Managing a Balanced Approach to Literacy: Part One

There is a concept in physics known as the Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. It holds that one can know the velocity of a particle and the position of a particle, but one cannot know both at the same time. In other words, one can know the exact velocity of a particle at a given time but not its exact position at that time. Similarly, one can know the exact position of a particle at a given time but not its exact velocity at that particular moment. 

I am proposing that there is a similar phenomenon - at least, metaphorically - that occurs in the circles of literacy pedagogy, which I will refer to as (drum roll, please) the Parallel Dimensions of Literacy. It holds that a teacher can foster a 'skills-based' literacy pedagogy and a teacher can establish a 'usage-based' literacy pedagogy, however, the teacher cannot use the same theoretical position to describe the two approaches to teaching. One must shift the paradigm as one moves between a focus on form to a focus on meaning. 

I am not suggesting that teachers must be one or the other. In truth, both approaches are required, and the best teachers at all levels are those who are equally equipped to develop and monitor core skills whilst providing rich opportunities for students to read, write, speak and learn in authentic, meaningful contexts. 

One can advocate for a skills approach which adheres to a deep knowledge of linguistic structures and focuses on structure development but which suffers from a decontextualised explanation of meaning that does not adequately address how conventional and cultural forms of meaning affect development. On the other hand, one can establish a rich environment in which learners explore (in reading) and express (in writing) knowledge and social activity, but the pedagogy can be seen to gloss over specific developments in phonology, orthography, morphology, syntax and grammar.

The diagram below (presented by Dr Neil Anderson) labels this contrast as Intensive versus Extensive Literacy Instruction.


A Model for Balanced Reading Instruction (Dr. Neil Anderson)