The definition of literacy is changing. It now tends to be understood as more than reading and writing. Since the mid 1970’s researchers began to take a fresh look at the concept of literacy; one that has to do with how we respond to and understand our world. A broader definition is needed since there is a variety of literacy practices (‘literacies’) and social events which should now be taken into account in order to improve the outcomes of literacy programs and activities.
In this paper special attention will be paid to the way in which those ‘literacies’ need to be developed in order to narrow the gap between second language learners and their mainstream peers. Literacy in the singular used to define the tool for producing and understanding written text which cognitivists, school pedagogues or reading specialists aiming at ‘efficient formal schooling’ made use of. Statitistics show that many individuals whose literacy falls below par are ethno-linguistic minority groups.
Therefore, a lack of cultural sensitivity by those seeing literacy as just a set of technical skills may result in failure when it comes to helping second language learners master their illiteracies. There are multiple ‘literacies’, as there are different ways in which reading and writing are rooted in conceptions of knowledge, identity and being. People’s socio-cultural environment influences the way in which they use their language.
Gee (1989) distinguishes between primary discourse, used in communication with members of one’s own family and secondary discourse, involving communication with social institutions (school, workplaces, churches, stores). Literacy is control of this secondary use of language. Thus there are as many ‘literacies’ as there are secondary discourses. But what happens when students are expected to become literate in a language they have not yet acquired?
There is definitely much more involved than the learning of grammar, Literacies and Second 2 morphology or syntax. They need to acquire the new language first, by being exposed to models in a natural, non evaluative, meaningful setting. Once that is acquired they will be ready to learn. Statistics on the academic and literacy achievement of language minority students in American schools show an alarming need for attention.
One of the possible causes of this problem lies on the fact that second language students do not get opportunities to acquire the language before they are exposed to a process of learning. The amount of time spent on learning without previous acquisition is ‘time not well spent if the goal is mastery in performance’(Gee et al. , 1989). So what are the practical implications of this broader definition of ‘literacies’ within the classroom? What should schools take into account in order to optimize the development of multiple ‘literacies’?
In Fitzgerald’s (1993) article describing the special needs of language minority learners, she suggests the implementation of small-group classes conducted by teachers trained in contemporary issues of literacy training with an understanding that literacy processes in a second language are not different from those of a first language. She stresses the importance of considering cultural and societal contexts when designing literacy programs and activities which, at the same time, encouraging students to elaborate on their understanding of concepts in their own culture.
The fact that different families/cultures may hold different expectations as regards values, views, beliefs, etc. should also be taken into account (Fitzgerald et al. , 1993) Multiple ‘literacies’ hold significant implications for ESL learners. When teaching English as a second language, it is essential to consider sub-cultures and the jargons, colloquialisms and manners of expression that they bring along. If we consider that each Literacies and Second 3 specific discourse is a social language and that each social language is reflected in different
patterns of vocabulary and syntax, then we can clearly see that these ‘literacies’ are acquired through socialization and full immersion in meaningful practice. If language teaching programs fail to recognize that there are multiple overlapping ‘literacies’ that learners need to acquire, then second language learners may find it difficult to interact effectively with the local community.
References Fitzgerald, J. (1993). Literacy and Students who are Learning English as a Second Language. The Reading Teacher, 46 (8), 638-647. Gee, J. P (1989). What is Literacy? Journal of Education, 171 (1), 18-25 1989