Thursday, 8 March 2012

Literacy and literature

I am a great lover of literacy and literacy teaching, so designing a literacy curriculum from scratch ought to be my dream job: and I am enjoying putting together an appropriate and adapted programme for our students. I am, because I am a bit of a grammar geek, enjoying organising the progression of skills and finding ways to explain at least some of the complexities and subtleties of the English language. But there is one thing that has made planning the curriculum here less fun than it might have been ... there are no books.

I have never taught literacy without books before, and, if I am honest, I wouldn't want to again. Being here has only served to reinforce in my mind (as if that were needed) that literacy and literature are and should be inseparably intertwined. I am sad enough to think that grammar can be fun and that playing with words is endlessly stimulating, but it is more fun in real books than in an abstract form. 

Part of the reason for the lack of books is financial, and my best laid plans of photocopying texts were also stymied by financial restrictions on paper, but the subject matter and expected outcomes also squeeze out the potential for literature in our literacy. The English curriculum here is teaching "functional literacy skills" - the English the students will need to survive in the workplace - so they can write an application letter, but we never write a story, they can read a set of instructions but not play with words in poetry. It is a sad reality that function has squeezed out fiction.

Don't get me wrong, I agree language should be functional. Its primary purpose is to enable communication and it is a great joy to me that, as an English speaker, language opens up a whole world of potential friendships, but I can't help feeling that language is also so much more. Yes, some would argue, linguistics is a science, but language itself is definitely an art: and like all the best art it should communicate something certainly, but also provoke questions and move you to new places, it should inspire thought and invoke emotions. It should be beautiful, which even the most well written CV, well, isn't.

There are interesting further reflections beyond our own educational circle. In the bookshops in Cebu the vast majority of the books are written in English, and the remaining small section is of Tagalog books: neither of which are the first language of our students and the population of Cebu. Cebuano exists primarily as an oral language, meaning you have to be relatively fluent in a second or third language before really being able to read at all. It makes for a culture much less literacy based and much less literature based than our own. Being able to read and having access to more books than I could get through in a lifetime, in my first language is yet another thing I take for granted.

So although I hope our students will speak and write English more fluently by the time we move on from here, and although I hope they will be in some way inspired to continue learning and exploring the language, I can't help feeling a little sad that in its functionality maybe we aren't doing justice to the beauty of language. 

So I encourage you to go, read a good book, a book that inspires, a book that is beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. Not a problem!! What a thoughtful, timely reminder of what a privilege it is to live in the UK and have English as our mother tongue. As you say we are spoiled for choice; literature, written and published over hundreds of years, is easily accessible to us. Most great literature from all ages and all cultures has been translated into English. I have never given it much thought - just taken it as a given, since childhood, that books are our birthright. Now, in the UK, we have to fight to save our libraries to ensure the next generation has equal access to literature whatever their background and it doesn't become the preserve of the more wealthy in society.