LINGUIST List 12.2194

Fri Sep 7 2001

Review: Gregory & Williams, City Literacies

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <>

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  1. Charlotte Brammer, Review of Gregory & Williams, City Literacies

Message 1: Review of Gregory & Williams, City Literacies

Date: Thu, 6 Sep 2001 17:53:26 -0500
From: Charlotte Brammer <>
Subject: Review of Gregory & Williams, City Literacies

Gregory, Eve, and Ann Williams (2000) City Literacies: Learning
to Read Across Generations and Cultures. Routledge, 232 pp,
Literacies series.

Review by Charlotte Brammer, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa,

This monograph should have broad appeal to anyone interested in
literacy studies, in general, and to multicultural literacy
studies in particular. In the Prologue, the authors state that
their book "will appeal to all those fascinated by the lives and
literacies of different generations living in two square miles of
London." This section of London, Spitalfields, has been home to a
variety of immigrants, from the early Irish and Welsh to French
Huguenots to Polish Jews to recent Bangladeshi refugees. Through
ethnography and ethnomethodology, the authors' argue that
"contrasting rather than similar home and school strategies and
practices provide a child with a larger treasure trove from which
to draw for school learning." The Introduction challenges the
persistent paradigm that equates poverty with low literacy skills
(i.e., the deficit myth) and suggests that educators must look
for the richness of "contrasting" literacy practices to better
understand and appreciate the literacy skills their students
already have.

The book is divided into three parts: Part I, Living and learning
east of the Aldgate pump; Part II, Childhood memories of literacy
and learning; and Part III, Looking ahead: Young literacies,
lives and learning. Part I provides an excellent overview of the
history of Spitalfields, including a favorable painting of
Toynbee Hall as an evolving center for cultural enrichment. Parts
II and III, however, focus on the people of Spitalfields and
provide a richness of description that epitomizes ethnographic

Part II introduces study participants who were born either before
or just after World War II. For these individuals, literacy seems
inextricably tied to reading, writing, and learning, in general,
but also to what the authors term "getting on in life." Literacy
provides a "key to open doors. Whether one chooses to use or lose
the key is another matter. Without it, however, entry is
impossible" (p. 70). Learning was important for the participants
in this section because it gave them opportunities to improve
their economic situations. Although the English students were
more familiar with school culture than were their Jewish peers,
the authors point out that, at times, the English students may
have been at more of a disadvantage because "they were not as
conscious of difference as their Jewish peers" (p. 99). Moreover,
parents could not usually help with homework, and most students
used teachers and other community members to negotiate the
demands school. Many of these students learned to use skills
developed in culture specific classes (e.g., Hebrew classes) to
better function in English school. One adult remembers that she
seemed to be ahead of her English peers in studying grammar
because she had learned Hebrew grammar. This is central to the
authors' argument that students have a range of literacy
practices from which to draw as they negotiate the literacy
expected in the classroom, and teachers should recognize and
facilitate this syncretic, contrasting literacy.

While Part II dealt with adults remembering their learning
process, Part III explores the literacy paths of thirteen
children and their parents. The monolingual, English families
primarily see literacy skills as fun, but for the Bangladeshi
families, literacy is work. These children spend an average of
thirteen hours a week, outside of the English school, in
structured classes to learn Qur'an. Much of the reading is done
in groups and is taken very seriously by students and adults.
Accuracy is demanded. In the transcripts of younger children
reading English texts to older siblings, the authors note that
the demand for accuracy continues but seems somewhat mitigated by
the methods used in the English school. In other words, one
student, Wahida, combines the modeling and scaffolding techniques
from her Bengali classes and English classes as she teaches her
younger sibling. Specifically, Wahida balances imparting social
queues with providing text, establishing meaning, and insisting
on accuracy.

Overall, this is an engaging and well-written addition to
longitudinal literacy studies. It provides a unique look at
contrasting literacies across several cultures and generations in
Spitalfields and furthers current discussions about how
contrasting literacy does not mean a lack of literacy. Part III
is particularly poignant in illustrating how children can mine
their literacy repertoire to facilitate learning and teaching. If
the text has a shortcoming, it is the lack of transcripts from
other children showing how they too use their multiple literacies
to facilitate learning. Aside from that, my only quibble is the
authors' refusal to discuss, other than a refusal to apologize,
for the paucity of men in the study, particularly in Part III.
Erikson's justification of ethnography, which the authors quote,
does not justify omitting a discussion of how the unbalanced
ratio of female to male participants affects the study. Might the
results be different if fathers rather than mothers were
interviewed? Gender is tied to literacy and language, and the
focus on women, particularly mothers in Part III, it seems,
should be addressed. This does not, however, diminish the value
of the text to literacy studies, nor does it weaken the argument
that children can benefit from their multiple and contrasting

Charlotte Brammer is a PhD candidate in the Applied Linguistics program at
the University of Alabama. Her research interests include literacy
studies, dialect influences on writing, and technical and professional
communication. She also serves as editorial assistant for IEEE
Transactions on Professional Communication.
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