The origins of human language and literacy development are rooted in the passing of family lore from one generation to the next. At first oral, then fueling early written communication, these family legends were both history and cultural. But equally important, they were in context, and therefore relevant to the lives they touched.
Now skip forward a few thousand years, to a small community in Prince Edward Island. Here, children with limited opportunities in a long line of marginalized families face language and literacy issues far beyond the norm in urban centres. They are isolated by distance and by a history of literacy challenges.
These kids are taught in schools by teachers who come from middle-class, urban environments; where reading and communicating are ‘normal’ activities.
Yet what the teachers read and write may have no relevance in the life of a small boy whose father has his own literacy challenges and whose future, at first glance, is bleak.
Language and literacy, especially reading, becomes irrelevant to a child in this situation. The standard interventions have little effect. The literature and skills training that are available lack context in that child’s life.
For many rural or isolated children, low literacy is a life sentence.
Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network scientist Vianne Timmons, of U PEI, developed an idea that just may add the context necessary to make interventions more effective. She is testing her science now.
An independent study in PEI showed that 40% of adults had literacy deficiencies. Something had to be done. Timmons started looking for solutions that would deliver the ‘most bang for the buck’. She settled on social testing in family environments and asked for volunteers through local churches.
"It was important that they volunteered," said Timmons. "We wanted to do something with them instead of to them. Self-selection was critical to ensure participation."
The families involved did believe in the importance of reading and writing skills development.
"One family, who’d never been to a city and who works hard to put food on the table, took substantial savings and invested it in literacy training with specialists for their children. It had little effect but the family still volunteered for this new opportunity."
Family is the key to the project. It has to start at home, says Timmons the schools can’t deal with the whole problem. Nine out of ten families that volunteered had literacy challenges with both boys and their fathers. It was systemic.
So Timmons came up with an at-home, family-based solution. She and her team are developing and testing a family literacy curriculum; the documentation of family history that makes learning to read and write more relevant. The families work together and learn in a context they can understand.
"I’ve been overwhelmed by the progress and consistency of results with the first ten families," said Timmons. "They are using their family history to create a future for themselves."
When this project is complete, sometime in 2002, Timmons plans to expand the research to include 30 families. She has also introduced the project to aboriginal leaders through The National Literacy Secretariat, and will be working with 10 Mi’kmaq families, in PEI and Nova Scotia, in the near future.
"We are creating evidence-based research and processes for intervention in marginalized communities", Timmons concludes. "Soon we will be able to replace guesswork with a database of results, curriculum concepts, and teacher workshops that people can use."
Finding a solution that can be traced back to early human development and the origins of literacy now that’s good news for the nearly 10 million Canadians who live in rural and isolated environments.