Research projects

Positive mental health literacy: creative strategies for self-care and promotion of good mental health amongst University students – a co-created project (Uta Papen, Emily Peach, Karin Tusting, Liz Brewster)

This pilot project, funded by the Lancaster University FASS research fund, was a collaborative consultation with students exploring a proposed research project on students’ positive mental health literacy practices, using a survey and focus groups.

0-3 year olds’ language and literacy learning at home in a digital age (Julia Gillen; Rosie Flewitt, Lorna Jane Arnott, Karen Winter, Janet Goodall, Katrina McLaughlin)

This ESRC-funded study aims to build a robust body of evidence about 0-3 year olds’ language and literacy learning by trialling new ways to research the home collaboratively and sensitively with children and families in diverse communities. June 2022- July 2024.

Research mobilities in primary education (Julia Gillen and Anna Cermakova; Cathy Burnett, Terrie-Lynn Thompson, Gill Adams, David Ben Shannon, Parinita Shetty)

This ESRC-funded project aims to understand how literacy research evidence moves to and between primary school teachers, and what happens to it as it does so. Jan 2022 – Jan 2024.

CLAE II Critical Literacies and Awareness in Education “Thinking critically together” (Julia Gillen, Diane Potts and Johnny Unger.)

This Erasmus plus project brings together classroom teachers in Norway, France and Spain with researchers from the Universities of Stavanger, Valencia and us in Lancaster University. Funding was been secured for 1 September 2019 – 31 August 2022.

Peer to Peer Deaf Multiliteracies: Research into a sustainable approach to the education of deaf children and young adults in the Global South (Julia Gillen, Uta Papen)

This 3 year project led by UCLan and the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre (2017-2020) was funded by the ESRC and the former UK Department for International Development, which merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on 2 September 2020 to become the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. ES/P008623/1, under the scheme Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems. The grant, for £436,000, extends a successful pilot examining innovative ways to teach literacy to deaf learners.

The project is led by Prof. Ulrike Zeshan, OBE, Director of UCLan’s International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies who explains, “We understand the longstanding problem of deaf people’s insufficient access to schools in the developing world, and their resulting lack of employment, income, life quality and fulfilment. Through this multinational study we will expand our pilot project’s cost-effective and learner-directed literacy teaching methods.” These methods have involved peer to peer teaching by local deaf tutors, supported by deaf research assistants in India, Ghana and Uganda.

The team is targeted new learner groups by investigating multiliteracies among deaf children and young adults in India, Uganda, Ghana, Rwanda and Nepal. In order to identify generalisable, flexible models that can be taken up by educational providers in the developing world, the project considered the similarities across educational systems in the different countries as well as the agency of deaf learners, researchers, tutors, and educators who implement the interventions. The UK project team included Dr Daniel Waller, Phil Howarth and Jenny Webster at UCLan and Phil Tubman, an LU Learning Technologist. Project partners included the Delhi Foundation of Deaf Women, the Rural Lifeline Trust, the University of Ghana, Makerere University and the Uganda National Association of the Deaf.


A Day in the Life 0-3 year olds (Julia Gillen)

Between June 2017 and 2019 Julia Gillen was co-chair of Working Group 1, Digital Literacy in Homes and Communities, within the Digital Literacy and Multimodal Practices of Young Children programme, DigiLitEY. This is a COST European project, funded by Horizon 2020. She lead the research project A Day in the Digital Lives of young children under 3, for which she was awarded €2k from the COST programme, for translation activities among the European partners and £538 from the FASS research fund to undertake research here. The aim of this study is to identify the way in which digital technologies inform the daily lives of children aged from birth to 3 in a number of European countries. Very few studies consider this age group, yet there is increasing evidence that children are embedded in a digital environment from birth. The study uses “A Day in the Life” methodology, appropriately adapted. Teams worked in Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Israel and the UK. Athough this strand of the project is formerly over, writing up continues including with a special issue of the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy in September 2020 on Children under 3 at home: the place of digital media in their literacy practices.

Julia co-directed A Day in the Life, an umbrella research programme, from 2002-2010 and 2015-ongoing. Two books and over 50 peer researched journal papers have been produced, including Gillen, J. and Cameron, C.A. (2017) Negotiating citizenship: a young child’s collaborative meaning-making constructions of beavers as a symbol of Canada, Language and Education, 31 (4) 330-350. For further information see the project website.

Edwardian postcards (Julia Gillen)

The Edwardian Postcard Project is the first project to collect, transcribes and analyse the literacy practices around early twentieth century postcards in any significant number. The first decade of the twentieth century, during the reign of Edward VII, was the heyday of the postcard. With several postal deliveries per day and cheap postage, the picture postcard was the social networking tool of its day. The project is directed by Julia Gillen. In Summer/Autumn the project is involved in a AHRC funded Creative Exchange mini-project: The Physical Social Network.  Amanda Pullan and Julia Gillen of the Literacy Research Centre are collaborating with Adrian Gradinar and Paul Coulton, LICA, and Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer of Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums. Earlier in 2016 the project benefited from an AHRC Cultural Engagement Fund.

picture by julia gillen

Using interactive reading circles to develop children’s critical thinking and critical literacy (Uta Papen)

This was a collaborative action research project (May 2016 to April 2017), funded by the United Kingdom Literacy Association, involving myself and the deputy head teacher of a small primary school. The aim of the project  is to design and implement a series of interactive reading circles with primary school children. We use picture books to introduce children to careful and close readings of stories, taking account of both text and images and how these work together. In small groups (no more than 8 participants) children sit together around a picture, spending time looking at each page and discussing its content and meaning. The teacher uses ‘I wonder why’ statements and ‘what if’ questions to facilitate children’s deep and critical thinking about author intentions and how convincing a story or idea is. As part of the reading circles, we are trying to develop age appropriate and simple ways for children to learn about the meanings of visuals and modes such as colour or size. The reading circles are intended to offer an approach to meaning making and engaging with fictional texts that is child centred and designed to serve an antidote to the often narrow conceptions of ‘reading comprehension’ that are part of the national curriculum in England. Uta Papen’s article, “Using picture books to develop critical visual literacy in primary schools: challenges of a dialogic approach” was published in the January 2020 issue of Literacy.

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Major Previous Research Projects

The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation: Academics’ Writing Practices in the Contemporary University Workplace (David Barton, Ibrar Bhatt, Mary Hamilton, Sharon McCulloch, Karin Tusting)
This project, funded by the ESRC and led by Karin Tusting, began in January 2015. Academics’ writing practices are central to the enterprise of higher education (HE). It is largely through scholarly, pedagogic, administrative and impact writing practices that universities achieve the knowledge production and distribution that is one of their central purposes and against which their success is measured. This study aims to understand contemporary writing practices by investigating how knowledge is produced, shaped and distributed through the writing practices of academics in a range of disciplines and at different career stages within the English HE system. The project’s book “Academics Writing: the dynamics of knowledge creation” was published by Routledge in April 20919. The authors are Karin Tusting, Sharon McCulloch, Ibrar Bhatt, Mary Hamilton and David Barton In 2019-20 this work was developed further in international directions.

Find the project’s open access journal article publication, Hobson’s choice: the effects of research evaluation on academics’ writing practices in England, here.

Literacy development with deaf communities using sign language, peer tuition, and learner-generated online content: sustainable educational innovation (Julia Gillen, Karin Tusting, Uta Papen, Phil Tubman)

This project, known as “P2P Deaf Literacy“, funded by the ESRC and DFID, ran from 1 June 2015 – 31 July 2016. The project was headed by Prof. Ulrike Zeshan of the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS) at UCLan, working with Sibaji Panda as a co-investigator.  The National Institute of Speech and Hearing in Thiruvananthapuram was our partner in India.

Our project aimed to provide English-language teaching for members of the deaf community in India including deaf young people in high poverty contexts, and draft a model of effective language-teaching interventions for them, to guide policy and further innovation. A significant element of the project was the development of a virtual/mobile learning platform Sign Language to India for the Deaf (SLEND) hosted on Lancaster’s Open Learn Moodle platform. Combined with the use of sign language and support from deaf peer tutors this constituted a learner-driven, innovative methodology based on a functional approach to learning. Adaptation of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for the expression of learning outcomes allowed achievements to be expressed in terms of an internationally understood tool.

The project also involved small-scale investigative fieldwork in Ghana, with our partner Lancaster University Ghana, and in Uganda, to examine transferability across cultures and pave the way for future collaborations.

The Impact Initiative drew on the project to produce: ESRC-DFID Research for
Policy and Practice: Disability and education

See the project website for further information including project reports.

Adult Learners’ Lives

Adult Learners’ Lives was a major project funded by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy. The aim was to understand some of the connections between adults’ lives and basic skills taking account of social and economic factors. In this longitudinal study we used ethnographic methods to understand the meanings and connections that adults make between learning and their everyday lives. Informed by the Skills for Life strategy we looked at links between formal and informal learning at colleges, in the workplace, in the community and in the home. We were interested in literacy, numeracy and ESOL as social practices: practices that take place within a wide range of contexts in people’s lives and that are shaped by a variety of social and economic factors.

In the classroom we looked at links between teaching and learning, participation, motivation and persistence. We were interested to know what motivates and engages adult learners in the area of basic skills. Through collaborative research we aimed to identify teaching and learning strategies that are more effective at encouraging and supporting adult basic skills learners.

Lancaster has a strong tradition of situated research looking at literacy as a social practice, rather than simply as technical skill acquisition. In the Adult Learners’ Lives project we built upon this tradition making connections between different aspects of learners’ lives and learning. We used and developed, a variety of methods in the different sites of our research. These included observation, in-depth and repeated interviews, group work, photography and video. In addition, we looked at various types of student writing and the many different forms of communications that adult learners encounter in their everyday lives: at work, at home and in the community. Read more»

Changing Faces

Changing Faces of Adult Literacy, Numeracy and ESOL: A Critical History of Policy and Practice 1970 –2000

The ‘Changing Faces’ study started in October 2001 and aims to track policy initiatives stemming from the 1970 adult literacy campaign to the launch last year of the new basic skills campaign, as part of the National Literacy Strategy. This ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) funded research is a collaboration between Lancaster University, City University and the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, London. We are using documentary, longitudinal and quantitative data alongside oral history interviews to collect the perspectives of three groups: adults with basic skills needs, practitioners involved in teaching and organising within ABE and ESOL programmes and people involved in making and managing policy in this field.

Our first information gathering exercise was a small survey that was sent to practitioners asking them to tell us of important events and people within ABE and ESOL between 1970 and 2000. From this we are conducting e-mail and face-to-face interviews as well as setting up group activities to collect memories, experiences and views from this period. We are using the four case study sites of Leicestershire, Norfolk, Greater Manchester and East London to look more closely at how these experiences intersect within a specific geographical area.

Literacies for Learning in Further Education

The Literacies for Learning in Further Education Project (LfLFE) Project is a collaboration between two universities – Stirling and Lancaster – and four FE colleges, Anniesland (Glasgow) and Perth in Scotland, Lancaster & Morecambe and Preston in England.

The Project, which began in January 2004 and is now entering Phase 2, has been funded for three years by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its £28 million Teaching and Learning Research Programme. It now has one full-time and one part-time researcher at each university site, four college-based research coordinators and 13 college based researchers across eleven curriculum areas in the four FE colleges. The overall project director is Dr Roz Ivanic of the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre, and deputy director at Lancaster is Professor David Barton.

More than a hundred students at the four different FE colleges will take part in the research, documenting the kinds of literacy activities they are involved in outside of lessons, from reading timetables and chatting on-line to taking notice of written language in their environments.

A major objective of the project is to identify actual and potential overlaps and connections between literacy practices in students’ everyday lives, the literacy demands of their courses and the uses of literacy in the workplaces in which they are hoping to gain employment. It is intended that the project should link research and practice from the outset by contributing to staff development work and to local and regional conferences.

In Phase 1 (January – August 2004) the project has established the research partnerships in the four colleges, mapped the literacy demands of studying at college, and piloted several new methodologies. Early data analysis is showing the diversity of literacy demands across different curriculum areas and those involved in life at college more generally, from the perspectives of students, FE lecturers in a variety of curriculum areas, and other professional staff.