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..the roles these abilities play in social life;...and the manner in which they are interpreted..., not by experts, but by ordinary people in ordinary activities" (Baynham 285). A combination of the forbidden nature of Douglass's society, in addition to the interpretation of his learning to read by his mistress, his boy teachers, and the Irishman allowed and motivated the young man to pursue literacy.
A unique combination of Douglass's social environment and the psychological effects of that environment lead the former slave to come to negative conclusions about slavery. The more in depth literary works that Douglass was able to read, the more he was able to find fault with the institution of slavery. By using his own social and psychological situation, Douglass was able not only to attain literacy in the sense of being able to read, but also literacy in the sense of being able to understand and draw conclusions. In fact, before Douglass began to develop his literacy skills, he accepted that he was a slave, even remarking to the boys that he would meet that they would be free when they reached the age of majority, but he was a "slave for life" (Douglass). Only Douglass's literacy skills resulted in his understanding of human rights and the inequality of the institution of slavery. By reading the information contained in the book, and applying that information to his own situation, Douglass was able to learn both critical thinking and how to express himself. Thus, by using his psychological and social situations, Douglass was able to improve his literacy ability to the point where he could think critically and use reader response theories to apply the concepts he read about to his own life.
Douglass' use of sociolinguistics and the psychology of linguistics continue to be employed both consciously and unconsciously by those pursuing literacy in a more modern area. For example, Schribner and Cole's study of Vail people in Liberia echoed results similar to Douglass' successful ability to ascertain literacy. Schribner and Cole questioned whether "literacy shaped the human mind," wondering if the understanding of a "written language affects not only the content of thought but also the process of thinking-how we classify, reason, remember." At the conclusion of their study, the researchers found that "there are definite cognitive skills associated with literacy." They also found that those skills were impacted by the individuals' cultural or social situation and they were "not necessarily [linked] with classroom learning."
Thus, Douglass' situation was nearly identical to the Vai people's situation. Both lived in a culture that encouraged or mandated home learning, both lived in a culture that heavily influenced their desire to read and write, and both began to develop critical thinking skills as a direct result of their literacy success. Representatives from two different cultures and time periods reporting similar results is a strong indication for the theory's truth and usefulness, a truth and usefulness that will prove beneficial in today's world of multiculturalism and literacy deficiencies. As previously discussed, scholars and teachers have long suggested that a multicultural approach may be necessary for the literary success of poorly performing minority students in schools today (Au). Based on both Douglass' account and Cole and Schribner's study, one might suggest that investigating further into a child's individual social environment and encouraging a child to read from a psychological standpoint will produce favorable results.
For Douglass, constructivism and sociolinguistics allowed the former slave to master the concepts of reading and writing, which, through the psychology of literacy, allowed him to deepen his own critical thinking skills and assess his situation as a slave. Though these applied theories were monumental in Douglass's transformation from illiterate slave to prominent African-American scholar, they were not singularly responsible. Rather, Douglass's motivation to become literate was just as necessary for success as were the methods he used in achieving that literacy. Though Douglass's motivation to achieve literacy was partially a result of his social situation, Douglass possessed both that motivation to achieve literacy and an understanding that literacy was a means to an end, or one method through which he could achieve progress, status, and freedom.
Students' motivation for learning has long been connected with their levels of success in a variety of subjects of topics. In Penny Oldfather's 1994 study of motivation in literacy learning, the University of Georgia researcher found that a student's lack of motivation severely impacted his or her ability to engage in the task of literacy learning. Though students practiced several methods of self-motivation when feeling unmotivated, such as having a positive attitude or forcing themselves to complete the task, a responsive classroom environment was helpful in increasing the students motivation (Oldfather). Underlying theories to Oldfather's study were the social constructivist theories -- she believed learning to be a social process reinforced by not only cultural knowledge, but also by the reactions of society to the literacy learning.
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