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Adult literacy and alienation

et502's picture
I’ve been thinking about adult literacy a lot lately. After talking with Alice about it last week, she told me that much of Freire’s work was in precisely that field - teaching adults to read and write.

Going back to my notes on that reading - there was a heavy focus on alienation. Adults may be alienated by being illiterate, but then, forcing them to learn could also be alienating.

I’ve been thinking about all these things because I’ve been reflecting on my internship from last summer, trying to find a connection between that experience and the 360/Educ 250. I worked in the Education department at Nationalities Service Center, especially in classrooms in which immigrants and refugees are learning to speak English. This experience had a huge impact on my academics last semester - I applied that passion to classes on bilingual education, cultural tensions/fusions, and immigration. After that internship, I found connections between the experience and courses about Language, Culture, and Policy. However (and thank you to Alice again, for helping me flesh this out), I wasn’t thinking about the fundamentals. - Fundamentals being, I think, Literacy. So of course there is a connection between my tutoring adults and the class I am taking now.

While I was working at NSC, I tutored several adults who were learning to read. One of them spoke very little English, but could read and write in Arabic. The other spoke English passably, but did not know the symbols of Tigrinya - her mother tongue. I have no experience teaching anyone how to read, so I clung to the tools that were comfortable for me: Phonics. But those methods were definitely not appropriate for adults, especially since I’d only see them once or twice a week. I wasn’t thinking about language practice as being a channel for cultural practice, and that by forcing these adults to use my culturally based reading methods, I was basically enculturating them. But they asked me to - does that make it ok? Was I alienating them from something? Or was I empowering them?

If I go back, I’m certainly not going to look at students with a deficit-based approach. Also, I’m going to try more methods of learning - literacy is not just about reading and writing; it is a way of doing something, even a way of learning. I hope I’ll have an opportunity to spend time at NSC again, and figure out how to cater to students’ ways of learning.

Concerns going forward: when is it appropriate to teach an adult how to read? Who decides? Is it empowering for the learner if he or she chooses it? Does it force the teacher into a colonizing role? What happens to power in this relationship - can an adult teacher and an adult learner be on equal terms?


Wendell Dryden's picture

Adult literacy and alienation

I wouldn't worry much about Freire. He was interested in doing politics in the context of literacy, not the other way around. If you're not trying to guide your literacy learners into "right thinking" (his words) about government and labour issues, then you've already gained the high ground on him.

Some adults may be alienated by being low-literate in their neighbourhood's dominant language. Some adults experience alienation in schooling or tutoring situations. Since you and I can't see inside their heads, we're reduced to being as thoughtful as we can be, and trusting them to tell us what they want.

After that, it's all about being opportunistic. Is something working? Do more of it. Is something not working? Drop it. Phonics is one tool. Experience stories and sight words and newspapers are others. When in doubt, ask, try, negotiate. (That's the answer to the power in relationships question.)

Last words. Remember always that English is an insane language. It scarcely functions at the level of individual word sounds and meanings. Sentences are typically the determinant of meaning. Consider "refuse", "lead" and "bass": they all sound different and mean different things depending on the words around them. The best advice for ESL learners is learn Spanish and French. Failing that, we all just do the best we can. :)