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Re-Learning Literacy in Summer School

This past summer, I had the opportunity to work as an Americorps teacher in North Minneapolis. Being an English major, and an avid book reader, I thought I had already mastered most of the primary skills of reading and writing. Was I wrong. Even more surprising was realizing that I was re-learning the ABC's from an eight-year-old Hmong girl for whom English was a third language.

As we sat together in silence during the third week of school, I racked my brains trying to think of a way to get her to start writing. Although there was a language barrier between us, it seemed like we had a more basic communication problem. Over and over the two of us would talk, read books - I even discovered her love for Hangman. As we talked, she would construct elaborate descriptions of her family, her favorite foods and games, but when I asked her to write it down she just stared at the paper.

Finally, the problem dawned on me during a training with a Hmong language specialist. She explained that Hmong speakers were quick at picking up oral language, but couldn't grasp the idea of written words as quickly - because their native language had never included an alphabet until it was compared to English! I had never even contemplated a language with a written component, and I realized how narrow my point of view had been when working with my student. From that day, I learned that I would have to re-learn my idea of reading and writing as I knew it.

When we started school the following Monday, I turned to my eager Hmong student, and asked her if she wanted to work on a story. She nodded furiously, and began to tell me about a princess in a castle who was being chased by evil witches and monsters. Obviously, she was a natural writer. It was me who had the trouble recognizing it.

This experience has helped me re-define my idea of what it means to be able to read and write - sometimes that is a process that has many more factors than grammar and a good thesis. As I work on my literacy development, I try to keep in mind the fact that all writers are learning. In my case, I want to learn how to improve the nuance of capturing moments like this one with my student - for her, it meant learning the ABC's.


This is a great reminder that literacy is a constructed technology—not an organic part of human language or communication. In the Western world literacy seems intuitive, almost instinctive, but we often forget that whereas we learn to speak by being part of spoken communities, to learn to read and write, we must be deliberately trained (or one might say disciplined).

To comment on what you reported from the Hmong language specialist, there is actually a complex and interesting history of Hmong orthography (writing systems) dating from the first years of the 20th century. To say that Hmong literacy only developed in comparison with English is a little misleading. Hmong literacy developed in myriad cultural and linguistic contact zones from China to Laos to Thailand to Australia to the United States.

But the point remains, of course, that orality and literacy at at work in different ways for different learners. And teachers—whether volunteers in a community organization or consultants in a writing center—benefit by being thoughtful and aware of the complements and contests between the two.

Thanks for giving me (and us) a little more of an explanation of the background of Hmong orthograpgy. I think that given the timeframe of the presentation I saw, concepts may have been simplified to give us an idea of how much the Hmong language is based in oral tradition. Thanks for the info!