ERIC Identifier: ED334866
Publication Date: 1991-04-00
Author: Spanos, George
Source: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education Washington
Cultural Considerations in Adult Literacy Education.
"In a culturally heterogeneous society, literacy ceases to be a characteristic
inherent solely in the individual. It becomes an interactive process that
is constantly redefined and renegotiated, as the individual transacts with
the socioculturally fluid surroundings" (B.M. Ferdman, 1990).
The term "literacy" may be interpreted narrowly, to focus strictly upon
the basic mechanics of learning to read and write, or broadly, to recognize
the role of cultural factors associated with language learning in different
societies. A recent trend toward a broad interpretation recognizes culture
and associated factors such as values, beliefs, attitudes, motivation,
and cognitive styles as key aspects of literacy education.
In this digest, the main themes of a broad interpretation of literacy
will be set forth, and examples of approaches in use and resources available
will be cited. Although most of the literature is focused on native language
literacy, the themes, recommendations, and materials are relevant for adults
learning English as a second language as well.
THE ROLE OF CULTURE IN LITERACY
Scribner and Cole (1981) define literacy as "a set of cultural practices
developed in and for different social contexts." Building on this definition,
Reder (1990) argues that literacy is acquired in collaborative social contexts;
literacy is a shared activity, not individual proficiency with particular
skills. Social meanings and learning attitudes, in addition to functional
skills, need to be considered in one's interpretation of what it means
to be literate.
Likewise, Ferdman (1990) argues that literacy is framed and defined
by the culture of the learner. One becomes literate when one has developed
mastery of both the processes and the symbolic media of a particular culture,
the ways in which cultural norms, values, and beliefs are represented.
Thus, literacy is considerably more than the ability to read a printed
or written page; it involves the ability to both comprehend and manipulate
the symbols of that page in ways prescribed by a particular culture.
Further, Ferdman cautions that, "The value placed on behaviors that
are construed as literate in the context of one group will not be equivalent
to the value given them by a different culture." Thus, acquiring and maintaining
literate behaviors in a new culture may not be easy, because basic values
are not readily changed. The relative ease with which an individual acquires
and maintains appropriate literate behaviors in a new culture relates closely
to the similarities and dissimilarities between the native culture and
the new culture.
For example, Fingeret (1989) warns against judging nonreading adults
within the normative framework of the dominant, reading culture. She regards
nonreading adults as members of primarily oral subcultures that are rooted
in concrete experience and that place importance on talk. Talk requires
consistent face-to-face interaction, follows different rules, and has greater
practical value than it does in mainstream U.S. culture. The collaborative
literacy practices of the Eskimo, Hispanic, and Hmong communities studied
by Reder (1987) revealed a strong oral component and collective accomplishment
of reading and writing tasks (p. 256).
INCORPORATING CULTURE INTO ADULT LITERACY CLASSROOMS
According to Fingeret (1990), literacy programs tend to ignore the meanings
that learners need to learn to express, choosing instead to teach either
the employers' meanings (in the case of workplace literacy programs) or
the schools' meanings (in the case of school-based programs). Thus, she
makes a case for participatory literacy education approaches that recognize
and respect the knowledge, skills, experiences, and aspirations of the
students involved (1989). These approaches to literacy education have a
strong active component (see Jurmo 1989a), requiring learners and teachers
to engage in cross-cultural communication, negotiation, and mutual learning.
Following are examples of these approaches:
o Freirean approaches: The influence of Paulo Freire is apparent in
many programs and approaches that attempt to base literacy on the cultures
and personal experiences of students (see Spener, 1990). The most prominent
features of Freirean approaches are problem-posing (Freire, 1970, 1973;
Wallerstein, 1983, 1984) and dialogue (Freire, 1973; Auerbach & Burgess,
1985). Dialogue is viewed as a relationship between the learner and the
teacher in which the student contributes concrete cultural knowledge and
the teacher contributes knowledge about reading and writing. The notion
of dialogue is manifested in the ethnographic research of Heath (1980,
1983), Weinstein-Shr (in press), and Weinstein-Shr & Lewis (in press),
as well as in the listening and observation techniques proposed by Wallerstein
(1983). Problem-posing involves the use of cultural themes and open-ended
questions that generate discussions drawing upon students' background knowledge,
values, and aspirations. Students are thus given responsibility for defining
real-life problems, discussing the causes of the problems, and proposing
solutions based on their own experiences.
o Participatory literacy education: This program model (described in
Fingeret & Jurmo, 1989) gives learners considerable control over decision
making and program operations. The relationship between program staff and
learners follows a Freirean orientation; that is, it is collaborative,
and student characteristics, aspirations, backgrounds, and needs are placed
at the center of the program. The model can give a framework within which
a number of emphases can be developed, including family literacy (Auerbach,
1989; Wallerstein, 1984), community-based literacy (Anorve, 1989), the
language experience approach (described for adults in Savage, 1984), the
whole language approach (described for adults in Rigg, 1990), and learner-based
o Learner-centered literacy assessment: Procedures for enabling learners
to participate in their own literacy assessment are discussed in Lytle,
Belzer, Schultz, and Vannozzi (1989). During assessment, learners are asked
about such diverse topics as literacy practices and goals, reading and
writing strategies, and personal interests. Proponents believe that these
discussions enable students to become actively involved in their own learning.
EXEMPLARY MATERIALS AND PROGRAMS
The following materials and programs exemplify a broad interpretation
of literacy education.
Wallerstein's (1983) "Language and culture in conflict: Problem-posing
in the ESL classroom" provides background information on the use of problem-posing
in the ESL classroom, as well as examples of associated teaching techniques.
Eight teaching units are provided along with suggestions for using the
units and writing a curriculum based on problem-posing. There is an extensive
list of resource and reference materials.
Long & Spiegel-Podnecky's (1988) "In print: Beginning literacy for
cultural awareness" is intended for non-literate and semi-literate immigrant
adults. The 15 units provide beginning literacy exercises aimed at helping
students develop self-esteem, preserve their cultural experiences, and
adjust to their new culture. A teacher's guide provides an introduction
to the materials and the approach and gives notes for teaching each of
Fingeret & Jurmo's (1989) "Participatory literacy education" contains
case studies of exemplary participatory literacy education programs. The
programs represented are: The Eastern Michigan University Academy; Literacy
Volunteers of New York City; the Center for Literacy in Philadelphia; California
Literacy; the Literacy Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania;
the Adult Literacy Evaluation Project at the University of Pennsylvania;
Literacy Volunteers of America (Syracuse, NY); and California State University's
CALPEP Project. Information on these programs is also provided in Jurmo
The author thanks the following for providing valuable information:
Carol Clymer, Jodi Crandall, Marcia Farr, Hanna Fingeret, Doug Gilzow,
Janet Isserlis, Don Ranard, Peggy Seufert-Bosco, and David Spener.
Anorve, R.L. (1989). Community-based literacy educators: Experts and
catalysts for change. In H.A. Fingeret & P. Jurmo (Eds.), "Participatory
literacy education" (pp. 35-41). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
Auerbach, E.R. (1989). Toward a social-contextual approach to family
literacy. "Harvard Educational Review," 59(2), 165-181.
Auerbach, E.R., & Burgess, D. (1985). The hidden curriculum of survival
ESL. "TESOL Quarterly," 19, 475-495.
Ferdman, B.M. (1990). Literacy and cultural diversity. "Harvard Educational
Review," 60(2), 181-204.
Fingeret, H.A. (1989). The social and historical context of participatory
literacy education. In H.A. Fingeret & P. Jurmo (Eds.), "Participatory
literacy education" (pp. 5-15). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 243 994)
Fingeret, H.A. (1990). Changing literacy instruction: Moving beyond
the status quo. In F.P. Chisman and Associates, "Leadership for literacy:
The agenda for the 1990s." San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 323 819)
Fingeret, H.A., & Jurmo, P., (Eds.). (1989). "Participatory literacy
education." San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
Freire, P. (1970). "Pedagogy of the oppressed." New York: The Continuum
Freire, P. (1973). "Education for critical consciousness." New York:
Heath, S.B. (1980). The functions and uses of literacy. "Journal of
Communication," 30(1), 123-134.
Heath, S.B. (1983). "Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities
and classrooms." New York: Cambridge University Press.
Jurmo, P. (1989a). The case for participatory literacy education. In
H.A. Fingeret & P. Jurmo (Eds.), "Participatory literacy education"
(pp. 17-28). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
Jurmo, P. (1989b). History in the making: Key players in the creation
of participatory alternatives. In H.A. Fingeret & P. Jurmo (Eds.),
"Participatory literacy education" (pp. 73-80). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,
Long, L.D., & Spiegel-Podnecky, J. (1988). "In print: Beginning
literacy through cultural awareness." Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Lytle, S.L., Belzer, A., Schultz, K., & Vannozzi, M. (1989). Learner-centered
literacy assessment: An evolving process. In H. A. Fingeret & P. Jurmo
(Eds.), "Participatory literacy education" (pp. 53-64). San Francisco:
Reder, S.M. (1987). Comparative aspects of functional literacy development:
Three ethnic communities. In D. Wagner (Ed.), "The future of literacy in
a changing world: Vol. 1." Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Reder, S.M. (1990, March). "Literacy across languages and cultures."
Paper presented at the Third Gutenberg Conference, Ithaca, NY. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 318 279)
Rigg, P. (1990). Whole language in adult ESL programs. "ERIC/CLL News
Savage, K.L. (1984). "Teaching strategies for developing literacy skills
in non-native speakers of English." Unpublished manuscript. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 240 296)
Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1981). "The psychology of literacy: A
case study among the Vai." Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Spener, D. (1990). "The Freirean approach to adult literacy education.
Q&A." Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education,
Center for Applied Linguistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.
ED 321 615)
Wallerstein, N. (1983). "Language and culture in conflict: Problem-posing
in the ESL classroom." Don Mills, Ontario: Addison-Wesley. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 221 043)
Wallerstein, N. (1984). "Literacy and minority language groups: Community
literacy as method and goal." Unpublished manuscript. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 240 298)
Weinstein-Shr, G. (in press). Literacy and social process: A community
in transition. In B. Street (Ed.), "Cross-cultural approaches to literacy."
Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. (ERIC Document Reproduction
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Weinstein-Shr, G., & Lewis, N.E. (in press). Language, literacy
and the older refugee in America: Research agenda for the 90s. "College
ESL," 1(1). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 313 928)