Presentation Details

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Eleventh International Literacy and Education Research Network Conference on Learning

"Primitives" and Pencils: The Social Construct of Preliteracy

John Duffy.

The concept of "preliteracy" has long held a singular fascination for Western academics, many of whom have looked to the presence or absence of literacy within cultures to explain a wide range of human behaviors, including variations in cognitive development (Goody and Watt, 1968), communicative patterns (Ong, 1973), and learning styles (Walker-Moffat, 1995). Interest in "preliteracy" has been particularly pronounced in education, where it has functioned as a rationale for innovations in pedagogy and curriculum development (Hvitfeldt, 1992).

This paper argues that "preliteracy" is less an empirical category than it is a social construct applied to non-Western and non-industrial cultures whose educational opportunities have been historically suppressed. The paper agues that the identity of "preliterate" devalues the peoples to whom it is applied by 1) situating them within a nineteenth century narrative of "primitiveness," 2) offering a deficit model of literacy education that restricts the range of social and economic possibilities available to learners beyond the classroom.

To illustrate, the paper details the literacy history of the Hmong of Laos, a refugee people in the United States commonly described as "preliterate." Using oral testimonies collected from Hmong refugees, the paper demonstrates how Hmong "preliteracy" can be understood as a consequence of Hmong relationships with more powerful peoples, including Chinese, French, and Laotian governments, and the United States CIA during the Vietnam War, that resulted in the suppression of literacy.


John Duffy  (United States)
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

  • Preliteracy
  • Literacy
  • Hmong
  • Rhetoric

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)