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Community Literacy Practices: Supporting Youth Development After-School

by Tracy L. Coskie

"We don't really do any of this kind of reading and writing at school . . . I mean, it seems totally different."

School literacies (writing essays, reading poetry, and locating information in the library, for example) represent only a small range of the myriad ways in which adults in our society engage meaningfully with print in order to accomplish things in their lives. Consider, for example, these questions: How do you read a voters' pamphlet? What does it mean to take "minutes" at a meeting? When (if at all) do you decide to read or write letters to the editor? The literacy practices in our communities are far more broad-based than what most of our students typically encounter in schools, and young people have varying levels of access to developing the social literacy practices that mark adults as active members of those communities.

For the most part, we all agree that it matters whether students take up the literacy practices to which they are introduced in schools. We understand that seeing themselves as successful readers and writers in the academic world will help to shape the kinds of decisions that young people make about their future. Students who feel confident summarizing short texts and turning out research reports are more likely to be comfortable staying in school. Our hope is that access to these literacy practices will help teens develop identities that include visions of higher education and career-oriented paths. But do school literacies offer access to other paths as well?

Much of what youth learn about reading and writing happens outside of school and that matters too. As with in-school literacies, out-of-school literacies interact with young people's identities. When young people identify with religious groups or with community activists or with sports teams they are more likely to take up the associated literacy practices, such as Bible study, petitioning, or reading statistics. In turn, when teens feel competent to engage in the reading and writing necessary for participation in such groups, they are more likely to stay connected. After-school programs are of particular interest as many young people are involved with a variety of activities that give them the opportunity to explore both social roles and literacy practices (Heath & McLaughlin, 1993).

How Can After-School Programs Support Out-of-School Literacies?
What do after-school literacy practices look like? How can we support youth so that they take up community-based literacy practices and begin to see themselves as contributing members of the adult communities around them? Recently, I completed a year-long ethnographic study in one after-school program in an urban setting in the Pacific Northwest. The program, which I call CITY, was designed to introduce teens to leadership skills and civic involvement. CITY drew a diverse group of teens from across the metropolitan area. Each week the group met to learn different leadership strategies and to meet active adult community members. What follows is a description of five ways that this one after-school program supported high-school aged youth in the development of new literacies.

Introducing the Language and Genres of Community Literacy Practices
Civic involvement actually entails a range of literacy practices and languages. Adult community members who visited the CITY program wove reading and writing practices into their talk about their work. Whether it was figuring out the difference between a coalition and an alliance, learning how to decipher a voters' pamphlet, or writing a successful grant application, the youth in the CITY program were engaged. They wanted to learn how to "talk the talk" and understood the power of being able to read and write certain types of text. When I asked Alan, a teen who described himself as a revolutionary, about his interest in these literacy practices, he explained, "Everybody talks about 'the system' or 'the man' or whatever you want to call it, the bureaucracy . . . I don't think it's reasonable to expect to be able to change something unless you really understand how it is now, you know, how it functions."

Providing Models of Literate Engagement
Adult models show youth how real people use real reading and writing for real purposes. In demonstrating the ways in which they engaged in literacy practices, the community adults who visited CITY provided strong models. "What students need in developing their own identities is contact with a variety of adults who are willing to invite them into their own adulthood . . . to open mutual forms of engagement that can be an invitation to participation" (Wenger, 1998). When a professional advocate came to a CITY session, not only did she show the youth how she would go about creating a message for speaking to policy makers, she invited several to come with her to speak to the governor. Sherrie, who hoped eventually to become a lawyer, excitedly shared her own experience of going with the director of a local coalition to speak to a city council member. She was animated as she told the group that it really was like what the advocate had told them, she said, "She did all these things!"

Facilitating and Mentoring Youth into Community Literacy Practices
While role models can be important, CITY teens valued something more. They wanted to be taken seriously enough to become a "real" part of community activities. Mentors go beyond showing what success looks like; they help youth see themselves as potentially successful. Mentors "exemplify and take an interest so that the adolescent can measure himself or herself while feeling invited to join" (Josselson, 1994, p. 23). Lesley, CITY's official "facilitator" often acted as a mentor to Callie, who was working with CITY as an intern that year. Callie enjoyed the fact that Lesley was always providing her with resources for getting involved, but also that she gave her responsibilities—writing agendas and dealing with budgets, among other tasks. Callie was pleased to be able to get those tasks accomplished.

Creating a Safe Space for Trying on New Literacies and New Identities
CITY provided teens with opportunities for being involved in their own way and at their level of comfort. They could give something a try in a way that approximated the real thing, without worrying about making a mistake. Eric, who was also an intern with CITY, described another after-school program, explaining that the beauty of activities like writing legislation for a mock congress is that you don't have to worry about "unintended consequences." Despite her experiences as an actress, Gwen, a high school junior said she valued the chance to "practice talking in front of the group . . . I guess I always thought of myself as kind of a weak public speaker . . . I really actually kind of learned to love speaking in front of people." CITY offered a safe space to explore.

Honoring Youth as they Make Literacy Practices their Own
One of the joys (and challenges) of youth is that they often question current practices and push the limits of what adults sometimes see as "acceptable" expression. They have their own ideas about how things should be done. When the topic of news media came up in a CITY session, the teens started sharing their alternative and covert media practices – Alan's Hip Hop newsletter complete with compilation cd's, Callie's 'zine called The Skinny and Liz's dramatic videos. While adult community members may not always feel comfortable with youth approaches to literacy practices, they can offer teens opportunities to both explore adult-like literacy practices and begin to assume the identities which accompany them. They can also learn to appreciate and learn from the unique perspectives and contributions that youth have to offer.

Why Do Out-of-School Literacies Matter?
Yukio's experience in CITY shows how powerful out-of-school literacy practices can be when youth feel compelled to take them up and make them their own. Early on, Yukio explained to me that he didn't see himself as a leader and wasn't comfortable with language. He preferred to be quietly "on the side" and chose math and sports over reading and writing activities. Towards the end of the CITY program, Yukio made the decision to hold a "teach-in" to protest the war. He gave me a detailed account of working through his plans to create and distribute three different kinds of flyers rather than send email announcements, which he felt weren't as personal. He talked about his commitment to making the teach-in work, and how he paid for the materials with his own money. Not only was the teach-in so successful that it made the evening news, a local organization paid Yukio back for his expenses. A few weeks after the CITY program ended I attended a city-wide youth event. Yukio proudly stood up in front of a group of over 300 other young people and told them, in a speech he wrote himself, that they, too, could become leaders in their communities.

Policy-makers have noted concern over what goes on with children in after-school hours; and there is a need to understand how involvement in after-school programs may or may not support youth (Eidman-Aadahl, 2002). After school programs have the potential to help teens connect to adults in the community. These adults can provide the modeling and scaffolding necessary for youth to take up new literacy practices and to assume the identities that accompany these practices. Are schools aware of the important out-of-school literacies that youth are exploring? Do after-school programs and organizations that involve youth understand the role they play in introducing reading and writing practices? Working together, schools and after-school programs could have a powerful reciprocal relationship that would provide more youth with the invitation and support they need to become active and literate adults in our communities.


Eidmann-Aadahl, E. (2002). Got some time, got a place, got the word: Collaborating for literacy learning and youth development. In G. Hull & K. Schultz (Eds.), School's out! Bridging out-of-school literacies with classroom practice (pp. 241-260). New York: Teachers College Press.

Heath, S. B., & McLaughlin, M. W., Eds. (1993). Identity and inner-city youth: Beyond ethnicity and gender. New York: Teachers College Press.

Josselson, R. (1994a). The theory of identity development and the question of intervention: An introduction. In S. L. Archer (Ed.), Interventions for adolescent identity development (pp. 12-25). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: University press.

About the author

Tracy L. Coskie is an assistant professor of literacy in the Elementary Education Department at Western Washington University and director of the Pacific Northwest Children's Literature Clearinghouse. She received her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction with a focus on language, literacy, and culture from the University of Washington. She can be contacted at

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