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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 070-153(WS)-E
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Reading
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 153.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Expanding the Literacy of Linguistic Minorities: Coping Skills and Successful Transition across Discourse Communities

Clara M. Chu
UCLA Dept. of Library and Information Science
Los Angeles, California
E-mail: cchu@ucla.edu


'New literacy,' the ability to read and write using multimedia, preferably in English, and to critically evaluate texts, is essential to prosper in an information and technology intensive world. For linguistic minorities (especially immigrants) to prosper, they need to achieve functional literacy, that is, the ability to read and write in the dominant national language to conduct daily tasks. This paper challenges this mainstream concept of literacy by examining the socially-contextualized nature of literacy, the strategies of coping and transitioning across diverse 'discourse communities' or socio-linguistic contexts, and the types of literacies held by linguistic minorities. It concludes with strategic directions for delivering appropriate literacy services to linguistic minorities.


"Alfabetización nueva," la capacidad de leer y escribir, de preferencia en Inglés, usando multimedia y de evaluar textos de manera crítica es necesario para prosperar en un mundo tecnológico e informático. Para la prosperidad de minorías linguísticas (especialmente inmigrantes) ellos requieren lograr una alfabetización funcional, eso es, la capacidad de leer y escribir en el idioma oficial del país adoptivo. Este documento disputa este concepto conservativo de alfabetización por medio de un examen del contexto social de la alfabetización, las estrategias de funcionar y trasladar por diversos contextos socio-linguísticos, y los tipos de alfabetización que tienen las minorías linguísticas. Al final, se ofrece direcciones estratégicas para proporcionar servicios de alfabetización para minorías linguísticas.


To prosper in an information and technology intensive world, one requires the ability to read and write using multimedia, preferably in English, and to critically evaluate texts. This 'new literacy' (Hill, 1992) is considered to be essential to the success of our youth, especially as we enter the next millennium. For linguistic minorities (especially immigrants) to prosper, it is generally accepted that they need to achieve functional literacy which is generally defined as the ability to read and write in the dominant national language to conduct daily tasks. Likewise, Giroux (1987) submits that "in the United States [and many other countries], the language of literacy is almost exclusively linked to popular forms of liberal and right wing discourse that reduce it to either a functional perspective tied to narrowly conceived economic interests or to an ideology designed to initiate the poor, the underprivileged, and minorities into the logic of a unitary, dominant cultural tradition." (pp. 2-3) This elitist approach does not recognize an individual's literacy in non-dominant languages or differences in literacy levels when engaged in different social circumstances, for example, a doctor is typically less literate at a mathematics conference than a medical one. In addition, it defines literacy from the outside or dominant culture (us defining them) and categorizes people into "haves" and "have-nots." (Baynham, 1995) A library or an information system present literacy challenges in their own right (Baynham, 1995). Unless one knows what libraries are and how information is organized within them, people, such as immigrants, who may not be familiar with libraries will have difficulties gaining access to them.

In order to engage linguistic minorities to develop their literacy skills, they cannot continue to be disenfranchised in libraries and in the wider society and they need to be allowed to define or re-define themselves. Re-definition of "literacy" as it applies to linguistic minorities needs to take place in order for librarians to be able to provide them with appropriate literacy services. This re-definition challenges the mainstream (dominant culture) concept of literacy and includes (1) examining the socially-contextualized nature of literacy, (1) expanding the definition of literacy that takes into account the language and cultural knowledge of linguistic minorities, and (3) understanding the strategies for coping and transitioning across diverse 'discourse communities' or socio-linguistic contexts. Then, can librarians outline strategic directions for delivering appropriate literacy services to linguistic minorities. In this paper adult literacy is emphasized.

Socially-Contextualized Nature of Literacy

To begin to explore the socially-contextualized nature of literacy and how it adds to the complexity of defining literacy I offer the following two contrasting examples:

These stories only begin to demonstrate the literacies that can exist in immigrant communities. They reveal that the extent to which a person is literate in their heritage or other languages can depend on their culture, social role, education, economic status, and length of residence in their native or adoptive country. For example, the National Adult Literacy Study (NALS) shows that those with higher educational attainment had higher levels of English literacy on all scales. (Kirsch et al., 1993) These stories also demonstrate differences in the extent of coping, acculturation and socialization in the dominant culture of their adoptive countries.

If we were to classify my mother using the National Literacy Act of 1991 of the United States, she would be illiterate. In this Act literacy is defined as "an individual's ability to read, write and speak in English and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals, and one's knowledge and potential." This is clear evidence of an elitist approach to defining literacy. Further examples can be found in the research literature. In two studies of limited English literacy categories of a pejorative nature were used. The Survival Literacy Study (Harris, 1970) used three catgeories: low survival, questionable survival, and marginal survival, and in the Adult Performance Level study (Northcutt, 1975) the three categories used were functionally incompetent, marginally functional, and functionally proficient. Despite being able to cope with a limited English or Spanish vocabulary and a help network made up of family and friends, my mother would be considered illiterate in both her adoptive countries except in the local Chinese communities.

The literature on literacy reveals that literacy is social in nature. It shows that literacy has had different definitions during different historical periods and the extent to which one is literate is different depending on the situation or social context. Newman and Beverstock (1990) have traced the changes in the definitions which have included the ability to sign one's own name, the ability to read and write, the number of years of formal schooling, and attainment of fourth grade level functional literacy. These definitions have emphasized the acquisition of technical skills while other literacy experts have drawn attention to literacy as situationally or socially defined. "We enjoy the richness of multiple literacies - the literacy of our specialized field of endeavor, the jargon of our favorite sport or hobby, the dialect of our hometown or ethnic group." (Newman and Beverstock, 1990; p. viii) This view of multiple literacies is the broader definition of literacy librarians need to adopt which values the actual abilities of linguistic minorities and serves as the source from which to develop dominant language literacy. It is an adaptive approach where "...it may be more useful to consider literacy as a continuum and the goals of adult literacy programs to be less those of combating illiteracy and more of expanding literacy..." (Crandall and Imel, 1991; p. 3)

A broader definition of literacy that is socially-contextualized also needs to recognize (1) the literacy of coping as practiced by my mother and other immigrants, i.e., strategies for coping and transitioning across diverse 'discourse communities' or socio-linguistic contexts including the use of a support network of family, friends, community members, (2) the impossibility of fitting in literacy classes in an immigrant's busy work schedule, (3) the need to take care of family responsibilities first, especially for women, (4) the acceptance of conventional roles, e.g., my mother accepted the fact that she was not an educated woman and didn't need to be, especially since she overcame the odds and learned to read and write in Chinese, (5) the extent of education attainment can be an indicator of familiarity, or lack thereof, with educational institutions and practices, (6) literacy in the heritage language needs to be assessed, (7) ethnic media may be the preferred source of information, (8) isolation may be experienced at two levels: from their own ethnic communities and from mainstream society, and (9) linguistic minorities are extraordinary at coping without dominant language literacy, especially if there is an ethnic community. The conditions in which linguistic minorities find themselves may be self- or institutionally-imposed, and reflect both their readiness to embark on a path of literacy and the challenge for librarians and other literacy workers.

Literacies in Linguistic Minority Communities

The level of functional literacy among racial and ethnic minorities is thought to be low. If the United States is any type of indicator, then one can expect similar or worse conditions in other countries than the following:

Among the major findings of the NALS is that White adults scored significantly higher than every other racial and ethnic group on the three literacy scales used: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. The limitation of the NALS was that it was "a survey of literacy in the English language - not literacy in any universal sense of the word. Thus, the results do not capture the literacy resources and abilities that some respondents possess in languages other than English." (Kirsch et al., 1993; p. 13) Although international literacy data now exist on twelve countries (Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, Australia, Belgium (Flanders), Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) that participated in the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), again the literacy standard is that of the dominant language. The IALS is the first multi-country and multi-language assessment on adult literacy allowing comparison across cultures and languages (IALS, http://www.nald.ca/nls/ials/introduc.htm). The limitation of most literacy studies is their failure to recognize the other literacies of linguistic minorities. These may include cultural literacy, heritage language literacy, sign language, and braille.

Strategic Directions For Delivering Appropriate Literacy Services To Linguistic Minorities

Historically, there have been services to address the literacy needs of immigrants in the United States. It goes back to the turn of the century when adult literacy education was made available to immigrants to learn the language of their new country (Adult Literacy: The Key to Lifelong Learning, 1992) However, the same was not offered to black slaves in the United States who where denied education and literacy. (Newman and Beverstock, 1990, p. 24) Literacy services, or lack thereof, have been offered on the terms of the dominant society and have emphasized technical skills. "In literacy work, we have been slow to realize that the programs and practices we assign to illiterate learners often are at variance with the learners' cultural background and the values that govern their lives." (Newman and Beverstock, 1990; p. 3) This observation reflects the broader definition of literacy proposed here and calls for the adoption of emancipatory literacy as proposed by the educator Paolo Freire. "Central to Freire's approach to literacy is a dialectical relationship between human beings and the world, on the one hand, and language and transformative agency, on the other. Within this perspective, literacy is not approached as merely a technical skill to be acquired, but as a necessary foundation for cultural action for freedom, a central aspect of what it means to be a self and socially constituted agent." (Giroux, 1987, p. 7) Emancipatory literacy includes teaching literacy beginning with one's native language. Krashen (1996) has found research that shows that it is much easier to learn to read in a language we already understand, and the ability to read transfers across languages, even when the writing systems are different.

Librarians may be perceived by linguistic minorities as gatekeepers and representatives of the dominant culture who offer literacy services in their own terms. It is thus essential that emancipatory literacy and the concept of multiple literacies guide the development of literacy services for linguistic minorities. Literacy services and activities can include:

  1. Information and learning resources - These would include literacy materials and information (i.e., reference and referral) both for literacy learners and instructors. Materials should be in diverse formats and languages. Information about the sociocultural background of learners, and cross-cultural teaching and communication should be available.

  2. Literacy programs - These programs should begin with one's native/heritage language using content relevant to the learners. Beginning to advanced classes should be offered to address the diverse needs that may exist and ensure that not only short-term, basic skills are taught which will handicap learners from achieving their full potential. The teaching of information and critical literacy should be incorporated into classes as well as offered separately. Barriers to participation should be removed (see http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/report4/rep36-40/rep40-03.htm). For example, a family literacy program with a multi-generational focus would provide child care, and have families learning and spending time together.

  3. Collaboration - Partnering with business and industry, government, media, and educational penal, social service, community, religious and other institutions increases literacy efforts and delivery channels, and reduces duplication. Libraries may recommend titles, accommodate special use of their materials, such as rotating materials at different sites, provide classroom or meeting space, and offer information and critical literacy instruction. Collaboration is a commitment to the community.

  4. Advocacy and awareness - Literacy should be advanced and fostered at all levels of society. Information literacy (including library use) should be made an objective for all learners. In addition to promoting literacy and literacy services through organizations and the ethnic media, outreach to individuals isolated from the community is critical.

  5. Research - Studies to find ways to support literacy education for non-native speakers (including those with learning and other disabilities) are needed. Findings from the education literature should be incorporated.

As we enter the millenium to be able to provide appropriate literacy services to linguistic minorities librarians need to broaden their definition of literacy, rethink their delivery mechanisms, and embrace emancipatory literacy as an approach to self-determination, self-empowerment, civic involvement, and life-long learning for linguistic minorities.


Adult Literacy: The Key to Lifelong Learning. Albany, NY: The University of the State of New York and The State Education Department, 1992.

Baynham, Mike. Literacy Practices: Investigating Literacy in Social Context. London: Longman, 1995.

Crandall, JoAnn and Imel, Susan. "Issues in Adult Literacy Education," The ERIC Review, 1(2): 2-5, April, 1991.

Giroux, Henry A. "Introduction," In: Literacy: Reading the Word and the World by Freire, Paulo and Macedo, Donald. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1987.

Harris, L. and Associates. Survival Literacy Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970.

Hill, Maggie. "The New Literacy: Beyond the Three Rs," Electronic Learning, 28-34, Sept. 1992.

Kirsch, Irwin S. et al. Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey. Washington, D.C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, September 1993.

Krashen, Stephen D. Every Person a Reader: An Alternative to the California Task Force Report on Reading. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates, 1996.

National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). What Kind of Adult Literacy Policy will Help All Adults Develop the English Language and Literacy Skills They Need to participate Full in American Life? Summary paper prepared for a policy forum on Achieving the National Education Goal on Adult Literacy, June 23-24, 1994, Washington, D.C. (http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/report4/rep36-40/rep40-01.htm)

Newman, Anabel Powell and Beverstock, Caroline. Adult Literacy: Contexts & Challenges. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, Inc., 1990.

Northcutt, N. Adult Functional Competency: A Summary. Austin, TX: University of Texas, March 1975.

Internet Resources for Literacy Instruction:
International Adult Literacy Survey http://www.nald.ca/nls/ials/introduc.htm
Literacy Online http://www.literacyonline.org
National Adult Literacy Database (NALD) http://www.nald.ca