Autor: UNOi

Fecha: 9 de febrero de 2015

Cultural literacy I

by Elaine Gallagher             You may be wondering, «What is cultural literacy?»  There are many definitions, most of which are cumbersome […]

Foto: © pressmaster/
Foto: © pressmaster/

by Elaine Gallagher

            You may be wondering, «What is cultural literacy?»  There are many definitions, most of which are cumbersome or complicated. For our purposes, Cultural Literacy means knowing the background or allusions of literary words, terms, or dates.


Because we need to make more sense of things as we listen or read…..and to add depth and complexity to things we write.  Cultural literacy is an example of universal understanding, supported by UNOi. It’s something that makes sense to literate people, anywhere, anytime, in any language. Learners can understand the relationship between what was said or read, and its literary reference or background.


If an announcer on TV news says, «The General Director of XYZ company was Machiavellian in his actions», a person with cultural literacy, in any language, will know that the announcer meant that the General Director was cunning, plotting, planning out every detail, so he could maintain control.

The person with cultural literacy may not necessarily know many details about Machiavelli, but he/she knows that the allusion the TV announcer had made referred to Machiavelli, a man who wrote describing cunning and manipulative leaders, supporting the idea that «the ends justify the means», meaning you can do anything, even illegal things, if the end result is worth it.  The culturally literate person may not know that Machiavelli was Italian, or that he wrote political ideas in  «The Prince», but he/she recognized the term «Machiavellian». (Details about Machiavelli are in Internet, if you choose to learn more about him.)

Another example comes from the children’s story, «The Emperor’s New Clothes».  If someone says or writes, «She recognized that the emperor actually was wearing no clothes», a culturally literate person would know that it refers to a person who sees things with clarity, and speaks openly and honesty. Others may fear speaking the truth if it could expose that the leadership isn’t aware of problems.

Much cultural literacy comes from incidental topics, stories, or movies. Exposure is the key to being culturally literate, not necessarily intelligence, nor top-notch schools, nor rich parents.

When parents or teachers expose students to a wide variety of stories, films, people, and topics, students easily can learn to make the connections. If students can recognize a term, they are culturally literate. If they can produce background information about what they have recognized, so much the better.

Extremely important to the acquisition of both high level vocabulary and background information, in order to build cultural literacy, is that parents, and especially teachers, should read aloud to their students every day! This is a lost art.

Teachers may complain, «I don’t have the time!» Make the time! We all have the same 24 hours in a day. Good daily planning makes it imperative that teachers include reading aloud. I don’t mean only Kindergarten teachers. I mean every teacher, through the end of middle school (9th grade).  Set aside a specific time, such as opening the class, or right after lunchtime. Don’t plan it for the end of the class, or you will never do it. Other things will use up your time.

Coordinators or Directors shouldn’t micro-manage. There is absolutely NO need to check teachers’ plans. Yes, planning is essential for the teacher, but no one should be checking. That’s 19th century.  Instead, walk into the classroom for 10 or 15 minutes each week, to see what’s really happening.

How are the desks arranged? Is the date on the board? Is there a short list of the day’s objectives posted, including «Read a story»?  If the kids are copying from the board or from an iPad – projected script, or from a book, no teaching is happening. No learning is occurring. This is babysitting. Period.

In English or Spanish, it’s sad, but the cultural literacy of our students is severely lacking, almost non-existent. Even sadder, it’s obvious that our educators lack sufficient cultural literacy. It seems they are «frozen» inside a box, waiting to see what answer the teacher wants, instead of thinking, then arriving at a logical response.

When I role play with educators, pretending they are my «students», teaching them lessons from UNOi books, their literacy/cultural background and critical thinking show huge gaps.


A «Fact of the Week» is on the board.

«What geologic event occurred in 79 A.D.?» 

No one knows……with extremely rare exceptions.

«No problem», I tell them. «We’ll get to it soon.»


Surprisingly, literally 1000’s of teachers, both Spanish and English, have no idea what «A.D.» means after the date. They guess: «After Dinosaurs» or «After Death»…(Who’s death??»)  (No joke, REALLY !)

They have no idea that it is Latin for «Anno Domini» (Year of our Lord), nor any knowledge that Pope Gregory formed a new calendar with his advisers in 1585 AD, reflecting Year 1 as the year Christ was born.  So, I teach them, and tell them, «No problem…If you knew everything, I wouldn’t have a job. «…and I truly mean that!

Another example:

I show a scene of Greece, related to UNO 6th grade Greek mythology. The photo has many white houses, on a hillside by the water. I ask the teachers, «Why do you think the buildings are painted white»?  I compare the color to many white houses by beach-side cities in Mexico.

Many teachers don’t attempt to answer. (The question is NOT in the book.)

The few who venture a guess (critical thinking) might say, «Maybe white is the only paint available?» «White is one of the colors of the Greek flag?» (Which I had shown as the class began.) Another replies, » White is the color of peace?»

I respond to each one, …»Maybe» or  «Good guess.» or  «Possibly.»

When I get 3 -5 responses, I tell them that while their answers showed they were thinking, (awarding 10 virtual points for thinking), I tell them that the color white reflects heat, and dark colors absorb heat. Thus, white buildings stay cooler in warm climates.

Once in great while, someone will know that answer, and when I ask how he/she knew it…one said his father had told him years ago.  Another student reported he had seen the information on the Discovery Channel.

So far, no one has responded that he /she had learned it in school.

We need to fill gaps in students’ and teachers’ general knowledge. The information contained in those «gaps» is what separates a person who is culturally literate from one who is not. Parents and teachers need to develop cultural literacy so they can pass it on to kids.

So how do you develop cultural literacy?

  • Read and listen
  • Think and ask
  • Encourage critical thinking
  • Encourage questions
  • (The only dumb question is one that is not-asked!)


More specifically:

  1. Read aloud to kids daily, for 5-10 minutes. This is for ALL teachers, not only for English teachers. Spanish or Portuguese teachers also need to read to students. This is for pleasure and enjoyment! No quiz, no work resulting from the stories.
  1. You can read a story one day, and then show a film or a video of the same story, too.  For younger children, read the complete story in one sitting. Show a video another day. For older students you can read one chapter a day for longer stories/books, perhaps completing the book in 2 or 3 weeks or more.
  • For kids ages 3-6: nursery rhymes, poems, Dr. Seuss books, etc. They can repeat, sing, see videos, but always show them the books, too.
  • For kids 7 years – 10 years: Read aloud traditional fairy tales, fables, myths, adventure. Hans Christian Anderson, the Grimm Brothers, and Aesop’s Fables have excellent stories.
  • Feel free to read a story more than once if the kids really like it or request it. Titles for 7-10 year-olds include, «Jack and the Beanstalk»,  «Snow White and Rose Red», «Rumplestiltskin», «The Emperor’s New Clothes». Walt Disney has produced many books and movies from traditional stories.
  • Older students, 10-15 years will pay attention to «chapter- books», both fiction, and non-fiction. There are classics, such as «The Secret Garden», «Zorro», «Tarzan», or » The Hardy Boys Mysteries». There are more modern novels such as «Orange», «Holes», or «Park’s Quest».
  • There are adventure stories, science fiction, tall tales, such as «Paul Bunyan», or stories about historical characters, such as «Robin Hood», or «Charles Lindbergh», or biographies, such as Machiavelli, Einstein, or Stephen Hawking.
  • You don’t need to be limited to paper books. You can use magazines, iBooks on an iPad or tablet. You can even use short videos and full-length films to stimulate discussions, critical thinks, and to encourage reading the book that students saw on film. «The Giver», «Holes», «The Secret Garden», «the Wizard of Oz», are but a few novels made into Hollywood films.



  • I can share a bibliography, listing many titles, for ideas on reading topics. Just e-mail me asking for the list.
  • The question previously mentioned, about a geologic event in 79 A.D. has been in the English teacher support section of our Platform for 4 years, under «Facts of the Week.». If you want all 300 at once, to be in control of what trivia you choose to use with your students, send me an e-mail, asking for all 300 «Facts of the Week».
  • Finally, you may be wondering, «What things should I know to become ‘CULTURALLY LITERATE’?» There are many, which I’ll share. Categories include: DATES, QUOTATIONS, PEOPLE, and VOCABULARY & PHRASES.



  • The topics I’ll be giving you are NOT for your students to look up as a time-consuming assignment. The topics will be meaningless to students out of context!
  • This is work for YOU, teacher, things to learn, gradually, so you can add to your repertoire of knowledge to pass on to students at appropriate times, meaning that you use your knowledge to explain the background of things kids read or hear in their learning process.
  • All categories relate to some event, person, or allusion. I won’t give you the answers. I’ll just list the words or phrases. Your work is to discover the significance of each one.
  • If, however, you are confused after researching a word, feel free to write to ask me. There may be hundreds of literary allusions that I do not know; but the ones on the lists I’ll share are ones I do know….I learned most of them, at least 90% of them, from my teachers 50+ years ago. The other 10% I learned by investigating on my own, when I encountered allusions I didn’t recognize.
  • So, teachers, if you want to promote cultural literacy among your students, teach allusions, references, and background of your material.
  • Much research shows that students remember longer and better supplemental data, taught incidentally in class, than material specifically taught from the book.









A.D……Anno Domini: Latin for «Year of out Lord»…refers to dates after Christ was born. Year 1 A.D. = the year Christ was born, in the calendar reorganized by Pope Gregory XIII in 1585, so the new calendar could reflect more accurately the months/seasons than the Julian calendar in use prior to the Gregorian calendar, which us still in use.

1066…The Norman Conquest of England, by William, «the Conqueror» of the Normandy area of France.  William brought political order into England. The Old Anglo-Saxon English language now incorporated French words, expanding the English language, such as French porc (pork) used for the meat, but the Old English «pig» remained the name of the animal.

1215: The Magna Charta… giving some freedoms to the people by King John I in England. This marked the first step towards democracy in «modern times»., although the ancient Greeks of Athens, 2000 years earlier, practiced democracy, which, by the way, is a word of Greek origin, meaning «rule by the people».

1914 – 1918: World War I

1939-1945: World War II


Next issue: more categories of Cultural Literacy.