There is Literacy
at the Laundromat
We are hearing a lot about illiteracy these days. When I was watching
TV the other evening I saw an ad:
Illiteracy costs Canadians.
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
"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
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
Gail Proudfoot teaches in Halifax County, Nova Scotia.
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