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Fall 2001 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Whatever Works

By Peggy Brisco and Jeri Cleveland, Special Programs Teachers
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Editors' note: We asked Peggy Brisco and Jeri Cleveland, Special Programs teachers, to give their definition of literacy. They have been classroom teachers at TSBVI, and now are the teachers who work with students who come from districts across Texas to attend one-week short-term programs.

One aspect of the conventional view of literacy is that readers and writers must be able to directly access print or Braille with eyes or fingers. This traditional perspective also defines parameters for spelling, grammar, rate and grade level. Our opinions have evolved over the past twenty-five years of combined experience teaching children with visual impairments. We now believe that the established view of literacy is far too constraining. By limiting the media and the senses employed, we ignore the fact that a large part of literacy is the ability to create, manipulate and synthesize symbolic language. Also implicit are the ideas that people who cannot use print or braille are less intelligent and that functional literacy activities are less valuable than more academic ones.

This narrow focus does not honor or facilitate the associations among language, literacy, intelligence and functionality. Working with students who struggle with literacy learning, we discovered that concentrating on functional tasks and accepting auditory input and output as a literacy medium were the most successful strategies. We were able to give students credit for the intelligence and vocabulary to create and understand written information, even when they couldn't access it in traditional ways.

The term "functional literacy" carries a load of negative stereo types that need to be dropped. We tend to see it as the last resort in education, and this implies that the parents, teachers and students have failed. Educators tend to focus exclusively on academic literacy and leave students to figure out how to use the skills to do functional tasks on their own. Actually, functional literacy is the basis of all literacy. When we make it the core of literacy instruction, there are some very useful natural outcomes.

Chief among these outcomes is that students make connections between literacy and everyday life. When those connections are in place, students can often progress farther and faster in literacy learning. We have found that when students become functionally literate and learn to value those skills, they are often able to move more successfully into academic literacy.

We have observed these positive outcomes repeatedly among our students. One young man came to us at the age of twelve, knowing how to type Braille letters using a brailler. He had not made the connection between sound and symbols, nor could he identify the letters he typed. He felt that he had failed in literacy learning, and he detested any and all literacy activities. In other ways this young man was an avid learner, full of curiosity and questions. We introduced this young man to a Braille `n Speak classic, a very simple portable word processor with voice output. In the interactive mode, this device will speak the words typed when the space bar is pressed. For the first time this student was able to understand the connection between the symbols (he felt he was being "tortured" to learn) and words. He became an excellent inventive speller. In a very short time with the aid of the Braille `n Speak's "read by line" function, this student grasped that written words could actually be put to together into ideas. After this there was literally no stopping him. By winter break he had independently written a short story that he was downloading into the devices of other students. He was also using his Braille `n Speak to access the Internet for information and e-mail. He soon found that phonetic spelling was not adequate for doing Internet searches, and that is when he recognized the need to learn standardized spelling. Suddenly the world of information technology was open to this student and he was able to independently satisfy his curiosity. This also helped improve his social acceptance, because he was no longer constantly asking questions of the people around him. Years later this student is still able to read just a few braille sight words with his fingers. Yet, with his abilities to access and relay information using the written word, can we really classify this young man as illiterate?

A more inclusive definition of literacy incorporates the following ideas:

Many people are using technology and recorded texts to accomplish literacy tasks at both functional and advanced academic levels. Clearly, Jeff Moyer is a literate person, who uses a personalized combination of media and tools to perform a wide range of literacy tasks (see A Personal Journey to Literacy). Choices of media and tools are highly individual and will probably change with time, setting and activity. It is the educator's job to help students reach the highest degree of literacy possible, and find the optimal combinations of tools and media. This involves a great deal of creativity, experimentation and flexibility on the part of both teacher and student.

Adopting a broader view of literacy facilitates, rather than threatens, the development of literacy skills. Acquiring literacy involves a continuum of skills that range from the fundamental connection of language and symbols to fluent reading and writing. More than being a hierarchy of skills, we believe this continuum contains an important array of literacy tools and media that remain useful across time and circumstance. This array of literacy options is akin to a menu that we make selections from, depending on the task at hand. A fluent reader continues to use basic symbols and labels to mark appliances, organize the pantry, identify personal possessions, etc. If you stop and think about it, most of the literacy tasks that adults do in the course of a day are simple, functional activities like lists, labels, short memos to self and others, recipes, directions, schedules, calendars, and so on. By expanding the definition of literacy we give educators and learners permission to use all available tools, methods, skills and abilities. We also acknowledge the value of all literacy skills, at whatever level students are able to master them.

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Last Revision: July 30, 2002