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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

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


Code Number: 073-153(WS)-E
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Reading
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 153.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Building a Literate Environment: Using Oral-Based Reading Materials to Facilitate Literacy

Rebecca Knuth
Department of Information and Computer Sciences
University of Hawaii
E-mail: knuth@hawaii.edu


Research into the complex nature of traditional societies has redefined literacy as socially constructed and locally embedded practices or behaviors suggesting the potential for a dynamic, interactive, and mutually supportive relationship between orality and literacy rather than a dichotomous one. This paper extrapolates from this body of research and explores options for the development of basic reading materials that support and validate the cultural practices of individual communities, help students to construct literacy out of local knowledge, facilitate the transition from oral to written culture, and promote a literate environment.


From Orality to Literacy Through Local Culture

This decade has seen a backlash against the merchandizing of standardized, replicable literacy education projects as panaceas to cure illiteracy (Knuth, 1998). Resistance to top-down literacy programs has taken the form of approaches that place the learner and his or her culture and community at the center of all efforts to promote literacy. These approaches are informed by research on oral-based communities in developing countries that has revealed the complex nature of traditional societies, debunking the notion that a "great divide" separates orality and literacy and that "oral" and "literate" are fundamentally different states of mind (Feld, 1987). New definitions of literacy practices or behaviors that are socially constructed and locally embedded instead approach orality and literacy as dynamic, interactive, and mutually supportive components.

While mainstream materials often reflect skill-based models and frequently, through a cultural mismatch between reader and content, retard progress toward proficiency, appropriate indigenous materials (or materials relevant to local culture) hold promise for facilitating the stylistic and cognitive shifts necessary for the integration of orality and literacy and for accelerating acquisition of the conventions of literacy, which involve new patterns of organizing information. This paper extrapolates from recent research findings and explores materials and initiatives that validate community culture, help learners to construct literacy out of local knowledge, facilitate the transition from oral to written culture, and promote a literate environment.

Promoting literacy is traditionally approached primarily as a task of mastering a set of decontextualized skills. When this rote and reductionist approach fails, it is because literacy acquisition is complex and tied to meaning. In addition to learning skills, a successful reader must acquire considerable cultural knowledge about and methods for comprehending and composing written text (Lyttle, 1987). He or she therefore must be able to practice reading with interesting, informative, purposeful, or enjoyable materials that encourage a reading habit. UNESCO suggests that 800 pages of supplementary reading material are necessary if a learner is to progress from primary to independent reading (Wendell, 1982).

Various national initiatives have addressed the scarcity of written materials in developing countries. In 1980 in Papua New Guinea, the Book Flood Project demonstrated the importance of non-textbook reading (Mangubhai, 1987). In 1975 in, Project Fulfill encouraged works of a popular nature such as short stories, novels, plays and comic strips based on West Indian folklife themes, biography, travel, religion and adventure (JAMAL, 1981). The Solomon Island Development Trust produces comic books on a variety of health and environmental issues (Jones, 1991). The Malaysian government has a commitment to publishing in Bahasa Malaysia, the local language (Rustam, 1990). In some Papua New Guinea villages, people write, illustrate, edit, and print story booklets on simple silk-screen duplicators or use prototype materials on a variety of topics such as health, agriculture, culture, and religion; in translation workshops, local people translate a text from a national language into the local language, type the text onto stenciled pages, and create booklets (Malone, 1989). Literacy rates improve when learners have access to reading materials.

From research into these and other projects, it appears that successful materials are those which are meaningful to or reflective of local culture--especially when published in local languages. For students with little exposure to print who are asked to learn in a nonindigenous language, literacy instruction becomes an exercise in learning nonsense symbols. In addition, if no books are available in indigenous languages--as often occurs, since publishing capacity even in the dominant languages is problematic in developing countries (Read, 1996)--students do not learn to associate their spoken home language with books and reading, making the very act of reading a foreign activity (Patte, 1985). Consequently, an important premise for successful programs is basic instruction in a mother tongue (even if later instruction shifts to a dominant language) and provision of vernacular reading materials.

Ideally, skill instruction should occur in an integrated environment where literacy is conceptualized as communication that involves the four functions of language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Holistic approaches and materials build on the two oral components (which are a strength of traditional cultures) to provide a context for the technologies of reading and writing. Fortunately, the conventions of oral tales (the use of formulas, redundancy, ritual language, and a focus on action and heroes) lend themselves to this approach (Finnegan, 1988). A basic vernacular literature reflecting a mix of the community's oral style and print conventions can be created through the transcription of local tales, proverbs, oral history, myths, and tales. Content would of course vary; for example, in Africa, it may involve additional elements such as family histories, family totems, family praise poems, and African dishes (Taylor, 1997).

The practice of using content that is familiar to the community is supported by research on reading stages. Within Jeanne Chall's six reading stages, the first three (stages 0, 1, and 2, which carry a learner from pre-reading to fluency) can be said to represent the oral tradition in that the text rarely goes beyond the language and knowledge that the reader already has through direct experience and listening (Chall, 1987). If fluency is achieved through materials which recognize the "cultural underpinning of literacy acquisition" (Bogle, 1987: 85), students are better prepared for stage 4, or "learning the new." They are proceeding from the known to the unknown.

Given the need to build on local traditions, the bottom-up creation of basic materials seems essential. An exemplary program in this respect is the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a nonprofit group which helps local authors in some 200 minority language groups in both hemispheres to record their thoughts and experiences within their own cultural and linguistic framework. Unlike the practice of creating "easy" reading material by manipulating language and using short paragraphs, short sentences, active verbs, and repetitions to ensure recognition, SIL has the local authors use tape recorders and then transcribe materials, staying true to local styles. The resulting content and theme lie "very close to the heart and mind of both author and reader, to the extent that the words may be largely predictable to the reader" (Wendell, 1982).

Such indigenous materials turn reading into a meaningful activity with oral-based materials serving as a medium of transition that encourages students to adopt conventions of literacy (Finnegan, 1988)--a different world of order, involving organization in discrete sentences, headings, chapters, left to right sequencing, and plots with a beginning, middle, and end. In addition, the process of creating these written materials legitimizes the acquired literacy skills of local authors while expanding on this base. New readers are able to read the heritage of their culture in its own literature (Weibel, 1992); local culture is validated and brought into balance, after prolonged exposure to reading materials produced for readers in industrialized countries (Mangubhai, 1987); traditional sources and forms of knowledge absent when literacy is taught exclusively with "outside" materials become part of the new, literate culture.

Materials that retain oral style make the communicative nature of reading explicitly clear, and thus encourage "literacy experiences"--collaborative encounters around the printed word. In an Israeli study, participation in literacy events has been shown to be a key to success in literacy (Feitelson, 1987). Literacy events which involve reading aloud to family and friends or the interaction of children, storytelling, and storybooks provide a perfect forum for using and producing local materials collaboratively. For example, in home libraries in Zimbabwe all ages participate in storytelling, reading simple stories for pleasure, playing games, singing and drama, and developing and publishing local stories (Waungana, 1990). Their oral traditions are honored, rather than abandoned, as reading and writing skills are acquired.

This matter of seeing how best oral cultures can be enhanced and complemented by literacy, not replaced (Limage, 1993) is gaining currency. UNESCO has been working on educational materials for Asian and Pacific countries that combine many formats and traditions: printed books (booklets, comics), printed non-book materials (posters, leaflets, wall newspapers, periodicals, flip charts, cards), electronic audio-visual materials (film, movies, slides, tapes, radio, television), folk audio-visual materials (puppet shows, shadow plays, drama, Kamishibai--picture storytelling, songs, folk dances), and games (card games, jigsaw puzzles, futures games, finance games, board games, simulation games) (Tajima, 1994). An Indian literacy campaign in the 1990s developed a prototype "people's" literacy program, which incorporates environment-building through local cultural forms--art, folk music, drama, oral narratives, etc. (Rampal, 1994). All such activities strengthen and enrich these cultures by extending the speaking, listening, reading, and writing functions of language that underlay literate societies.

As vernacular literacy increases, the lines between literacy, literate behaviors, communication, and cultural expression blend. And as awareness of the systemic nature of literacy grows, as new materials are developed, and new approaches to literacy education appear, questions arise as to the appropriateness of imported models of formal education and librarianship. Schools featuring rote memorization and high dropout rates are prime candidates for reform. Western concepts of libraries appear questionable in rural areas where literacy might better be served by "cultural interaction" centers, which would both use and produce print materials while serving as centers for community, educational, and cultural development (Kagan, 1982). In this kind of approach, literacy becomes not just a responsibility of educational units and institutions, but a community effort. And rather than being imposed on the local culture as a new and foreign element, literacy becomes part of the cultural repertoire of a community from which a more literate environment may naturally emerge.

The goal of contemporary materials development is not to simply restore traditional culture (Finnegan, 1988), but to create relevant programs and materials that reflect the complexity of local cultures and serve as a bridge between oral traditions and literacy. The ultimate goal is a literate and culturally rich environment.