Some Thoughts on Literacy, Culture, and Pedagogy

Jamie Myers 7/2000

As a child, language provides our first bond with another human being. Words give us the power to act upon the world. Our consiousness itself is constructed through our shared use of language. Second language learners have experienced first hand the tight bond between word and culture. The mind, the world, and the word do not exist independently, but each requires the others to achieve any meaning. This semiotic dialectic must be at the center of all language study.

Lanuguage study is commonly framed as a linguistic or cognitive experience with the goal of helping learners use correct forms to improve their communicative and economic possibilities. Learners practice a sequence of skills that purport to add up to the successful production and comprehension of a symbolic utterance. However, no matter how hard one studies the language code itself, successful use in a social context requires a great deal of additional cultural participation. The promised benefits of language study often fail to materialize.

Instead of studying language as a generalized linguistic code book, students should explore how symbols are used in various specific contexts to achieve purposeful activity, to negotiate relationships of power, and to create personal and social identity. An easy way to think about literacy as such a social practice is to describe how we use symbols in our social interactions to create belonging within a shared social world at the same time that we negotiate a shared meaning for the experience. In our symbolic interaction we construct our values, roles, traditions, desires, relationships, and identities. And, as we continue to produce and consume particular symbols in specific contexts and across other contexts, we generate and reproduce culture.

How we use symbols to create some aspect of culture, thus our own selves, should be the central goal of language study at all levels of school. First graders can easily collect and study cereal boxes to ask questions about the kind of person eats each cereal. They can question how children play with toys on television advertisements. Older children can describe how clothing and language separates people into different groups with different goals and activities. They can examine how using different objects and symbols can create different identities, even disrupt the power relationships in a particular context. All students can examine how stories in print, video, and music represent valued activities, relationships, and identities.

As students study how symbol use creates their social worlds, they will not only learn the linguistic code, they will also learn the strategic use of the code. They will position themselves as critical thinkers, able to use symbols to negotiate meanings that improve the conditions of existence for all members of a community. Instead of just consuming images, and their accompanying identities, these critical thinkers will be able to actualize and promote with each other the experience of a critical democracy.