No 15 (2019)

Special Edition, Academic Literacies


In 1998, Mary Lea and Brian Street published a highly influential paper in the journal Studies in Higher Education, entitled ‘Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach’. This issue marks twenty years since the publication of Lea and Street’s paper and aims to stimulate new interest in this still-neglected approach to the development of teaching and learning for the needs of contemporary higher education. Lea and Street’s paper was based on findings from an ESRC-funded ethnographic study into the expectations and interpretations of academics and students of undergraduate writing tasks. The research reported that the implicit models of student writing underlying much teaching and assessment practice in universities ‘do not adequately take account of the importance of issues of identity and the institutional relationships of power and authority that surround, and are embedded within, diverse student writing practices across the university’ (1998, p. 157). Adopting a practices rather than a skills approach, they argued, avoids assuming that:

The codes and conventions of academia can be taken as given . . . [rather] in order to understand the nature of academic learning, it is important to investigate the understandings of both academic staff and students about their own literacy practices, without making prior assumptions as to which practices are either appropriate or effective. This is particularly important in trying to develop a more complex analysis of what it means to become academically literate. We believe that it is important to realise that meanings are contested amongst the different parties involved: institutions, staff and students. (Lea and Street, 1998, p. 158)

This is a ‘stance towards student writing . . . [which] conceptualises student writing as a socially situated discourse practice which is ideologically inscribed’ (Lillis, 2003, p. 192). Many Learning Developers, teachers of English for Academic Purposes, and others found this stance appealing because it implies both a practical and ethical pedagogy, validating the meanings students bring initially to their learning experience. This means taking account of students’ prior knowledge and their social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, rather than assuming that only the academically authorised meanings have value. The emerging conception of a new pedagogy based on academic literacies suggested involving students: as legitimate participants in curriculum development; in the organisation of teaching and learning activities; as well as in subject specific knowledge creation and research in inclusive and socially relevant HEIs.

We are delighted to present this edition as a collaboration between colleagues in the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE), BALEAP the global forum for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) professionals, and the European Association of Teachers of Academic Writing (EATAW).

View the special edition