• by Pam McCollum, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June- July 2001
“The time has come to consider biliteracy, the new threshold for literacy achievement in the new millennium. When this becomes a reality, Latino students and other bilinguals will be repositioned at the center of the curriculum rather than at the margins. To be satisfied with less than this is to accept a lower ceiling for our children’s academic achievement and to force them to develop only half of their potential” (Reyes and Halcón, 2001).
This provocative quote by María de la Luz Reyes is from a ground-breaking volume co-authored by Reyes and John J. Halcón entitled The Best for Our Children: Critical Perspectives on Literacy for Latino Students (2001).
This recent publication from Teachers College Press is comprised of contributions by leading Latino researchers, teacher educators and classroom teachers who present a unique “insiders” perspective on literacy instruction for Latino students. The authors’ perspectives are informed by their experiences as language-minority students in United States public schools.
Then, as today, language-minority students were frequently forbidden to speak Spanish, were labeled “at-risk,” “culturally disadvantaged,” and “limited-English-proficient” and were often viewed from a deficit perspective.
The Best for Our Children presents a different picture of Latino children and their potential. It is assets-based, asserting “that Latinos who grow up bicultural and become biliterate – in spite of an educational system that has little understanding of the linguistic and cultural resources they possess – are ‘gifted and talented,’ not ‘at-risk,’ not ‘culturally disadvantaged,’ not ‘limited-English-proficient!’” (Reyes and Halcón, 2001).
This volume is not another installment of the tiresome reading wars, debating the value of phonics vs. whole language. It is an elucidating work that is an excellent resource for educators at all levels who wish to understand literacy instruction for Latino students.
The authors do not advocate one fixed method of literacy instruction, but rather advocate an approach that draws upon Latino students’ bicultural knowledge and linguistic resources to develop biliteracy in Spanish and English.
This book celebrates the resources and talents Latino students bring to the classroom, dispels many common myths concerning them, and vividly illustrates that biliteracy is possible when one proceeds from a culturally sensitive assets-based approach.
The Best for Our Children is divided into three sections. Part one presents the cultural, historical, and political factors necessary for understanding the context of literacy for Latino students. Chapters in this section explain historical and present-day political forces needed to understand literacy for Latino students.
The work of Vygotsky is used to emphasize the importance of using children’s native language in activities from their cultural frame as the most effective classroom environment to promote literacy. This theme is reiterated throughout the volume and is accompanied by rich illustrations of children’s work.
Part two explores biliteracy in Latino students and discusses hybridity during instruction. Results from classroom-based research with students in the early grades demonstrate that biliteracy is attainable when speaking, reading, and writing is nurtured in the classroom.
Moreover, the notion that students should be prohibited from code switching (alternating between two languages) during instruction is dispelled. Hybrid language use is shown to serve strategic, affiliative and sense-making functions among bilingual students and actually facilitate literacy development (Gutierrez, 2001).
Part three explores the area of “critical literacy,” which is based on the idea that one learns to “read the word by reading the world” (Freire, 1970; Freire and Macedo, 1987). Reading the world involves understanding the world in which one lives and seeing the ideas and beliefs of one’s world mirrored in reading activities and materials. It also involves the ability to critically view one’s position in relation to others in society and includes knowledge of what must be done to improve one’s condition.
This framework acknowledges the importance of class and ethnicity in positioning language-minority students within the school system and illustrates how literacy can serve a gate keeping function in schools, limiting potential in not just in one language, but two.
This book is sure to become required reading for students in the area of reading because it is the first of its kind in so many categories. It is the first volume on literacy written solely by Latinos about literacy instruction for Latino students under a single cover.
Because it is written by bilingual Latinos, it explores the issues of biliteracy and the use of two languages during instruction as “natural” extensions of bilingual communicative behavior. It is also not a book on literacy dedicated just to technical issues of reading strategies and method.
Those interested in improving reading achievement are exposed to “theories of possibility” and encouraged to develop “critically literate” youth who are biliterate. Possibly the greatest strength of this book is that while it portrays the inequities of the present educational system, it also presents tremendous hope and clear examples of what is possible when Latino students’ assets – namely language and their cultural resources, are understood and used to develop their full potential. The Best For Our Children is truly the path for the new millennium!
Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York, New York: Continuum, 1970).
Freire, P. and D. Macedo. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World (South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey, 1987).
Reyes de la Luz, M. and J.J. Halcón. The Best for Our Children: Critical Perspectives on Literacy for Latino Students (New York, New York: Teachers College Press, 2001).Pam
McCollum, Ph.D., is an senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June- July 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]