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Learning to read the readers

Joanne Sutton Joanne Sutton is a freelance documentary photographer and has worked in community arts projects across Wales. She is currently completing her PGCE Adult Literacy and Communication at the University of South Wales.

I can vaguely remember a time when I was learning to read. However, I don't remember a time when I couldn't read, and before I started my PGCE teaching practice placement I hadn't had much exposure to entry level literacy classes with adults.

Taken from my Reflective Journal: Dec 16, 2014 I was asked to sit next to N in today's Entry Level One Communication class to assist with her reading. I hadn't seen her in the class before and didn't know much about her other than that she was the eldest member of the class. As a group, we looked at different examples of texts and their purpose. We talked about adverts and recipes, lists and leaflets, among other things. During the discussion N mentioned to me that she bought all her cakes. As we didn't know each other very well, and had barely spoken all lesson, I thought she was just making conversation and thought nothing more about it. A little later, I overheard her share this same information with a fellow learner, but added that she had never made her own cakes because she couldn't read the recipes. I later found out that she had started the Communication class to learn how to write her name, and she could read little more than she could write.

My first reaction was shock. How could this happen? How does somebody get through the majority of their life without being able to read? From a young age I had been empowered by learning to read. I read for pleasure, and I read for information. Sometimes I took pleasure from reading for information! My shock turned to anger as I began to realise that, for whatever reason, N had been denied that same empowerment. I was struggling to empathise with my learners, I could only sympathise. I couldn't put myself in their shoes and understand how to negotiate a world that seemed so dependent upon being literate. Somehow I had adopted a deficit perspective. I was too caught up in what I perceived to be my learners' shortcomings (i.e. what they couldn't do) to be able to recognise their strengths: a creative flair for understanding the world that isn't dependent upon linguistic ability; a substantial support system for dealing with literacy challenges; and the 'funds of knowledge' that every adult learner brings to the classroom.

As Appleby and Barton suggest, “People are complex: they have histories, identities, current circumstances and imagined futures” (2008, p. 5). Though entry level literacy learners may not be well versed in the written word, they do not come to the classroom empty handed. They possess cultural resources shared by members of the same household and/or community (Vélez-Ibáñez and Greenberg, cited in Oughton, 2010) and bring with them their understanding of the world, the knowledge, experience, and “practices that they have acquired throughout their life” (Ibid, 2010). These are their 'funds of knowledge'.

While the world of literacy is rich in poetry, prose and text, the world of entry level literacy can be rich too. If I were to imagine this world as a place, it would be a community art space: a gallery, museum or exhibition hall whose walls would be adorned with signs, symbols, pictorials and photographs. These artifacts would not be used to replace the world of text: they are steps on the road to literacy, as well as texts in their own right. In my life outside the classroom, as a freelance photographer, I have a sensory preference for the visual and respond best in a learning experience when I can see the stimulus. It makes sense therefore that the world I have just described is the richer, to me. This may not be the case for my learners and I need to be mindful that my natural bias for the visual doesn't dictate my lesson planning.


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