Skip to main content

Literacy and Culture


Literate practices are learned within dynamic cultural systems that structure roles and scripts (alphabetic, pictographic), privilege modes of reasoning, and offer tools through which such practices may be carried out. In modern, often Westernized, societies, these tools include books, newspapers, magazines, film, digital technology, and television. Historically, the advent of new technologiessuch as the printing pressmade possible new explorations of literacy and opportunities for more people to become literate. With greater global immigration, more students for whom English is a second language are entering U.S. classrooms. In some cases both U.S.-born and immigrant populations are involved in literate practices that operate under different assumptions than those that characterize school-based literacies. The digital age in particular offers opportunities to many more people to self-publish, create and interpret multimedia texts, privilege non-linear approaches to reading, for example, in hypermedia texts, engage in visual as well as oral communication across borders, and access rich databases internationally. These and other advances are ushering in new kinds of literate practices that now challenge schools to learn to integrate them meaningfully and to provide equitable access across groups. This entry will focus on literate practices defined by ethnicity (including language use) and by academic discipline, considering their implications for classroom instruction and student learning.

Induction into literate practices involves socialization in the ability to decode scripts and to reason in patterned ways. People demonstrate their membership in literate communities through ways they use languageknowing the right lexicon, the structure of appropriate genres, as well as when, where, and how talk should proceed. In reading and writing, such cultural models may be influenced by ethnicity, nationality, disciplines, and professions. Reading literature, for example, requires one to infer motives, goals, and internal states of characters based not only on clues from the text, but also from one's reading of the social world. Reading primary historical texts requires readers to invoke disciplinary norms, questioning the point of view of the author, drawing on knowledge of historical contexts. Some challenges that students face in literacy instruction derive from differences between community-based cultural models and school-based literacies.

Cultural Conflicts in Classroom Practices

Schools are seen as the repository of "standard" English, which is assumed to be the proper medium of communication for advancement in the marketplace and the academy. Not only is the standard a historically moving target (syntactical and lexical forms considered proper, say, in eighteenth-century Great Britain or the United States are considered archaic and inappropriate in the twenty-first century); in addition, certain syntactic markers have different values. For example, "It is me" is not considered "improper" English (as opposed to the "standard" form "It is I"), whereas "It be me," a marker of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is seen as "incorrect." In the 1970s researchers documented how students of color, English Language Learners (ELL), and students living in low-income communities were marginalized through classroom practices, particularly in the area of literacy instruction.

Susan Phillips's work helped the field to understand how opportunities to participate in instruction were actualized in classrooms. She examined relationships of power that are constructed through norms for talk in classrooms. She documented the conflicts between norms for talk in the Navajo Nation and ways Anglo teachers expected Navajo students to participate. Using Anglo norms, teachers interpreted long stretches of silence by Navajo students as evidence that students were not learning.

In a similar vein other researchers, such as Courtney Cazden and colleagues, documented how oral language practices by low-income African-American primary level students were interpreted as deficits rather than resources. The function of sharing time is to scaffold young children from oral storytelling to the production of features of the kinds of academic writing that they will be expected to produce in later grades. Teachers viewed the African-American children's stories as ill formed and saw the students' language as a deficit. By contrast, Sarah Michaels analyzed the children's stories as fitting a different structure, which she termed topic-associative in contrast to the topic-centered stories of the Anglo children. James Gee extended Michaels's analysis to claim that the topic-associative story structure included complex literary elements. The consequences of teachers' abilities to recognize the literate features of children's oral language has important consequences for the ways they are or are not able to extend the funds of knowledge that students bring to classrooms in order to help students learn school-based ways of reading and writing.

Other research has found more African-American students employing topic-centered stories than topic-associative. Tempii Champion identified an array of narrative genres used by African-American children. Champion's findings illustrate how children across different communities "take up various narrative styles, structures, and content [that] include formal instruction, informal instructional contexts, family contexts and others" (p. 72). If one moves away from the social address model that categorizes people into discrete cultural communities, one can understand the ways that children and adolescents, for example, traverse multiple cultural communities. In the process they adopt, adapt, and hybridize a variety of oral and textual genres that become part of their literate repertoires. They learn to engage such repertoires in different contexts, with different actors, for different purposes.

Language is central to literate practices. Research in bilingual education has explored how ELL use resources in the first language as they engage in reading and writing in the second language. When faced with a breakdown in comprehension while reading English texts, Spanish-speaking students, for example, would think in Spanish to repair comprehension. How a first language other than English may be drawn upon in support of school literacy often depends on how much formal schooling students had in the first language before entering U.S. schools.

Another area of study is literate practices of children and families outside school, shedding light on how schools can make connections with what students know and ways they learn that are not currently reflective in mainstream school literacy practices. The church in many low-income communities is a site for multilingual literate practices. For Spanish-speaking families, researchers documented literate practices associated with doctrina, catechism classes for children that involve reading and writing extended texts in both Spanish and English. Beverly Moss documents the oral as well as reading-writing practices in African-American Christian churches. For example, call and response is a dominant discourse pattern in black churches that requires the audience to attend closely to nuances of the delivered text and invites a high level of engagement by the audience. However, call and response is seldom invoked in classrooms serving African-American students (Carol Lee reports exceptions).

Schools value children's emergent literacy experiences outside school as preparation for learning to read, write, and speak. Reading books to young children at home is seen as an important predictor of future school success and white middle-class patterns of storybook reading are considered a norm that all families should emulate. However, Carol Schneffer Hammer reports both low-income and middle-class African-American mothers employing an interactive storybook reading style different from the white middle-class model. These mothers did not employ a question-asking routine but were still able to elicit appropriate language responses. Others have noted the value of oral storytelling as an emergent literacy practice, with an emphasis on its performative features; comparable mismatches with low-income Anglo students, particularly Appalachian students, have also been documented.

Many communities and individuals grapple with the question of which community-based language and literate practices to abandon in order to succeed in school. Ethnic and language cultural communities are not homogeneous in their response to this challenge. For immigrant populations, socioeconomic status and the number of generations removed from the country of origin are the most significant factors. Gail Weinstein-Shr documented two Hmong communities in Philadelphia with very different orientations toward cultural integration into U.S. "mainstream" values. Daniel McLaughlin has reported similar debates regarding reading and writing in Navajo versus English.

Community-based literate practices in low-income neighborhoods often involve reading functional and religious texts, and forms of writing such as letters, lists, and journals. Such reading and writing often involve both English and the community-based language. By contrast, the standards movement in literacy focuses on longer and discipline-based texts. Basil Bernstein characterizes language practices of working-class students as localized to the immediate context and not characterized by the more abstract and generalizable strategies that many associate with school-based literacies. The countervoice to this position argues that literate practices are always context bound, socially co-constructed by the participants.

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy as Zones of Proximal Development

Lower literacy achievement rates for African-American, Latino, some Asian-American, and most low-income students have been attributed to three sources: cultural mismatches between instruction and the backgrounds of students; structural inequalities in the society manifested in the organization of and resources allocated to schools serving these populations; and ineffective instruction that is not based on enduring best practices. Culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) is one response that addresses cultural mismatches directly and often addresses macro-level structures indirectly.

Studies of culture and cognition show that through repeated and patterned experience in the world, we develop schema through which we filter future experiences. New learning is strongest when we are able to make connections to prior knowledge. CRP explicitly fosters connections between students' cultural funds of knowledge and disciplinary knowledge to be learned.

This approach is particularly relevant to literacy because both language use and socially shared knowledge are central to acts of reading and writing. In addition, CRP often structures ways of talking that appropriate cultural norms for discourse from students' home communities. Examples below illustrate CRP focusing on generic reading and writing.

A classic example is the KEEP Project with Native Hawaiian children. Discussions of stories read were structured to resemble Talk Story, a community-based genre that involved multiparty overlapping talk. Students achieved significant gains in reading. Luis Moll coined the phrase "cultural funds of knowledge" in an ethnographic investigation of routine practices in a Mexican origin community in Tuscon, Arizona. Moll documented ways adults in the community engaged in practices involving carpentry, plumbing, and other skills, and the literate practices embedded in them. He then designed an after-school structure that allowed teachers to learn about these practices and forge relationships with community residents, resulting in teachers' incorporation of adult mentors in the classroom. Students learned to build projects around the cultural practices of the community, each requiring extensive reading, writing, and speaking.

Other work with ELL focuses on the competencies children and adolescents develop as language brokers, translating in high-stakes settings for their parents. Translating involves negotiating across different codes, understanding appropriate registers, anticipating audience, negotiating perspective, and often involves reading and writing in two languages.

The Fifth Dimension Project (FD) is a network of after-school computer clubs operating nationally and internationally. Through play, adults and children together work their way through a maze by developing competencies in commercial computer games and board games. The children are low income, many ELL for whom Spanish is the language used at home. Literate practices involve reading game instructions, writing to a mythical wizard who responds to questions, and communicating orally and in writing to others. Through this project children have structured access to multiple mediational meansinvited use of English and Spanish/AAVE, and so forth, peer and adult mentors, the mytical wizard, and opportunities to move fluidly across roles. FD students have shown significant increases in reading achievement, despite the fact that didactic teaching of reading and writing are not the focus of the intervention.

Carol Lee has developed a design framework for CRP called Cultural Modeling (CM). CM has focused on response to literature and narrative composition. CM works on the assumption that studentsin this case speakers of AAVEalready tacitly engage in modes of reasoning required to interpret literary tropes and genres. Instruction engages students in what Lee calls metacognitive instructional conversations where the focus is on how students know, for example, that rap lyrics are not intended to be interpreted literally, and what clues/strategies students use to reconstruct the intended meaning. In addition, in CM classroomswith African-American studentsclassroom discourse reflects AAVE norms with overlapping multiparty talk, high use of gesture, and rhythmic prosody. In CM classrooms, high school students with low standardized achievement scores in reading display very complex literary reasoning with rich, canonical texts. A. F. Ball found secondary African-American students displayed in their writing a preference for a set of expository features that are rooted in what Geneva Smitherman has called the African-American Rhetorical Tradition. Smitherman found that the presence of these features correlated positively with higher evaluations on National Assessment of Educational Progress samples.

See also: Individual Differences, subentry on Ethnicity; Language and Education; Literacy; Race, Ethnicity, AND Culture.


Ball, A. F. 1992. "Cultural Preferences and the Expository Writing of African-American Adolescents." Written Communication 9 (4):501532.

Bernstein, Basil. 1970. Primary Socialization, Language and Education. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Bloome, David, et al. 2001. "Spoken and Written Narrative Development: African American Preschoolers as Storytellers and Storymakers." In Literacy in African American Communities, ed. Joyce L. Harris, Alan G. Kamhi, and Karen E. Pollock. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Cazden, Courtney; John, Vera P.; and Hymes, Dell. 1972. Functions of Language in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Champion, Tempii. 1998. "'Tell Me Somethin' Good': A Description of Narrative Structures among African-American Children." Linguistics and Education 9 (3):251286.

Gee, James Paul. 1989. "The Narrativization of Experience in the Oral Style." Journal of Education 171 (1):7596.

Hammer, Carol Schneffner. 2001. "'Come Sit Down and Let Mama Read': Book Reading Interactions between African-American Mothers and Their Infants." In Literacy in African-American Communities, ed. Joyce L. Harris, Alan G. Kamhi, and Karen E. Pollock. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Lee, Carol D. 1995. "A Culturally Based Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching African-American High School Students' Skills in Literary Interpretation." Reading Research Quarterly 30 (4):608631.

Lee, Carol D. 1997. "Bridging Home and School Literacies: A Model of Culturally Responsive Teaching." In A Handbook of Research on Teaching Literacy through the Communicative and Visual Arts, ed. James Flood, Shirley Brice Heath, and Diane Lapp. New York: Macmillan.

Lee, Carol D. 2000. "Signifying in the Zone of Proximal Development." In Vygotskian Perspectives on Literacy Research: Constructing Meaning through Collabative Inquiry, ed. Carol D. Lee and Peter Smagorinsky. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, Carol D. 2001. "Is October Brown Chinese: A Cultural Modeling Activity System for Underachieving Students." American Educational Re-search Journal 38 (1):97142.

McLaughlin, Daniel. 1989. "The Sociolinguistics of Navajo Literacy." Anthropology and Education Quarterly 20 (4):275290.

Michaels, Sarah. 1981. "Sharing Time: Children's Narrative Styles and Differential Access to Literacy." Language in Society 10:423442.

Moll, Luis. 1994. "Literacy Research in Community and Classrooms: A Sociocultural Approach." In Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading, 4th edition, ed. Robert B. Ruddell, Martha P. Ruddell, and Harry Singer. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Moss, Beverly, ed. 1994. Literacy across Communities. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Phillips, Susan Urmston. 1983. The Invisible Culture: Communication in Classroom and Community on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. New York: Longman.

Smitherman, Geneva. 1977. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Weinstein-Shr, Garil. 1994. "From Mountain-tops to City Streets: Literacy in Philadelphia's Hmong Community." In Literacy across Communities, ed. Beverly Moss. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Carol D. Lee

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Literacy and Culture." Encyclopedia of Education. . 21 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Literacy and Culture." Encyclopedia of Education. . (August 21, 2018).

"Literacy and Culture." Encyclopedia of Education. . Retrieved August 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.