I am profoundly struck by a persistent image in my mind that - for me - both clarifies and reflects the challenges of learning to read and write. It is an image of a child moving from skill to skill, actively and with resilience. At times, there are spurts of growth. At other times, it can be hard going. It is an image in which the accumulation of carefully scaffolded experiences turns the child into a reader and a writer. It is an image in which there is significant care taken so that the learner is apprenticed into new practices and the learner is able to reach closure on old skills so as to build new ones. It is an image in which the child encounters new words and propositions, and the child can actively manipulate, refine and process the knowledge encoded in our words.
It is a precarious image. At any stage, the learning can become befuddling and the learner will be unable to progress. It is a progressive image. It is one in which the learner gains a control of the fundamentals, is initiated into different practices with language, and learns to use such learning actively and independently. It is important that the learner engages in the literacy, gradually comes to see the point, and works deliberately and meaningfully with suitable time spent thinking about the content, contexts and form of messages. The learner is encouraged to visualise, notice patterns and think critically.
I applaud those who advocate for early intervention in literacy for those children who are most at risk. I empathise with those who crave knowledge and desire to express but who become frustrated in the process of doing so. It is not only an early intervention challenge, though. It is an ongoing challenge to assist learners in developing the means through which to acquire the full reading and writing skills necessary to navigate economic, civic, interpersonal, aesthetic and other roles in the community. This requires the development of a repertoire of skills, not merely the foundations. It involves a growing awareness of language; an appreciation of form, content, context and audience; and a fostering of the non-verbal core of our living in which language and literacy play important roles.
I strive to express this understanding in new ways, so as to be able to convey what I can visualise but which I struggle to express in words. I will leave the reader with an diagram developed by Dr Neil J. Anderson of Brigham Young University that expresses an observation that I have found. The left of the diagram emphasises the need to monitor the development of ongoing language proficiencies, such as in phonological awareness, vocabulary development, and sentence development, which will be the reserves that the language and literate user will can upon in instances of reading and writing. The right of the diagram portrays those instances of reading and writing that call upon both verbal and non-verbal abilities. Each literacy event calls upon prior knowledge, previous experience, an understanding of purpose and context, visualisation and critical thinking skills, habits and routines, and motivation and goal-setting so that reading and writing events lead to comprehension, execution and learning.
I have written previously and will repeat here. I can sum up the importance of language and literacy in three words: independence, control, and participation. A person who speaks on his or her own behalf and who is a skilled reader and writer can independently advocate for him- or herself and navigate his or her own learning. And since literacy is a constructive skill (as Wittgenstein's picture theory suggests), the individual learns ways to control and critically reflect on experience. And the development of language and literacy skills amongst a community of practice allows one to participate in that group, to contribute to that group and to find a valued identity therein.
Literate individuals have benefited from enabling relationships as well as access to adequate spaces, time, resources and formative experiences that aid and reinforce what it means to be literate. It is indispensable to acknowledge that literate practices are refined in collaboration with others (having people to talk to, to read with and to write to).