I owe my interest in literacy to a research assistant post at the UNESCO Institute for Education (UIE) in Hamburg, which I took up while studying for an MA in Social Anthropology at Hamburg University. At the UIE, I worked on programmes that promoted adult literacy programmes in the so-called developing countries. Our understanding of literacy was skills-focussed: we considered literacy to be a cognitive skills or technique, to be taught and learned. For me as an anthropologist, this was quite a departure from my interest in cultures and communities. While working at the UIE I was lucky enough though to be introduced to what is known as the New Literacy Studies and their social perspectives on literacy. The NLS matched my own, at the time more or less unconscious ideas about reading and writing. Having made myself familiar with the NLS and thanks to meeting Brian Street, one of its main proponents, in 1998, I left Hamburg to begin doctoral studies at King's College in London. My research focussed on adult literacy teaching and learning in Namibia.
In 2002, I took up a lecturing post at Lancaster University, joining its Literacy Research Centre. Since then I have researched literacy in a variety of contexts, including health, working first with adults and more recently with children and in schools. Over the years, I also developed a keen interest in literacy policy, seeking to understand how policy, and how it is received by the media, impact on teaching and learning on the ground. In parallel to my ongoing research about literacy, I have also developed an interest in the study of linguistic landscapes: writing as found in public spaces. Returning to Germany in 2010/11, I studied the role of writing, on signs, posters, banners and graffiti, in the shaping the cultural image of one of Berlin's best-known neighbourhoods, Prenzlauer Berg.
I continue to work primarily in literacy education. I am part of a collaborative project to develop ways to support young deaf people in India who want to improve their English literacy. I am also in the process of setting up an action research project on critical literacy in primary schools, using picture books.
Areas of Research / Professional Expertise
literacy studies, adult literacy, literacy education in schools, phonics, ethnography, qualitative research methods, linguistic landscapes, literacy policy