Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

English Quarterly

There is Literacy
at the Laundromat

Gail Proudfoot

We are hearing a lot about illiteracy these days. When I was watching TV the other evening I saw an ad:

Illiteracy costs Canadians.

Get involved!

Business keeps saying young people are not prepared for industry; university professors complain because kids can't read or write. The media is continually reporting the failure of the school system to educate our children and they have statistics to prove it, they say. There are many studies indicating that so many more Canadians are "functionally illiterate" than ever before. What do we make of all of this?

I decided to visit a typical community business, a laundromat, to see if illiteracy was rampant. The sign on the outside of the building was large, the hours of operation were clearly displayed. When I approached the manager I asked her if I could just sit and observe literacy.

"You want to watch people read? Sure!" she replied.

I sat down and started to watch. A woman came in and put three baskets of clothes on three empty washers. One of the machines had an out-of-order sign so she moved one of the baskets to another machine. The inside lid of the washer had a list of instructions. She read those over and went to the top of the machine and set the dials. She chose from "hot/warm/cold; permanent press/normal" and deposited some quarters or a combination of quarters, dimes and nickels into the box in order to engage the machines. Then the woman sat down to wait, she looked around at the "Personal Safety" sign, "Information on Additives, Laundromat Rules, Washing Instructions" and "Prices."

At the washroom near the back of the premises was a community bulletin board full of personal ads and announcements and there were entertainment posters on the wall. There was also a "Lost and Found" box, a pay telephone and a pop machine.

What time was it now? The woman had been there barely ten minutes. She looked around for something to read. Over on a table were a number of well-thumbed MacLean's, Time and Leisure World magazines. She took one and sat down.

At the same time another woman sat and took a novel out of her purse. Two men were reading and another sat and smoked. Once the machine light went off, the first woman I had been observing moved her wet laundry to the dryers. She had to choose a "low/high" heat for "normal/ durable" clothes. The machines gave four minutes per quarter.

While all this activity was occurring, the manager was busy writing. She was making up customer receipts for the laundry that had been left. She was also making change and working in a ledger. I watched as various people repeated the same procedures as had the first woman. Everyone seemed to know what to do.

I decided to ask the manager about problems people might have encountered with the written instructions for using the machines.

"How often do you get asked for help?"

"Once in a while," she replied. "Yes, sometimes tourists will ask questions."

Tourists? That was an unexpected answer. What did she mean-only tourists can't read?

"Some of the tourists are used to tokens or stubs in their machines at home. They find our system of money confusing because they haven't had any experience with it."

"But," I persisted, "don't you get questions from local people about how to follow some of the instructions?"

"I've not had one. Can you believe that?" she answered.

I had expected that at least some people would need help reading the instructions either on the machines or on the soap boxes. Instead, I found a tremendous amount of incidental reading going on at the laundromat. The manager was right. I had come to watch people read. Everybody who came to do their laundry was literate in this situation, able both to follow directions and entertain themselves.

So what is literacy?

Traditionally we have measured literacy with standardized testing and by how far a person gets along the "standard" educational route. But the success people have on a test depends on their experience, background and the support systems in place. What's not ever counted are the cultural, environmental and community literacies that students bring with them. In reality, it is pre-determined that specific segments of society will pass or fail. Schools are not failing-they have been doing exactly what they are meant to do-maintain the social and economic status quo.

As Susan Harman and Carole Edelsky (1989) point out

the achievement of literacyis recently and universally seen as politically neutral, a tool, unambiguously positive and very powerful.

However, merely knowing how to read and write

neither guarantees membership in the dominant culture nor the concomitant political, economic, cognitive or social rewards of that membership (Harman & Edelsky, 1989).

When some people talk about literacy they are talking about how people do on tests. If we are really concerned with literacy, however, we have to examine all of the other structures.

Henry Giroux suggests

continuous and critical questioning of the 'taken for granted' in the school knowledge and practise.

It is necessary to look around and to discover the real literacy around us. We have to value literacy beyond novels and short stories. We have to start using the literacy the children already have in their homes and communities. These are the things they identify with and it is here they will find a purpose for reading and writing. What they are concerned about is what they will want to write about.

Harman, S., & C. Edelsky (1989) The risks of whole language literacy: Alienation and connection. Language Arts 66(4): 392-406.

Giroux, H. (1984) Rethinking the language of schooling. Language Arts 61(1):33-40.

Gail Proudfoot teaches in Halifax County, Nova Scotia.

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