TESOL & Applied Linguistics: Adolescent Literacies in Three Urban Contexts

Alister Cumming - APPLE Lecture Series

Alister Cumming - APPLE Lecture Series

On Friday, April 11, the Applied Linguistics/TESOL Program held its 14th APPLE Lecture Series that consisted of two lectures by Professor Alister Cumming from University of Toronto.

In the first lecture titled “Assessing Multiple Dimensions of Adolescent Literacies in a Multicultural Context,” Cumming presented a year-long case study on 21 adolescents from culturally diverse backgrounds who participated in an after-school, community-based tutoring program in Toronto. Called the ALTUR (Adolescent Literacies in Three Urban Contexts) Project, this case study was performed during the school year 2008-2009 in conjunction with two other multi-year projects established in Amsterdam and Geneva.

Cumming explained that the premise of the ALTUR Project was that “the development of literacy among adolescents is poorly understood, particularly in culturally diverse, urban contexts, distinguishing between ‘at risk’ and ‘resilient’ learners, and identifying educational policies that make a positive difference and have universal applications.”

“Multiple, complementary methods of research and assessment are needed,” said Cumming, “to analyze literacy learning and education as a multi-faceted complex of individual skills, socio-cultural practices, and macro-societal processes.”

Utilizing a variety of methods such as testing, interviews, questionnaires, and other assessment strategies, Cumming and his research team closely documented the development of literacies of the students. The following outlines some of Cumming’s evidence-based claims about the students’ learning and development of literacies.

  1. Students averaged about 10% improvement on all formal tests from the start to end of the school year, which is ordinarily expected from usual participation in school.
  2. Students received varied but sometimes limited support for literacy at school, within families and extended families, from close friends, and from certain community groups.
  3. Students read and wrote mainly to maintain social relationships (e.g. online chats), for entertainment (e.g. computer games, TV guides), and instrumental purposes (e.g. read ads, complete forms). Epistemic purposes for literacy were not identified very often, and only a few students read and wrote intentionally to extend their knowledge of the world.
  4. Strategies for writing and reading needed to be modeled, jointly constructed, scaffolded, negotiated, and then faded out for independent performance.
  5. Relationship between the students and tutors were emotionally charged, as students were not used to the tutors and showed resistance to the tutors’ taking personal interests in guiding their literacy development.

“Literacy can’t be just considered one set of skills,” said Cumming, emphasizing again the importance of analyzing literacy learning and education as a multi-faceted complex of individual skills, socio-cultural practices, and macro-societal processes.

He further said that the implications of the ALTUR project indicate that surveys can identify patterns in students’ attitudes, orientations, practices, supports, and goals and that initiatives can target specific school boards to promote educators’ capacities and students’ achievements.

Alister Cumming - APPLE Lecture SeriesIn the second lecture titled, “Studies of Second Language Writing in Canada: Three Generations,” Cumming explained the history of second language writing research in Canada. Due to the culturally diverse immigrant settlement and the English and French bilingual policies, Canadian scholars were naturally drawn to the topic of second language writing research, said Cumming. The following describes the development of second language writing research in Canada over three generations.

Foundational generation in the 1980s

  • Researchers were mostly from other countries including the United States, New Zealand, and Ireland.
  • Educational psychologists, applied linguists, and rhetoricians began research in the area of second language writing.

The next generation in the 1990s

  • Researchers during this period were students or colleagues of the foundational generation of the 1980s.
  • There was a shift to socio-cognitive perspectives in natural, rather than experimental, settings.
  • Research mainly focused on tracing longitudinal development of individual second language writers within socio-cultural contexts.
  • Many universities established applied linguistics programs.
  • Notable publications proliferated during this period.

The new generation in the 2000s

  • Many researchers assumed positions at major Canadian universities or in other countries.
  • More research topics developed, such as text appropriations and borrowing, biliteracy development and policies, and second language writing assessment.

The second lecture was mostly an overview of the history of Canada’s second language writing research, because it was open to the general public and was not intended to be a technical research presentation. At the end of the second lecture, Cumming accepted questions from the audience for more discussion, followed by a reception where people were invited to socialize and continue the discussion from the lectures.

Contributed by Jamie Kim – EdM Applied Linguistics