ERIC Identifier: ED367197 Publication Date: 1993-12-00
Author: Weinstein-Shr, Gail Source: Adjunct ERIC
Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC., National Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Growing Old in America: Learning English Literacy in the Later
Years. ERIC Digest.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has provided haven for
nearly two million refugees who were involuntarily displaced from their
homelands. In addition, during the last several decades, over one million legal
immigrants have arrived voluntarily and begun new lives here. We do not know how
many undocumented refugees have also found their way into the United States.
Although the proportion of elderly may be small among these newcomers,
immigrants and refugees play an increasing role in the "graying of America," as
uprooted adults age in their new homeland. This digest argues that it is both
feasible and appropriate to provide language and literacy instruction for older
immigrants and refugees and discusses the needs and resources of these older
learners, or "elders." Factors that influence language and literacy acquisition
are discussed, and promising programs and practices for serving older adults are
LITERACY AND THE OLDER LEARNER: DEFINITIONS
in addressing the needs of older speakers of non-English languages is the
widespread variation in how the notion of "older" is defined in research
literature, in laws that affect older adults in America, and in communities in
which they are members. The most common definitions are based on chronological
age, which may vary from 40 to 65 years old. Another way to define older is by
status. Individuals may be categorized as older workers on the basis of their
status as midlife career changers, retirees returning to the labor force,
displaced workers, or homemakers (Imel, 1991). In many communities, the status
of elder is acquired through achievements and life roles, such as becoming a
grandparent (Weinstein-Shr, 1988).
A second difficulty is the definition of literacy itself. Even as national
measures of literacy become more functional and competency based, newer measures
do not take native language literacy into account (Wiley, 1991). With few
exceptions (e.g., the National Chicano Survey, cited in Wiley, 1991), current
assessment tools used on a national level provide no way to distinguish between
a Cambodian Khmai peasant farmer who has never held a pencil and a Russian
engineer with a Ph.D. who has not yet learned the Roman alphabet.
No matter how age is reckoned or how literacy is measured, both the number
and proportion of nonnative English speakers aging in America are growing
rapidly. By any measure, this group has very few literacy resources available to
them for managing the changes associated with growing old in an English-speaking
RESOURCES AND NEEDS OF UPROOTED ELDERS
Refugees who make it
to the United States are here because they are survivors. Escape stories provide
testimony to the wits and fortitude of those who have come. These newcomers
often show an amazing ability to draw on external resources, such as family and
kin networks, while also possessing strong inner resources, including resilience
in the face of enormous change. Those who migrate voluntarily often have
material resources as well with which to tackle their adjustment to
While some of the difficulties faced by elderly immigrants in the United
States are similar to those experienced by all older Americans, many are
peculiar to their special position of growing old in a foreign culture. Uprooted
elders are in multiple jeopardy--they are, for the most part, poor, members of a
minority culture, and non-English speaking. Demographic studies also indicate
that the majority of this group are women (Special Committee on Aging, 1991),
who often lack information or strategies for tapping available community
services. When family and extended kin or social networks are not strong, lack
of English proficiency can interfere with problem solving in almost all areas of
A second set of issues has to do with changing intergenerational roles in a
new society. Erosion of traditional roles for elders has been documented among
immigrant groups in the United States. As the contributions and assistance that
elders can offer the family diminish, the elderly are put in an unfavorable
position, with little to offer family and community. In addition, while native
language loss among immigrant families was once a three-generational process,
growing numbers of families are experiencing difficulty keeping a language of
communication between two generations (Wong-Fillmore, 1991). As grandparents,
parents, and children lose a shared language of communication, cultural
transmission is interrupted, with negative consequences for members of each
generation (McKay & Weinstein-Shr, 1993).
For language and literacy programs to be effective, they must build on the
resources that elders bring. They must also provide language and literacy
instruction that takes into account the special needs of elders in managing
daily life and negotiating changing roles and relationships in their families
FACTORS THAT AFFECT ELDERS' LEARNING: MYTHS AND
While folk theories suggest that elders cannot learn languages or
literacy, there is a growing body of research that indicates that adults may
learn languages more quickly in the early stages than children, due in part to
adults' more highly developed cognitive strategies for processing new
information (Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979). Furthermore, if older people
remain healthy, their intellectual abilities and skills do not decline (Oxford,
1985). There is no reason to believe that elders are not able to learn a new
language or to become literate, except when negative attitudes of educators,
family members, or the elders themselves interfere with their making the
attempt. There are, however, considerations that will affect the degree to which
language and literacy instruction for elders is effective.
Physical factors. Because of decline in visual and hearing abilities for some
learners, it is important to create a comfortable learning environment that
compensates for these impairments. This may involve using educational materials
with large print, using well lighted space, and eliminating background noise.
Cognitive factors. Older adults have strategies for learning that they have
been using for more than half a century. For this reason, it is important to
observe how they learn best, to be flexible in teaching approach, and to draw on
their life experiences.
Social factors. Older adults may be uncomfortable in mixed-generational
classes where the needs and pace of other learners do not match their own. In
addition, elders may be motivated primarily by the desire to break their social
isolation and to spend time with peers engaged in the positive endeavor of
Other motivational factors. Since older adults rarely need certification or
degrees, programs must directly address their other needs. Some specific
motivations for learning language and literacy that have been identified in the
research literature include retraining for work (Imel, 1991), gaining access to
information or services, interacting more fully with English speakers in their
communities, and communicating more effectively with children and grandchildren
who no longer use the language of their country of origin (Weinstein-Shr &
Quintero, in press). In addition to instrumental motivations, learners may also
have expressive motivations such as writing stories or poetry for their own
PROMISING PROGRAMS AND PRACTICES FOR OLDER ADULTS
feature of effective programs for older learners of English is that the program
design involves collaboration among specialists who bring different strengths to
the endeavor. Gerontologists, ESL and literacy professionals, adult educators,
and ethnic organizations serving the communities from which elders come are
among the potential partners in this important work.
One innovative model for collaboration at the national level is the Literacy
Education for the Elderly Project (LEEP). LEEP was a systematic effort by the
National Council on Aging to link volunteer literacy programs with senior
centers throughout the country. This project entailed the development of
experimental programs in sites throughout the United States and resulted in a
program development manual, a curriculum handbook, and a resource guide for
providing literacy services to elders (Jacobs, 1986).
Another model for collaboration is exemplified by Project LEIF, Learning
English through Intergenerational Friendship. This intergenerational tutoring
program in Philadelphia links college-age tutors with refugee elders through a
coalition of Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations (MAAs) and Temple
University's intergenerational and ESL programs (Weinstein-Shr, 1988). The
leaders of each MAA identify elders who want to learn English, articulate their
most pressing concerns, and suggest sites for learning centers that will be
familiar and comfortable for the elders. The university provides ESL tutor
recruitment, training, and ongoing in-service support. Bilingual assistants
provide cultural information to tutors and explain program objectives to
A second feature of effective programs is that the curriculum draws on
learner strengths and honors their goals for learning English and literacy. This
requires learning about the role of language and literacy in the everyday lives
of uprooted adults. This can be done with the assistance of community leaders
and with input from learners themselves. Depending on the needs articulated by
learners, programs may have any number of foci, such as practical problems of
everyday living (e.g., reading medicine labels, comparison shopping) or leisure
activities (e.g., conversation, reading stories or news articles). Other
programs may focus on expressive aspects of language and literacy--reading the
stories of other immigrants, writing poetry, using literacy to celebrate or
lament the human condition (Kazemek & Rigg, 1985), or developing oral
histories in which elders are helped to document their own life stories in the
language that their grandchildren will understand. Programs that are most
effective in meeting learner needs assess and reassess learner interests,
experiment with a variety of materials and activities, and adjust curriculum as
participants' needs and goals evolve.
Finally, the instructional approach takes into account the special needs and
resources of elders. The most effective language and literacy teachers are often
those who see themselves not only as teachers of language but also as learners
about life. An interest on the part of language and literacy teachers in the
experiences of elders, and a genuine belief in the wisdom of their years,
creates the potential for respectful exchange and mutual learning.
Effective language and literacy programs benefit elders by helping them to
manage as they age in a new setting. They also benefit young immigrants and
refugees by creating channels for them to maintain connections to their past.
But this work ultimately benefits all of us, by tapping the wisdom and cultural
resources of elders and by signaling our commitment to a just and humane society
in which we will all, barring disaster, inevitably grow old.
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overview. ERIC Digest." Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and
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strategy." Washington, DC: National Council on the Aging.
Kazemak, F., & Rigg, P. (1985). Tithes: Poetry and old people. "Lifelong
Learning," 8(4), 4-8.
Krashen, S.D., Long, M.A., & Scarcella, R.C. (1979). Age, rate, and
eventual attainment in second language acquisition. "TESOL Quarterly," 13(4),
McKay, S., & Weinstein-Shr, G. (1993). English literacy in the United
States: National policies, personal consequences. "TESOL Quarterly," 27(3),
Oxford, R. (1985). "A new taxonomy of second language learning strategies."
Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.
Special Committee on Aging, United States Senate. (1991). "Lifelong learning
for an aging society: An information paper." Washington, DC: U.S. Government
Weinstein-Shr, G. (1988). "Project LEIF: Learning English through
intergenerational friendship: A manual for building community across languages
and across cultures." Philadelphia: Temple University, Center for
Intergenerational Learning. (ED 314 964)
Weinstein-Shr, G., & Quintero, E. (Eds.). (in press). "Immigrant learners
and their families: Literacy to connect the generations." Washington, DC and
McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.
Wiley, T. (1991). "Measuring the nation's literacy: Important considerations.
ERIC Digest." Washington DC: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education. (ED
Wong-Fillmore, L. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the
first. "Early Childhood Research Quarterly," 6, 323-346.
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