1996 – Victoria Purcell-Gates

Understanding that some cultures within society have little use for accepted ideas of literacy is the key to improving learning for children from those groups, says Harvard University professor Victoria Purcell-Gates, winner of the 1996 award.
Purcell-Gates explores in her book “Other People’s Words: The Cycle of Low Literacy,” how nonliterate cultures adapt to life in a literate society and how students from those cultures are often are hindered. She illustrates her point by following an urban Appalachian family living in a world in which print has no function.

The author captures the frustration, anger, despair and defeat this family experiences as it tries to cope in a world starkly different than the non-print culture its used to. Street signs, printed ads and bus schedules have no meaning in a society that historically has relied on physical landmarks or other well-known symbols instead of the printed word.

Because educators take for granted the literate foundation of mainstream America, they sometimes classify children from nonliterate cultures as slow or lazy students. Instead, they need to understand these children are being raised in one atmosphere and taught in another. She suggests that because literary expectations differ among cultures, members of the nonliterate groups find it much more challenging to attain full literacy.

A professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Human Development and Psychology, Purcell-Gates has devoted much of her career to improving literacy. She serves as director of Harvard’s Literacy Lab and headed the university’s Language and Literacy Program in 1994-95.

She also has taught at the University of Cincinnati, where she established a literacy center for children who needed help in reading and writing, the University of California-Berkeley and St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Ca.