1Caitlin BerganLIS 502Sunday, April 19, 2009 Literacy as a Discipline and Punishment As society hurtles further into a technological age of the internet, individuals arerequired more and more often to be able to read, write, and interact with written text. Ona daily basis, communication and consumption of information are done in a writtenformat online. This shift in how information is delivered and consumed assumes thateveryone in society is literate, able to read, write, and comprehend text. Most people withthis ability hardly remark on it, as they do not remember being unable to read or write.Literacy is a useful way of thought or disciplining the mind to accept concepts. Americahas compulsory schools designed to impart this very skill, leading many people thinkilliteracy is an impossibility. As Clanchy states in the introduction to his book, FromMemory to Written Record, literacy is unconsciously equated to civilization in the mindsof most Western scholars, and by extrapolation most Westernly educated people alsohold this to be true without realizing it. Clanchy is making the argument in terms ofhistorians and other scholars looking at records from the Mediaeval era, claiming thatmany researchers were examining accounts from that time period and drawingconclusions based on the perceived social norms of the present, failing to take intoaccount that literacy was unattainable or even undesirable for most of the population inthat time and culture1. Similarly, America has a prejudice today against the people who fail to becomeliterate through its own public schools. They take it for granted that attending school1 M.T. Clanchy, Introduction to From Memory to Written Record, by M.T. Clanchy (Cambridge: BlackwellPublishers Inc., 1993), 8-9.
2bestows literacy and those who fail to obtain it have only themselves to blame. Inactuality, many of the people who struggle to gain literacy are those in social andlinguistic minorities, for whom their spoken speech does not match up with StandardAmerican English. The majority of white Americans speak in dialects that can be easilywritten using the rules of Standard English. For them, acquiring literacy is assumed, apart of their culture, and something they slip fairly easily into as they start school. Thisease of acquisition of such an important skill blinds the majority to the fact that thesystem is set up in their favor and their acquisition of literacy, disregarding the needs andabilities of those from linguistic minorities. Literacy is a useful way of disciplining the mind and thought, but it is currentlyused primarily as a way to punish those who do not posses this skill. Linguistic minoritiesdo not have to be doomed to illiteracy; the current arrangement of the school system iswhat holds them back. Presently, the schools, and by extension American society, fail toteach them to read and write and then punish them with bad grades, negative feedback,and inferior jobs and pay for a problem that is their own making. It is socially, politically,and economically convenient for them to be marginalized by using their illiteracy as anexcuse. In the discussion of what literacy currently means to American society and howit has tainted our outlook, Clanchy states “The word literacy as it is used today, ‘indexesan individual’s integration into society; it is the measure of the successful child, of theemployable adult.’ A person who cannot sign his name is consequently now a socialdeviant . . .”2 Also “ ‘Ideological assumptions haunt the use of the word “literacy”.Behind its simple dictionary definition as the quality of being literate lies a morass of2 M.T. Clanchy, Introduction to From Memory to Written Record, 8.
3cultural assumptions and value judgments.”3 By continuing to provide inadequateteaching to children of these minorities, American society will produce illiterate “socialdeviants” who they can then control through their inability to fully participate against themajority culture. It is a demonstrable fact that many minority students do not test as well asEuropean American students (Holt, 2005).4 Some of this can be linked to socioeconomiclevels of a child’s parents and the neighborhood in which they reside – poorercommunities have lower property taxes and therefore lower budgets for their schools,leading to teachers who are paid less and fewer and older resources for the children to usein school. It is also less likely for poorer families to be able to afford to regularly buybooks. Without print resources available in the home, a child is less likely to be ready tolearn to read upon entering kindergarten. However, beyond just economic issues, culture seems to factor in as well. In their2005 study, Holt and Smith try to weed out socioeconomic factors in comparing theachievement rates of different ethnic groups. They found that European Americanstudents still out-preformed their age-mates in African American and Latino families,even with a statistically created economically “level playing field.” Obviously culturalfactors also have an effect on a child’s ability to gain a level of proficiency consideredacceptable by the greater world. Some of these factors are deeply rooted in the languagechildren are used to speaking and the manner in which they are accustomed to usinglanguage or hearing it used. This is an example of how the culture a child faces at homemakes them more or less apt to gain literacy. Children who have fully literate parents are3 M.T. Clanchy, Introduction to From Memory to Written Record, 9.4 Janet K. Holt and M. Cecil Smith, “Literacy Practices Among Different Ethnic Groups: The Role ofSocioeconomic and Cultural Factors.” Reading Research and Instruction 44: 1-2.
4more likely to be exposed to print culture and be more ready to read by the time theyenter school. But children in homes with a more oral culture come to school with a set ofskills that are impressive but disregarded by the system. 5 Over the last thirty years, some of these factors have been studied concerning thedialect of African American Vernacular English. This makes it a good example for theproblem at hand. Held as a distinct dialect for years now by scholarly linguists,sociolinguists have noted that the disparity between white and black acquisition ofliteracy skills has much to do with the fact that they are effectively being forced to try tolearn to read a dialect they do not speak. The differences between the African AmericanVernacular and Standard American English are significant and systematic.6 Differencesinclude but are not limited to different verb conjugations, a systematic simplification orchanges of sounds, a finer gradation of tenses, the use of multiple negatives, and a varietyof specialized and highly fluid vocabulary. Researchers are finding that this distinct dialect that most African Americans useis part of the reason for the lower literacy rates. One conclusion that researchers oftencome to in looking at this is there is a clash between the two dialects, disregarding what achild has learned so far and not properly acclimating them to the new dialect.7 In effect,children are expected to suddenly start speaking and understanding a different dialect assoon they start school. More often than not the teacher speaks something closer toStandard American English and is expecting the child to start producing speech andwriting in that same dialect. This leads to a difficult situation: children have become5 Janet K. Holt and M. Cecil Smith, “Literacy Practices Among Different Ethnic Groups,” 1-4.6 Lisa J. Green, African American English: A Linguistic Introduction (Campbridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2002), 1-163.7 Carol McDonald Connor and Holly K. Craig, “African American Preschoolers Language, EmergentLiteracy Skills, and Use of African American English: A Complex Relation,” Journal of Speech, Language,and Hearing Research 49 (2006), 771-80.
5accustom to using the language in the manner they have heard and grown up with, but inschool, they are told this is wrong, often without a clear explanation of why or what aboutit is “wrong.” To the children, obviously the one who is wrong is the teacher, because thechildren have been making themselves understood perfectly well for probably three or soyears prior to this. Another reason why students that speak African American English often do notdo as well has to do with their teachers. Many teachers in not understanding theirstudents’ dialect choose to send those with the heaviest dialects to speech pathologists orto put them in classes for children with learning disabilities.8 Speech pathologists aretrained in helping children with a physical difficulty speaking. They help children withstutters, annunciation problems, and problems organizing their thoughts into words. Theyare not trained to teach a child a different dialect. Remedial reading classes tend to hit onthe same problems as the general classroom in refusing to work with the child’s naturallanguage use to then transfer oral ability to written. Such placements without consideringthe child’s dialect and real language abilities has been ruled as discriminatory, as inMartin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School DistrictBoard which made it to Federal Court in 1977.9 Though the decision was made overthirty years ago, the precedent is not universally upheld and the education changes thatwere suggested to rectify the situation, similar to what is suggested here, has not beengenerally adopted. The disjoint between the two dialects and the prejudice of the education staff canboth help explain the gap in testing results and the feeling that many African American8 Geneva Smitherman and John Baugh, “The Shot Heard from Ann Arbor: Language Research and PublicPolicy in African America,” The Howard Journal of Communications 13 (2006): 11.9 Geneva Smitherman and John Baugh, “The Shot Heard from Ann Arbor,” 10-11.
6students have in that school does not apply to them and their experience. “(L)anguagederives from participation in specific communities,”10 and by denying the validity of theirforms of expressions, the majority culture denies the validity of minority cultures. In thetruest sense, the majority culture shuts African Americans out, using literacy andperformance at school as an excuse. The claim is that everyone in the United States inentitled to a free and equal education, thus giving everyone the same starting point onequal ground. It is easier to dismiss those that fall behind than to acknowledge that thesystem is not giving them a fair start.11 Overall, the students who speak African American English that end up succeedingare rarer and research is now showing that African Americans who do succeed in schoolare the ones that who can learn to shift their dialect. Younger students are found to usemore features of African American English than older students, showing that moststudents do eventually pick up on some features of Standard American English. Studiesalso show that students who use fewer features of African American English do notfollow the general patterns of the achievement gap. This leads linguists to conclude thatthese children learn to shift their dialect in school settings, since when out of school theystill use African American English.12 This ability is not what is taught to students; mostteachers do not explain to their students that the school is asking them to learn a differentway of using language. As pointed out before, they merely correct “bad” usage andpunish the student by assigning them lower grades without addressing the cause of the10 Donald McCrary, “Represent, Representin’, Representation: The Efficacy of Hybrid Texts in the WritingClassroom,” Journal of Basic Writing 24: 75.11 Lydia Mays, “The Cultural Divide of Discourse: Understanding How English-Language Learners’Primary Discourse Influences Acquisition of Literacy,” The Reading Teacher, 61 (2008): 415-416.12 Carol McDonald Connor and Holly K. Craig, “African American Preschoolers Language,” 771-92.
7problem. The students who learn to shift do it most likely without thinking about it, orleast not thinking about it in such specific linguistic terms terms. Despite the difficulties presented, there are possible solutions and ways ofadjusting current curriculums to help students master print culture instead of setting themup to fail. Using scaffolding in African American English with very young children canassist significantly in their acquisition of Standard English.13 In such a program, AfricanAmerican English would be used for the first few years in texts that mimic the children’snatural speech patterns in order for them to see the correlation between spoken languageand the written word. Linguists like John Baugh only suggest this method for the first fewyears of school – by the end of second grade, most students following this programshould be expected to be reading competently in Standard. Treating the dialect for what itis and acknowledging that African American children have experience with languagebefore they enter the classroom can go a long way to actually making the playing fieldmore level instead of just appearing that way. Many of the same arguments as have been presented with students who primarilyspeak African American English can be applied to students who are learning English as asecond language. The idea that they are expected to come to the classroom with a set ofexperiences common only to the majority remains true (Mays, 2008).14 Also true is thattheir proficiency in their home language is ignored or devalued, however it has beenshown in multiple studies that there is a strong correlation between level of instructionand proficiency in the child’s primary language and their facility and proficiency inacquiring English.15 Literacy transfers through different languages, though studies do13 Geneva Smitherman and John Baugh, “The Shot Heard from Ann Arbor,” 12.14 Lydia Mays, “The Cultural Divide of Discourse,” 415-416.15 Kimberly Lenters, “No Half Measures: Reading Instruction for Young Second-Language Learners,” TheReading Teacher 58 (2004): 329.
8show that children will transfer skills into English more easily if their home language alsohas a primarily phonetic alphabet.16 This means that children learning English fromlanguages with like Japanese and Chinese where written symbols typically correspond towords instead of sounds will have a harder time transferring literacy skills than a childwho is learning from a phonetic alphabet like Russian or Hebrew. However, the idea thatwritten symbols can convey a meaning is an important step in acquiring literacy,regardless to what form those symbols take. In Guglielmi’s 2008 longitudinal study of the progress of nearly 3,000 studentswho identified themselves as primarily speaking a language other than English, he founda correlation between proficiency in the first language and proficiency in English.Students with high proficiency in their home language were more likely to score higheron standardize tests, to have higher grades, and do better after leaving high school.17However, not many of these students received consistent formal ESL training, and onlystudents with a minimum level of perceived literacy in English were allowed to take thestandardized test that Guglielmi pulled most of his data from. The full range ofperformance of all students who go into the American school system speaking anotherlanguage has not been accurately documented. Neglecting the home language is one wayto limit the children’s ability to become proficient in speaking, reading, and writing inStandard English. While scholars agree that it would be ideal to teach full proficiency in the homelanguage before starting instruction in English, research also suggests that it is possible16 Kimberly Lenters, “No Half Measures,” 333. R. Sergio Guglielmi, “Native Language Proficiency,English Literacy, Academic Achievement, and Occupational Attainment in Limit-English-ProficientStudents: A Latent Growth Modeling Perspective, Journal of Education Psychology 100 (2008): 323.17 R. Sergio Guglielmi, “Native Language Proficiency, English Literacy,” 338.
9for students to successfully learn to read in a second language before the first.18 In orderfor that to be possible, however, the child must have a level of spoken proficiency in thesecond language similar to what is generally expected of an emergent reader who is anative speaker. This usually takes more time for an English as a second language studentthan a native speaker. This means that ESL students need to be taught to speak and readEnglish at the level that they are personally at, and not at the level expected for the age ascompared to students who natively speak English. In order for young children to learn toread English, they first have to speak it at such a level that they can apply that knowledgeto the written form. They should be made familiar with grammar patterns, the Englishalphabet, and typical sounds and sound combinations within English all applied to speechbefore writing is introduced.19 With a similar solution as suggested for African AmericanEnglish speaking students, the language in reading materials should mimic natural speechat first, as this is the form of the language that the children are most familiar with.20 Allthis is especially true if the student cannot read in their home language and does not haveliteracy skills to transfer to the new language. Again the discrimination that in place could disappear with simple changes in theway that teachers deal with English Language Learners, which would greatly increase thesuccess rates for such students. Making sure that the children have sufficient oral skills inEnglish or literacy skills in their home language before attempting to teach reading andwriting in English are two huge components in a successful program.21 Another aspectthat should be considered is the teaching of vocabulary and culture. Children from adifferent culture struggle to pick up words and ideas that native speakers take for granted.18 Kimberly Lenters, “No Half Measures,” 329-330.19 Kimberly Lenters, “No Half Measures,” 331, 333.20 Kimberly Lenters, “No Half Measures,” 331.21 Kimberly Lenters, “No Half Measures, 329, 331.
10A concerted effort needs to be made to explain new words and concepts to EnglishLanguage Learners at a pace that will not completely overwhelm them.22 Perhaps most importantly, instruction for children learning a new language shouldbe communicative; students need to have a chance to express themselves and theirexperiences in addition to taking in the knowledge provided by the teacher.23Communication can start in their home language and be increasingly shifted over toEnglish as the students learn more of their new language. But without having the chanceto verbally explore and respond to their new language, they will not internalize it.Changes in the teaching style can be as simple as asking open questions (questions thatrequire a unique answer) rather than closed questions (questions that have a strict right orwrong answer).24 As writing is introduced, they will gain an additional way to think aboutand demonstrate use of their new skills.25 Level appropriateness always has to be aconsideration. It has been shown that truly bilingual students end up with benefits overtheir monolingual agemates, but only after full literacy in both languages has beenreached.26 As McCrary says in his article on using vernacular language in the classroom: If we really believe in cultural multiplicity, if we’re not just making noise but want to bring the noise, then we have to get serious about what we say and do with language in our classrooms. Either our student’s lives and cultures – and language is a central aspect of both – have meaning, or they don’t. Either students have a right to their own language, or they don’t.22 Kimberly Lenters, “No Half Measures, 333-4.23 Angela R. Beckman Anthony, “Output Strategies for English-Language Learners: Theory to Practice,”The Reading Teacher 61: 473.24 Angela R. Beckman Anthony, “Output Strategies for English-Language Learners,” 475.25 Angela R. Beckman Anthony, “Output Strategies for English-Language Learners,” 478-9.26 Kimberly Lenters, “No Half Measures,” 329.
11 Either we’re real multiculturalists or we’re bootleg multiculturalists, and the bootleg sold in my neighborhood ain’t worth a damn.27 The majority has a choice: to stop trying to contain and punish the minorities withlinguistic differences by truly leveling the playing field, or they can continue to forceminorities into lower paying jobs by claiming that they are not worth the higher oneswithout the education that is so valued by society. It would only take slightly different teaching methods and materials in the firstfew years of schooling in order to teach all African American students to shift theirdialect from their home dialect to Standard American English, or to teach students of adifferent language to speak English. A few years, and a one time investment is whatstands between American society now and universal literacy. But this would take awaywhat has proven to be a very effective and ostensibly politically correct method ofoppressing minorities. Is that something that the major can afford to let go of? It is farmore economically and politically convenient to keep those marginalized in their place. American society is quickly becoming one that relies more and more heavily onthe written word. It would be hard to change the perceived value of literacy. But what canbe changed is who can become literate. It would take a majority a great amount ofbravery to liberate those who had been oppressed by bringing them up to level ofacceptable standards. The battle will be fought and won in the school system, but schooland public libraries have a place in this, by helping to provide literacy to all. Makingmaterials available in the language of minorities so they can maintain and grow in theirknowledge of their first language is one small boost librarians can give. Providingprograms that help children get ready to learn to read directed at minority cultures also27 Donald McCrary, “Represent, Representin’, Representation,” 75.
12can be a method of helping to close the achievement gap. These things, and support oflocal teachers who successfully work with these linguistic issues, are some of the smallthings libraries can do to prevent our beloved literacy from being used as a form ofpunishment.
13Works CitedAnthony, Angela R. Beckman. “Output Strategies for English-Language Learners: Theory to Practice.” The Reading Teacher 61: 472-82.Clanchy, M.T. Introduction to From Memory to Written Record, by M.T. Clanchy, 1-16. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1993.Connor, Carol McDonald and Holly K. Craig. “African American Preschoolers Language, Emergent Literacy Skills, and Use of African American English: A Complex Relation.” Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 49 (2006), 771-92.Green, Lisa J.. African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. Campbridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.Holt, Janet K. and M. Cecil Smith. “Literacy Practices Among Different Ethnic Groups: The Role of Socioeconomic and Cultural Factors.” Reading Research and Instruction 44: 1-21.Lenters, Kimberly “No Half Measures: Reading Instruction for Young Second-Language Learners,” The Reading Teacher 58 (2004): 329Mays, Lydia. “The Cultural Divide of Discourse: Understanding How English-Language Learners’ Primary Discourse Influences Acquisition of Literacy.” The Reading Teacher 61 (2008): 415-418.McCrary, Donald. “Represent, Representin’, Representation: The Efficacy of Hybrid Texts in the Writing Classroom.” Journal of Basic Writing 24: 72-91.Smitherman, Geneva and John Baugh. “The Shot Heard from Ann Arbor: Language Research and Public Policy in African America.” The Howard Journal of Communications 13 (2006): 5-24.