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Magda Becker Soares

Magda Becker Soares: The power of language

Educator from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) discusses the challenges of initial reading instruction and literacy training and the importance of research that focuses on practice

The teacher in the library in her home, in the city of Belo Horizonte: research in education and influence on public policies

GLAUCIA RODRIGUESThe teacher in the library in her home, in the city of Belo Horizonte: research in education and influence on public policiesGLAUCIA RODRIGUES

A few days after she met with the team of reporters in her home in the city of Belo Horizonte, state of Minas Gerais, educator Magda Becker Soares boarded a naval hospital ship that provides care for people who live along the Rio Negro, in the state of Amazônia. In her suitcase she had children’s books to hand out. At age 83, she was awarded the 2015 Almirante Álvaro Alberto Prize and the trip was part of the prize package, in addition to a certificate, a medal and the sum of R$200,000. The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) awards Brazil’s highest science and technology prize through a partnership with the Conrado Wessel Foundation and the Brazilian Navy. “I’ll need a few shots, but other than that, I’m ready for it,” Soares says when asked about how she will manage such a long trip.

Since graduating from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in the 1950s with an undergraduate degree in Letters (languages and literature), Soares has attempted to link her theoretical research work in the field of initial reading instruction and literacy training with practices that could help children learn while being useful to teachers. For Soares, research is a way of understanding and acting. “I don’t believe that publishing a scientific article is sufficient in the field of education,” she says.

Her career has been influenced by public policies, such as the National Program of Libraries in Schools, and the publication of collections of textbooks between the 1960s and 1980s. In the 1960s her work was innovative because she proposed teaching Portuguese to children using everyday publications, such as comic books and news reports. Even though Soares retired 13 years ago, rest and relaxation are out of the question for her. Three times a week, she travels to Lagoa Santa, a city in Minas Gerais 35 km from Belo Horizonte, where she is working on a project with teachers and students.

UFMG (undergraduate, doctorate and associate professor)
Scientific Production:
Over 80 scientific articles and 26 books. Soares served as advisor for 62 master’s degree and 10 PhD candidates

How did you find out that you had won the prize?
Minister Aldo Rebelo, from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation [MCTI], called me. I was surprised and I even thought it was a joke. This prize is highly regarded in the field of science and academia. I was only the third woman to receive the prize. I called attention to this in my speech. I am not a feminist, but I think that women have made a major contribution to the sciences but are definitely in the minority in terms of winning the prize. The second surprise is that I was the first person to win the prize from the field of education.

Why do you think they chose you?
Perhaps because, of the many women and men who have contributed to education, I dedicated my work to a field that is essential for Brazil: education and learning. My career path was geared toward teaching children who attend public schools and are among the disadvantaged classes of society. In addition, I have always worked with the native language, and with learning the written language in particular.

You considered majoring in the exact sciences right?
That’s right. The change was not from the field of exact sciences to the field of education; rather, it was to social sciences applied to the field of languages and literature. I realize that I was making a dramatic change. My intent was to major in the field of the exact sciences. I did my college preparatory work [the equivalent of high school today], with heavy emphasis on chemistry and physics. I have always enjoyed studying. I often say that I was practically born at the university. My father, Caio Líbano Soares, was a psychiatrist and professor at UFMG. He would go to his laboratory at the School of Pharmacy, down the street on the corner near the house where we lived. This made me want to pursue a university life and study the exact sciences.

What made you change your mind?
It happened while I was preparing for the university entrance exam. I wasn’t sure if I would do better in chemical engineering or another field of engineering with a focus on physics. In my last year of high school, I’d had a Portuguese teacher, Angela Leão, who was completing her studies in literature. I had no idea that there were majors in Letters. At the time, around 1949, we’d only heard about majors in engineering, medicine and law. I knew that dentistry and pharmacy existed because my father worked in those schools, but I did not know that there was a school of philosophy with several majors. Back then, philosophy schools were brand new. I found the work of this teacher, who was still studying, absolutely fascinating. She opened the doors of literature for me.

Did you have any contact with literature before that?
I always read a lot. But in school I never had any training in literature. Today I think about how much time I lost. In 1950 I started the program in Letters. At that time we studied content only for three years, and then there was one year of teaching disciplines. I majored in Romance Languages and Literature, in which we studied five languages and the literature of each one. The languages were Latin, Portuguese, French, Italian and Spanish. For anyone who likes to read, as I do, this window into several languages and different sets of literature was a big plus.

At what point did you become interested in initial reading and writing instruction?
It came about because of another dramatic change. I had just about completed my undergraduate degree and was approached to work as a teaching assistant at the university. At the same time, Colégio Izabela Hendrix invited me to teach Portuguese there. I decided I would enjoy the experience of teaching children. I began teaching at Izabela Hendrix and just after that I moved over to the state and municipal public school systems. This was the major turning point in my academic life and professional life. When I began teaching in the public school system, one thing really shocked me. And it has been the basis for my research, my studies and my publications.

What was it that shocked you?
In the municipal system, I realized just how much discrimination there was and the differences between the education I had as a member of the middle class and the education in the two schools where I taught:  private schools and public schools. The children in the public school system were taught less. From that time on, I focused completely on fighting this difference in the education of the different social classes.

Just what was the difference? Is it still there?
Yes, it’s still there. For example, there are differences in the physical space where the children study. Colégio Izabela Hendrix was beautiful; it took up two city blocks and there was an athletic field and a swimming pool. In the public school the infrastructure was and in almost all cases still is in horrible condition. However, what struck me most was the attitude of the teachers toward those children. They believed that the students didn’t care about learning, that their vocabulary was poor and that their mothers were illiterate. But they were intelligent children who wanted to learn. What has always troubled me is the type of relationship that exists between teachers, administrators and children in the public schools.

So you were you interested in bridging the gap between university research and public school education?
I was invited to replace a teacher at the UFMG Colégio de Aplicação, and at the same time work on practices for teaching Portuguese at the School of Philosophy. I started to discuss those issues that troubled me with the students at the school. Because I taught Portuguese in the public schools, the question of language was fundamental in this interaction with future teachers. I began to dig deeper inside to understand who the children in the disadvantaged classes were as well as their relationships with the adults that taught them. As a result of a lot of reading and some research, I published the book entitled Linguagem e escola: uma perspectiva social (Language and School: A Social Perspective) [Editora Ática] in 1986.  In it I discuss the concepts that explain the good or bad results of children from the disadvantaged classes: Were they lacking a “gift” for studying? Were they learning disabled? Were they different? When I was young, people said: so-and-so has a gift for Portuguese or for mathematics. The ideology of a “gift” had been around for a long time.

With students in the Lagoa Santa school system in the state of Minas Gerais: Soares has been working with this project since she retired

Ceale/UFMG CollectionWith students in the Lagoa Santa school system in the state of Minas Gerais: Soares has been working with this project since she retiredCeale/UFMG Collection

And it still is, isn’t it?
Yes it is. Even today there is this myth of the genuinely gifted and brilliant student. But after the disadvantaged classes won the right to go to school, that was when the difference emerged. At that time, a number of books that addressed this issue of “different” students began to arrive in schools. For a long time our education system was for middle class children only. Once schools became more accessible to all classes, Professor Miguel Arroyo, a colleague of mine from the university, said that public schools “hitched a ride” on middle class schools, and they were imposed on children who were not from the middle class. Since their backgrounds were different, they began to be identified as “learning disabled.” In reality, they were only different. After that, I geared my research toward identifying the reasons for the academic failures of children in public schools. I wanted to show that they were not learning disabled and that it was the education they were given that was the issue.

What impact did this idea have at that time?
My book Language and School, published back then, showed that differences are treated as learning disabilities because schools do not recognize differences and do not know how to deal with them. It is unfortunate that even though the book dates back to the 1980s, it is still being published. It is now in its 18th edition and it still being used heavily in teaching courses. It’s unfortunate because it has become obvious that the problem of discrimination against children in public schools is ongoing.

How important do you think your involvement in education policy projects is?
For me, research has always been a way to understand how to act. I don’t think that publishing a scientific article is sufficient in the field of education, especially in a country like Brazil, where public education is still so problematic. During the military dictatorship, for example, I was criticized when I accepted an invitation from Jarbas Passarinho, who was Minister of Education at that time, to help draft the 1971 National Education Guidelines and Framework Law. Actually, the invitation came from the president of the University of Brasília [UnB] at that time, Caio Benjamin Dias, who was from Minas Gerais and was familiar with my work. At the time, many students and teachers fought against the oppression and defended the university from military interference. Back then, we believed that we had to try to gain access through holes in the political system. Based on this strategy, I accepted Passarinho’s invitation. I spent two or three months in Brasília. I must say that it was a clear-headed commission of educators and that there was no military interference.

You wrote textbooks for students and manuals for teachers. Was this also a way of putting the results of your research into practice?
I have always advocated that researchers, particularly those in the field of education, should produce and socialize knowledge. Merely producing knowledge and remaining isolated in the ivory tower is more convenient, but it is not socially just. One of the avenues I found was writing textbooks to implement language-related and pedagogical theories on teaching languages, because by doing so I reach the schools and the books get into the hands of teachers and students. The teachers are given the same book as the students, and the only difference is that the teacher’s copy includes commentary and conceptual discussions, as a way for me to converse with them. It was a way to train students as well as teachers.

How can you reconcile theory with the simple language of textbooks?
This is very tricky for anyone who does research in the humanities and social sciences. I can’t understand why people, through research, understand reality but fail to act to change it. In my case, simplification without distortion is a requirement for transposing the knowledge that is produced into educational action, and that’s no easy task. Detailed knowledge of content is necessary to simplify without distorting, and children and teachers have to be able to understand it. I would say that writing a scientific article and publishing it for my peers is easier than writing a textbook, because in the first case I am simply reporting my research to my fellow workers. Using the results of research to translate it into initial reading and writing instruction practices is a monumental task. You have to think about where the children are in their phase of development, their cognitive processes, their language development, the characteristics of the purpose of knowledge, the written language, and the teacher as well.

What conceptual basis did you use when you wrote the textbooks?
My first collection, from the 1960s, was entitled Português através de textos (Portuguese through Texts). In it I proposed a way of teaching that looked at Portuguese as text rather than as grammar (which was how it was done at that time). One of my research projects showed that elementary school children do not have the means to understand language—the grammar of the language, which is highly complex— as a system. In that phase, from age 11 to 13, children are in what Jean Piaget referred to as the formal operational stage. For example, nouns and adjectives and coordinate and subordinate clauses are concepts that children do not yet grasp.

Is that why you decided to use newspaper articles and comics to teach children how to read and write?
In that first collection of textbooks, I used literary texts only. That was the concept for teaching Portuguese at that time. In my research, I observed that teaching that was heavily based on grammar failed to turn children into readers and give them the ability to produce appropriate texts. Action sprang from this understanding: it was to produce a different collection of textbooks. Society was changing, children were changing, and they began to be bombarded by advertising, comic strips, the Turma da Mônica (Monica’s Group), etc. Therefore, it was necessary to maintain the use of literary texts, but also to develop reading capabilities in these other genres. There was also another rather significant event that made me realize this. At the time, I traveled to a school in the city of Juiz de Fora where my books were being used. I asked the teacher if I could sit in on the class, staying in the back of the room without saying a word. I also asked her  to say nothing about me to the students. At the end of the class, the teacher took the liberty of saying: “And now I’m going to let you in on a secret: Do you know who that is sitting in the back of the room observing our class? It’s Magda Soares, the author of our book.” And one little boy asked: “So that means she’s still alive?” And at that moment I realized that the boy thought that a book’s author was someone who had already died.

Is this because authors seem distant and intangible?
Those children were 10 or 11 years old and the idea that the author was already dead was yet another shocking event in my life: books were something that did not seem to belong to their time. I assure you that if at that time my book had made reference to comic books and advertising, the little boy would never have asked if the author was dead.

How did you stumble upon the literacy issue?
Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was my great guru in this respect. He showed how language is used as an instrument of power in society. Therefore it is important to give people this instrument. The disadvantaged classes have to fight hard against discrimination and injustice, and language is a basic tool. The purpose of initial reading instruction and literacy is to give people the power of language as an instrument for gaining access to society and fighting for fundamental rights. With regard to the written language, children have to learn two things.  One is the system of representation, which is the alphabet system. This is a process that involves certain cognitive operations and has to take the characteristics of the alphabet system into consideration. It means knowing how to decode what is written or how to code what you want to write. But this should be done in the context of literacy training, with real texts, and not with the classic example of “see Spot run.” Who is Spot? Where is Spot running to? Learning how to read and write the traditional way was encapsulated as coding and decoding, because the focus was on children learning only the code. But the issue is that children need to learn the code as well as the purpose it serves.

Does this mean learning how to develop social practices in initial reading and writing instruction?
Writing is a technology like any other. Learning to write is important, and so is understanding the relationship between phonemes and letters, as well as knowing that you write starting at the top and go down, from left to right, and you learn writing conventions. But this technology, like any technology, only makes sense if it is used to learn how to interpret texts, make inferences, read different genres and determine what things mean. It also requires other skills and abilities. Learning the writing system occurs through initial reading instruction. Learning the social practices of the writing system is literacy.

Do education policies take this distinction into consideration?
Training teachers to teach the written language and even to teach any content is the major bottleneck in education. The government and the ministry are worried about training teachers, but in a way, as I see it, they are missing the mark. There is no ongoing or sustained effort. Teacher training must be changed. Until this happens, we won’t be going anywhere.

With Hernan Chaimovich, president of the CNPq, and Minister Aldo Rebelo, receiving the Álvaro Alberto Prize

Cristina Lacerda / ABCWith Hernan Chaimovich, president of the CNPq, and Minister Aldo Rebelo, receiving the Álvaro Alberto PrizeCristina Lacerda / ABC

Schools have accepted children with disabilities, unlike in the past. What impact is this having?
All children have the right to be included in the mainstream education system, regardless of any problems they may have. Today, children with special needs are being mainstreamed. This is a very good thing. However, teachers are not trained or prepared to teach these children. I see another problem: every year the number of children considered “capable of being mainstreamed” grows in schools. You can’t have that many autistic children in the mainstream of the school systems. I have seen classes that are said to have four or five autistic children. This seems unreasonable from the medical and psychological standpoints.

What do you mean by that?
The proposal has always been to mainstream anyone who has what are called special needs, but then it came to be that any difficulty was considered a “special need.” For example, special needs children were those considered to have a mental delay of three or four years. I disagree. In general, this is not about a mental delay; it’s about the delay in teaching that creates a delay in learning. Here’s another example: a boy who is simply unable to keep quiet and be patient enough to follow along in class is diagnosed as hyperactive and given a prescription for Ritalin [a drug used for hyperactivity and attention deficit]. The boy is active, but nothing more; his attention span is short. Teachers as well as schools need to know how to work with these children and not immediately hand them off to professionals in other fields.

Can you talk about the creation of the Center for Literacy, Initial reading and writing instruction (Ceale), which you founded at UFMG?
It was the outcome of a research proposal that I submitted to CNPq 25 years ago. I wanted to build what could be considered “state of the art” in initial reading and writing instruction in Brazil: a survey of research that had already been done to identify the gaps where research was needed. The project was approved and thus began the process of a laborious survey of all the theses and dissertations on initial reading and writing instruction in Brazil up to that time. We discovered that the first work on initial reading and writing instruction research was an associate professor’s thesis defended in the 1960s in São Paulo. At a time when there was still no database of theses or dissertations at Capes [Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education], the survey was conducted by telephone calls and contacts with libraries all over Brazil. We identified topics that were worthy of further research as well as topics on which there had been no work. In time, we began to participate in extension activities in public schools and collaborate with the Ministry of Education in initial reading instruction and literacy programs. This center has succeeded in the difficult task of being a research group, a graduate program in the UFMG School of Education and a center for collaboration on public policies in the field of language—all at the same time.

Paulo Freire was a friend of yours. How does your work compare to his?
It seems to me that we work under the same assumptions, with the same ideas, and with the same utopia. I don’t think that Paulo Freire’s main contribution was a method of initial reading instruction. There is no such thing as the so-called “Paulo Freire method of learning to read.” His great contribution was the political vision of learning to read and fight against illiteracy. For initial reading and writing instruction, his contribution was that initial reading instruction should not be taught using “see Spot run,” but rather, words and texts that came from a reality a person could identify with. Paulo Freire focused first and foremost on initial reading instruction for adults. My focus is on initial reading instruction for children. In teaching a laborer to read, one has to use the word “brick” for example. When I teach children to read, I work with the words “doll” or “ball.” I do this so that the person learns the written language as an instrument of social and cultural inclusion and a way to fight for one’s rights. The most powerful social weapon for fighting is mastering language. That’s how the ruling classes dominate. This was the vision that Paulo Freire had and that I have.

You retired at the age of 70. What have you done in recent years?
I work as a volunteer in the Lagoa Santa municipal school system. When I left the university, I wanted to go back to the public schools to search for the connection between the theories I studied or constructed and practices in the classroom. We conducted a project with the goal of having all 24 schools in the municipality advance in terms of quality of education. When a new administration took over the municipality eight years ago, the Secretary of Education was shocked by the poor results in initial reading and writing instruction in the system and asked me for suggestions and ideas. I visited the schools and proposed a program that would reach the entire system. The project was named Paralfaletrar, which means improving both initial reading instruction and literacy at the same time. The project was organized by teachers and the results have been outstanding: the Basic Education Development Index (Ideb) in the municipality rose more than expected and the results of the students in external evaluations are always better than the state or national averages.

Has the issue of learning to read and write been resolved in Brazil?
No. I myself have had undergraduate and graduate students who find it difficult to understand and write texts. Educators frequently complain about this. The source of the problem is substandard teaching in basic education. In the 1950s and 1960s, we opened up the schools to students from the disadvantaged classes, albeit belatedly. And now we are doing the same thing in higher education. We are solving the quantity issue at both levels but not the quality issue. This is the problem with education in Brazil. Our efforts are focused solely on increasing the number of desks in the classroom. What is lacking is the quality of teaching and hence, of learning.