren’t students dying to practice writing in English?  Could it be that what we ask learners to write is not the kind of writing they want to and need to do outside of the classroom?

I was also interested in what Lunsford says about young people being good at ‘kairos’ (understanding and switching to different styles of writing) because they need to be.  I wonder whether we’re really incorporating this range of styles of writing in the classroom.  Writing a Facebook update is quite different from writing an academic essay and they’re both different from writing a blog or sending a WhatsApp message to a friend.  She also found that young people feel that good writing is writing that makes something happen and that when they have a real reason to write and the sense of a real audience, they produce better writing.

Is “Write a paragraph describing your home” going to make something happen?  If we really are in the midst of a literacy revolution then it seems that this is something that we as language teachers should be taking advantage of.  Are we?


Andrea Lunsford – The Stanford Study of Writing (in Clive Thompson The New Literacy, Wired Magazine, Sept 2009)

The Stanford Study of Writing:

Andrea Lunsford on “The Agenda” with Steve Paikin

Carol Lethaby

Carol Lethaby is a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer based in San Francisco, California, who has been in the field of language teaching since 1986. She is part-time Assistant Professor on the New School, New York online MA TESOL as well as being an honoured instructor at UC Berkeley Extension where she teaches on the TESL/TEFL Certificate program. She has also worked on several textbook series for learners of English, including Awesome, Next Step, The Big Picture and English ID, all published by Richmond ELT. Carol is a frequent presenter at international conferences.

3 thoughts on “Is this a “literacy revolution”?

  1. Hi Carol!

    I decided to write my comment as it interests me a lot. I have lots of thoughts to write but sometimes writing looks like a little difficult for me . So, I ask myself…what about my students…and teachers who aren’t well prepared for it…I’ve observed my pupils in my classes, public and private. My public students of High school write pretty texts but using my technical way of doing questions about their daily tasks, their own ways. So, they answer the questions without using YES or NO in the answers. Like small or big e-mails. It’s easy for them!

    At the same time, doing questions about different subjects to my private students, they often say – ” I HAVE NO IDEA”, so, I say , Write about a game you like, a news, and they get inspired and they do. I do think they like to write about something that will cause an effect, that will help people. We’re living a daily task literature. I see by myself. I write lots of small texts to help people, to organize things for people. But when I have to write my books, my manuals, it gets a little more difficult for me. I must see the writing as a casual one, so I do.
    Thanks for this opportunity of writing. Hope it helps you.


    • Hi Janice!
      Thanks for your comment. I think your comment illustrates the point that Lunsford makes about writing very nicely. If we can connect classroom writing to real life and give learners a real reason to write and a sense of audience (and try to incorporate interactivity) they will want to write and they will produce better writing.
      Have you tried asking your students to respond to real blogs just like you did here, for example? They can prepare their posts in class and then post it for homework – the whole class can respond to the same blog (that you’ve worked on in class) or they can choose one in their area of interest.
      What do you think?

  2. Hi Carol and Janice
    I’ve been thinking about another revolutionary aspect of this new digital literacy i.e. the power shift that has taken place around who can now write and publish.
    In ‘below the line’ comments on online news articles, readers have become commentators and can influence the debate around the topic of the day. In this interactive environment, these writers get that instantaneous feedback referred to by Lunsford above.
    Something similar can be said to be happening in our classrooms. The other day I heard an English teacher in the UK talking about her class of teenagers writing a novel collaboratively using Google Docs. This was an energizing experience in which peers were co-writers and editors. We can imagine how this might have helped build the confidence of these teenage writers who perhaps never imagined that they might author a novel. Novel writing might not be a ‘real life’ task and the activity itself not very different from group writing tasks that we have set in the past, but the technology has enabled this to be done more efficiently and professionally in a way that can really motivate the learner.

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