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The Social Construction of Functional Illiteracy

The Center for the Book, Library of Congress The Center for the Book

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: July 23, 1999
E-Mail Faculty on the Site.

How to read a Book in 45 minutes
A summary of one of Glaser's books by Rahmat M. Samik-Ibrahim.
Link is to his site, July 23, 1999.

Literacy as a Status Characteristic
Those that can "read" well are smarter, more creative, more worthy of attention in school,
or so they seem to think. Link updated June 23, 1999

Ancillalry Fields Dealing with Functional Illiteracy

"Communicating with Patients Who Cannot Read"
The New England Journal of Medicine -- July 24, 1997 -- Vol. 337, No. 4: The Sounding Board
Link added on June 29, 1999. Writers Acquiring the Literacy of a Craft
A context much like that of the academy. Link added June 23, 1999.

Litearacy Sites

Interpretation of Literature Resources
University of Iowa. Link added June 22, 1999.
Literacy: It's a Whole New World
Link added June 22, 1999.

Technology in the Workplace: Issues of Workers' Skills
Lynda Ginsburg and Jennifer Elmore (1998)
"examines the growing need for workers to expand their professional repertoire
to include technology skills in the workplace and discusses basic skills
demanded by most jobs." (TR98-04, 15 pages) link added June 23, 1999 (PDF)
Assessing Lifelong Learning Technology (ALL-Tech):
A Guide for Choosing and Using Technology for Adult Learning

"Regie Stites with Christopher Hopey and Lynda Ginsburg (1998) discusses the
nature of adult learning and the potential roles that technology can play
in helping to create learning environments ideally suited to the needs
and interests of adults. (PG98-01, 21 pages) Link added June 23, 1999 (PDF).

Literacy as a Status Characteristic

by jeanne curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of Narrative Learning Identity Series
Copright June 1999, "fair use" encouraged

First draft, and largely notes, since Susan and I are working on this piece. Please forgive idea leaps and typos. jeanne

This section of the narrative focuses on one of the unstated assumptions of academe - that all students are literate, comfortable with that literacy, that we all share approximately the same level of comfort with the written word as a tool for learning. The premise is wrong. Many of our students in recent years have told us stories of their discomfort, and have illustrated that discomfort in squirming to avoid fairly simple requirements that were only simple if one shared a base level of comfort with the book as a tool.

Unfortunately, the students make little effort to convey their discomfort, for they recognize it as a status characteristic on which they are most likely to be judged in academic competency. Truth is, though, they are only going to overcome this handicap when both they and we realize that it is a learned incompetence that they can unlearn. Their floundering is to a very real extent caused by our refusal to acknowledge that their reading does not yet provide comfort. So when we assign complex, poorly written texts and articles, we are condemning them to an unpleasant struggle which reinforces their discomfort and deepens it.

We assume a status characteristic of literacy that we are fully aware many of our students cannot meet. Not only this, the entire state system and the trustees are complicit in this assumption. They continue to order that we abandon "remedial" classes as unworthy of the "university." In this we are guilty of what Gordon would call "unreflective" good faith, after Sartre, good faith based on the privileging of subjective beliefs whose premises remain unexamined, though challenged by alternative vallidity claims. That is what we call the discourse of disbelief, the privileged adoption of an arrogance that presumes that which the other has no opportunity to challenge. Dragons don't exist, you see.

When our students do challenge, they are limited in their conceptualization and articulation. We, to whom greater skills in rhetoric have been afforded, often by the leisure of the very system of liberal arts education which is no longer afforded them and no longer wishes to afford us, we scoff at the pitfalls into which they tumble. They rail against "our" logic; they howl over our inaccessibility; they rant against the "rules" that block a competence they know they should be able to achieve, but somehow cannot. And we demolish their claims in the arrogance of self-righteousness that should of itself alert us to the fact that much is amiss here. And then we speak reverently of what serious students we once had.

As soon as they attempt to state their claims they come up against our skills competitively. We are better at logic, better at justification of our scheduling (for we know the multiple demands they do not see - they often complain that we are not in our offices when we are teaching!), and better at understanding the institutional discrimination of rules - we know there is no perpetrator and that that strengthens therhetoric of apology. And so we make no attempt to guide them through the craft of rhetoric in stating their validity claims. And that is to act in nonreflective belief, to fail to take an active role in good faith hearing of their claims, to operate on unstated assumptions, and to fail ON OUR PART at public discourse.

Because the overwhelming task of preparing those for whom "open door admissions" were created in the sixties has been assigned to no one, the responsibility for the lack of practice and guidance has been passed around from pre-school to K through 12, through community colleges, through universities, providing more than enough people at whom we can point the finger of blame. A remedial approach cannot be valid when there was never any system the students had missed that we must go back to. They simply weren't taught. No one knew how to undo the damage we had done to education.

But education wasn't perfect even in the good old days. Remedial education and affirmative action programs did not come into existence in our educational system in the sixties for the first time. Following the Second World War there was a similar need to "remediate" the basic skills of returning GIs. In their case, too, education had been ineffectual in their first journey through the schools. It was then that I first heard the phrase, "I give them a C if they can breathe," bandied about. Functional illiteracy was with us then, and was preserved unto the students of this generation by those who were turned out as teachers with little attention to their comfort with "learning."

Perhaps a story will help. One day, when I was teaching in a middle school, a math teacher and I spent our whole free period in the teacher's lounge trying to persuade another math teacher that his students did not need to memorize four equations for length, width, height, and volume. One equation v =( l )( w )( h ) would suffice. For an entire half hour we showed him examples of how you could divide both sides of the equation by the same factor, preserving the equality, and deriving the other three formulas. At the end of the period, he announced, "No, that is too confusing. Give me a better example. They can just memorize the four formulas." He taught nothing but math, all day, five days a week, to students in the 6th through 8th grades. Those students went on with their education believing that their teacher "knew" and had taught them math. And we gave up and did nothing, largely for want of any forum, any channel for feedback that might have ended this fiasco.

But we did worse. We began to sort people out on their ability to comprehend basic math and verbal skills. We stopped looking to the tragedies such as we had tried to prevent, and blamed the students for lack of academic motivation and discipline. (For sensing, even if they could not explain, that memorizing four formulas was redundant and stupid?) And then we judged those students who somehow learned to understand on their own, by natural talent, or through the help of some mentor, as more intelligent and more worthy somehow than students who did not have those advantages. We gave up and focussed our attention on those who could. But in this whole process, we had never addressed the children directly. We were blocked from that by bureaucratization which protected the instructor's right not to know and not to care that he did not know. And we then let that whole process drop from our consciousness as one of our wicked little unstated assumptions: the assumption that teachers know what they are supposed to teach, and that if you do not learn that from them it is somehow your fault - lack of intelligence or of discipline, but your fault.

That means that we have taken a simple social transaction on the teaching of elementary mathematics by an imcompetent teacher and used the resulting damage to his students, as reflected in their lack of ability to manipulate formulas that should have been mastered in that elementary course, to categorize those students as "bright" or "not bright" students, just as Tolman categorized rats as "bright"/"not bright". But then, as you will recall there was no difference at all in Tolman's rats. He made the labels up. But rats labeled "bright" did out-perform rats labeled "dumb".

The process of making decisions about people's ability, based on some characteristic that is fairly obvious, and math conceptualization is fairly obvious in an academic setting, is discriminatory and is harmful. It is called status characteristic differential discrimination. This is one of the few prominent branches of solid theoretical research in sociology today (Cohen, in Formal Theory Structure - status characteristic theory -> expectation states program). We understand this. So why do we make these spurious leaps in judging people? Why do we make such spurious leaps in judging students? Why do we call it remedial learning, when we try haphazardly to undo this damage, as though it were somehow their fault? Perhaps because it is easier than facing the reality of the fundamental denial of access we have permitted our educational bureaucracies in the name of arrogance. We have shown more concern for protecting the right of a credentialed, authenticated teacher to prevent any challenge to ways of knowing and ways of teaching than we have for the rights of our students to learn.

There are some straightforward, simple ways around this dilemma.

  • Permit, do not order, but permit and encourage group work. Encourage those who read comfortably to share a brief discussion with those who experience more difficulty, or who have time constraints. Give credit for such sharing. It is an important piece of the learning narrative. Once the ideas have been shared, the reader above his/her comfort zone will find the reading materials easier to read, having some prior modicum of understanding of the content. If we do not regard having "read" the material before this group work as "the" virtue, but instead regard the reading of the material after such sharing as an equal virtue, the student who needs to build reading skills will be able to do so without internalizing a sense of guilt. To the extent that we make the reading easier for our students, they will be more willing to tackle the reading, and it will become easier for them. This is not a difficult skill to build. What prevents our helping them to build it is our elitist emphasis on those who are gifted in this area as somehow of superior intelligence, and more worthy of our attention.

  • Use lecture notes geared to the readings. Now I always instruct my students to read the lecture notes, the questions, and the plausible responses I give to the questions before they do the readings. This takes advantage of Ausubel's concept of advanced labels. Once they know what they are reading about, once the concepts are clear, they can read more easily and speedily. Then they can form their own opinions and answer apart from any answers I have offered.

  • Another help is my requirement that they give short answers, trying for 25 words or less. They do take this seriously. They do try to keep it short, but they retain a sense of balance and do give longer answers or questions when they need to. I recommend the technique. It has multiple benefits. I can read their answers quickly and make very brief references to my own lecture notes on what they have failed to grasp. I do not correct their answers. No need to. The lecture notes already supplied one alternative plausible and acceptable answer, so they don't need my feedback unless they're off base. When you have sixty or more students, that matters. And this frees me to answer their particular questions and build discourse with them, instead of "correcting" papers. Having the lecture notes also provides some examples of reasonably good grammatical writing. Positive examples. When I have a student who has minimal writing experience, and maximal fear of writing, then teaching the student to "quote and rephrase" is a solid step along the way to literacy, and I so credit it.

  • This summer we are trying to build a series of Net sources, at different levels, with different philosophical or theoretical approaches, that can be combined to give them this writing practice in critical analysis of issues and topics.

Each of these forms a step along the way to better reading, real literacy. Our students need permission to focus on building such literacy as a legitimate academic goal, not a remedial goal. And they need help, which we are now trying to provide through some of our writing materials, to recognize the growth in their skills and to find reasonable ways to communicate that growth so that both we and they can agree upon it and authenticate it.

These are not remedial goals. They are the sum and substance of what we have always needed to teach, and what we failed to teach, even in the "good old days," which were not so good when we were there. Memory puffs. I still recall my Senior year at Newcomb, when the rumor du jour was that they had passed a senior with a B.A. in French, when she didn't know how to say Twentieth Century in French. If Blalock and others want to compare our students, especially unfavorably, with those of yesteryear, then lets go back to real narratives and real data, not our memory of the "good old days." The U.S. has never been a highly intellectualized, high culture kind of country. Some of us would wish it otherwise, but that was the context from which we came.

Notes: June 22, 1999:

Defining Functionally Illiterate in Today's College World: Underdeveloped or atrophied skill in translating communication from the written word into some action, in accord with what the writer was asking for. It doesn't mean you can't read. It means you've been trained not to rely on reading as a primary source of information.

Reflection of intelligence or Learned: Learned.

How learned: By absence of any expectation for written instructions to stand as the sole stimulus for any significant academic task. Teachers at the college level still remind their students that they should read the entire question on an essay test, and answer what the question asks. Problem with that reminder is that it assumes an unstated presumption that students would not know to read the question and translate its instructions into the appropriate actions. We don't have to label people as stupid to make them feel that is our opinion of them. A few underlying assumptions of their functional illiteracy will do nicely.

How unlearned: The same way you unlearn "learned incompetence." Become aware of a skill you are not using. Use it every chance you get. Develop it, but don't be foolish enough to blame yourself when you see that you are using alternate ways to communicate. Recognize that making your literacy functional is a skill, just like acquiring the literacy in the first place. It will take practice, and it will be easier, if you have mentors and friends who will share your goals and acknowledge your successes.

You have to build up to running a marathon. You'll have to build up also to reading your way through to fun and profit.

Facts on Illiteracy in America

This site refers to the problem of those who cannot read. We are addressing a more sophisticated problem of those who can read, but have not translated that reading into a facility, a skill that provides them with needed information in most situations. We are also addressing the problem of those for whom reading has never become a pleasure, has never really proven useful except in doing assigned work they would rather not do, and in which they see no growth or benefit to themselves and to others.

Not to develop the facility of comfortable reading forces us to rely on others to provide the information we need. As all the carping about the degeneration of our intelligence with sound bites reminds us daily, that puts us in a dependent position and takes away much of the freedom our own thought affords us. To that end, this site attempts to encourage functional literacy, for it is one of the skills of public discourse.

The National Institute for Literacy
Government site.

Statement on modern approach to literacy, which is more complex than the same concept two decades ago, and more costly to advancement. Literacy: It's A Whole New World

"The National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) has undertaken a national public awareness campaign to communicate with the public, with policymakers and with business and industry.

"The message? That literacy is more than reading and writing. That adult's literacy skills are essential for so many of the critical issues we struggle with as a nation -- educating our children, getting people off welfare, getting people in jobs. In addition, literacy demands today are much higher than they were in the past.

In other words - Literacy is a Whole New World.