Why “Print Culture” and “Emergent Literacy” Are Important to Literacy Development

By Phil Kitchel posted 04-18-2023 06:00 AM


By Jennifer Martin

“A World Without Print”: This phrase is the title of a chapter from Victoria Purcell-Gates’ text, Other People’s Words: The Cycle of Low Literacy. In this text, Purcell-Gates details the literacy journey of a family of white, urban Appalachians., Although the family values education, the parents did not finish school, despite their best efforts. The parents lived within a non-print culture. Their world was based on oral tradition, and, despite their desire to get their children to learn to read and write, their children were not finding success in school.

Jenny, the mother of two boys, attempted to communicate with her sons’ teachers, indicating to them where her children were struggling, but there was a “disconnect” in communication. Teachers continued to send written communications home and homework with written directions, but Jenny could neither read these communiques, nor help her children with their homework. Jenny ultimately walked to the university near her home and found the literacy center, meeting researcher Purcell-Gates.

Purcell-Gates ultimately discovered that the childrens’ teachers presupposed that Jenny’s children would already have mastered certain literacy norms, such as: knowing that books begin on the left side of the page, following to the right; that words are read from left to right,; and various other emergent literacy conventions, but this was not the case. Coming from a non-print home, these children did not possess this knowledge. According to Purcell-Gates, “Language learning, in particular, requires both the existence of language in the environment and the opportunity to interact with language users so that one can work it out–sort out the pragmatic and syntactic rules, learn the vocabulary, and perfect the ‘sounds’ of the language” (p. 41).

According to Purcell-Gates, emergent literacy involves the “. . . dimensions of written language knowledge learned by young children through experience, and constrained by cultural practice, prior to formal instruction” (p. 47). “The term emergent literacy reflects the theoretical underpinning of this research: that literate abilities and stances emerge developmentally as children observe and engage in experiences mediated by print in their daily lives” (p. 7).

Lesson: Avoid Deficit Thinking and Victim Blaming

According to Purcell-Gates:

Reading and writing are cultural practices, and direct instruction is required for those experiencing problems with them. It is unfair and unethical to withhold insider information until children or adults “figure it out for themselves,” as if they were insiders all along. (p. 98) Judgements of deficiency, dysfunction, and irresponsibility are all culturally relative stances. They are made by educators who cannot, or will not, step out of their ethnocentric world to attempt to see their students from another perspective. (p. 186)

You may hear colleagues speaking negatively about students. It is crucial that you do not foster or perpetuate negative expectations for students. Look into the power of expectations and the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecies. Meet every student, every day, as an individual, and work to provide them with the tools they need. This involves being the teacher, the adult, that they need. Building relationships with students, parents, and communities are key, but this takes time. Be patient, be positive, and never give up! Strive to be the teacher that every student needs.

Dr. Martin is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Illinois Springfield. She has taught courses in English Methods, Multicultural Education, Content Area Literacy, and the Student Teaching Seminar. Her research interests include culturally responsive teaching and leading, English education/literacy, multicultural education, and urban education.


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