Literacy, Discourse and Linguistics



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“Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics” Falls Short

Saginaw Valley State University













This analysis starts with a summary of James Paul Gee’s “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics.” The summary highlights his main arguments and the evidence he uses to support them. It also includes how he defines some of his terms. The next piece of the analysis looks to see what was happening in the world of education and Discourse during this time period. It makes connections between historical events and Gee’s ideas and provides links between this article and others that he has written. This analysis ends with an evaluation of Gee’s overall performance in this article. It brings up questions that may arise from his arguments and explains how well he executed them. An example Discourse is examined. Questions about Gee’s Discourse arguments are asked in regards to this Discourse. This analysis explains how Gee’s choices affect readers. It also gives suggestions on how the content and organization of the paper could be improved.












“Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics” Falls Short


In his article “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics,” James Paul Gee includes many arguments related to the topics mentioned in the title. Gee’s article is not organized by headings, it is simply one long article. He begins by talking about his belief that social practices should be the focus of literacy studies and then cites previous literature that falls short in recognizing this belief. He then gives many definitions of his term “Discourse” and explains different types of Discourses (Gee, 1989, p. 6). He transitions into how literacy should be defined (through Discourses) and presents theorems about Discourses. Next, he goes into how Discourses can be taught and acquired. He finishes with an analysis of a story written by a young girl.

One conversation that Gee (1989) enters into with this piece is known as “literacy studies” (p. 5). He contributes to this conversation through his belief that the focus of literacy studies is social practices rather than language. Gee (1989) also inserts himself into this territory by saying that “any socially useful definition of ‘literacy’ must be couched in terms of the notion of Discourse” (p. 9). He offers many different explanations for his term “‘Discourse’” (the capital D makes this term unique) (Gee, 1989, p. 6). He says that Discourses are “​saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations​,” “ways of being in the world,” and “‘identity kits’” (Gee, 1989, p. 6).

Gee presents many arguments throughout his article. One argument is that “someone cannot engage in a Discourse in a less than fully fluent manner” (Gee, 1989, p. 9). He supports this by saying “If you’ve fossilized in the acquisition of a Discourse prior to full ‘fluency’…, then your very lack of fluency marks you as a non-member of the group that controls this Discourse” (Gee, 1989, p. 10). His other argument says that primary Discourses only go so far. He explains that it is necessary to obtain another Discourse “in terms of which our own primary Discourse can be analyzed and critiqued” (Gee, 1989, p. 10).

Throughout this article, Gee notes ideas from other authors and finds new connections between these ideas. He takes lots of research that has been done on “second language acquisition” and notes that these findings can be more clearly seen in the “acquisition of Discourses” (Gee, 1989, p. 7). He connects these findings with Cazden and Heath’s idea that Discourses are acquired through “‘apprenticeship’” (Gee, 1989, p. 7).

Overall, Gee (1989) contributes many new terms to the literacy and education. He provides a new way to look at literacy. He allows readers to see how Discourses are present in their everyday lives and how Discourses can only be taught to an extent.


As previously stated, James Paul Gee is the author of this article. According to Wardle and Downs (2017), Gee “is a Regents’ Professor and Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University” (p. 274). He has also taught linguistics at multiple other universities including Stanford and Boston (Wardle & Downs, 2017). He has published books titled ​Sociolinguistics and Literacies ​and ​Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul.​ The former “was important in the formation of an interdisciplinary field known as ‘New Literacy Studies’” (Wardle & Downs, 2017, p. 274).

Gee (1989) notes in “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics” that “a new field of study is emerging…that we might call ​literacy studies​” (p. 5). With his contributions being some of the first in this field, he has the freedom to define his own terms and share new ideas. His terms can help the field progress further. Many of the ideas he presents do not go against preexisting ones, since the field was still developing at the time his article was written.

This article was published in the ​Journal of Education ​(Wardle & Downs, 2017). According to the publisher’s website, SAGE Publishing, this journal attempts to share knowledge of the practices at various levels of education ranging from PK-12 to professional (2018). The intended readers of this journal are educators in these fields. Each issue has three sections “that address the following themes: Educational Studies; Language and Literacy Education; Applied Human Development in the Context of Schooling” (2018). Among those who are encouraged to send their work into this journal are teachers, researchers, and scholars (2018). SAGE publishes “more than 1,000 journals, and over 900 books, reference works and databases a year in business, humanities, social sciences, science, technology and medicine” (2018). The journal was founded “to support the dissemination of usable knowledge and educate a global community” (2018).

Gee’s article appeared in the “Volume 171, Issue 1, January 1989” version of the ​Journal of Education​ (2018). Many of the other articles that were published in this version deal with literacy. These articles can be examined to see what was happening in the world of literacy and education during this time period. It is important to note that numerous articles that appear in this journal issue were written by Gee. One article written by Gee titled “What is Literacy?” appears in this edition of the ​Journal of Education​. According James Paul Gee, this is his first paper that deals with literacy (2018). His “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics” article is a “version of [his] ‘What is Literacy?’ paper published as in introduction to a collection of [his] early essays on literacy” (2018). It is in “What is Literacy?” that Gee first defines “discourse” as “an ‘identity kit,’” (Gee, 1987, p. 18) but he does not capitalize the term like he does in “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics.” He may have changed to the capitalized version to stick out from other contributors and make his ideas known in the field of literacy. However, it can be gathered that

Gee definitely had ideas about Discourses before writing “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics.”

“Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics” can also be looked at in terms of what was happening in education in the United States during this time period. A influential event in this field was a Virginia summit on education in 1989. A few years before this summit, a report titled “​A Nation at Risk” ​was released that said “the American education system was falling behind its international competitors, threatening the nation’s future prosperity” (Klein, 2014). It can be gathered that this report was a key factor in the creation of the summit. The summit had various goals, some of which can be linked to what Gee talks about in some of his articles. An example of one goal is “By the year 2000, American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter, including English, mathematics, science, history and geography” (Klein, 2014). This goal emphasizes the want for students to perform well in various subject areas, one of them being English. Another goal is “By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will possess the skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” (Klein, 2014). This shows that the focus was not only on educated students, but also adult citizens. These two goals clearly relate to what Gee (1986) talked about in an article titled “Orality and Literacy: From The Savage Mind to Ways With Words” which first appeared in ​TESOL Quarterly​.

In this article, he talks about a “‘literacy’ crisis in the United States” (Gee, 1986, p. 719).

He notes that too many children “fail to gain functional literacy in school” and too many adults “are functionally illiterate or only marginally literate” (Gee, 1986, p. 719). It can be seen that there was definitely a focus on creating literate students and adults during this time period. So much talk of literacy during this time may be due to the fact that this was a time in American history where both children and adults were underperforming in terms of literacy. This may have lead to different interpretations of what literacy truly is.


One unique aspect to Gee’s article has to do with the fact that his niche does not appear until five pages into the article. Most other scholarly writers tend to reveal their niches at the very beginning of their work. One reason that Gee may have decide to wait until this point to reveal his niche is because it contains his term Discourse. It makes sense to explain what a Discourse is prior to using it to define another term. Readers would be left confused if they were introduced to a new term that used another new term in its definition. Gee’s choice here is effective.

Another distinguishing characteristic of “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics” is its lack of headings. Typically, many research papers include headings that describe the different sections the paper will cover. This is not the case with this article. It is difficult to reference certain pieces of information within the article. Instead of being able to look for a heading related to the text they are looking for, readers are required to remember where that piece of text occurred in relation to the entire article.  Lots of time and effort would have been saved on the part of readers if Gee had included headings in his article. Additionally, more people may be willing to look over his work had he included headings. Headings provide an easy way to sort through a work if the entire piece is not needed.

The ultimate goal of Gee’s article is to convince the readers of his arguments. He shares his arguments as his contribution to literacy and education. He wants as many people on board with these ideas as possible, so he can advance in these fields and gain influence. One of his arguments is that “You are either in [a Discourse] or you’re not” (Gee, 1989, p. 9). Gee’s rationale for this argument is “If you’ve fossilized in the acquisition of a Discourse prior to full ‘fluency’ (and are no longer in the process of apprenticeship), then your very lack of fluency marks you as a non-member of the group that controls this Discourse” (Gee, 1989, p. 10). He continues on and says “As far as literacy goes, there are only ‘fluent speakers’ and ‘apprentices’ (metaphorically speaking, because remember, Discourses are not just ways of thinking, but ways of talking, acting, thinking, valuing, etc.)” (Gee, 1989, p.10).

Gee should have defined what is means to be fluent in a Discourse. It can be inferred that fluency may have to do with how well a person can speak the language of the Discourse, think the way other members of the Discourse do, act like other members, and so on. However, Gee does not give a clear definition. It would have been to his advantage to do so. This leaves too much interpretation up to the reader. Gee should explain the term himself to prevent any curiosity on the part of the readers.

Additionally, the question of who determines if someone is a member of a Discourse arises from his evidence. Does this determination lie with the overseers of the Discourse or the prospective Discourse member themself? This question can be looked at through an example of

Discourse of Christianity. What does it take for someone to become a member of this Discourse? If a person goes to church on Sundays, but does nothing to show their faith the other six days of the week, are they a member of this Discourse? They may talk and speak like the other congregation members on Sundays, but not any of the other days of the week.  It would have been strategic for Gee to talk about the amount of time a person is required to spend within a Discourse to truly become a member and how the person is initiated into that Discourse. This would help better support his argument about how people are either full members of a Discourse or not members at all.

The question about just how much Discourse members’ beliefs have to align also comes about from Gee’s evidence. Going back to the Christianity example, many Christians are not on the same page politically. Are a liberal Christian and a conservative Christian both members of the Christianity Discourse? Gee (1989) says that “Discourses are…ways of…valuing” (p. 10), but does not talk about disagreements among values. Talking about values leaves many possibilities for readers to be left with questions. Further explaining what kinds of values are associated with Discourses would help clear up audience confusion.

Including this type of uncompromising claim has the potential to hurt Gee’s credibility. For those who do not find his explanation convincing, they may disregard the rest of his ideas as well. They may even stop reading the article, since they are not on the same page with the author. Sometimes, all it takes is one point of disagreement for a reader to move away from an article and become uninterested in what the author has to say.

Gee’s other central claim is that “all primary Discourses are limited. ‘Liberation’

(‘power’)…resides in acquiring at least one more Discourse in terms of which our own primary

Discourse can be analyzed and critiqued” (Gee, 1989, p. 10). He explains that primary

Discourses “cannot verbalize the words, acts, values, and attitudes they ​use​” (Gee, 1989, p. 10).

At face value, this makes a lot of sense. Gee is essentially saying humans are not able to express what they say, how they act, what they value, and their attitudes that have been developing since birth. However, after careful consideration, humans are able to recognize what makes up their primary Discourse. When people are forced to look at how they speak and act and their values and attitudes, they become aware of the components of their primary Discourse. Gee misses the mark slightly because even though it may require some effort, it is possible to see these components of one’s life.

Another place that Gee falls short is in his ‘conclusion’. He leaves readers with a quote on education in England. This conclusion would have been much more effective had Gee used his own words and created his own summary of his findings. It would have been helpful for Gee to demonstrate what he believed the purpose of this article was. Gee should have clearly illustrated what he wanted readers to take from the piece. The quote does not demonstrate all of the work and findings Gee has contributed to literacy studies and education.


It can be gathered that Gee was unconvincing in his two main arguments. The evidence in this article was easily refuted and contained various flaws. It is important for him to realize going further that he may need to provide better evidence for his arguments, if his wants readers to agree with him. Gee did not aid readers by neglecting to include headings and provide a summary of the implications of his work at the end of the article. However, Gee’s careful choice of waiting to reveal his niche had the readers in mind and worked to his benefit. Overall, Gee’s poorly supported arguments do not bridge the gap between him and the readers.









Gee, J. P. (1986). Orality and Literacy: From The Savage Mind to Ways With Words [Abstract].

TESOL Quarterly,20​(4), 719-746. doi:

Gee, J. P. (1987). What is Literacy? ​Journal of Education,171​(1), 18-25. Retrieved November

19, 2018, from What is Literacy.pdf

Gee, J. P. (1989). Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction. ​Journal of 

Education,171​(1), 5-17. Retrieved from and


Gee, J. P. (2018). Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction. Retrieved November 19,

2018, from

Klein, A. (2014, September 23). Historic Summit Fueled Push for K-12 Standards. Retrieved

November 20, 2018, from ​


Sage Publications. (2018). Browse. Retrieved November 19, 2018, from

Wardle, E., & Downs, D. (2017). ​Writing about writing: A college reader​(3rd ed.). Boston, MA:

Bedford St. Martin’s Macmillan Learning.



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