Literacy Learning in Migrants’ Homelands: How Emigration Benefits Those Left Behind
Kate Vieira

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Wisconsin, Madison

Primary Discipline

Literacy and/or English/Language Education
Literacy Learning in Migrants’ Homelands: How Emigration Benefits Those Left Behind How do people use literacy to remain close when they are far? And what new kinds of literacy learning result from long-distance separation? Literacy Learning in Migrants’ Homelands answers these questions through a tri-continental study of transnational families and their use of letters, phones, and computers to communicate across borders. While much research addresses migrant literacy in host countries, this project asks how mass migration shapes writing in migrants’ homelands. Based on ethnographic and qualitative research in Brazil, Latvia, and the U.S., early results show that emigration can actually promote informal literacy learning among separated families, as they develop new literacy skills to sustain relationships. Specifically, homeland residents often receive what I am calling “writing remittances”—the letters, emails, chats, and laptops that migrants send home to their loved ones. I compare writing remittances’ use among migrants’ family members in two home communities—one marked by mass out-migration (in Latvia) and the other with modest out-migration (in Brazil). In a third field site, this time in a community of Latin American and Eastern European migrants in the Midwest, I examine how migrants view their engagement in this kind of homeland literacy education. Using this comparative and transnational design, the project traces the material paths through which migration drives new kinds of literacy learning, as people take up, exchange, and invest writing remittances in local and global circuits of exchange. In doing so, it seeks to make both a theoretical and a pedagogical contribution to our understanding of literacy education: Theoretically, by detailing the local consequences of the global circulation of literacy, this project rethinks key literacy concepts, such as literacy’s ability to travel, from a transnational, digital, and materialist perspective. Pedagogically, this study offers educators a community-based model of global digital literacy practice from which to develop curricula. An examination of this widespread but overlooked phenomenon–migration-driven literacy learning–is vital at a moment of rapid technological innovation and globalization, both of which intensify demands on contemporary literacies. For more information on the project and participating communities, please visit
About Kate Vieira
I am an associate professor of English in the Composition and Rhetoric program and a faculty affiliate in the Second Language Acquisition program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and have also served on the writing studies faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. My research agenda is to develop new theories of literacy that reflect pressing 21st century trends: namely, the cross-border movement of people, global economic inequality, and rapidly changing technologies of communication.I meet these goals in two ways: 1) through grounded ethnographies of ordinary immigrants’ literacy practices; and 2) through engagement with scholarship across disciplines, including literacy studies, migration studies, education, socio-linguistics, anthropology, and writing studies.My interests in literacy and migration stem from my teaching background: elementary school English as a Second Language in Dallas, Texas and high school English as a Foreign Language with the Peace Corps in Daugavpils, Latvia. From these diverse teaching experiences, I learned that for literacy education to be successful, particularly in marginalized communities, it is essential for educators to understand students’ out-of-school literacy practices and the larger political and economic contexts that shape them.These intellectual and social concerns drove my doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin and are wedded in my first book, American by Paper: How Documents Matter in Immigrant Literacy (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). An ethnography of documented and undocumented migrants, the book shows how legal status impinges on migrants’ access to and experiences of literacy. It moves scholarship on immigrant literacy beyond concerns with language to call attention to literacy’s material artifacts, such as Green Cards and passports, that link migrants to the larger governmental institutions that regulate their mobility. Research associated with this book has been published in Written Communication, College English, and Literacy in Composition Studies.I am currently working to extend these insights about literacy’s materiality and its imbrication in larger political and economic currents–what I am calling its “socio-materiality”– in a second book project that asks how emigration shapes literacy learning in migrants’ homelands, among left-behind family members. I’m honored to have received a Spencer Foundation small grant, a Vilas Associates Award from the University of Wisconsin, a Department of Education research grant from the University of Illinois, and now the National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral fellowship for work on this second book project, described below.

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