Reframing Literacy in Adult ESL Programs: Making the case for the inclusion of identity

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Michael Atkinson


Adult  ESL  programs  in  the  Australian  context  are  heavily  influenced  by  neo-liberal notions  of  functional  literacy  and  numeracy.  This paper argues that such notions, designed to enable the learner to function within the workplace or community can fail to acknowledge the complexity of ESL program participation for adult learners. This may be considered especially so for pre-literate learners from refugee backgrounds who have low or minimal levels of literacy in their own language and are hence negotiating a new skill set, a new culture and arguably a new sense of identity. This paper is based on research which points to the need to position the learning of literacy and numeracy in the ESL context as a social and educational journey made meaningful by a learner's sense of (emerging) identity.  In this context a holistic, socially orientated  understanding  of  their  learning  and  their progress  is  preferable  to  an approach  which  views  and  evaluates  learners  against  preconceived  functional  literacy skills. The participants in this study were people of refugee background from Africa with minimal literacy skills.

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Author Biography

Michael Atkinson, Centre for Adult Education, Melbourne. La Trobe University

Michael Atkinson is a teacher with the Centre for Adult Education in Melbourne where he teaches adult literacy and ESL. He is also doing a PhD at Latrobe University's Centre for Dialogue which focuses on dialogical approaches to adult learning. Michael has an interest in Freirean perspectives to learning inclusive of issues of power, identity and aspiration.