The Cultured Word: Cultural Background. Bilingualism, and the School Library

Article excerpt

Research indicates that cultural background creates a framework through which people view, interpret, and assign meaning to texts. This article presents the major research related to, and the major issues underlying, cultural background as a framework for textual meaning-making, bilingualism, and literacy development. This article also considers why these issues are important to school librarians and offers suggestions for making multicultural materials central aspects of school library collections and curricula.


Reading is a highly individual experience; each person experiences texts' in a unique manner. Although other factors also influence the construction of meaning from texts, research indicates that cultural and linguistic background creates a framework through which people view, interpret, and assign meaning to texts. For this reason, an understanding of the relations among cultural background, bilingualism, and literacy is crucial for school librarians. This article considers the major research related to, and the major issues underlying, cultural background as a framework for textual meaningmaking and literacy development and the importance of these issues to school librarians.

Cultural Background as a Framework for Meaning-Making

It is important for school librarians to realize that students' cultural backgrounds affect their interpretations of all of the library materials with which they interact. Each time a person reads or listens to or views a text of some type, he or she relates it to his or her "wider social and cultural formations and categories" (Giroux, 1987, p. 177). For example, speakers of different languages are likely to have dissimilar interpretations of a movie scene in which an entire family is speaking loudly at once. Both a Midwestern US English-speaker and a Costa Rican Spanish-speaker would probably share the objective interpretation that the scene shows five people of various ages speaking simultaneously. The two speakers' interpretations of the characters' feelings, however, would probably differ. To the English-speaker, the scene would probably indicate familial discord, because many English-language cultures consider interrupting and not listening to other speakers to be rude. To the Spanish-speaker, the scene would probably indicate familial harmony because many Spanish cultures consider vocal frequency and volume to indicate social comfort and general happiness. Similarly, if two students, one native to the US Midwest and one native to Costa Rica, were listening to their school librarian read a picture book aloud, each would interpret the story differently based on their different cultural backgrounds.

Not only does cultural background help to determine the messages a person extracts from a text, it also helps to determine the facility and accuracy with which she or he extracts those messages. Steffensen, Joag-Dev, and Anderson (1979) asked a group of college students from the US and another group from India to read one letter describing a typically American wedding and one letter describing a typically Indian wedding. Participants read the letters from their native countries considerably more rapidly, and they were able to recall the native letters with significantly more detail and accuracy than the non-native letters. These results indicate that readers understand more easily and more fully texts depicting aspects of their native cultures. Consequently, students are likely to comprehend library materials that reflect their native cultures better than those that reflect other cultures.

Cultural Background and Literacy

Cultural background also exerts a strong influence on the concepts of literacy and literacy education, concepts crucial to the mission of the school library. Most standard dictionaries indicate that the term literate means being able to read and write. However, such a definition is both simplistic and exclusionary, for concepts of literacy vary from culture to culture (Ferdman, 1990; Vandergrift, 1995), and many concepts of literacy include abilities other than reading and writing. …


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