"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

An interesting dynamic...

After reading both articles, it's clear that the word literacy cannot be defined or bound by a few words. It's framed, re-framed, and then framed again. There are so many factors that come into play when trying to define such a word, and these articles showed two different cases of literacy. In the Mazak article, a man named Chucho took a simple approach to "literacy" in terms of his relationship with writing/speaking/reading English. He writes in English only when absolutely necessary, speaks in it only when speaking with those who don't speak Spanish, and only reads it to acquire specific knowledge. He used this approach to determine what sort of seed to buy, and also as a language broker.

In the Molosiwa article, when it was asked what literacy meant- participants replied with "the ability to read with understanding and to apply information read to the reader's situation, not just the technical aspects of decoding and encoding print"... literacy was also associated with making meaning out of written material, reading and writing comprehensively and being able to successfully communicate one's thoughts. This of course, was geared towards the dominance that the English language imposes in Botswana. Kids were actually punished in school for speaking in languages other than English. It was clear that English literacy was beyond decoding words from printed texts.

Reading both of these articles reminded me of the importance of English literacy in our international students, specifically a small group from Kuwait who are preparing for Dental School. It's such an honor to be able to work with these students, as they are among the brightest from Kuwait's school system and have been granted a government scholarship to come to the United States to study Dentistry. At the end of their Junior year, I have a chance to interview each student and following the interview, I write a letter of support to the Dental School in which they are applying. MOST of the students are proficient enough in English to get through courses, but aren't great speakers. They've learned enough to decode class materials, but not quite enough to confidently carry out social conversation. They sometimes also find trouble while attempting to gain experience in the Richmond community- i.e. working in clinics, dental offices, etc. as a language and cultural barrier exists. This barrier has certainly helped me become sensitive to ESL learners as I've developed a different approach to interviewing, as compared to interviewing traditional dental applicants. Beyond the interviewing, I'd like to get back to the focus of these two articles, and that is the "imperialism" of the English language.

These students from Kuwait are here for one simple reason. Kuwait needs Dentists, and these selected students are more than willing to learn in America and then travel back to Kuwait, to provide public health care to those in need. Learning English for decoding purposes in undergrad is fine, and it has worked up to this point as we are talking 3.8/3.9 GPA's for these selected students! However, my concern is that the decoding method will need to evolve into an understanding of the English language that allows them to interact with patients throughout their time in Dental School, an understanding that I'm not sure they expected. Nonetheless, I'm particularly proud of this specific group of students, who have left their homeland in search of an academic path that will lead to them one day returning and bringing modern techniques back with them to provide the care their community needs. Immersing oneself in another culture (especially jumping in around 18 years old with no previous background in American Culture other than what is portrayed through literacies in Kuwait) is admirable, and I hope to continue to see these students succeed.


  1. Jason, thank you for your insightful post. And thank you for everything you do to help our international students at VCU! It's wonderful that you are able to interact with them and help with their transition to the School of Dentistry. Social interactions are a big challenge for many international students, particularly in the health or service-related professions. Just the other day, I spoke with an ELP graduate from Saudi Arabia who is getting her MSW at VCU. She speaks English very well and is making good grades, but expressed her frustration with not knowing how to relate to American families that she interacts with in her internship. She is going out of her way to socialize with Americans and do everything she can to learn about American culture, but sometimes it just takes time to adjust.

  2. This is really important distinction, Jason--the code switching these students face will be enormous. In a way, this culture shock is not unlike what happens when teachers go to work in prison for the first time. My close friend Randall Wright wrote a book called "On the Borderlands: Going to Work in Prisons," which we provide to newcomers to the field to help consider issues like getting beyond negative stereotypes and paying attention to their own embodied experiences (like perceived microaggressions or threats to their racial identity, etc.) At least by thinking of this linguistic problem in the broader sense of "Discourse," the socio-cultural agendas can be considered (in addition to the dialects and other language issues). What does make your group of international students perhaps more vulnerable than newcomers to prison work, is the fact that they cannot "go home" at the end of the day to the sanctuary of their home culture, to regroup. As Rachel said, they are very lucky to have you as an advocate!

  3. Blog Reply: 15 April 2014

    I want to comment on your statement "However, my concern is that the decoding method will need to evolve into an understanding of the English language that allows them to interact with patients throughout their time in Dental School, an understanding that I'm not sure they expected. "

    I absolutely agree with your assessment and I can speak from experience just how important it is for international students to expand their language skills beyond "decoding" text and hone their cultural understanding. Unfortunately, this challenge is a very big one that extends well beyond the university.

    Each year, the U.S. Government enables thousands of international students to come to the US for professional development, i.e. non-degree programs. Most of the funding agencies have some type of language proficiency test that the prospective students must pass. However many of these test simply require the "decoding" of text and spoken phrases.

    Nevertheless, when the students arrive they are challenged to maximize their experience due to their limited understanding of our culture. It is one thing to be able to decode text and spoken phrases in a language exam, it's another to actually use and speak the language in a culturally appropriate manner.

    The only solution I am aware of is the deliberate addition of an "immersion" program into our international student programs. We can not count on the students being able to integrate into our culture on their own -- it must be by design. I have seen this work at the federal government level and I see no reason why it should not work in an university environment-- or perhaps it already is at some universities.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.