Is there a link between culture and reading scores?
My Twitter friend @BonyMaroniPony tweeted, ”Did you consider aboriginal children may learn differently, given this was an oral culture?” The discussion was sparked by an article in the Chilliwack Times “Reading Tests Reveal Alarming Deficit” by another Twitter friend @CorNaylor. In the article she cites that,
Only 10 per cent of Grade 8 aboriginal boys in the Chilliwack school district are fully meeting grade-level expectations in reading…
To add some perspective, overall only 32% of Grade 8 boys hit the benchmark. The question is why. BonyMaroniPony suggests that a culture of oral storytelling has something to do with the lower scores. This invites a great discussion and I thanks her for that. This is what I think.
First some context around my perspectives. I am not a First Nations person. I was not raised in First Nations culture although I do share some of the experiences that are common amongst may First Nations and aboriginal people.
For the past few decades I have worked almost exclusively with or for First Nations and aboriginal groups. In Corrections the vast majority of my caseload was aboriginal. As a counsellor I was the Aboriginal Addictions Specialist (whatever that means, I’m just reading what it said on my business card). I also worked for an Aboriginal Youth Diversion program, was a Community Hub Coordinator funded by the First Nations Health Council (now the Interim First Nations Health Authority aka the iFNHA) and am currently the health manager for a group of four First Nations. So that’s my context; someone who is not of but close to, the culture.
What triggered my interest in this conversation was the idea that ability to learn in a variety of ways could be linked to culture. Culture is the part of a people that they don’t see and it’s transferred to the next generation. It can be glimpsed in stories and art and more easily viewed from the outside because it is so much a part of the individual.
I do think that the oral tradition is part of First Nations culture but I also believe that has more to do with the practice of telling stories to help teach and learn than it has to do with how the stories are shared.
Suggesting that difficulty in reading is culturally driven almost makes it sound like there may be some inherent “thing” that cultures with an oral tradition have, a heritable trait like brown eyes, that makes it very difficult for them to learn to read. I don’t for one second believe that was the intent of the Tweet, but it is a inference that comes from the idea that culture impacts ability to learn.
One of the follow up tweets implied that colonization had an impact and that I believe to be the heart of the matter. It is the loss of culture that is causing the lower scores not the technology of books and letters.
First Nations people, as a whole, seem to embrace technology faster than the average non-aboriginal person. At least that’s what some of the research conducted within First Nations organizations suggest. The written word is a technology. I know we don’t think of it that way, but it is.
If we look at other at risk groups of children, what we find is that culture is not the strongest predictor or the problem. It’s nurture. Some cultures have managed to incorporate a nurturing environment, some have not. It’s early and strong attachment with adult caregivers that matters most. Attachment is what was damaged through colonization. The ability to attach is linked to ability to pay attention, to executive functioning in the brain, to mirror neurones that enable understanding and copying of body language and ability to feel empathy. In turn it is those abilities that impact learning, especially in a school environment.
Suggestions that imply otherwise distract from the real and well researched reasons for the very large gaps between First Nations and the rest of the population. It’s not culture, it’s loss of culture.
I also think, and this may be closer to a cultural link, that the books and stories used in the school system are out of line with the reality of many First Nations and aboriginal youth. I think we’re getting better at representing First Nation and other cultures in literature that is meant for children and youth but we aren’t there yet.
I’m curious about other ideas around this. Please feel free to share. If you blog about it let me know in comments so I can follow.by