Academic journal article Journal of Adult Education

Overt Literacy Action: A Key to Success in Adult Literacy Learning

Academic journal article Journal of Adult Education

Overt Literacy Action: A Key to Success in Adult Literacy Learning

Article excerpt

"Overt literacy action" is defined in this paper as a conscious effort on the part of adult students to use their new literacy skills in a real situation away from the classroom and instructor. Using ethnographic tools, a cross-case analysis of six adult literacy students indicated that overt literacy action was a key element in their success as learners. The analysis also indicated that most of the students' overt actions were in the form of writing rather than reading. These findings imply that adult literacy programs should, perhaps, place more emphasis on writing and on preparing students to take risks with their literacy learning in the real world.

Jason, the 36-year-old owner of a highly successful business, wiped his face with a handkerchief as he walked into the room where his new tutor waited. It was cool outside, and the room temperature was comfortable, but drops of perspiration continued to bead on his face and run down his neck until he wiped them away again. Jason began his first writing lesson, wherein he struggled to write just the first 22 words of a story he had related: "I have dibet [adopted] a child four year ago. I thought he would have chanses wait aus [with us] but he have being a decize [disaster]."

Four days later Jason came to the next session visibly excited: his eyes were gleaming and he was eager to talk of the two full pages he had written about his hopes and plans for the future. When asked what he thought about his writing experience so far, he exclaimed, "This is more writing than I've ever done in my whole life! And it wasn't that hard!" Jason then asked, "You remember how much I was sweating last time? Well, that was because I was so scared about the writing. Any time anyone's asked me to write something, the sweat just poured out of me, but I'm not sweating now!"

One lesson, of course, did not make Jason a polished writer, but his extreme physical reaction to performing a literacy task in front of someone he didn't know and the extreme results of his later writing were the most concrete evidence the tutor had seen of both the fear and the need for adult literacy students to take what I call "overt literacy action."

Theory and Overt Literacy Action

Two of the requisites for children's acquisition of literacy (Cambourne, 1988)-its usage in authentic contexts and favorable response to literacy usage-are often difficult for adults to fulfill. In comparison to children, who spend much of their day in school, adults spend little time in the classroom; their world consists more of work and family responsibilities (Mikulecky, 1987). Authenticity in the classroom is not usually seen as authentic by adult students; it is more often simulated and does not include the reaiity of expectations and responses by people other than tutors, teachers, or co-learners, who are not the people the adult hopes eventually to please. When, for instance, a child writes a letter in the classroom, the teacher, other students, and parents praise the child for work well done; the child is satisfied that he or she has now written a letter and is capable of writing other letters. Adult students who write classroom letters, however, know a real letter is sent to someone other than a teacher or fellow student, someone who may be more critical. Thus, adult students rarely complete one of these authentic activities with the same feeling of confidence as children to replicate the activity in the real world in front of strangers. As Fingeret (1992, p. 7) pointed out, "Many students who can write checks in class never use checks in their lives because they are too scared to write a check while strangers may be watching." Authenticity is still needed in the adult classroom, but for these students to see themselves as readers and writers and gain confidence in their literacy abilities, they must also engage in "overt literacy action," a conscious effort to use literacy in a real situation away from the classroom. …

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