Literacy Inquiry

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Victoria Clark
Professor Cook
English 1103
1 November 2013
Once upon a time, in a land where you are expected to be a different person depending on
whom you are around, a young girl goes to school. She sits through daily lessons about
mathematics, reading and writing. She learns basic grammar rules and the proper way to speak.
She learns English. After eight hours having these rules pounded repeatedly into her mind, she
returns home to her mother and father. Everything she just learned goes out the window and she
plays by a new set of rules. She speaks with a different kind of grammar entirely, and she speaks
another language. She speaks in a language from another country. She speaks a language that
her teacher would not understand and would probably frown upon her using in school. After
sitting with her parents for a period time, she retires to her bedroom where she sits down with her
cell phone and text messages her friends. Again, she uses a completely new set of grammar
rules. She does not use complete sentences. She does not even use complete words. She
shortens words and phrases down to a series of three or four letters. In the span of a day, she has
used essentially three different languages. Why? In the span of a day, she has been in three
different settings; around three different types people, three different cultures. This raises a few
questions. Is it possible for the girl to be completely literate in each language? Should she
prioritize one language over another? Is literacy in one language more important than literacy in
The girl in the story is representative of many Americans, especially those that are not
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white. Literacy is a complicated subject for most people, but it is extremely complicated for
minority groups. Minority ethnic groups are faced with the daily challenge of balancing
different literacies. These ethnic groups, including African-Americans, Hispanic Americans,
Asian Americans and European-Americans all have one main characteristic in common. They
have to balance two different cultures. It is shown in their names. They have to be Asian and
American. They have to be Hispanic while conforming to American customs in traditions. It is
easy for them to get confused. When is it acceptable to be different? When is it all right for me
to show aspects of my cultural heritage? When am I supposed to conform? All of these
questions are constantly running through the mind of anyone of any race other than white.
According to Bernardo M. Ferdman of the State University of New York, Albany, literacy is “an
interactive process that is constantly re-defined and renegotiated, as the individual transacts with
the socioculturally fluid surroundings (Ferdman, 187).” Since literacy is an ever-changing topic,
how is it that Americans are able to say that because someone speaks differently, they are
illiterate? Are they truly able to say that at all?
I am in the third grade. My black classmate looks at me and declares that in order for me
to really, truly be black, I have to use improper grammar. I have to completely eliminate the
word “is” from my vocabulary so that “he is funny” becomes “he funny.” This is not what I
have been taught but I do it anyway. She still ridicules me, so I go back to being only halfway
black. In her eyes, I am illiterate. In the eyes of my teacher though, I am extremely literate. In
the eyes of my teacher, I excel as far as literacy is concerned. Why couldn’t I satisfy both
standards of literacy? Why couldn’t I make my teacher happy and fit in with people with my
ethnic background at the same time? I could have. I didn’t realize it at the time. In the third
grade, I didn’t know that “there are many forms of literacy with definite purposes and contexts in
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which each is valid (Souto-Manning, 295).” I didn’t know that I would never be completely
literate by everyone’s standards because literacy is “defined by members of a group (SoutoManning, 295).” Remembering this situation, which I have continued to struggle with since that
moment in third grade, I always wonder how the government and educators are able to not only
define literacy, but also tell people when they are not achieving a satisfactory level of literacy.
There really is no way to put one definition and one standard on literacy. There are so many
people, so many cultures in America that trying to manufacture a definition of literacy to satisfy
each one would take a lifetime. So, they just say that literacy is the ability to read and write, in
English. Which kind of English? It is not the one used mainly by African-Americans, the one
that I was ridiculed for rejecting, the one in which there is no such thing as the word is. It is also
not the broken form used by many immigrants, in which the English is not exactly polished
although you can clearly understand what they mean to say. It is the most popular, most
traditional form used predominantly by most white people. So, with that said, if you can not read
this form of English at an acceptable level, write in this form of English at an acceptable level
and speak in this form of English at an acceptable level, you are labeled illiterate.
So, where do Americans that belong to different ethnic backgrounds fit in? Where do
minority groups belong in the broad spectrum of literacy? How do they express their culture
while still appearing literate by the majority’s standards? It varies. For some people, it means
speaking what is considered “proper English” in public, but speaking their cultures language
when at home. For others it means completely rejecting their culture and totally assimilating to
American society’s standards of literacy. For some people it means teaching their families how
to truly be literate so that they can all progress together. This reaction is seen as important to
many people. Ofra Korat feels that there is a strong link between home and school (Korat, 226)
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and for this reason, it is important for the child’s sake, that their parents be as literate as possible.
This link between school and home is often seen as a very important factor in deciding a child’s
educational fate. Parents are always encouraged to help out at their child’s school in any way
possible. Parents of minority students, especially African-Americans and Hispanic Americans
are often seen as less likely to be involved in their child’s educational life when they themselves
are not literate. Concha Delgado Gaitan contradicts this popular theory when she discusses how
involved her mother was in her schools growing up (Gaitan, 305). This belief is also true for
African-American students and parents. In middle school, my dad signed up to chaperone our
seventh grade trip to the zoo. Some of my teachers were shocked to find out that he signed up to
chaperone. Although my teachers knew I was a good student, I’m sure they were a little shocked
to find out how involved my parents were in my life at school.
According to Ferdman, “People's perceptions of themselves in relationship to their ethnic
group and the larger society…can change, and in turn be changed, by the process of becoming
and being literate (Ferdman, 201). Many people from cultures with different definitions or types
of literacy feel that they have to measure up to a standard that their cultures set. There have been
many times that I have walked past a group of other African-Americans feeling judged and
feeling as if I do not measure up to a certain level of “blackness” they have set for me. When
people form opinions about themselves based on how their cultures view them as far as literacy,
they can develop negative views about themselves. This is very common among AfricanAmericans and Hispanic Americans. These cultures put a lot of emphasis on knowing where you
come from and not becoming a “sell out.” Many Hispanics frown upon other Hispanics who
speak clear English, but cannot speak Spanish. This is similar to the way blacks feel disdainful
toward other blacks that use proper grammar and refrain from using slang words. Why is it
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though, that these cultures dislike for their people to try to learn the standard form of English, but
people from other cultures, such as Asian Americans, encourage their people to learn English in
order to better themselves? It is possible that these different cultures have different feelings
about what progressing in literacy means for them. Asian cultures tend to put a lot of emphasis
on honoring one’s family. So to them, if one member of the family progresses and does better,
the entire family does too. As a culture, African-Americans and Hispanics do not share this trait
as much. They focus more on the individual. This could be one reason that they do not seem as
keen on other members of the culture becoming more literate by the standards of most
I lay in my bed, wondering what made them any more black than me. What made them
better than me? Who were they to tell me that I wasn’t black because I used proper grammar? I
couldn’t come up with an answer, so I left that question to be answered another day.
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Works Cited
Ferdman, Bernardo M. "Literacy and Cultural Identity." Harvard Educational Review. 60.2
(1990): 181-204. Print.
Gaitan, Concha D. "Culture, Literacy, and Power in Family-Community-SchoolRelationships." Theory into Practice. 51.4 (2012): 305-311. Print.
Korat, Ofra. "Cultural Pedagogy and Bridges to Literacy: Home and Kindergarten." Early
Childhood Education Journal. 28.4 (2001): 225-30. Print.
Souto-Manning, Mariana. "A Latina Teacher's Journal: Reflections on Language, Culture,
Literacy, and Discourse Practices." Journal of Latinos & Education. 5.4 (2006): 293-304. Print.