In the Spirit of Wittgenstein: Seeking a Clear View of Literacy

Following on the heels of the most recent blog entries (here and here), we have another unpublished entry to share from the archives … Unpublished no more, though. Whilst there are some rough edges to it, it is posted here as part of the ongoing conversation



Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself. (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value) 

Following in the tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein, I am compelled to grasp a clear view (or perspicuous representation) of literacy. It is a view that is not encumbered by the various forms and instances of literacy. In the spirit of Hans Sluga (2011), the search represents a compulsion to articulate a surveyable representation of an unsurveyable whole. The unsurveyable whole - in this case - is the history of the written word and its current manifestations in print and digital form. 

While this might seem an esoteric preamble to an otherwise basic blog entry, I was not comfortable proceeding without a nod to the context to these words.

Literacy Facts

Here are the elements of a clear view of literacy in English.

1. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet.

  • 21 are consonants;
  • 5 are vowels (or 6 if you treat “y” as a sometimes vowel)

2. We use these letters and letter combinations to represent 44 phonemes or English sounds (give or take one or two).

  • 25 consonant sounds
  • 19 vowel sounds

The clever reader will notice a curious fact about consonant and vowel sounds; there is a greater letter-sound correlation in relation to consonant sounds than there is for vowel sounds. It isn’t as easy to explicitly state the various letter and letter combinations which represent the 44 phonemes in English. These are learned over time, and are analysed from the learner’s growing (print) vocabulary. For more information, please refer to to the charts below.

3. There are also 131 possible graphemes which represent those 44 or so phonemes. There are 74 possible consonant graphemes to represent the 25 consonant sounds, and 57 vowel graphemes to represent the 19 vowel sounds. A grapheme can be an individual letter (like the letter "k") or it can be a group of letters (like the grouping "igh", "ph" or "ea"). And a grapheme can make more than one sounds. For example, the letter "a" can make four different sounds, as in cat, baby, father, alone. The letter "a" makes two sounds in the common word "banana". Can you identify the sounds? The following diagram shows a mapping of the 44 phonemes and all the grapheme which can represent those sounds.

Learners do not recognise all graphemes from the get go. In terms of learning, the following is a recommended order in which children explore the various graphemes in the first three to four years of school.

  • Letter Name-Alphabetic (Semi-Phonetic) Stage [typically between 4 - 7 yrs old]: CVC word patterns with the following sequence of graphemes and blends: a, m, t, s, i, f, d, r, o, g, l, h, u, c, b, n, k, v, short e, w, j, p, y, x, q, z, sh, ch, th, wh, st-, pl-, bl-, gl-, sl-, sp-, cr, cl, fl, fr, sk, qu, nk, ng, mp, ck


  • Within Word (Transitional) Stage [typically between 7 - 9 yrs old]: CVCe word patterns leading into more complex CVVC vowel patterns and common multisyllabic words: a-e, ai, ay, ei, ey, ee, ea, ie, e-e, i-e, igh, y, o-e, oa, ow, u-e, oo, ew, vowel+r, oi, oy, ou, au, ow, kn, wr, gn, shr, thr, squ, spl, tch, dge, ge, homophones

4. These sounds/graphemes are joined to form syllables. There are six common syllable types in English.

  • Closed (e.g. mat or pic/nic)
  • Open (e.g. he or ve/to)
  • Silent “e” or vowel-consonant-e [vce] (e.g. cape or stripe)
  • Vowel team or vowel pair (e.g. pain, head or toy)
  • R-controlled (e.g. far or fer/ment)
  • Consonant+le (e.g. a/pple or li/ttle)

In an analytic phonics approach, learners analyse known words to gain a firm grasp of letter-sound correspondences and word patterns. In a synthetic phonics approach, learners progressively move through letter-sound patterns of increasing complexity. Both approaches should be systematic, developmental and integrated. In practice, both approaches should be used, though one approach may be more or less dominant or effective.

5. Over time, we notice how …

  • The larger a learner’s vocabulary, the more lexical items the learner has to draw on to comparatively see how words work;
  • Phonological and phonemic awareness places an individuals in a position to problem solve the aural structure of words, and hold this in working memory for encoding and decoding;
  • Morphological knowledge helps a learner refine options by seeing meaningful, regular patterns in words;
  • Emerging spelling rules are understood through further practice;
  • Eventually, knowledge is built up over countless encounters with words. Some words we just remember. Other words we decode, encode and recognise in context. 

5. Word level fluency is not enough to engender reading/writing fluency, though. Learners must also become adept at rapidly interpreting, scanning and generating the grammatical elements in our sentences.

  • We must identifying the components of syntax, and understanding how the logic of this syntax allows one to express states of affairs and to understand states of affairs expressed in utterances.
  • This includes the ability to track pronouns - for instance.
  • The structure of a sentence explains how elements are related to one another (e.g. The cow jumped over the moon). This includes an awareness of the various types of words (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc).
  • We need to know the words to extract sense from the sentence. And we often need to grasp the intention/conversation of the sentence to grasp its meaning.

To consolidate: Structural features are mastered whilst an individual is in the early stages of learning language and literacy. Whilst the learner is learning, teachers are directing the learner’s attention to the way in which language is represented in print.

Proceed With Caution

It is here that we need to proceed with caution.

The above (meta-linguistic) knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for full literacy development. It represents the form of our utterances but not their content. Actual utterances have content (i.e. refer to things and are parts of conversations).

Actual statements are also more complex than the formulaic syntax learned in formal grammatical study. Actual utterances include nuances of idiomatic language, fragmented constructions, rhetorical devices and more. 

The sequence of statements in a texts are also shaped by a dialogic agreement between “speaker” and “audience” … rather than a formulaic one which is determined by the structure of the utterance on its own. For instance, when Michael Mohammed Ahmed writes in his novel The Tribe (2014):

“Most of my Tayta’s children still live with her in a house that belonged to my grandfather. His name was Bani Adam. Everyday my father reminds me that it was my grandfather's house, he says, ‘We are Baat Adam,’ which means, ‘We are the House of Adam’. The house is in Alexandria. People sometimes think because we’re Arabs, that I mean the city in Egypt, but the Alexandria we’re from is actually a suburb in Sydney's inner-west.” (p. 3-4)

The sequence of the text responds to the imagined needs of an imagined interlocutor rather than a logic inherent in the grammatical form of the text. The text abides by the conventions of autobiography whilst anticipating questions/assumptions that an audience would be making. (Note: Even a recipe is shaped by the conventions/expectations imposed by tradition/context.)

This observation is most pronounced in the otherwise mimetic text - a poem by William Carlos William


“so much depends



”a red wheel



“glazed with rain



“beside the white



Whilst simple on its surface, the poem demands its audience to see beyond the merely descriptive poem. The author would like the audience to appreciate its meditative quality if the text is to communicate as intended. One must recognise how the poem may or may not fit within the tradition of the haiku. (Note: See this as an example of Wittgenstein’s ‘language game’ concept illustrated in the video at the end of this section.)

We get close to a mimetic portrait in Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River”, but even “Big Two-Hearted River” requires its audience to be familiar with the general context, the language/vocabulary, and the overtones of Romanticism.

“Nick looks down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as we went into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.” (p. 143-144)

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher obsessed with the difficulties of language, who wanted to help us find a way out of some of the muddles we get into with words.


Whilst the surface code can be teased out as an object of analysis, the content of utterances elicits background knowledge which is so pervasive that any analysis must acknowledge that

“nothing merely physical, such as acoustic blasts or ink marks, or even words and gestures - ‘signs’ of one kind or another - can possibly communicate thought. For such tokens taken by themselves are ‘dead’, and can only be animated, have life breathed into them, by something inner, such as an act of understanding.” (Stern, 2004, pg 136)

Schneider (2014) also notes this implicit and confounding dilemma. Any formulaic, analytic theory of meaning makes only so much progress through a focus on structure alone. Eventually, one must include the imagination/experience/context/shared language of the speaker and the audience as part of the equation.

Formal theories of meaning seek to explain how propositions express a sense, hopefully clearly and unambiguously, through an understanding of the proposition’s logical structure. In such a case, one must have access to the phonetic, orthographic, syntactic and lexical knowledge to be able to decode the sentence and to decipher the picture expressed within the sentence. This process is quite a static exchange. Wittgenstein himself was inspired by Gottlob Frege to contribute to the formalist, analytical project in the Tractates Logico-Philosophicus, but would soon find this pursuit inadequate to explain how meaning is expressed beyond a very limited frame. 

Wittgenstein found that meaning - in context - is less static and more elusive. The meaning of an utterance requires an understanding of the utterance’s context, a familiarity with the way the utterance is being exchanged, the intentions of the participants, and the position of the utterance within a “language game” or “conversation”. For instance, the meaning of the phrase “he is a Red” could meaning “He is a communist”, “He is a supporter of the Liverpool Football Club”, “He is a Native American”, or some other derivative. Its meaning is dependent on factors outside of the logical structure of the utterance itself. For another example, let's say someone said, "I really loved Madagascar." The individual could be referring to the place, the film or Madagascar vanilla (as opposed to another type of vanilla). There might be an audience who wouldn't find the phrase ambiguous (they only know one meaning for Madagascar) or it might not be meaningful at all (they have no concept of Madagascar whatsoever), even though they understand the grammar of the sentence and can accurately pronounce each element.

Therefore, actual elements of context, content, purpose, practice, deliberation and cognitive/information processing must be dealt with to leap into meaning. This does not negate the importance of direct, explicit instruction in the structural elements of language and literacy; however, we must acknowledge that formal skills only facilitate communication. They are not the germ of communication.

In the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein 


A. TLP 3.13: A proposition includes all that the projection includes, but not what is projected. Therefore, though what is projected is not itself included, its possibility is. A proposition, therefore, does not actually contain its sense, but does contain the possibility of expressing it. (‘The content of a proposition’ means the content of a proposition that has sense.) A proposition contains the form, but not the content, of its sense.


B. Z 74: A sentence is given me in code together with the key. Then of course in one way everything required for understanding the sentence has been given me. And yet I should answer the question “Do you understand this sentence?” : No, not yet; I must first decode it. And only when e..g. I had translated it into English would I say “Now I understand it.”


C. PI 496: Grammar does not tell us how language must be constructed in order to fulfil its purpose, in order to have such-and-such an effect on human beings. It only describes and in no way explains the use of signs.


D. Z 91: Ask: What result am I aiming at when I tell someone: “Read attentively”? That, e.g. this and that should strike him, and he be able to give an account of it. — Again, it could, I think, be said that if you read a sentence with attention, you will often be able to give an account of what has gone on in your mind, (e.g. the occurrence of images). But that does not mean that these things are what we call “attention”.


E. TLP 3.141: A proposition is not a blend of words. — (Just as a theme of music is not a blend of notes.) A proposition is articulate.


F. CV: Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not “as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself.


G. PI 291: What we call “descriptions” are instruments for particular uses. Think of a machine drawing, a cross-section, an elevation with measurements, which an engineer had before him. Thinking of a description as a word-picture of the facts has something misleading about it: one tends to think only of such pictures as hang on our walls: which seem simply to portray how a thing looks, what it is like. (These pictures are as it were idle.)


H. PI 533: How can one explain the expression, transmit one’s comprehension? Ask yourself: How does one lead anyone to comprehension of a poem or of a theme? The answer to this tells us how meaning is explained here. Let’s simplify language to the declarative statement that has the capacity to convey the unambiguously.  


I. “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 … If we want to study the problems of truth and falsehood, of the agreement and disagreement of propositions with reality, of the nature of assertion, assumption, and question, we shall with great advantage look at primitive forms of language in which these forms of thinking appear without the confusing background of highly complicated processes of thought.” (quoting Wittgenstein in Monk, 2005, p 69)


J. “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. (Remark: The picture we have of the language of the grown-up is that of a nebulous mass of language, his mother tongue, surrounded by discrete and more or less clear-cut language games, the technical languages … 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)


K. “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, specifying the location of pain, and so on), then is there some question left as to whether the pupil has to find warning, informing, amusing, promising, counting, beseeching, chastising, and so on themselves worth doing? 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)



Literary References

Ahmad, M. M. (2014). The Tribe. Western Sydney (NSW): Giramondo.

Hemingway, E. (1995). The Collected Stories (Everyman's Library Classics). New York: Everyman's Library.

Williams, W. C. “The Red Wheelbarrow” n.d. Web at


Wittgenstein References

Wittgenstein, L. (1967). Zettel (Z). (G. E. M. Anscombe & G. H. von Wright, Eds.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1974). Philosophical Grammar (PG). (R. Rhees, Ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1980). Culture and value (C&V). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001a). Philosophical Investigations (PI) (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001b). Tractatus logico-philosophicus (TLP). London: Routledge.


Academic References

Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In Philosophy the day after tomorrow (pp. 111 – 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Phillips, D. (1977). Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited.

Schneider, H. J. (2014). Wittgenstein’s later theory of meaning: imagination and calculation. Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Stern, D. (2004). Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.