Participation and Literacy
Competency-based assessment (outcomes-based education)
is based on the assumption that literacy can be
fragmented into a hierarchy of skills that must be
mastered so the individual can be functionally literate in
today’s society…The underlying assumption is the Level
One students need to develop “lower level” skills before
they can develop “higher level” skills. This assumption is
contrary to research that indicates that Level One
students are capable of making inferences in narrative
and expository text.
Authentic Assessment (learner-centred assessment)
focuses on literacy as a process, whereas standardized
tests view literacy as a product. By understanding the
literacy processes a student uses to construct meaning an
educator can gain a better understanding of how to
instruct the student. For example, following authentic
assessment, academic content is integrated with issues
meaningful to students and learning is anchored in reallife
situations and problems.
from Teaching Reading to Adults, p. 46
Reflections on Teaching Reading to Adults, A Balanced Approach
by Suzanne Hale
I am a literacy practitioner with eight years
experience in community development. My formal
education is in theatre and mime and I hold an
instructor’s diploma earned in Fort Nelson, BC. I am
bilingual in French, studied in Paris, and now live in
Ottawa with my mother. Writing this makes me
laugh. Not everyone lives with their mother.
I love literacy work because it requires
of my entire self. It is a synthesis of all my skills. If I
had to say instinctively what I see at the centre of
literacy education, what brings it all together, I would
say – my choice as a practitioner, the choices of
individual students and the choices of a community.
To my mind, the nature of
literacy, right down to the acts of reading and writing, is based on the
assumption of participation. To write something –
anything – is to assume and anticipate the
participation of a reader. Yet ironically, when we
assume participation, we come very close to killing
it. And so goes the riddle of literacy teaching.
Literacy learning is so tied
to the choice to participate that if we try to separate them they
split and splatter like silvery balls of mercury. For
example, a literacy program based on rigid
outcomes may well die from lack of participation,
whereas a program that reinvents itself daily may
not satisfy the learning goals of its students,
teachers or funders. How do we come to balance?
Beyond the need to build
participation, beyond intuition and empathy and beyond the belief
all students and teachers can learn, how can we
create literacy programs that are shaped by
participation, contain meaningful and measurable
goals and are responsive to community culture
and identity? How do we do the dance, and
who’s got the beat?
Pat Campbell’s newest book, Teaching Reading
to Adults – a balanced approach provides some
answers to this question. The book (accompanied
by two videos) promotes the concept of balance
in teaching and provides the substance of
literacy related theories, definitions and practical
techniques. It describes reading theories, the
assumptions they are based on, how they are assessed, and the
problems inherent in each theory.
Various reading assessments, what they were
developed to measure and, most importantly, how
their results can inform reading instruction, are
One of the qualities of balance is that it maintains
its form. The union of equal but opposing forces can
be expressed in all directions. In this light, I found
the information Campbell provides about identifying
reading miscues and analyzing the student’s reading
pattern to be really interesting. She recommends that
reading instruction be based on miscue analysis,
working in contrast to the reading pattern a student
already uses. By working in counterbalance to the
student’s habit, we can achieve a balanced approach.
It was refreshing to see that as much as we must
engender and create participation in collaboration
with students, as a literacy practitioner I also need to
know when to work in contrast to what the students
already know. I need to know how to complement
their practice by contrasting it, as well when to allow
student practice to inform and contrast my own
techniques and understanding.
The naming of reading patterns was new to me.
This is one of the first in-depth opportunities I have
taken to learn about the mechanics of reading.
Previously I responded to what I saw the students
doing and I offered assistance, but I was unaware of
the concepts of print-based, meaning-based, integrative
and non-integrative reading patterns. Throughout the
book, Campbell offers a good variety of teaching
strategies that may assist students in developing a
balanced approach in their reading practice.
At various points, the reader is
invited to situate their own teaching philosophy within a spectrum
of definitions and practice. As it turns out, my teaching
preference supports the interactive theory of reading.
The interactive theory of reading rests
upon two assumptions about language,
thinking and learners. The first
assumption is that reading is an active
process of constructing meaning that
occurs as the reader interacts with the
text in a particular context or situation…
The second assumption is that readers use
three language cueing systems –
graphophonic, syntactic, semantic – as
they construct meaning. (Campbell)
There is little mention of social context, culture or
identity in this theory, but I think that’s okay. I don’t
expect one theory to contain everything that is good
and true. From my perspective, the usefulness of
theories to provide clear lines and classification needs
to be balanced by the fact that teaching is a fluid,
responsive process where theoretical boundaries can
be crossed and enhanced.
Bringing together the divergent elements of literacy
education, like the necessity of phonics instruction or
the naming of specific outcomes demonstrated by an
authentic assessment, serves to remind us that in
creating a balance of practice we may draw from
Throughout the book, Campbell’s preference and
passion for participatory education emerges. She
defines participatory education as “a collective effort
in which the participants are committed to building
a just society through individual and socio-economic
transformation and ending domination through
changing power relations” (Campbell, p. 128)
Although this definition is later qualified as a vision
for what participatory education can offer, I can’t help
wondering if it might not become a bit of a burden
imposed upon students and programs.
I don’t mean to tip this beautiful ship.
I do believe in participatory education, but I wonder if there isn’t
another way to share its definition and to promote its
power, that speaks more to the stages of process, the
choices of the students, and the potential they have to
direct their own participation.
Principles for teaching adult beginning readers
Reading instruction is integrated and balanced.
Instruction is linked
Students are expected to take responsibility and
ownership of their learning, and educators to provide
opportunities for them to do so.
The instructional program responds to the
needs of each individual student.
Instruction includes discussion
about the students’
conceptual understanding of reading.
Instruction builds upon the [adult]
Instruction emphasizes the student’s knowledge.
When needed, phonics
instruction is integrated into lessons.
Reading material is relevant
Opportunities are provided for interactive learning.
from Teaching Reading
to Adults, p. 25
How often do students arrive at a literacy
program with the intention of changing society or ending
domination through challenging power relations?
Perhaps, at times students arrive with these notions –
most likely, students who are experienced and who
have a history of participation with a particular group
or centre. But what if the students, or the learning centre, or the teacher are new?
What would a definition of participatory education
which recognized participation as an unfolding
process, directed by the experience and goals of a
classroom-community look like?
Because participation in literacy programs is a
pivotal and sensitive issue, given that only 10 per cent
of people with literacy needs join programs, the way
participatory education is defined is really important.
In my opinion we need a definition that allows for
the greatest amount of possibility, without imposing
goals upon a program or its students.
One of the most unique and fragile elements
of participatory education is that it is dependent on
the timing, context and culture of a particular
group of people. At the time in history when Paulo
Freire was teaching in Brazil, there was a
pronounced need to challenge the status quo.
Perhaps other communities or groups of students
today have other pronounced needs, like
understanding the status quo, participating in the
status quo or celebrating their own history and
identity. Challenging the status quo is part of what
is possible, but it is one of several possibilities.
Perhaps there is a cycle of development within
Can we look beyond Freire to create a
contemporary vision for what participatory education
looks like and what it can achieve? I am thinking
about the gifted teachers, students and thinkers who
are working now, and who have success in their
practice, with their own theories of literacy and
community participation. How can we learn from
these people and their practice in the field? What is
their definition of participatory education?
In addition to the nebulous ‘unfold
as you go’ side
of building participation, there are some basic
elements that can be demystified. For example, what
are the ‘in-class’ dynamics that allow for successful
participatory education? What is required of the
teacher? What is required of the students? What are
the stages of evolution of a participatory program?
What is required of the administration? What is
required of the funders and partners?
When do students become teachers
through the process of participatory education? Is there a way to
develop an ‘outcomes based’ evaluation of a
participatory education project? Can curriculum
developed for one participatory project be shared with
another group or community? What are the values
that inform participatory practice? How can literacy
practitioners be trained and supported to run their
programs on a participatory basis? How can funders
be educated to understand that the best practices
regard literacy as a process, guided by student
participation, not a product that grows in isolation?
There is so much
to learn to be able to participate. If, as teachers, the worst thing
we can bring is the predetermined
assumption about what that participation
will look like, then what is the best thing we can
bring? What encourages people to choose to
participate and what sustains us as participants?
I expect I’ll continue
thinking about this for a long time, and I appreciate Pat Campbell
reminding me that questions of participation are
central to literacy work.
All learning is a quest for greater participation.
Bront de Avila, p. 221
Bront de Avila, Elena et al “Learning Democracy/Democratizing Learning:
Graduate Education”. Participatory Practices in Adult Education.
Pat Campbell &
Barbara Burnaby (eds) (2001). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Campbell, Patty (2003). Teaching Reading to Adults, A Balanced
Edmonton: Grass Roots Press.