Gee on Literacy

Gee, James Paul.  “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction and What is Literacy.” Journal of Education. 17.1 (1989): 5-25. Web.

One Sentence Summary

Dominant secondary Discourses (ways of being that include, but are not limited to language, reading and writing) are practiced into primary Discourses


Discourse, Language, Linguistics, Social Construction, Pedagogy

Key Passages

“It is not just what you say, but how you say it.” (5)

“A Discourse is a sort of ‘identity kit’ which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize.” (6)

“This I define ‘literacy’ as the mastery of or fluent control over a secondary Discourse.” (9)

“So I propose that we ought to produce ‘mushfaking,’ [improvising with available materials] resisting students, full of meta-knowledge.” (13)


I found Gee’s discussion of the superficiality of grammar, and its importance to Discourse, particularly troubling.  And by troubling, I mean that it troubles the waters for me a bit.  Gee says that it is precisely the superficiality of grammar (which, by the way, he claims is essentially unteachable in school settings) that acts as a kind of gatekeeping function.  Gee points out, and it’s true, that many composition instructors de-emphasize the superficialities of student writing in an effort to focus on content, which I think is a good thing.  But it gives me pause when I say internally or hear others say explicitly that grammar doesn’t matter, it’s a writer’s ideas that matter.  Again, I agree with the sentiment, but by ignoring completely what I may take to be less important, I must recognize that, if I’m a teacher of literacy practices, those things that I deem less important may be the very things others outside of the academy pay attention to.  In other words, the audience beyond the compassionate writing teacher may not be so compassionate when it comes to subject/verb agreement.

I’m not certain what the answer is to these tensions, although balance is usually a good start. But that word balance can be tricky, too.  Even if grammar could be taught in school settings (which Gee, again, says is pretty much impossible), would it be the right thing to do to teach just as much of that as content and structure and style and rhetorical tropes?

I think Gee’s fluent speaker/apprentice model makes sense.  Gee says, essentially, that since explicit instruction is pretty futile, and since practice is really the key to becoming literate, the best course of action may well be for teachers to model the Discourse for student apprentices.  Along with the modeling, teachers should be always accepting of student attempts to use and “own” the Discourse even when the Discourse of the student doesn’t adhere to standard conventions.  What’s interesting to me as well is that this seems like the kind of approach I’ve encountered from my own teachers in my graduate studies as I have been attempting to enter into the Discourse of a field of study within higher education that I had little knowledge of.

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