Managing a Balanced Approach to Literacy: Part Three

At one stage, I became very relaxed. I felt that I had come to a resolution. If someone walked up to me and asked, ‘what are the core components of literacy?’, I would be able to declare

  • — control
  • — comprehension
  • — practices


First, literacy is a notation which requires a significant amount of control over the linguistic system.

 "Just as in writing we learn a particular basic form of letters and then vary it later, so we learn first the stability of things as the norm, which is then subject to alteration." (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #473)

One main tenant of this is as follows, ‘overlearning the basics of decoding reduces the amount of mental effort to read.’ 

"This shape that I see - I want to say - is not simply a shape; it is one of the shapes I know; it is marked out in advance. It is one of those shapes of which I already had a pattern in me." (Wittgenstein, Zettel, #209)


Courtesy of Reading Hozisons

As Maryanne Wolf (2008) would say, the more fluent one becomes, the more cognitive space is made for higher order processes in reading (e.g. comprehension). The learner takes time to be able to develop the confidence to extract meaning from the written word.

"A script you can read fluently works on you differently from one that you can write; but not decipher easily. You lock up your thought up in this as though in a casket." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)


Wolf (2008) is quick to remind us that fluency provides the cognitive space for comprehension but this does not guarantee that the learner will make the leap to making meaning independently. Learning to read requires one to develop the habits of the mind that enables the learner to concentrate, visualise, process and get the gist of the text.

A thinker is very much like a draughtsman whose aim it is to represent all the interrelations between things. (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)

Reading is serious exercise for the brain, and the act of reading is the subject of the imagination and of the will. We must acknowledges that learners need considerable help to paint the pictures that are encoded in the squiggles that appear on the page.

Ask: What result am I aiming at when I tell someone: "Read attentively"? That, e.g. this and that should strike him, and he should be able to give an account of it. (Wittgenstein, Zettel, #91)


If we refer to the diagram to the left, we will see the significant range of cognitive activities that a reader must be encouraged to engage in to draw connections, pursues conclusions, and seek clarity.


And - indeed - James Paul Gee reminds us that, “After all, we never just read "in general", rather, we always read or write something in some way. We don't read or write newspapers, legal tracts, essays in literary criticism, poetry, or rap songs, and so on and so forth through a nearly endless list, in the same way. Each of these domains has its own rules and requirements.” (Gee, 2003, pg 28). Therefore,  “Even when we want to think about a child learning to read initially, we want to think about what sorts of texts we want the child eventually to be able to read in what sorts of ways. No learner grows up able to read all sorts of texts in all ways.” (Gee, 2003, pg 28)

In these cases, learning to read is embedded in certain practices - the things we do in the great hurly burly of life. "The pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying, have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, and so on) ... If it is part of teaching to undertake to validate these measures of interest, then it would be quite as if teaching must, as it were, undertake to show a reason for speaking at all.” (Cavell, 2005, pg 115) I think of terms like "intention", "expectation", and "purpose".

 “I shall in the future again and again draw your attention to what I shall call language games. There are ways of using signs simpler than those in which we use the signs of our highly complicated everyday language." (quoting Wittgenstein in Monk, 2005, p 69)


“Following a rule, making a report, giving an order, and so on, are customs, uses, practices or institutions. They presuppose a human society, and our form of life.” (Phillips, 1977, p 36) .

 “When the boy or grown-up learns what one might call specific technical languages, e.g. the use of charts and diagrams, descriptive geometry, chemical symbolism, etc. he learns more language games ... Here the term ‘language game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life ...” (Wittgenstein quoted in Phillips, 1977, pp 29 - 31)

It is this concept of language games that brings the final piece of the puzzle: acquiring the literacies (and numeracies) requires an understanding of literacy as part of authentic, real world practices. A balanced pedagogy requires the following: (a) regular, explicit instruction in linguistic features, (b) time spent on strengthening comprehension, and (c) embedding this development in authentic practices so that the learners are developing a repertoire of linguistics practices. 


More yet to come ... Zones of Proximal Development and Activity Systems .... 



  • Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In S. Cavell, Philosophy the day after tomorrow. (pp. 111 - 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  • Gee, J. P. (2003). Opportunity to learn: a language-based perspective on assessment. In Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol 10, No. 1, pp 27 - 46
  • Monk, R. (2005). How to read Wittgenstein. London: Granta Books.
  • Phillips, D. (1977). Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge. London: MacMillan Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • _____________ (1980). Culture and value. Translated by Peter Winch. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • _____________ (1969). On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by D. Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.