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Victoria Purcell-Gates hopes to steer literacy instruction toward new models: from the eyes of learners - photo by Martin Dee
Victoria Purcell-Gates hopes to steer literacy instruction toward new models: from the eyes of learners - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 3 | Mar. 1, 2007

Real Life Texts for Real Life Reasons

By Lorraine Chan

Receipts, bills, bus schedules, maps and birthday cards -- these humble, everyday objects can actually open doors for those who are struggling to read and write.

That’s the overwhelming evidence that Victoria Purcell-Gates has found in her research on helping communities overcome cycles of low literacy or illiteracy. Purcell-Gates heads Cultural Practices of Literacy Study (CPLS), an international research team with projects in Canada, the U.S., Costa Rica, Bolivia, Malaysia and Africa.

Their findings underscore the power of authentic literacy instruction, or “using real life texts that are read or written for real life reasons,” says Purcell-Gates, a professor in the Faculty of Education and Canada Research Chair in Early Childhood Literacy.

One of the overarching goals for CPLS is to understand how schools can better serve children who are from marginalized communities and what changes need to be made to existing curriculum and educational policy.

Each project explores the ways people use reading and writing across cultural and linguistic contexts. CPLS researchers are working to build a large database of literacy practices across all of their case studies and from this they hope to create new teaching models.

Purcell-Gates says the starting point for any literacy instruction is to see the world through the eyes of learners -- what they experience and what makes sense to them.

CPLS researchers are looking at the most effective language and literacy practices and instruction for such diverse cultural and social groups as Sudanese immigrant families in the U.S. and Nicaraguan immigrants living in Costa Rica. One project is studying the gap between school and community in a poverty-stricken area of Cochabamba, Bolivia.

“We’re currently working on a pilot program with Costa Rica’s Ministry of Education to train, mentor and coach the teachers in delivering revised curriculum that’s more culturally responsive to the Nicaraguan communities,” says Purcell-Gates.

One simple tactic, she says, would be for the Costa Rican teachers to incorporate the idea of signage when teaching kindergarten and Grade 1 children reading and writing skills.

“In Nicaraguan communities, the most common form of textual use are signs that   advertise food or products available for sale from the different homes,” explains Purcell-Gates. “We suggested that teachers could have the children creating and reading the signs for the different materials in the classroom or foods in the cafeteria. Or they could make up ‘store signs’ during play.”

In Purcell-Gates’ view, literacy studies and curriculum worldwide are often designed from a middle class perspective. And as a result, it doesn’t make much sense to non-middle class children who face difficulties from the onset and must play catch-up throughout their school years.

“There’s lots of effort that goes into trying to make children from other cultures -- whether that’s socio-economic, religious, ethnicity or country of origin -- fit this middle class model.”

A case in point, says Purcell-Gates, is the emphasis many schools place on parents reading to their children. “There’s no solid data to support this claim that kids will do better if they have storybook time at home. Lots of cultures don’t read storybooks to kids and those children do well in school.”

She adds, “More than anything, this idea reflects a cultural practice that’s owned by people who run schools.” 

In her study of migrant farm workers, a largely Spanish-speaking population in Michigan, Purcell-Gates spent time in the homes of workers observing and interviewing families about their literacy practices. In the classroom, she saw that many children in the program did not easily understand the notion of books or stories.

“It was very hard to keep the pre-school children engaged. Storybooks meant little to them. There were no books at home for them, even if they had been sent home by the school. In the pre-school classrooms, the books were used as toys, building blocks, hats.”

However, they responded to print that was familiar in the context of their homes such as letters from family members in Mexico, birthday cards, legal or work-related papers. These and other CPLS observations will be used to inform the curriculum at Migrant Head Start, a federally funded program in the U.S. that provides daycare and literacy instruction for migrant workers’ children from the age of two weeks to five years.

Closer to home, Purcell-Gates and UBC Language and Literacy Prof. Jim Anderson are exploring new teaching models that promote literacy in the home through interaction between parents and children. Last month, they launched the Intergenerational Literacy Program in Surrey and East Vancouver, a pilot project that emphasizes a family’s everyday routine of reading real life texts such as newspapers, documents, forms and books.

To learn more about Cultural Practices of Literary Studies, visit: http://educ.ubc.ca/research/cpls/.

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Last reviewed 27-Feb-2007

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