Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Early Childhood Education and Literacy Studies

Major Professor

James R. King, Ed.D.

Co-Major Professor

Susan Homan, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Janna Jones, Ph.D.


Literacy, Youth culture, Community service


The dominant ideology driving the current educational reform movement positions adolescents as deficient in basic literacy skills. To address this deficiency, the trend has been to implement high-stakes standardized literacy tests and increase accountability to schools for developing basic literacy skills. Opposing this Discourse of “deficient youth,” literacy researchers have moved to adolescents’ cultural spheres of life beyond school to discover that traditional structures for teaching literacy appear to have resulted in a growing dissonance between literacies that take place within schools and those employed by youth in their personal worlds.

This research was conducted to explore how adolescents constructed and represented themselves through “literate youth” Discourses within a service-learning community of learners, in order to understand the potential ways a service-learning instructional approach builds from adolescents’ personal literacies to engage youth in literacy practices in school contexts. Framed by the convergence of sociocultural theory, Discourse theory, and a multiple worlds model of adolescence and a critical ethnographic multiple case study design, this study examined the literate lives of 11 urban middle school students engaged in an environmental service-learning club. The multiple sources of data collected across various contexts during the course of this year-long study included: (1) ethnographic field notes; (2) home/family interviews; (3) visual data (video, photographs); (4) student interviews and focus groups; and (5) teacher interviews.

Analysis of the data was conducted by combining Critical Discourse Analysis and event mapping to account for both the observable literacy practices and the driving ideological motivation for enacting these practices. The findings demonstrate that the this service-learning community represented a Third Space where personal and academic literate Discourses worked together to negotiate new knowledge, new Discourses, and new forms of literacy. These Third Space literate Discourses were constructed through a process of negotiation between three elements of the literate events: power, practices, and positions. By mapping levels of engagement with the various outcomes of these negotiations a Service-Learning Model of Engagement was constructed. This model serves to challenge previous notions of literacy engagement by emphasizing the interaction of various dimensions of engagement: voice, relevance, and knowledge. As a starting point from which to further theory on how service-learning as a pedagogy may support literacy learning for adolescents, this study provides evidence that service learning contexts may serve as alternative spaces to engage students in using literacy in school settings, if these three dimensions are considered. Similarly, this study also suggests that service-learning contexts can serve as spaces where students can learn new literate Discourse with and from each other.