“Write, mate! Spelling does not count”: Developing a Social Literacy Program for L1 in the Prison School in Cyprus

Submitted by: Elena Ioannidou
Abstract: The current paper explores the design and implementation of a Social Literacy Program (SLP) among inmates in the central prison in Cyprus for a period of eighteen months. The program was based on the philosophy of literacy as a social practice (Street 1995) and it aimed to opt away from skill-based, autonomous and corrective models of literacy education that are widespread in prison education. The Social Literacy Program was theoretically informed by critical literacy (Comber et al 2006), multimodality, social semiotics (Halliday 1978), genre awareness (Martin 2006) and non-formal education. The rationale was to offer to the inmates an alternative approach to texts, language and literacy in order to engage them with social themes and create a space where they could voice their representations about the world.

The current paper describes the design of the SLP, its philosophy and rationale; it also portrays instances and episodes from the implementation process in order to shed some light on the way the students-inmates reacted and positioned themselves towards the literacy program, focusing on specific case studies.

The methodology was structured in two phases. The first phase included the design of the programme, the development of materials, the selection of texts and genres and the shaping of individualised and collective classroom tasks. The second phase covered the implementation process in which rich ethnographic data was collected: participant observations of literacy classes, texts-artefacts produced by the students–prisoners and the teacher–researchers’ reflective diaries.

The main findings indicate that the inmates were very responsive to this type of literacy education since it provided them space to reflect on their own experience, freedom to express themselves and produce texts, away from corrective educational models. This type of literacy formed a platform for representation, enactment and in some aspects empowerment. Finally, it was appropriate for inmates of varied educational and social background.

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Halliday, M. A. K. 1978. Language as a Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.
Martin, J. R. 2006. “Metadiscourse: Designing Interaction in Genre-based Literacy
Programs.” In Language and Literacy: Functional Approaches, edited by R. Whittaker, M. O’Donnell, and A. McCabe, 95–122. London: Continuum.
Street, B. V. 1995. Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development,
Ethnography, and Education. London: Longman.