Functional literacy

UNESCO brought out  the issue of functional literacy in the 1950s to achieve the level of literacy as a ‘craft’ and it referred to functional literacy in a given social setting for ex.  to-do or shopping list, writing messages, making notes etc. Since then literacy has changed at a dizzying pace.

Writing Instruction and Diversity

image: Pixabay

Even as top schools across the country profess to teach writing in a craft-focused way, there exists a clear divide on integrating writing into curriculums for diverse groups  of learners. Teaching writing to advance learners is markedly different from that of diverse learners. The World Education Report (2018) indicates that there exists a wide learning gap and as a result of these, teaching diverse groups across different countries are greatly affected. For some schools, learning may be good by global metrics but a great number of students are affected by learning deficits and low learning outcomes. ASER reveals the depth of our learning crisis. Diverse learners may also come from far-flung and remote areas and they may be first generation learners as well .At the same time, teachers might have experienced difficulties due to lack of basic infrastructure and requisite training and may be they are too overworked to address the systemic issue of enormous learning deficit and related shortcomings .Educators feel lack of monitoring and evaluation have affected the writing competence of students. There have been several international interventions to address this issue of effective writing outcomes, yet a systematic approach to functional literacy skills in diversity is missing.

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Image: www.rajgovt.org

Diversity in classrooms

Who are today’s diverse learners in classrooms? Diverse learners are the fastest group of learners in our classroom today. Learners coming from different cultures have become a commonplace. The term ‘diverse’ is used to refer to learners who are culturally different from mainstream students on the basis of different languages, dialects, multiple identities, rural-urban cultures and socio-economic status. Diversity also represent learners who have ‘special needs’ or those who are ‘gifted and talented’ students. The challenges of teaching writing to this kind of diversity in 21st century are much more complex than teaching to a homogeneous group of students based on one-size-fits-all metrics. Understanding diversity can add to our increased understanding of our learners. We can uncover different biases on race, religion, ethnicity voices, identities, different levels of marginalization. In addition, diverse learners may constitute a mix of urban and rural learners coming from public or government school background. Within the same class, we may have students having different native tongues. English as second language speakers may constitute different language cultures for ex.a writing class may constitute Urdu, Arabic, Chinese Hindi, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Malay, Thai as immigrant speakers as well. Public school system in America was established on the principle of catering to increasingly diverse classrooms with a view  to embracing linguistics,  cultural differences and eliminating the barriers of racism, sexism, and prejudice. In view of the changing demographics of classrooms worldwide, written communication plays a significant role in culturally sensitive classrooms.  In a city like New York nearly 50 languages represent diverse voices at one point of time including  Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Chinese, French creole, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese. Majority of English Language Learners (ELL) among school-aged group  in US regularly speak Spanish, French, German and Italian. Their number is more than one million. These speakers may speak dialects of a particular language and might further experience difficulties in understanding the unfamiliar standard dialect of target language. This is quite a complex phenomenon for these learners to understand and use the standard written English and therefore they may not feel at home with language and culture of the target language.

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Addressing the Issue

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image: NCU.edu

Teaching writing skills to diverse learners is not an easy task. The significant issue is, all students regardless of manifesting diversities such as race, religion, ethnicity, schema , culture, home language, nonstandard dialects and disabilities   have the ability to learn literacy skills. There is nothing like inferiority of language, literacy can still be acquired with the diverse level of schema. An average student in public school instruction may find writing as rote-driven, but once the focus is on context- embedded socio-cognitive and interactionist pedagogy, writing in a way tilts towards capitalizing the potential merits of diversity. Hence writing can be taught to enrich and explore these experiences based on context of past or familiar associations even if literacies appear in small ways. Another way is to exchange the understanding of texts written in multiple voices especially when teaching of writing is pitched to the level of the students in a way to accommodate differentiated instructional strategies for maximizing the writing outputs. 

Attempting to offer individualized targeted or remedial instruction is one step further to address these concerns. This will lead to significant reduction in learning gaps. In addition, there is a need to focus on various pedagogic dimensions of cultural academic needs, differentiated instruction, learning styles and multiple intelligences.

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Inclusion is a key word now in education but certain sections are deprived of this opportunity and therefore they have special needs in a general writing classroom. Timely attention and care by a regular language educator can open gateway for inclusion since it works as an authentic microcosm of the culturally sensitive different learning communities on an equitable basis.

To affect a competence-linked learning and assessment, writing needs to be taught in a wide range of contexts and need-based genres. Since writing is context- embedded, giving learners an idea of real audience can sensitize them to visualize writing in realistic settings. Teachers need to be sensitized to the socio-cultural background of the students.  Instead of focusing on syllabus completion, teachers need opportunities to design their own materials so as to develop competencies appropriate to grade levels.

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Raashid Nehal
Studied MA, M.Phil, PGDTE, and Ph.D. Professor Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University, India. Contributor to The Eastern Herald.