A Cognitive Toolkit for Adult Literacy

Kieran Egan
Faculty of Education
Simon Fraser University



This monograph is intended as a manifesto for a new approach to teaching literacy to adults. The first two chapters will describe the research basis for this new approach, and the last two will describe a range of practical activities and techniques that follow from the research.

This research explores two main areas. The first extrapolates from the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s theory of socio-cultural mediation (1978). He argued that the kinds of cognitive tools we pick up as we grow into a society shape the kinds of sense we make. Vygotsky focused largely on oral language. I will try to extend his insight in two ways. First by exploring a range of cognitive tools that come along with oral language, and second by showing the ways in which initial literacy provides its own somewhat distinctive cognitive tools. My aim is to characterize prominent cognitive tools of both orality and literacy, in what may be an unfamiliar way.

The second source of research support comes from that by now familiar body of work on forms of thought in oral cultures, sometimes referred to as “the rediscovery of orality.” I must immediately acknowledge that the typical student coming to literacy classes as an adult today cannot be considered a user of orality, in any simple sense, except perhaps in the sense that we all remain users of orality and exist in oral as well as literate cultures. Even the most literate people continue to deploy cognitive tools of orality coalesced with those of literacy. But there are, indeed, few people left on the planet who have not been caught up to some degree in the symbolizing of literacy, even if they do not read or write themselves. Nearly all students who come to adult literacy classes will have grown up surrounded to a greater or lesser degree by a literate environment. Even so, having made that acknowledgement, I will be looking at the cognitive tools of orality with the expectation that they can help in understanding some of the problems of adult literacy and can yield practical implications for our everyday tasks in teaching adult literacy classes. So orality will indeed serve as a second research base, but I will be looking at it in a distinctive way. I will try to show that, for purposes of clarifying the means by which people can most effectively learn literacy, focusing on cognitive tools tends to diminishes the importance of the differences between orality and illiteracy.

What do these cognitive tools look like? The set I will consider in Chapter One are those we may expect to find in varying degrees in all users of oral languages,. The tools I will explore as useful for teaching literacy include such things as the use of stories, the flexible deployment of metaphor, the tendency to structure things in binary terms, uses of rhyme and rhythm, jokes and humor, gossip, and a cognitive embeddedness in one’s lifeworld. Chapter Two will explore those stimulated by initial literacy. I will explore their influence in “the redefinition of reality,” techniques of association which defend against the redefined reality, the sense of wonder, how knowledge is imbued with human meaning, transcendent human qualities, early forms of literal thinking, and literate forms of the set that come along with oral language. These may, I recognize, seem a rather fearful or remote set of cognitive mediating tools, in Vygotsky’s sense, but they may prove just what we need to make the tasks of adult literacy teaching both more comprehensible and more practical. That, anyway, is what I hope to make manifest.

This monograph is made up of four chapters. In the first, I will look at the relatively recent rediscovery of orality, and explore how that increased understanding can, reciprocally, give us a fuller understanding of the nature of literacy. It can also give us a glimpse of what is entailed in the transition from one condition to the other, both historically and individually, and expose a way of seeing the cognitive tools in play in both conditions. In particular I will emphasize the various ways in which it has become clear that orality is not some kind of deficiency of thinking––as was commonly thought earlier in the twentieth-century––but comprises a set of positive and effective cognitive strategies for making sense. I will then go on to characterize what cognitive tools come along with orality, both historically, or pre-historically, and today. I think it will become clear during this exploration that the cognitive tools I identify are equally available to the typical student entering an adult literacy program today as to those members of oral cultures whose cognition was the focus of the research I largely draw on in this first chapter.

While literacy has been promoted as the transformer of thought and an engine of economic development, this transformation and that engine may or may not be apparent in any particular individual becoming literate. To see how we may gain the wider potential benefits of literacy more reliably we might usefully reflect on how it was first invented and used in the West, and then consider whether we might replicate some features of that process today. My general argument is that we can get a better grasp on how to help people gain the wider potential benefits of literacy by bringing to explicit attention underlying cognitive tools, and then making them the mediational means, in Vygotsky’s sense, of much of our practical teaching.

In Chapter Two, I will consider how the cognitive tools of orality gave way historically to those of literacy, and will show perhaps surprising parallels with the process whereby people today make the transition to literacy. In both cases I will again focus on underlying cognitive tools. I will describe some of the main tools that typically come along with literacy when it is mastered through Western alphabetic forms. It is common to make a sharp distinction between orality and literacy, or, to use Donald’s terms (1991), between mythic and rational thinking, or, to use Bruner’s terms (1986), between narrative and paradigmatic thinking. What has been much rarer is to recognize that both historically and individually this is not so sharp a division, and that initial literacy has its own distinctive cognitive tools. They are not the tools of rationality and sophisticated literacy, but they are autonomous and merit attention for what they are, not merely as a transition to something else. My focus on the cognitive tools of literacy, then, will be throughout on those that come into play early in a person’s literate career.

Chapters Three and Four focus on the implications of the first two chapters for practice. I look at how one can build everyday exercises in typical classes first on the cognitive tools of orality, and then on the cognitive tools of initial literacy. In Chapter Four I will show another implication of the research for techniques to aid planning teaching of adult literacy classes. I will design two somewhat distinct frameworks to assist the teacher, and give examples of how each one might be deployed in planning.

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Throughout, and especially when giving examples of the cognitive tools at work, I will assume I am discussing English alphabetic literacy. One has to give examples in some particular language. The principles I will be adducing from the research, however, seem to me to have much more general applicability. Most of the examples will be easy to transfer into other alphabetic systems and other languages, while some may be a little more provincial in their applicability.

Bhola has made a useful distinction between “school literacy” and “functional literacy” (1994). The latter is generally taken to be a form of literacy in which pragmatic social and economic concerns drive the learning process. A further purpose of my monograph is to blur this distinction somewhat. While accepting its utility, I will nevertheless be arguing that the development of functional literacy can be more adequately achieved when we focus on the development of a wider literacy through the stimulation of cognitive tools.
Having begun this Introduction with a bold declaration, I should more modestly qualify the claim to newness by noting that I do not propose the practices and techniques with which I conclude as displacements for current practices. I would be foolish to want to displace the considerable advances that have been made in adult literacy teaching in recent times. Also a number of the practices I will describe will be familiar to many teachers. What I propose as new is the accumulation of the wide array of practices and the planning frameworks. And what is also new is a somewhat distinctive approach, a new focus on the underlying cognitive tools, which I should now get on with elaborating.


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