Developing literacy presents certain challenges in remote contexts

Developing literacy presents certain challenges in remote and/developing contexts for a range of reasons; however, these reasons are not insurmountable, though they do present significant obstacles.

If I need to start somewhere, I will cite the lack of a literate tradition as one factor to consider. In non-remote contexts, children are exposed to literate behaviour in a range of forms from a very early age. A literate sensibility is reinforced in literate environments. And a literate environment is one which is stacked with literate artefacts (e.g. books, magazines, lists on refrigerators) and populated by readers and writers. However, children in remote communities are growing up in environments with few age-appropriate books and fewer role models who exhibit the diverse habits of a literate individual. 

Furthermore - in remote contexts - it is often the case that learners are brought into literacy in a language that is not their mother tongue. If early literacy experiences were about rendering in print that which is spoken, then English language learners face additional barriers to see the relationship between speech, writing and reading. In addition to the language barrier, there is also the cultural barrier. It is understood that readers are better able to engage and understand what they read when they have the prior knowledge/experience/schema to find the reading meaningful, not to mention access to an experienced reader to aid reading. However, it is often the case that the learners are exposed to texts which (a) use an unnatural (or unfamiliar) flow of language and (b) do not connect with the learner’s experiences (or desire to attach meaning). Whilst these texts may provide “exercises in reading”, there is some doubt as to the meaning being extracted from such text. A child might “read” the text, but does the child understand what he or she is reading?

We also must be mindful that any nation would like the populous to read certain texts (e.g. government notices) in certain ways (e.g. with a clear idea of intention) when certain readers may not have access to the education, experiences, technologies and relationships which enable the readers to engage in the content and assumptions of such discourse. Such learners may learn to read; however what the learners can read, comprehend and act upon is not consistent with the intentions of authorities or of the curriculum. And since purposeful reading and writing should be purposeful and meaning, we must acknowledge that such literacy must be linked to the lived experience if the community, which may be very different from the lived experiences of policy makers, curriculum developers, and even classroom teachers.

There are many other factors to consider. We cannot ignore the cognitive impacts that poverty, malnutrition, and trauma can have on the time it takes for one to process information and to perform tasks. We must acknowledge how socioeconomic status "has been identified as a causal factor in poor social, cognitive, and physical health outcomes, and as influencing specialisation of the brain's left hemisphere for language." (Zhang, et al., 2013, p. 665)  We cannot ignore the fact some children grow up in overcrowded conditions without the spaces to learn and in environments where they are exposed to harm, disruption and/or deprivation. In fact, ensuring equity in one’s opportunity to learn - in this case - literacy requires planning bodies to take measures that recognise the impacts of disadvantage and to implement measures to enhance opportunities for learning, whether this involves modifications to the curriculum or enhancements to the experiences offered to learners.

At the end of the day, a learner’s pathway is one that requires the fostering habits of mind and opportunities for meaningful practice that permit one to develop a form of life within a stream of living. It requires engaged time with quality teachers using quality resources in safe, supportive environments that have established deep partnerships amongst family, community and industry to take great strides to foster the skills, habits and knowledge as well as material structures so learners can develop practices and find supported identities therein.  It is not enough to establish effective teaching programs; one must also negotiate with industries, institutions and the great hurly burly of life so that learners can find and develop outlets for practices which are sustainable and supportive.

Zhang, Y., Tardif, T., Shu, H., Li, H., Liu, H., McBride-Chang, C., … Zhang, Z. (2013). Phonological skills and vocabulary knowledge mediate socioeconomic status effects in predicting reading outcomes for Chinese children. Developmental Psychology, 49(4), 665–71. doi:10.1037/a0028612