ERIC Identifier: ED350886
Publication Date: 1992-06-00
Author: Cumming, Alister
Source: National Clearinghouse on
Literacy Education Washington DC., Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse on Literacy
Education for Limited-English-Proficient Adults Washington DC.
Access to Literacy for Language Minority Adults. ERIC Digest.
A significant problem for adult literacy education is that of language
minorities not participating or sustaining their involvement in instructional
programs. Many literacy programs designed for or by majority populations may be
perceived as inaccessible, irrelevant, or inappropriate by minority populations,
even those groups most in need of literacy education.
This digest describes factors that may restrict access to adult literacy
education in North America and discusses several potential solutions to these
problems from programs that have aimed to provide adult literacy instruction to
specific minority groups. Although the barriers and potential solutions apply to
all minority groups, two populations often considered "at risk"--immigrant women
and involuntary minorities--are given particular attention.
BARRIERS TO PROGRAM PARTICIPATION
Four kinds of obstacles
tend to hinder adults' participation in formal education (Spanard, 1990): "institutional barriers," including location, schedules, fees, site atmosphere;
"situational barriers," including job commitments, home and family
responsibilities, lack of money, lack of child care, and transportation
problems; "psychosocial barriers," such as attitudes, beliefs, values, past
experiences as a student, self-esteem, and opinions of others; and "pedagogical
barriers," such as a program's lack of responsiveness to the interests,
backgrounds, and existing skills of those groups they seek to serve.
For minority cultural groups such as recent immigrants, some or all of these
obstacles may combine with additional factors like limited proficiency in the
majority language; unfamiliarity with or exclusion from local cultural practices
and institutions; and insecure economic, housing, family, or employment
situations to hinder participation in educational programs as well as
integration into the society at large (Bell, 1990; Weinstein, 1984).
For example, Klassen's (1991) study of Hispanic immigrants in Toronto shows
that adult Hispanics with little prior schooling who attempt to learn basic
literacy and a second language within the unfamiliar domain of formal classrooms
often experience too many concurrent demands resulting in withdrawal from
conventional educational settings.
Many immigrant women experience barriers
preventing their access to literacy education (Cumming & Gill, 1992;
Rockhill, 1987). Common institutional barriers are lack of on-site child care by
trusted members of their own culture, location of classes in unfamiliar
institutions outside of local neighborhoods, and course schedules that conflict
with family responsibilities. Situational barriers may include lack of safe or
convenient transportation to and from classes, commitments to part-time work,
unfamiliarity with institutional practices and government services, and
responsibilities to children or extended family members. Psychosocial barriers
may appear in traditional attitudes of family members or community leaders,
which may restrict women from educating themselves beyond initial schooling or
from seeking employment that conflicts with family responsibilities or
conventional roles. Pedagogical barriers may include instructional materials and
lessons that do not have immediate relevance to women's personal situations,
appear too "bookish" or impractical to be of immediate benefit, or threaten
cultural values or roles.
This problem has large dimensions. In Canada, for instance, census figures
for the past two decades have shown the population of women who speak no English
at all to be double that of men, even though almost equal proportions of men and
women who do not speak English enter the country each year as immigrants (Boyd,
1990). Evidently, immigrant men acquire the majority language through work,
education, or social contacts, whereas immigrant women may be bound to family
responsibilities, jobs, or traditional roles, which prevent them from more
extensive socialization and cultural adaptation.
As Ogbu (1987) observes, education
is often not successful for minorities who find themselves in a caste-like
position because they have come to a new nation involuntarily (as in the
historical case of slaves or the contemporary one of political refugees) or have
been conquered and subjugated during settlement (as in the case of indigenous
aboriginals). Such involuntary minorities may develop "a sense of social
identity in opposition to...a dominant group" (p. 323), resisting behaviors
(such as high levels of literacy or participation in advanced education)
associated with assimilation into the majority society.
An example in adult literacy education appears in Giltrow and Colhoun's
(1989) study of Mayan refugees residing in western Canada. Having endured
centuries of severe persecution in Central America and not assimilated into the
majority Hispanic society there, certain Mayan adults who have gained political
refugee status in Canada resist using or learning literacy in English because
written documentation has customarily rendered them vulnerable to persecution,
alien cultural values, and only partially comprehensible legal or financial
obligations. Instead, they hire translators and scribes to perform necessary
legal or bureaucratic functions requiring literacy. Moreover, this population
has generally avoided participating in conventional forms of adult education,
finding such instruction to be irrelevant, in violation of their cultural norms
for group behavior, or contrary to their social interests.
Related examples appear in efforts to provide literacy instruction to
aboriginal peoples with histories of subjugation within their communities. For
example, Millard (1990) found that her efforts to provide adult literacy
instruction in a rural Athapaskan community in the Yukon were visibly resisted
through violent behavior, verbal abuse, non-attendance, and unwillingness to
perform classroom tasks--behaviors consistent with the history of the local
community, which was marked by a longstanding need to resist cultural and
ideological assimilation into the European-background majority population.
POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS: CULTURALLY RELEVANT
Innovative educational settings can empower such groups by helping
them foster self-awareness and active responsibility for their social positions,
as well as the means to change those positions (Freire & Macedo, 1987). The
most promising potential solutions to these problems appear in programs for
specific language and cultural groups within local communities, an approach
cited by Barton and Hamilton (1990, p. 22) as the ideal policy provision and an
international trend. As Moll (1989) argues, mainstream education tends to favor
the culture and practices of majority populations; therefore, the challenge for
literacy educators of minority populations is to create unique, participatory
educational programs that address and capitalize on the cultural values,
interests, and aspirations of local minority communities.
Examples of such programs have been documented for Hispanics in California
(Delgado-Gaitan, 1987; Wallerstein, 1983), Cambodian Hmong in Philadelphia
(Weinstein, 1984), Haitian Creole speakers in Boston (Auerbach, 1990), and
Punjabi Sikh women in Vancouver (Cumming & Gill, in press). Among the
elements common to these programs are:
of learners using communication networks such as word-of-mouth referrals or TV
or radio interviews on local multicultural programs in languages of potential
participants, and affiliation with community service groups;
of classes within ethnic neighborhoods and at local centers with reputations for
who are themselves members of the minority population, are able to speak the
minority language with students when necessary or appropriate, and present
successful role models;
of classes at times that are convenient to participants;
structures such as on-site child care, transportation subsidies, and counseling
in participants' mother tongues;
content and instructional materials based on participants' own immediate
experiences, personal knowledge, perceived problems, and social interests and
approaches to program planning, development, and evaluation that include
liaisons with community workers, such as counselors, teachers, and health care
to other programs such as job training or non-sheltered literacy, vocational, or
of successful learners back into programs as mentors, teachers, or aides.
As Jurmo (1989) points out, such programs may reach their maximum potential
by adopting a participatory philosophy, in the fullest sense of the word. Active
participation by adult learners in program decision-making at all levels has the
multiple benefits of improving educational efficiency while enhancing
participants' personal development and equipping them with the means to
transform their local contexts productively. Principles of learner participation
may be most valuable for language minority populations who have traditionally
been excluded from roles of power, prestige, or authority. They stand to benefit
most from assuming greater control and responsibility over their own learning;
over the structures, content, and processes of their continuing education; and
over the futures of their own social communities. Literacy programs that fail to
act on the potential for language minority learners to shape and direct the
nature of their programs, in their own terms, may be creating distinct barriers
that exclude such learners from any meaningful level of participation.
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