"What's Going on Here?" Reflections on Brian Street's Contribution to Literacy Education

  • Anna Robinson-Pant Professor


As a teacher and researcher of literacy, Brian Street introduced ethnographic inquiry to two quite different communities: adult literacy practitioners in India, Ethiopia and Uganda, and university students in the UK and USA. Through re-visiting his teaching materials and approaches, the article explores how he mediated key concepts within anthropology - such as ‘context’ and an ‘ethnographic frame of mind’ - through practical activities with university students and adult educators. Within higher education, Street’s research on academic literacies both emerged from and built on engagement with students and colleagues around the notion of literacy as a social practice shaped by institutional hierarchies and cultures. In development projects, Street extended his early (1984) research in Iran on multiple literacies, including what he termed UNESCO ‘essay-text’ literacy, into a ‘hands-on’ programme for literacy trainers to investigate everyday literacies often overlooked by formal adult literacy initiatives. Street’s active engagement in literacy teaching and learning resulted in methodological innovation, particularly the development of ‘ethnographic style’ methods. Arguing that applied anthropology was often seen as having a one-directional relationship with education, Street demonstrated that education could also make an intellectual contribution to anthropology in terms of deepening understanding of literacy, language and learning within the discipline.