Postcolonial Perspectives on Childhood and Literacy

Radhika Viruru. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

Some of the most fascinating conversations I have ever had have been with a woman whom most people would define as ‘illiterate.’ When she first came to work for my mother several years ago, she also wanted to open her first bank account. My mother and a neighbour taught her, with great difficulty, to learn to sign her name; until then she had relied on what might be called another official form of literacy, the thumbprint, in situations that demanded identification. That, however, is the beginning and end of her schooled literacy. I know of few people who can read the world around them like she can. Our conversations have included discussions about abortion, marriage, children, schooling, human dignity and globalization, and most of the time I have found myself listening and wondering: about the kind of knowledge that is possible from outside the world of print that so many of us are surrounded by, and about how many other things she could have accomplished if she had indeed been what the world defines as ‘literate,’ as well as what would have been lost if she had. This complex intersection, between the possibilities that literacy affords as well as the loss that accompanies that gain, is one of the central points that this chapter will focus on.

Much of the literature on language and young children portrays literacy as a process of becoming, acquiring, improving and maturing. Rarely, however, is attention directed towards what is lost and shut out in this process of acquisition. In this chapter, the attempt will be to both lay out a theoretical framework that supports such a view and to review the literature that takes a more complex view of the process of young children’s interactions with literacy. The focus in this chapter is deliberately directed towards diverse cultural contexts, where the process of what it means to become literate is in itself being complicated by factors such as global capitalism and its continuing economic colonization of the world. An attempt will be made to look at how young children interact with this complex combination of forces, and how they both use them to empower themselves and are used by them.

Defining Terms

A logical starting place would be to define what one means by such terms as ‘literacy,’ ‘postcolonialism’ and ‘childhood.’ However, as postcolonial scholars point out, it is important to recognize the power of ideas such as definitions themselves. As Rassool (1999) has put it, a definition of literacy is a statement of what it means to be literate: thus definitions provide a set of criteria against which a person’s abilities are measured. Definitions reflect the power of those who do the defining: the meanings of literacy thus derive from the institutional sites from which they originate. Thus, definitions themselves are not innocent statements of fact, but are powerful tools that emphasize certain meanings and marginalize others: the act of definition in itself is an act of power. It is from within this context that common definitions are explored.

As Guerra (1998) has suggested, defining literacy is far from an easy task. Guerra suggests that the commonly used meanings of literacy can be broadly classified into four different categories: literacy as entity, literacy as self, literacy as institution and literacy as practice. The umbrella term, literacy as entity, includes the view that literacy is an object that exists ‘outside social and individual constraints’ (1998: 51). From this range of viewpoints, written texts have an inviolable authority about them: they are not written for individuals to construct diverse meanings with and around them. The second category, literacy as self, consists of metaphors that essentially view literacy as something that an individual possesses, and as such, as something that is very personally constructed. As Guerra points out, such a view also consequently holds individuals personally responsible for the kinds of literacies they do (or do not) possess. The third group, literacy as institution, consists of views that essentially define literacy as something similar to an artifact or currency: the more one possesses of it, the more successful one can be. The final group, literacy as practice, recognizes that there are multiple forms of literacy, and that people blend these multiple literacies as they both create and engage with the world around them.

On a more specific level, according to Powell (1999), common ways of defining literacy include: (1) the ability to decode print into speech, (2) the ability to derive meaning from written texts and (3) the ability to read and write at a specified proficiency level. Rassool suggests that such perspectives reinforce the idea that literacy is a ‘quantifiable educational resource’ that fits economic criteria: levels of literacy skills can be matched with market needs, and thus literacy can be translated into ‘time, work and money, part of the economy’ (Gee, 1996, quoted in Rassool, 1999: 6).

Literacy is often defined too by its other: the illiterate. According to Powell (1999), the possession or non-possession of the commodity of literacy is what determine one’s access or lack of access to privileges and status. However, as Powell reiterates, the definition of what it is to be literate is not called into question, as this definition is imposed from above. Illiteracy is associated with ignorance, indolence, poverty and the creation of economic havoc that the literate must fix. As Stuckey (1991) has commented, illiteracy is strongly associated with antisocial behavior: even authors such as Jonathan Kozol remark upon the high rates of illiteracy in the prison populations in the United States. Rockhill has also commented upon the discourses which create ‘illiterates’ as threats to society: illiteracy is seen as ‘dangerous, a threat to liberty, to economic and technological development and to the moral well being’ of civilized societies (1993: 157). In contrast, as Gee puts it, students who have acquired schooled literacy are seen as having the potential to be adult citizens who are ‘innovative, achievement-oriented, productive, cosmopolitical, media and politically aware, more globally (nationally and internationally) and less locally-oriented, with more liberal and human social attitudes, less likely to commit a crime, and more likely to take education and the rights and duties of citizenship seriously’ (Gee, 1990, quoted in Gallego and Hollingsworth, 2000: 6).

In contrast to such views on literacy is the concept of critical literacy, which is in many ways a literacy about literacies. As Luke and Freebody put it, although the idea of critical literacy is by no means unitary, it refers to a broad coalition of viewpoints that ‘literacy involves malleable social practices, relations and events that can be harnessed in the service of particular pedagogical projects and agendas for cultural action’ (1997: 1). Critical literacy scholars (Lankshear and Lawler, 1989; Walkerdine, 1997) have thus focused in multiple ways on the ‘networks of power’ that decide how language is used in powerful social institutions and how these practices perpetuate injustice and inequity (Gilbert, 1997). In the 1970s and 1980s, the term ‘critical literacy’ was often used to describe the work of Freire and his colleagues, who put forth the view that ‘language and literacy and control over how issues, problems and aspects of the world are named are directly tied to issues of political power’ and that (critical) literacy education could empower people to recognize and negotiate these disparities (Luke and Freebody, 1979: 17). More recent work on critical literacy has expanded in multiple directions including gender studies, studies of childhood and studies of the relationship between colonialism and literacy, which is what this chapter will focus on.

Postcolonial Perspectives on Literacy

Issues of language and literacy have been of great concern to postcolonial theorists as they are seen as deeply implicated in the continuing colonization of the world by Euro-Western ways of being and thinking (Gandhi, 1998; Loomba, 1998). As Seed (1991: 8) has pointed out, language has even been used as a tool to distinguish between ‘civilization and barbarism’: those civilizations that use written languages are considered superior to those who do not. Scholars of childhood have noted (Walkerdine, 1989; Burman, 1994; Cannella, 1997) that young children too are often referred to as beings who need to be civilized and a vital part of this civilizing process is the acquisition of (proper) language. As Gandhi suggests, language or text, more than any other social or political product, is one of the most ‘significant instigators and purveyors of colonial power’ (1998: 141). The pertinence of this argument to the lives of young children has been argued elsewhere (Viruru and Cannella, 1999): like many colonized groups, young children have rarely been allowed to define what it means to be a child; the modern construction of childhood as a pure and magical part of one’s life is seen as resembling the exotic Western fantasies that came to be called the ‘Orient’ (which had little to do with the realities of the people these fantasies defined as Orientals). Other common points between the definitions of colonized groups and young children is that children too are often seen as unruly creatures whose bodies need to be strictly controlled and their freedoms restricted; children (like other colonized groups) are often viewed as deficient but ‘educable,’ interested more in what they might become than what they are. Furthermore, one of the key ways in which very young children are seen as ‘lacking’ is that they do not use language.

However, postcolonial scholars have also pointed out how concepts such as ‘print capitalism’ have been resisted and used for different purposes by those supposedly lacking in agency (Loomba, 1998: 191). As Chatterjee puts it, for those who saw a foreign language as an imposition, ‘language therefore became a zone over which the nation first had to declare its sovereignty and then had to transform in order to make it adequate for the modern world’ (1993: 7). As Loomba reminds us, both the ‘powerful’ and the ‘powerless’ are not unitary categories, for ‘individual and collective subjects can be thought of in multiple ways at any given time, and we must keep open the very meanings of domination’ (1998: 240). Furthermore, as Papastergiadis (2000) has commented, the use of a dominant language can both ‘ironize and unmask’ authority. Papastergiadis’ discussion of Bakhtin’s theory of hybridity suggests that the hybrid text ‘always undoes the priorities and disrupts the singular code by which the dominant code categorizes the other’ (2000: 182). Lotman (1991) has suggested that the very existence of a dominant language often leads to hybridity, for the expansion of that language often leads to its ‘rigidification,’ and its becoming more and more distant from the everyday contexts in which it is expected to be used. Thus, he suggests, it becomes more and more prone to disintegration, for the periphery is unlikely to accept conversion passively: the resulting tension produces what Papastergiadis has called a ‘dissenting language,’ which might use the structures of the dominant language, but nevertheless conveys the meanings of the periphery (2000: 185). Lotman has also outlined the mechanisms by which dialogue might occur in the context of difference: originally ‘foreign’ languages are not seen as a threat, as they are presumed to be superior and can offer a positive contribution. As familiarity builds, however, both ends begin to change and restructure one another, as the ‘receiver’ sees the potential for its use and begins to transform it to his or her own purposes. The ‘foreign’ language may then be used to create original texts that represent both assimilation and resistance to the language.

Literacy and Hybridity

As the above perspectives illustrate, the process of becoming what the world defines as literate is also, in some ways, a way of losing other ways of knowing, of becoming a ‘hybrid.’ Young (1995) has pointed out that a hybrid is technically a cross between different species and that the use of such a term invokes botanical images of interspecies grafting. A hybrid was often seen as a monstrous or debased offspring, both weaker and less fertile than either parent (Papastergiadis, 2000). Hybridity, by its very existence, seemed to threaten evocations of social order and disrupt dominant ideas of purity and domination. However, within postcolonial analyses, hybridity has been used to invoke all the ways in which this vocabulary was ‘challenged and undermined’ (Loomba, 1998: 172). Papastergiadis has suggested that the term ‘hybridity’ seems to draw some of its strength from its colonial past, from a pleasure in ‘taking a negative term and transforming it into a positive sign, to wear with pride the name they were given in scorn’ (2000: 169). Bhabha (1990) has differentiated the term ‘hybrid’ from its earlier connotations: either of ‘diabolical stain’ or as ‘harmonic transcendence between races’ (Papastergiadis, 2000: 193). Nandy (1983) has focused on how hybridity emerged as the unseen but inevitable corollary out of the clash of cultures that colonialism invariably created. As one moves away from dualistic thinking, Nandy points out that rather than creating the colonizers as victors and the colonized as victims, colonialism produced new losses and gains, with both sides gaining and losing agency.

Postcolonial scholars have also pointed out the dangers of ‘postcolonial desire,’ a phenomenon through which everything dominant is seen as ‘bad’ and everything the other is ‘good’ (Bulbeck, 1998). Thus, it has been suggested that both the ‘dominant’ and the ‘other’ are constructed not only in opposition to each other, but through intermingling, which creates hybridity (Loomba, 1998). It underlines the importance of avoiding the temptation to label all practices associated with dominant perspectives on literacy as ‘bad’ and its opposites as desirable, and furthermore to avoid the use of such dualistic labels altogether (Visweswaran, 1994). Although some postcolonial scholars have cautioned that a focus on concepts such as hybridity distracts from the violence that necessarily accompanies any colonial encounter (Shohat, 1993), others point out it is only through an understanding of diverse hybridities that one can come to understand and appreciate how different communities have, even in colonial conditions, engaged in struggles for emancipation, autonomy and citizenship (Gilroy, 1993).

Thus, it is the contention of this chapter that the above framework is particularly useful in viewing the ways in which young children interact with literacy: as both possibility and limitation. As Millard (in this volume) has pointed out, the processes through which children become literate limit not only the children’s identities but also the very definition of literacy itself. As the diverse examples that follow will show, to become literate in one way is to become illiterate in another; to acquire the dominant view of literacy is in some ways gaining access to power, but it is also relinquishing other ways of knowing.

Hybrid Literacies

Literacy in a Papua New Guinean Village

An interesting perspective on literacy comes from Kulick and Stroud’s (1993) description of the complex position of literacy in a Papua New Guinean village. Their ethnographic study of the literary practices of the small (population about 100) village of Gapun are particularly suggestive of complexity. According to Kulick and Stroud, a grammar school was established in the late 1960s in a nearby village and ever since most children from the village have attended it for three to six years. In this school, the language of instruction is English. The children of Gapun thus ‘acquire’ literacy in a language that they almost never use. What they do acquire however seems to be a literacy about literacy, since most of them ‘transfer those skills to Tok Pisin (the language commonly used in the village), thus becoming functionally literate in that language’ (1993: 32).

In the social contexts that the children mostly function in, however, this form of literacy is perfectly adequate. Reading and writing in Gapun are not done for purposes of gaining information, nor are people who can do so considered more competent. The most common type of writing in Gapun is to write notes for practical purposes such as asking for the loan of a chicken. The other most common use of literacy is related to Christianity: most reading is geared towards religious material. Written language itself came to Gapun through the Catholic Church in the 1950s: thus when the villagers learned to read, it was to read Christian literature. Kulick and Stroud suggest that the villagers’ relationship with Christianity and literacy reveals both domination and empowerment: on the one hand, Christianity is seen as a link to a more potent Being that can bestow such rewards as ‘aeroplanes, money and white skin’; on the other hand, it would appear that by limiting their schooled literacy to religious activities, they maintain their own independence from the world of money, aeroplanes and white skin.

Another remarkable feature of social life in Gapun is the emphasis that people place on personal autonomy: Kulick and Stroud assert that in this village, ‘no relationship, not even that between adult and child, is understood by the villagers to legitimately involve the power to order another person to do something against his or her will’ (1993: 43).

Viewed from within this context, the ways in which the villagers do and do not use literacy are in sharp contrast to commonly held perceptions of what literacy is. From birth, ‘babies in the village are treated as stubborn, big headed individualists’ (1993: 43). The babbling of older babies is often interpreted as an expression of anger or dissatisfaction, to which adults might respond by asking what the baby was mad about. Children’s first words are often cited as being something that would be translated as ‘I’m getting out of here.’ What the villagers do seem to consider an important kind of literacy is a quality known as ‘save’ or the knowledge that one must sometimes compromise one’s autonomy for the sake of society: this is a quality that is seen as separating adults and children, though it is not something that can be taught but something that ‘breaks open’ within a child as they grow older.

Although this is a very brief and necessarily subjective summary of the uses of literacy in one social context, it does seem remarkable that in a social context where human beings are seen as having very little right to control one another, there is a very low emphasis on schooled literacy. As Kulick and Stroud point out also, literacy has been both resisted and accommodated by the villagers in ways that reflect agency and power as well as colonization.

Literacy Instruction in Samoa

Duranti and Ochs’ (1986) ethnographic study of literacy in a rural Western Samoan village brings out several interesting points that are suggestive of the hybrid nature of literacy acquisition in this context. The authors found that the process of what they called transmitting literacy in school settings was made far more complex as the children were exposed not only to the complexities of written language but to a completely new set of cultural values and expectations, many of which clashed with the ways of the village in which they had been raised. Duranti and Ochs conclude that ‘a global effect of literacy instruction is a change in the social identity of the child in Samoan society’ (1986: 214).

One interesting aspect of literacy instruction in the village was the kind of alphabet chart that was used. Duranti and Ochs found that children between the ages of three and four were sent to a local pastor’s school to learn the alphabet, Arabic and Roman numbers and some passages from the Bible. The alphabet was taught mostly through the use of an alphabet chart, which the authors describe in great detail. The most striking feature of the chart was that the illustrations used on the alphabet chart represent a very clear ‘Western’ orientation. Although some sounds in the Samoan language were introduced by Europeans, and as such there are no ‘indigenous’ words that use those sounds, even the other more traditional sounds were associated with Europeanized objects. Thus the authors conclude that in this context the children are being taught not just the alphabet but also to pay attention to a world of ‘objects and values’ that reflect Western biases.

Duranti and Ochs also contrast the contexts and conventions of literacy use in the village, and compare them to the ones the children encounter in their schooling. Very young children in the village are socialized into what the authors call a ‘disposition of attention and accommodation’: they are expected to observe the activities going on around them and report on them to others. They are also expected to speak in an intelligible manner: adults do not expect simplified speech from children, nor do they try to ‘unravel’ unintelligible speech that the children might use. Children between the ages of three and four are also expected to deliver long oral messages to other persons, using appropriate vocabulary. Children are generally not praised for such tasks. Furthermore, in the village, any kind of accomplishment, be it someone driving well on a bumpy road or making a trip to another city, is seen as a collective achievement: ‘an individual’s competence is defined by his audience appreciation and his merit is framed within the merit of his group’ (1986: 222). Thus even if someone is praised for doing something, the general response is for the praise to be returned and for the accomplishment to be generalized into something that was not done by the person alone.

In contrast, the schooling patterns of the children reflected some very different ways of functioning as the school is organized through the Christian Church and the pastors are trained in Western pedagogical methods for four years. Duranti and Ochs found that the kind of ‘teacher talk’ characteristic of Western middle class environments was common in the school: thus simplification and clarification of terms was common, unlike in the village environment where adults rarely accommodated to what might be called the ‘child-like’ qualities of children’s speech. Thus three-and four-year-old children encounter some very different definitions of what it means to be a child and what it means to use language when they enter the classroom.

In further contrast, children were also frequently praised for having accomplished literacy tasks and the praise is not reciprocated (as would be common in everyday contexts in the village). Thus when a child names an object or identifies an alphabet correctly, the teacher might respond by saying ‘good’ or ‘very good.’ The child generally does not respond to such praise, unlike they would in other contexts.

However, as Duranti and Ochs suggest, the reasons that rural Samoans enrol their children in these schools are twofold: they want their children to be able to read the Bible and to be employable. The urban economy that surrounds the village relies heavily not only on literacy related skills but also on the idea of individual accomplishment. Thus to earn a good income, it is essential that one learn not only the skills that are taught in the schools but also the values that undergird those skills.

This brief description of literacy acquisition in this context suggests that acquiring literacy for the children in the Samoan village is very much a process of both loss and gain, of contradiction and accommodation, of colonization and agency.

Literacy Acquisition in Inuit Contexts

Crago and Allen’s (1998) ethnographic study of how Inuit children from the Canadian Arctic acquire their native language, Inuktitut, is also suggestive of the two themes of loss and gain that this chapter is focusing on. There are approximately 28,000 Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic, and nearly 40% of them are below the age of 15. The economy of the Inuit people used to be mostly based on hunting and gathering activities but has now changed to include more ‘modern’ occupations. Although most families now live in homes and apartments and most children go to school, the schooling and healthcare systems are under local Inuit control and the whole territory has an autonomous government. Crago and Allen’s study provides rich detail about the language experiences of four young children (under the age of two) and their families in one Inuit community. The study also included interview data from 20 mothers from the community.

Children in Inuit communities learn language in contexts that Crago and Allen call ‘both traditional and evolving’ (1998: 249). One interesting feature of many of these communities is the ways in which language is or is not used. It is common for young mothers or couples with their first child to live with their families. Caregiving is also shared among family members; thus young children learn to talk in environments that include many different speakers of different age ranges. Crago and Allen found a striking difference, however, between the language socialization practices of the mothers aged over 45 and the younger, more ‘modern’ mothers. The older mothers used what the authors called a ‘specific baby lexicon, a special register of affectionate talk’ and they also tended not to involve children in adult conversations. What, however, was most striking was all the situations in which the mothers did not talk to their children: many activities that from a Western lens have been seen as ‘natural’ situations for conversations, were in fact conducted in silence. These included such activities as ‘bedding, bathing, dressing, eating’ as well as more complex ones such as ‘companionship and discipline’ (1999: 250). The older mothers talked to their children only about one-third as much as the younger mothers within the Inuit community and only one-sixth as much as a comparison group of American white middle class mothers. Most of the children of the older mothers talked more to their siblings and peers, who explicitly modelled accepted ways of behaviour for them. In contrast however many of the younger mothers in Crago and Allen’s study used language socialization practices that resemble more generic North American white middle class ways. These changes appear to reflect the influence of many of the white middle class school teachers who came into the community. Many younger parents model their parenting methods on the kind of classroom discourse that is seen in the schools.

Crago and Allen followed the children from their sample into their school. They found that although the practices in their first three years of education, with Inuit teachers, very much reflected the cultural values of their community (for example, children were expected to attend to their peers and were allowed to model their work on that of other children), their later education reflected many discontinuities, as children were looked at much more in terms of individuals rather than as connected to their peer groups.

As Crago and Allen suggest, the Inuit situation is particularly unique in that, even though it has the status of a minority language, there are strong educational and institutional policies that support its continued existence. Almost 100% of the Inuit children in the studied region learn it as their first language. This, however, has both advantages and drawbacks, as many Inuit parents tend to take the continued existence of their language for granted and do not use it as much at home. Furthermore, as many Inuit communities blend more with the larger community around them, complex processes of language shift occur. Inuit communities too are greatly impacted by electronic media, which have contributed to the restructuring of their community as well as their language. As Crago and Allen point out, all of these processes seem to reflect not only ‘creative change’ but loss as well and it is important to see them as such.

Conflicting Perspectives on Literacy in India

Studies of literacy acquisition in multiple contexts in India seem to document the hybrid nature of this process particularly well, perhaps due to India’s long history of colonization as well as one of its most enduring aftermaths: the widespread use of English. However English occupies rather a unique position in many Indian contexts as both a foreign and an indigenous language (Viruru, 2001). The ways in which children acquire official school literacy in India have been well documented (Kumar, 1993; Sahni, 2001; Alexander, 2001; Viruru, 2001). However two recent studies of literacy and education in India (Urvashi Sahni’s 2001 study of literacy acquisition in a North Indian village and Robin Alexander’s 2001 comparative study of primary education in five countries) report similar findings but proceed in very different directions.

Alexander’s study focuses primarily on descriptions and summaries of the experiences he found in primary schools in the UK, India, Russia, the United States and France. His study provides exhaustive details about classroom practices and educational policy in these five countries, relating both these strands to the cultural contexts particular to those settings. The study was based on the framework that education in the global era had to be ‘more generous in its apprehension of time, space, social structure, human relations and the connections between them’ than in the past. In India, Alexander’s work was based in three North Indian locations (both rural and urban). As Alexander points out, looking at primary education in India is particularly important, since the life experiences of children in India are perhaps more globally representative than those of children in what are commonly referred to as industrialized countries. Furthermore, in 1993 India had the world’s largest number of out-of-school children (22% of the global total) and about one-third of the world’s ‘illiterates.’

Alexander found that the Indian classrooms he studied were characterized by a reliance on ritual and regimentation. As he points out, this was at least partially the result of having larger class sizes (50-60 children in one class). These rituals were largely focused on turn taking in teaching and learning, with the teacher saying something and the children repeating it in unison. One lesson in particular that Alexander observed (focused on the letter/sound A in Hindi) has the teacher asking questions like, ‘What word begins with A?,’ ‘What is her name?’ (with reference to a particular pupil), ‘What have you learned?’ and ‘What sound can you hear?’ To all of these questions the six-year-old children replied in unison. Similar methods were observed by Alexander in other schools, in the teaching of numbers and science. Questioning is thus used by the teachers, initially to engage the students’ attention (when they ask more open-ended questions) but more often to elicit specific responses, often from the whole group. Such a structure does not allow for too many individual answers or for much interaction outside of the structure of the lesson. However other accounts of schooling in India have revealed that even though this might appear from the outside to be a very limiting and dehumanized way of educating young children, it in fact represents cultural traditions that are centuries old. Furthermore, there are levels of complex interaction built into this structure that are apparent when the process is studied in more detail (Viruru, 2001).

Sahni’s (2001) ‘micro-ethnographic’ study of a second-grade classroom in rural North India takes an entirely different track, as it looks at what happened when what might be called ‘Western’ methods of dialogue, representation and conversation were introduced into a research setting. Sahni describes this process as appropriating literacy, which she interprets as adding it (literacy) to ‘one’s symbolic repertoire, aiding one in interpretive, constructive, creative interaction with the world and others in it’ (2001: 19). According to Sahni, this kind of appropriation also involves claiming for oneself a ‘power commodity’ that has traditionally been outside one’s reach. Sahni’s study is set in a government run primary school in a village in the northern province of Uttar Pradesh, which served 236 children. Sahni’s research was divided into two phases: an observation phase and a participant interaction phase. In the observation phase, Sahni found that the setting was ‘alienating, nonresponsive’ and uncaring, with phrases like ‘no one cares’ being used by all the participants a great deal. According to Sahni, the principal, teachers, parents and children all felt disrespected and unsupported, as none of them felt they had any control or investment in the curriculum. Literacy in particular was ‘conceived mechanistically, practiced minimally and passively’; the school structures enforced passivity, non-participation and hierarchy. All classroom activity was seen by Sahni as being controlled by the teacher, without the participation of the children. Literacy consisted mostly of copying lines, from textbooks and from the board. There was a great deal of recitation in the classroom. To quote Sahni:

Literacy was officially defined in terms of decontextualized technical skills of reading and writing, reduced to the bare elements of the alphabet. Reading was defined as decoding of print, and writing was understood as the mechanical transcription of letters. (2001: 21)

Thus far, Sahni’s account is quite similar to those related above. Where they differ is in the account of what Sahni calls the participant interaction phase of her research, where she explored the interests of the children in order to construct a curriculum with them, based on their interests and needs. In the redefined classroom, children were given the right to ‘make choices, offer consent, play with language, offer suggestions, display their knowledge for peers, express their needs and wishes and have their needs attended to’ (2001: 22). The children were given what Sahni calls a more central role in classroom events, as they recited and wrote poetry and songs, read stories (both self and other created), co-wrote stories, wrote picture compositions and enacted dramas in their classrooms. Sahni also provides a detailed description of the experiences of two children in this classroom, both of whom seemed to initially view literacy as the ability to copy print.

This last account of literacy in a rural classroom in India raises many interesting possibilities. The children in the classroom did in fact seem to be able to ‘appropriate’ literacy for their own purposes. However, as Sahni herself admits, it is not entirely clear where this appropriation may lead them. Although their experiences with literacy may have changed, the social structure around them did not: thus in acquiring this kind of literacy, and in associating it with change and empowerment, in the manner that Sahni describes, one wonders if in some ways they have also not acquired a certain kind of illiteracy about empowerment (in terms of knowing about other ways in which one might empower oneself). Implicit too in Sahni’s account is a narrative of deficiency: that the kind of literacy with which these children engaged in their classroom was somehow inadequate, as judged both from a dominant perspective on literacy which views it as something that can be used to empower oneself, and also from the view of the participants themselves. It would be interesting, however, to know more about how the literacy curriculum introduced by Sahni was perceived by the people in the village. One would also like to know more about why Sahni chose to use the methods she did: in particular whether it was because these methods were seen as the ‘correct’ way in which to engage with literacy or whether these were things that the villagers (including the children) saw as meaningful. It would also be interesting to know how the people in that village perceived literacy and whether they saw what was happening in that school as having anything to do with it.

Concluding Thoughts

As all of the above examples illustrate, the process of becoming ‘literate’ is far more complex than it might appear. Furthermore, what it means to become literate, and how one goes about achieving that, whether it be oral or schooled literacy, is an area that has been greatly impacted by such forces as global capitalism and the kind of languages that fit it, as well as the kinds of skills that empower one to become a part of it. As each one of the studies reviewed has shown, in multiple ways, language reflects as well as creates the cultural context in which it is used: thus power over language is a particularly ‘powerful’ kind of power. It is, therefore, critically important that scholars and professionals who are interested in how children acquire language should be aware of the complex nature of this process. To look at what children acquire as they become ‘literate,’ is, as many postcolonial scholars would point out, only part of the story. Many would also add that it is not an innocent coincidence that it is the part of the story that we attend to.