Eve Gregory led a study that found children being taught their community’s faith and culture to preserve them in foreign settings imbibed many advantages related to language use and complex thought processes.

The observation Eve Gregory makes about her study which stays with you long after the talk is, “…always expect the children to succeed, it might take a child a little longer, but no one thinks about literacy in terms of failure actually. Because how can you fail to become a member of your faith? So it’s literacy in a very meaningful context I think.”

This statement, highlighting the importance of instilling the confidence of success in every student even before learning begins, comes in the context of a study, “Becoming Literate in Faith Settings”, that she led on behalf of the Education Department of Goldsmiths, University of London. Gregory comes with many more interesting findings as she tried to assess the learning of children associated with their places of worship. The study involved four groups who have come to London in the past 50 years: the Ghanian Pentacostal community, the Polish Catholic community, the Bangladeshi Muslim community and the Tamil Hindu community. The Tamil Hindu community is from Sri Lanka.

“Generally we were very surprised by the scope of learning going on in children’s lives, we were surprised that in many families…actually faith permeates children’s everyday lives. Not only are many children involved in regular worship at the temple or mosque or the church, but they are on a daily basis referring to their faith, using text, narratives, hymns, songs, art work from their faith. So we were surprised at the extent of learning and the way in which faith does interpenetrate lots and lots of different learning…you couldn’t really separate language and literacy learning. Although the original intention of our project was to focus on language and literacy learning we realised you couldn’t separate them from cultural learning, from aesthetic learning, artistic learning, creative learning and moral learning as well. And all of them formed becoming part of a community, because that was the crucial thing, all of that gave children a framework, a sort of guide book for their lives actually,” says Gregory.

The teachers were erudite and scholarly people who spoke English and their native tongue. All groups tried to keep their native language alive, albeit at different levels. All the groups chosen for study consist of children whose faith had been persecuted in their countries. She also describes the lesson patterns as freely moving from talking of the faith to the history of their country with reference to the present. The researchers who were working on the project actually went in and taped from the formal classes, whereas the families did the recordings at home and some of these were in very intimate settings.

The talk is interspersed with audio clippings recorded at home and we find children creating temples with Lego or a child who says Krishna will appear when all are asleep to kill the demons, and she weaves a story around her thought.

“It shows that literacy learning is much wider than simply learning phonics or the names of letters…that children can learn narratives within a meaningful context…that even very young children are able to memorise very complex texts...that children are able to become multi-lingual and learn different scripts at a very young age…that children can translate between those different scripts; we have a video of a nine-year-old Hindu child saying her prayers, first in Sanskrit, which is the language of the religion, then in Tamil, which is her parents’ language and then in English. So these are highly complex literacy skills that children are engaged in from a very young age…I would like faith leaders and faith teachers to realise that they are important, not just in teaching children about faith, but that they are literacy teachers as well…Policy implications I would hope, that quite simply, faith would be recognised as a learning setting. And as far as children are concerned, it not only teaches children morals, but it also teaches them cultural knowledge, linguistic knowledge, social knowledge — how to behave in intergenerational settings — because there aren’t many settings that are completely intergenerational, are there?” asks Gregory, thus making a case for strengthening such classes and developing a replicable pedagogy.

She refuses to talk on the content of such lessons, saying she is no subject expert.

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