What is essential for language & literacy learning? (Part One)

"Literacy can be seen as dependent on instruction, with the corollary that quality of instruction is key. 

"This view emphasizes the developmental nature of literacy-- the passage of children through successive stages of literacy, in each of which the reading and writing tasks change qualitatively and the role of the instructor has to change accordingly." (Chall, 1996 as referenced in Snow, 2004)

What is essential?

Gaining a command of language and literacy over time is the essential bit. In this, I want to keep things simple. The literacy learner acquires alphabetic knowledge. That is, the individual learns that letters are meant to represent sounds, and that these sounds are combined to form words. These words can come to represent aspects or objects in one's environment, experience or imagination. One is better prepared to break a word down into its sounds (or component parts) if the word is familiar to one.  So we have a picture in which objects or concepts in someone's environment or imagination are connected to words uttered by a person which can be broken down into sounds that can be represented by a written system. And this written system is rule-governed.

Individuals should be motivated by the desire to represent or convey observations about objects, which requires one to string words together in the form of sentences (or propositions).  It is essential that the learner is also able to extract meaning from them, as well. In this case, an individual is motivated to report or narrate or recount, and to interpret reports, narratives, recounts, etc. One can imagine a learning experience in which a finite portion of the language is selected that allows one to learn a portion of particular sound patterns, develop a thematic vocabulary, and use this knowledge to read, write and discuss observations in a particular domain.

More advanced language is merely an extension of the earlier practices. In other words, if one develops the cognitive habits of seeking out sounds, understanding how sounds are put/blended together, knowing how words are formed, building a robust vocabulary, forming meaningful expressions, and interpreting expressions with intent, then one is in good place. Only when one has mastered one stage should he or she feel comfortable proceeding to the next.

Education is the progressive development of skills and knowledge which allow one to make sense of, participate in and critically reflect on the world around one, both in a contemporary and historical sense.

What can we take for granted? 

Language learning has many layers and context. Explore the significance of the above diagram here.

Language learning has many layers and context. Explore the significance of the above diagram here.

The fluent, literate individual may underestimate the number of formative practices that he or she went through in order to develop the complex narrative, expository and persuasive practices that are currently in his or her repertoire. Similarly, the fluent, literate individual may also underestimate the progressive development of vocabulary and knowledge that he or she now exhibits and which underpins his or her comprehension and compositional skills.

So it is essential that the learner has his or her learning shaped in such a way that he or she is making progress at the right pace, but not too quickly as to risk gaps appearing in the mastery of habits of the mind and of critical practice.

I want us to adopt a picture in which the learner is developing the language that allows him or her to conduct the investigations he or she is conceptually interested in pursuing at key developmental and contextual moments.

What can distract?

To be put simply, if learning is not consolidated, this can distract from progression. One must be given time and opportunities to gain the mastery of one set of skills before moving on to the next. More importantly, if instruction is outside of one's zone of proximal development then the learning can be fragmented and full of gaps. 


What then is the zone of proximal development? It is a place between the skills that one has mastered and those that an individual will need to master. So it means the learning is not rehashing old material nor is it out of one's reach. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it is just right.

More specifically, if the words that are chosen, or the pace at which learning is occurring, or the content is inappropriate, too complex or not relevant, then this will distract from the main goal of the progressive development of literacy.

It can be the case that the teacher is out of touch. Or a teacher assumes that certain knowledge or skills do not need to be covered. Or the teacher cannot see the big picture from the day to day desire to cover the content of the moment. In some cases, the teacher finds comfort in teaching those who can rather than those who can't. Over time, the gap grows and it becomes more and more difficult for the teacher to intervene.

We also assume that one has access to teachers. Adult learners have fewer opportunities for intensive, sequenced instruction and often find themselves in tokenistic programs that meet infrequently and conducted with less experienced instructors who use an inferior quality of instructional materials.

"It is of paramount importance to recognize that in actual linguistic communities there is no equal access to linguistic resources. There are differences in upbringing, in schooling, in access to higher learning, and more generally in the social environment in which one leads one’s life. And these differences result in the mastery of different vocabularies and rhetorical devices; in different pronunciations, dictions, and writing styles; and in different discursive competences. It is important to note that language is not used in an abstract space of logical relations but in a social space that is structured by power relations.” (Medina, 2008, pg 99)


In an ideal world, we would all have access to skilled people who would be able to guide us through the many stages of language and literacy development. In this ideal world, we would have access to the resources and the enabling opportunities to engage in reading and writing that is rich, engaging and relevant. In this ideal world, we would feel confident, attached and driven to learn, express and critique. We have the power to make that ideal world our world.


  • Chall, J.S. (1996). Stages of reading development. 2nd Edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
  • Medina, J. (2008). Whose Meanings? Resignifying Voices and Their Social Locations. In The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New Series, Volume 22, Number 2, pp. 92-105.
  • Snow, C. (2004) What counts as literacy in early childhood? In K. McCartney & D. Phillips (Eds), Handbook of early child development. Oxford: Blackwell.