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Informal Spaces - Incorporating Young Learners’ Literacy Practices

Tue, April 16, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Bay (Level 1), Bayview B


In 2008, I established Reading Caterpillar, a children’s library in New Delhi, India. Over a thousand families have been a part of the community and on an average, 50 children participate weekly in the library programs. Members of the community step in to lead or design workshops for children. Working with people not traditionally seen as teachers in a space not seen as a formal space of learning highlighted for me the different ways in which we teach and learn and the need to acknowledge the everyday literacy practices learners engage and the role that informal learning plays in creating valuable learning experiences and environment.This paper will look how informal spaces incorporate diverse learners’ literacy practices, thus making these valubale nerve centers of learning.
The Story of the Question
My work as a practitioner in informal spaces in India, has been invested in developing literacy programs in close collaborations with children, parents, caregivers, artists, and writers. In my everyday work, I interacted with parents / caregivers whose literacy practices found little or no recognition in light of the more acceptable school literacy. They all call themselves illiterate, dismissing these everyday literacy practices that have been “marginalised by modern, western literacy” (Street & Street, 1995, p. 146). It is these practices that families engage in, that we at the library, build into our literacy program and curricula. Working in an informal and intergenerational setting, I realized the role of families as active supporters of their children’s learning, and connecting to young learners culture, community and language are a significant resources for meaning making.
Inquiry into Informal Spaces
Does just being out-of-school allow for a space to be informal? Or should the focus be on how learning happens and what literacy practices are allowed for? To answer some of this questions, I have found Glynda Hull’s and Katherine Schultz’ (2001) argument on the need to be careful about the distinction between in-school (formal) and outside the school (informal) particularly insightful. They posit that what is important, is to look at the “dimensions of successful learning”. They highlight the need to be careful about the oversimplification that successful learning takes place just because it’s out-of-school. Vasudevan, Schultz, & Bateman (2010) further argue that constructing boundaries between home, school, and community is no longer useful. Learners carry their literacy practices across home, school, and community, transforming texts as they move from one context to another. The authors define these as circulating literacy practices, highlighting how learners’ identities move across these different spaces. Informal spaces, then may be understood as not bounded by just time (after-school) or place (outside-of-school / school) but more as places that acknowledge the resources learners bring including “linguistic and symbolic tools appropriated from popular culture” (Dyson in Hull & Schultz, 2001, p.593)
Affordances of Informal Spaces
At the library I work with young learners who are highly engaged in the various literacy projects, and continue to come back to the library for years. What are the affordances that an informal space offered learners? What are we doing in this out-of-school space that allowed young learners to be active participants? What are the literacy practices beyond the schooled literacy that learners engage in. The young learners at the library in Delhi used a variety of media like paints, printing, pottery, music; combining words and the arts. They mix these different modes and media that are available to them and not compartmentalised as these are in schools as different subject areas to be studies in different classes (Vasudevan 2011). Vasudevan et al (2010) posit that when learners are allowed an access to multimodal composing tools - print, visual, and audio modalities- they draw upon their knowledge, experiences, and passions nurtured in their home communities to tell new stories and become more deeply engaged in the academic content of school. Also, informal places of learning- “community based, out-of-school, or after-school opportunities” could be the key for learners who are “alienated by the school-based literacy (Hull & Schutz, 2001, p.584).
How do informal spaces motivate diverse learners to be actively engaged in all the literacy projects? Working in out-of-school spaces, I observed that while in schools only particular kinds of literacies find acceptance and these are rooted in school based learnings (Hull & Schutz, Vasudevan et al 2010), out-of-school and informal spaces allowed learners to bring in their diverse linguistic and literacy practices. These spaces also offer a place for exploration without any of the pressure that learners face in schools. High stakes testing and standardised curriculum further regulate what gets taught in schools leading to fewer connections to a learners interests and experiences (Vasudevan et al, 2010, Vasudevan 2011).
How important is it to value learners “home literacies and family discourses” (Vasudevan & Campano, 2009), or connecting with communities and culture? Does designing a curriculum that allows a learner to engage in these very practices through use of art, language, personal stories enable learners to express their social and cultural identities? Certain salient features that are helpful in thinking about curriculum in informal spaces – valuing literacy and linguistic practices, providing options to engage in different projects, encouraging exploration of skills and passions, and making space for participation. In the intergenerational library and community space, members contribute to the literacy project, bringing in languages, music, art, and stories. When the literacy practices that young learners engage in are so varied and various, what are the ways curriculum can make space for students unofficial writing practice through which they negotiate social identities? How can out-of-school spaces become places that are seen as centers of learning? I inquire into the role informal learning can play in enabling a diverse learner to negotiate their social and cultural identity enabling them to tell their stories.


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