Language, Literacy and Numeracy as Unfolding Skills

Language, literacy and numeracy are learned progressively in key spaces, which come to shape future uses and come to influence what is spoken about, what is read and what is calculated. 

I want to paint a picture of the child who is regularly engaged in conversation, regularly engaged in reading and writing and who is regularly engaged in calculating. I want to paint the picture of skills and concepts being developed (one on top of the other) carefully so that the range of cultural uses of the tools are acquired (not just one narrow band). I want to paint a picture in which the consolidation of one skill or the revelation of something read or written merely becomes the blueprint of what is to come next. 

The child evokes imaginative play, cautionary advice, reflective practice on information, assessment of quantities, and more. The adults in a child's life initiate the child in the practices which will become more and more demanding over time. Every text read and written will become a template for the next. And every numerical question solved will be used to influence those to come. There is no silver bullet for the ongoing skills which are acquired. Quick fix educators may hope to resolve issues of language, literacy and numeracy without appealing to the hundreds to thousands of encounters which contribute to their development, but the fact of the matter remains: learning to read, write, speak and calculate requires hundreds and thousands of encounters with more advanced peers and adults providing feedback, establishing expectations, providing encouragement and shaping practice. As mentioned before, the consolidation of one skill becomes the platform for those to come. Beyond this, one needs regular reminders of the value of reading, writing, speaking and calculating, (if I am to remind anyone who struggles to balance a budget or interpret rates of interest on a loan. ["I remember doing this before, but it has been oh so long!!"]).

I want to equally paint a picture that these same skills developed early on shape - let's say - the university student who reads carefully for information, interfacing with the text to construct and to critique the knowledge contained therein. I want to present an image of the individual who pauses to create the family budget, since this "was modelled in school and I remember my mother doing it all the time." I want to paint a picture of an apprentice carpenter who must measure, design and fit a space. I want to paint a picture in which we engage in stories, we engage in reports, we engage in email correspondence, we engage in budgets and forecasts … we engage in a whole host of practices that become more nuanced over time in the demands faced in the stream of living as we become more competent with the symbolism and we become more aware of the significance of new content and its applicability to contexts (to ways of being, acting and knowing).

What I want to suggest is that language, literacy and numeracy are not foundational, at all. The skills are developed in tandem with ways of knowing, ways of acting and ways of believing. It is just that the focus moves from acquiring the basics of the symbolic tools to a progressive focus on engaging with the content encoded in the symbols, which still require deciphering, decoding and projecting. This is why there is an imperative that learners "develop the basics" early on, since our information age requires that learners move from controlling symbolic systems to applying and interpreting them. 

There are many factors that threaten one's ability to consolidate skills, adopt practices and foster knowledge. And these can lead to tragic consequences. These include regular disruption to one's learning, lack of regular attendance (e.g. at school), and stress and distraction in the learning space. It also include poor access to quality teaching, poor early learning experiences and lack of learning resources across the home, community and school contexts. It also includes insensitivities in formal places of learning that fail to recognise the funds of knowledge that the learners brings to the environment, do not recognise that there are different cultural ways of learning, and do not properly monitor and intervene when learners require extra assistance to consolidate skills. 

Perhaps, the most pressing barrier occurs when skills learned in one settings are not consolidated or reinforced more broadly. Ever ESL teacher knows the consequences of the summer holiday break, when emerging English learners go for 2 to 3 months without regular practice. The teacher faces the challenge to rebuild skills. More daunting, though, is when a learner resides in a family or community environment of chronic poverty and long term unemployment. If the learner is not surrounded by those who are supportive, then it can be a challenge find opportunities to apply, consolidate and extend that which has been learnt. 

As the following diagram suggests, ideal scenarios involve learners who share attention and intent, engage in a full learning cycle, and encounter opportunities to practice and reinforce the skills and knowledge. A full learning sequence is engaged in in which individuals or the whole group gain emerging skills to more consolidated skills to further opportunities that lead to consolidation and mastery, which may then lead to extensions of the skill. That skill can equally apply to learning spelling words to responding to a novel to learning how to calculate probabilities to fixing a car engine whilst regularly appealing to a manual, diagram or other guiding text. 


If I am able to make a final note, the last diagram reinforce that learning is a social and material practice. As activity theorist emphasise, learning does not take place in a vacuum.

ACTIVITY SYSTEMS - An activity system describes the interaction between people and resources with certain intended outcomes. An activity system involves the integration of

  • instruments (various tools and technologies),
  • rules (norms of use), and
  • division of labor (the differential expertise of different actors in the system).

Various other relationships in the model capture the diverse ways in which:

  • subjects (actors),
  • the object (goal) of the activity system, and
  • the community (various types of actors in the system)

interrelate with each other and with the instruments, rules, and division of labor to achieve particular outcomes.