portfolio: Literacy narratives

INTRODUCTION: This essay was written for ENG 556: Theories of Literacy taught by Dr. Elenore Long. This course had a profound impact on me. It reminded me of the immense value of a liberal arts education and taught me the importance of empathy in education. This essay was easy for me to write because it concerns a subject that I’m incredibly passionate about – differences in learning styles. As someone who dealt with (and still deals with) a learning disability, I am sympathetic to those who are thrust into learning systems that are not compatible with their learning styles. This essay deals with the cases of two African immigrant women who were unfairly graded within an English-language-based curriculum. Their stories prove the need for a better understanding of an individual’s primary discourse when evaluating educational progress against a particular evaluatory standard.


When analyzing another person’s literacy narrative, one must take an approach similar to studying art. Literacy, like art, is a highly personal form of communication that is informed entirely by the “artists” foundational frame of reference. Literacy may be slightly easier to qualify and quantify within the realm of academic discourse, but nonetheless, it remains a deeply personal and unique tool that users employ to interact with and make sense of the world around them.

     Because of their intimate nature, literacy narratives can only be considered and analyzed from the perspective of their user rather than the evaluator. The lenses that inform one’s view of the world must be considered first and foremost. Take, for example, the literacy narratives of two female African immigrants to the United States as they navigate English-language-based college curriculums. Jean Kaunda and Roda Kuek both describe experiences in which they received poor grades on essay assignments because they did not follow the prompt closely enough. Typically, for native English speakers, this would be grounds to lower an essay grade. But these two women are not native English speakers, and therefore they interpreted the prompt through the lens of their foundational, primary discourses, which is not inherently wrong but rather, different.

  When undergoing a routine vision test administered by an optometrist, one will know that various lenses are tested and layered on top of each other to create the perfect prescription. The same can be said about the layered nature of literacy. Each lens, or perspective, works in conjunction with the other literacy lenses to create one’s foundational, primary discourse. A primary discourse, as defined by language researcher James Gee, “constitutes our original and home-based sense of identity,” (Gee 527). Our primary discourse informs how we experience and interpret the world around us and is comprised of far more than just our native language. Primary discourses include language, culture, and lived experience. Someone who grew up in eastern Africa will likely interact and experience the world in much different ways than someone who grew up in southern India. These differences must be considered when evaluating an individual’s literacy narrative within predetermined parameters.

     While not explicitly stated, one can surmise that Roda Kuek is an African immigrant to the United States. She enrolled in community college courses, presumably to begin the process of acquiring her secondary discourse, English language and culture. She describes receiving a low grade on an essay that she worked very hard on because she did not follow the prompt for the assignment closely enough. The prompt was to analyze song lyrics from the internet, but Kuek chose to analyze the lyrics of a song her mother would sing to her when she was young. To start off, the first lens that informed Kuek’s interpretation of the prompt was her personal, lived experience. She chose to analyze a song that she had a close connection to, rather than a generic song chosen at random from the internet. Kuek was already facing a significant challenge just by reading and writing in a language (English) that she was not fluent in, so her song choice was likely made in an effort to make the assignment more attainable and approachable. But more importantly, her song choice had personal relevance to her, and it is almost always easier to write about what is familiar than it is to write about what is foreign.

    The same scenario can be seen in the story of Jean Kaunda, a Ph.D. student and immigrant from Malawi. She also received a failing grade on an essay assignment because she did not follow the prompt closely enough, but her interpretation of the prompt was informed by her personal, lived experience in her home country of Malawi. She was asked to write a critical analysis paper about the administration of a local school lunch program, but her professor claimed that Kaunda was not critical enough in her analysis. Once again, if Jean Kaunda was a native English speaker who grew up within the American school system, the grade she received on her essay most likely would have been merited. But Kaunda grew up in Malawi, where any form of public critique of the government was considered illegal and would incur harsh penalties. Even if she was just tasked with critiquing a local school lunch program, the very practice goes against everything she was ever taught, and, therefore, would not come naturally or easily to her.

   In both scenarios, both Kaunda and Kuek’s professors failed them as educators. Both women followed the prompts “closely enough” and more than likely turned in well-thought-out and proofread essays. What the two professors failed to consider is “story-behind-the-story,” or as Jennifer Clifton defines it, the “hidden transcript” (55). If the issue cited by the professors was truly that the two women did not follow the prompts closely enough, they could have asked their students to expand on their differences in perspective. In Kaunda’s case, this would have given her an opportunity to delve into an analysis of why she struggles to be critical of government programs, and in Kuek’s case, this would have been an opportunity to discuss the translational differences of the original lyrics in her mother’s song and how the words translate to English. Neither professor valued their student’s multiple perspectives or literacy lenses and chose to analyze their work from extremely exclusive parameters. By valuing various perspectives, “teachers can begin to make visible to students the ways discourses connect and diverge, take shape and shift across systems – and especially the ways they differently ‘catch’ different people,” (Clifton 63). 

   The dismay and surprise that both women felt at receiving their failing grades can be considered a life-world disturbance (Clifton 67). Their video interviews are examples of both women beginning “a dialogue across difference” as they tried to make sense of how their interpretations of the prompts were considered wrong (Clifton 67). They were “generating and shaping accounts of rationalities and reasonabilities” in an effort to “consider…what might have been reasonable to others,” and to “gain a more full understanding of the situation,” (Clifton 67-68). Both Kaunda and Kuek did more for their own literacy journeys as students than their teachers did for them as educators.

   Clifton writes that “if our understandings of the world are always partial and perspectival, limited in some way…then listening and learning from others is not only a reasonable thing to do, is it also a rational thing to do,” (80). The most important idea that anyone must keep in mind, no matter the circumstance, is that everyone has a different perspective and view of the world. Once this concept is understood, divergences must be respected. Literacy cannot be judged or analyzed from any one perspective because literacy is circumstantial and experiential. Literacy to one person may take the shape of fluency in folklore and song, and in another, it may take the form of visual art and poetry. One type of literacy does not discount another, and any acquisition of another kind of literacy beyond one’s primary discourse is considered complementary rather than obligatory. Yes, specific circumstances, like immigration, necessitate the addition of a secondary discourse or new literacy lens, but allowances must be made for the student while they synthesize a new language, culture, and experience through their primary literacy lenses.

    If educational institutions find themselves at a loss at how to evaluate literacy from a singular standard, they must adjust their curriculums to place more emphasis on effort rather than innate understanding. Educators and students can count it as a success if a concerted effort is put forth to understand and interpret a new type of literacy. The fact that Kaunda and Kuek were able to speak so eloquently about their endeavors to produce quality essays speaks volumes about their commitment to acquiring new literacy practices. They should have been graded on their efforts rather than their perceived lack of understanding of the prompt. They did understand the prompt – they understood it from the perspective of their lived experience and primary discourse, which is not wrong, only different.

  Literacy is much more than the ability to read and write. It’s a way of thinking and perceiving the world around us, and it informs nearly every aspect of our sense of self. Once this is understood and implemented on a universal level, a truly collaborative and progressive learning process can begin.

Photo courtesy of Forbes

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