Literacy: An introduction

Literacy: An introduction. By Randal Holme. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 272. ISBN 9780748616893. $34.22.

Reviewed by Bojana Petrić, Eötvös Loránd University

With the proliferation of various kinds of literacies, such as computer or visual literacy, it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand what constitutes literacy. Aiming to provide a comprehensive introduction, Randal Holme discusses various perspectives on literacy and its numerous facets. He explores four aspects of literacy: its socio-economic nature (Part 1), literacy as a sign system (Part 2), literacy as a particular type of language use (Part 3), and literacy as a mental construct (Part 4).

Part i, ‘The socio-economic nature of literacy’ (11–95), overviews functional and critical models of literacy (Chs. 1 and 2) and the concept of socially embedded literacy practices (Ch. 3). Not subscribing to any single perspective, H explains the foundations, major tenets, and problems associated with each. Ch. 4 focuses on language choice for literacy in multilingual communities and touches, among others, on issues of minority rights, linguistic imperialism, and biliteracy.

Part 2, ‘Sign’ (99–150), starts with a theoretical introduction to the concept of sign, its nature and types (Ch. 5), and goes on to discuss types of writing systems (Ch. 6), the evolution of writing systems (Ch. 7), and the nature of writing (Ch. 8), which addresses controversial issues related to writing, such as to what extent writing derives from speaking.

In Part 3, ‘The language of literacy’ (153–94), H first outlines the differences between speech and writing (Chs. 9 and 10) and then focuses on written language in social context, explaining the concepts of genre, register, and grammatical metaphor (Ch. 11). As in Part 1, here, too, sample text analysis helps clarify the concepts explained.

In Part 4, ‘Literacy as mind’ (198–232), H outlines Vygotsky’s socio-historical theory of mind, explaining concepts such as scaffolding and zone of proximal development (Ch. 12). In Ch. 13, H discusses the ‘great divide’ between literate and illiterate societies, arguing that literacy practice is both a result of cognitive activity and its cause, and is also shaped by other social practices. Ch. 14 brings an overview of cognitive theories, focusing on the concepts of frame, script, and schema, and the ways in which they relate to literacy. In the concluding remarks (Ch. 15), H states that although the different perspectives presented in the book may seem incompatible, it would be wrong to reduce literacy to a single aspect. He concludes that literacy should be viewed as ‘interaction of social practice and mind through the medium of sign’ (239).

Written in accessible language with numerous textual and visual illustrations, and equipped with exercises in each chapter and a glossary, this book is particularly suitable for students and teachers of linguistics. Without presuming previous knowledge, the book provides explanations of not only concepts central to the study of literacy but also terms from other related fields that students are likely to encounter in discussions of literacy, such as postmodernism or social construction. Theoretical explanations are interspersed with numerous historical and cultural references, ranging from modernist architecture to the rise of recreational letter writing in the eighteenth century, which makes the book a goldmine of interesting detail.

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