Functional Literacy Practices among People with Limited or No Formal Schooling

Principal Investigator: Kristen H. Perry & Ann Homan
University of Kentucky
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This project represents a cross-case analysis of the CPLS database, with a focus on the literacy practices of participants with little, if any, experience of formal schooling. In addition to describing the literate practices of a specific sub-group of CPLS participants, this analysis represents an attempt to complicate commonly-held notions of literacy, illiteracy, and functional literacy. Theories of literacy as social practice have long posited that individuals and communities that are characterized as “illiterate” often engage in meaningful literacy practices (e.g., Street, 1984). Additionally, national and international definitions of “functional literacy” vary widely. In the U.S., for example, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy defined functional literacy as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (Baer, Kutner & Sabatini, 2009). The United Nations, however, argues that “a person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his (or her) group and community and also for enabling him (or her) to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his (or her) own and the community’s development” (UNESCO, 2005, p. 22). The important function of context is implied in both of these definitions, as “functioning in society,” “achieving one’s goals,” developing one’s knowledge and potential,” and effective functioning of his (or her) group and community” are contextually bound. Yet, despite the importance of context in determining what level of literacy may be functional for an individual or community, functional literacy often is reduced to grade-level equivalencies or basic skills (e.g., the ability to decode) as opposed to accomplishing a goal with a text. This cross-case analysis is an attempt to describe the literate practices of adult CPLS participants with limited or no formal schooling (defined as some elementary/primary schooling or no formal schooling at all) across a variety of linguistic and culturally marginalized communities in order to answer the question: “What are the functional literacy practices of adults with limited or no formal schooling?”

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