Being brought into the many uses of language

When language-games change, then there is a change of concepts, and with the concepts the meanings of words change. (On Certainty, #65)

In the previous blog post, I mentioned that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was his flawed masterpiece. And I went on to write that “it is flawed only in the sense that our human language consists of a greater variety of propositions than merely descriptive sentences. We tell jokes. We ask questions. We talk about abstract things. We create rules and so on.”

I’d like to spend this post focusing on Wittgenstein’s attempt to rectify these flaws in his later work, particularly in the Philosophical Investigations. Even more specifically, I’d like to write about his language games concept, since it sheds light on the diversity of language practices learners are asked to adopt over time. 

Even before I do that, I’d like to justify my reason for pursuing this rabbit hole. Whilst Wittgenstein is not contemporary literacy research, The Literacy Bug was set up to explore ideas as much as it was set up to share evidence-based practices. Here, I’d like to continue exploring how we use oral and print language to help us render and - even - organise our experience of and interactions with the world. 

So here we go … let’s revisit the last blog post again. In it, I wrote, 

“If we take a moment to consider descriptive sentences, there is an elegant and meditative quality to the acts of writing and reading. In the acts of writing and reading, we are builders. We are builders of experiences. We are speculators on cause and effect.”

Let’s call this a language game. It is one language game amongst many in our daily lives. Let us define a language game as a particular use of language implicitly governed by certain rules and accepted (by a language community) as serving a certain function or purpose. Certain learners - such as certain children - are raised in an environment in which there is a particular value placed on particular uses of language, such as - say - describing (painting in words) a scene - real or imagined - in exacting detail for consideration. And there will be other contexts - such as in school - that this use of language will be rewarded, reinforced and extended. In this community, there is certain training and praise for this skill, but there are also repercussions if a learner becomes careless or inattentive in this language game, or form of discourse. As suggested by Garver, 

"It is ... possible to instruct people in the use of the language. Such instruction involves correction and drill that aims at some (unspecified) level of competence. It is no doubt pursued more doggedly and more dogmatically in some cultures than others." (Garver, 1996, pg 165)

A learner must become both skilled in this language game - of descriptions, in this case - but also motivated to do so in the appropriate circumstances, as suggested by Stanley Cavell, “the pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world." (Cavell, 2005, pg 115) And so, the learner is initiated into a particular use of language that the learner will turn to when the time is right. Upon initiation, a certain practice has been established. As stated in our essay Establishing Practices, the features of a practice are as follows:

  • “At the very least, a practice is something people do, not just once, but on a regular basis. But it is more than just a disposition to behave in a certain way; the identity of a practice depends on not only on what people do, but also on the significance of those actions and the surroundings in which they occur." (Stern, 2004, p. 166)
  • In a practice, what becomes necessary is the individual's "willingness to engage with such activities in a particular way, thus changing ‘mere’ activities into practices where standards of excellence do matter.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010 pg 196)
  • “Our deliberations seem to be entirely personal and self determined - yet they obviously derive from previous conversations with others, in which their voices and perspectives are represented in one’s own internal deliberations. Often this dynamic is what we call ‘conscience.’” — (Burbles and Smears, 2010, pg 180)
  • Therefore, “every instance of the use [or participation in a practice] … is the culmination of a process of socialisation.” (Phillips, 1979, pg 126).

That all might seem quite long-winded for a relatively simple point: children learn to describe (as one use of language) and children come to develop other uses of languages as well. As teachers, we want our learners to become skilled in many uses of  language (describing, recounting, explaining, comparing, narrating, critiquing, etc). This is true, but I think Wittgenstein refers to something more important here. He is interested in how we turn to particular uses of language to solve problems in daily lives. This requires both skill and the ability to recognise the circumstances in which to deploy a particular language game and why. James Paul Gee explains these two levels as two levels of discourse

“I will use ‘discourse’ [with a lower case "d"] for connected stretches of language that makes sense, like conversations, stories, reports, arguments, essays and so forth. So, ‘discourse’ [the spoken or written text] is part of the ‘Discourse’ – ‘Discourse’ [with a capital “D”] is always more than just language.[The] Discourses are ways of being in the world, or forms of life which integrate words [integrate little “d” discourse], acts, values, beliefs, attitudes and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions and relationships.” (Gee, 1996, p 127)

For instance, we’d want to encourage learners to “stop, consider, describe” when faced with a problem that requires one to outline and examine all the various factors and variables in a scenario, and we’d need to consider how language is used to navigate such a way of thinking AND a way of working with others. Teaching includes providing the scaffolding which supports the turns/sequences in the game. And like any game, we want learners to play this game many times so they are able to discover the nuances in the game and to generalise the rules from the game.

Figure 1:   Source:  Florida Centre for Reading Research

Figure 1: Source: Florida Centre for Reading Research

Figure 1 is an example of a paper-based scaffold that makes explicit the cognitive architecture - or schema - of a particular way of analysing a text. This way of analysis would be an example of a language game. The scaffolding (or guidance) that a teacher provides can also consist of particular activities, axioms, mnemonics, reminders, hints, routines and encouragement, which are essential to ensuring successful completion of the task. Ultimately, all of this modelling and guidance teaches the learners to go on in a particular manner, which involves a whole raft of moves, turns, checkpoints and further points for deliberation.

Then, am I defining “order” and “rule” by means of “regularity”? ... I shall teach him … by means of examples and by practice. -- And when I do this I do not communicate less to him than I know myself. In the course of this teaching I shall shew him … get him to continue a … pattern when told to do so. -- And also to continue progressions. And so … I do it, he does it after me; and I influence him by expressions of agreement, rejection, expectation, encouragement. I let him go his way, or hold him back; and so on. (Philosophical Investigations, #280)

So, being initiated into such a practice - therefore - involves the internalising of - what we might call - deliberative talk. For instance, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein models this aspect by presenting the inner monologue of a character who is building something:

Every now and then there is the problem “Should I use this bit?” — The bit is rejected, another is tried. Bits are tentatively put together, then dismantled; he looks for one that fits etc, etc.. So I sometimes make him say “No, that bit is too long, perhaps another’s fit better.” — Or “What am I to do now?” — “Got it!” — Or “That’s not bad” etc. … (Wittgenstein, Zettel #100)

 

Diversity of language games

Consider all the language games which serve to mediate daily lives ... from “morning news” to planning meetings to personal reflection to prayer to meditative poetry to following instructions and much, much more. Learning these games involves the ability to focus attention, participate in the game, and demonstrate an appreciation of how such engagement is purposeful in some way.

Throughout students’ academic, social and moral careers, they must navigate and negotiate through many different and even conflicting discourses (or ways of using language) in order to participate and advance in multiple contexts, school only being but one of them. Navigating through discourses involves anything from understanding the forms and functions of significant linguistic practices, to being sensitive to the conventions of speaking in particular contexts, to critically assessing the assumptions and outcomes of language practices in society.  

Guiding students through these subtle areas of language development is complex, and involves more than the teaching of specific language features (phonology, grammars, vocabularies, and structures). It involves initiating students into a growing repertoire of ways of using language to perform different roles with language, whether in constructing knowledge, imaginative recreation, construing activity, or actively impacting the world and the people around them.  The very nature of this process of initiation becomes the concern of how literacies (ways of reading, interacting and being through language and communication) are transmitted, formed and engaged in within pedagogical relations amongst people, whether it be between mother-child, teacher-student, co-worker-co-worker, elder-youth, author-reader, institutions-individuals, etc (Bernstein, 2000).

 

One more thing …

There is something that Wittgenstein raises that often isn’t included in the educational literature: he asks us to explore what happens when a complex *language game* is adopted which is - in fact - destructive. Let’s consider either racist discourse or defeatist discourse, which are both language games that can become habitual and exert a powerful shaping force on how one navigates the world. Racist discourse doesn’t necessarily require further explanation, but defeatist discourse may. In defeatist discourse, a person may learn to self-sabotage any hopes of success by entrenched habits of doubt. Wittgenstein would tell us that philosophy seeks to free ourselves from the “bewitchment” of language by revealing the bewitching patterns of language use and proposing alternatives (e.g. showing the fly the way out of the bottle). However it is not so easy, since it requires the learner to take the brave step of trying to alter the “ruts” of language.  

If we switch to an educational example, a learner may not be asking the right questions or sequence of questions that an expert would when trying to get the most out of a topic. Consequently, the learner may be failing to make any forward momentum in an area of learning. At some point, though, the learner encounters a teacher who guides him or her in asking “the right questions” which come to “reshape the nature of the investigation” and the potential for learning. This new language game or revision of an old language game opens up the possibility for discovery.


Bringing things closer to a close

How - then - does all this relate to literacy, you may ask? Well, it relates to the central issues of comprehension and composition. Even if one has learned the “basics”, such as decoding and grammatical competence, there are many higher order linguistic issues to attend to if one is going to read and write for the diverse purposes in life.

As James Paul Gee more simply reminds us, “We have to worry about what texts students have read and how they have read them, not just about how much they have read and how many books they do or do not own (though, of course, these are important matters).” (Gee, 2003, pg 30-31) 

Because, 

“After all, we never just read "in general", rather, we always read or write something in some way. We don't read or write newspapers, legal tracts, essays in literary criticism, poetry, or rap songs, and so on and so forth through a nearly endless list, in the same way. Each of these domains has its own rules and requirements.” (Gee, 2003, pg 28)

As Wittgenstein would also,

PI 156: The use of this word [to read] in the ordinary circumstances of our life is of course extremely familiar to us. But the part the word plays in our life, and therewith the language-game in which we employ it, would be difficult to describe even in rough outline. A person, let us say an Englishman, has received at school or at home one of the kinds of education usual among us, and in the course of it has learned to read [basically] his native language. Later he reads books, letters, newspapers and other things. 

 

In closing

On that note, I’d like to end. This essay has been written in the spirit of the original definition of the French "essai" - coined by Michel de Montaigne - which means to try/attempt/trial ... to seek new ways to explore and/or articulate relevant issues. I hope this digression is of some benefit/use. On behalf of *The Literacy Bug* and until next time, please enjoy and explore!


References

Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: theory, research, critique. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Burbles, N., & Smears, P. (2010). The practice of ethics and moral education. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, & P. Smears (Eds.), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher (pp. 169 – 182). London: Paradigm Publishers.

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

Garver, N. (1996). Philosophy as grammar. In H. Sluga, H. and D. Stern (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein. (pp. 139 - 170) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J (1999). An introduction to discourse analysis: theory and method. London: Routledge.

Gee, J. P. (2003). Opportunity to learn: a language-based perspective on assessment. In Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol 10, No. 1, pp 27 - 46.

Phillips, D. (1977) Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge.  London: MacMillan Press.

Smeyers, P., & Burbles, N. (2010). Education as initiation into practices. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, & P. Smeyers (Eds.), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher (pp. 183 – 198). London: Paradigm Publishers.

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

Wittgenstein, L. (2001a). Tractates Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001b). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 

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

Wittgenstein, L. (1969). On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by D. Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Scaffolding deep reading: a personal recollection

I have an entrenched memory of something I experienced in the eighth or ninth grade. One of my friends was taking part in a weekly book club in the library at our school. This weekly book club (or story club, to be more accurate) was being organised by one of our favourite teachers. She was relaxed and casual but asked her students to think deeply about social and civic issues. It’s important to note that my friend was not the best reader, and I was what you would probably call a reluctant reader. I liked the concept of reading, but I often found it an endurance sport. However, since I knew everyone in the group, I thought it was a good way to spend one lunch per week. Have I forgotten to mention that it was a group of five boys discussing stories and none of us were what you would classify as a “strong reader”?

Now, bear in mind, we were all able to read the short stories (i.e. decode and accurately comprehend what we were reading). And the short stories were written in such a manner that we were presented with a controlled amount of challenging vocabulary and other language features. Therefore, we were able to problem solve and discuss new meanings and expressions without becoming frustrated or bogged down. It also helped that these stories were not overly long, and each one clearly probed a moral, social or civic issue, particularly through the confrontation of often adolescent characters. I distinctly remember counting the numbers of pages of each story, though, such was my aversion to reading material that was too long and tedious

I distinctly remember “THE BOOK”. It was a brown paperback book that was divided up into stories of 10 to 15 pages in length (perhaps classics). It may have had the logo “GREAT BOOKS” on the front. Initially, I thought that I was mistaken about the title of the series until a Google search supported my memory. The Great Books foundation (http://www.greatbooks.org) provides books that are meant “to advance social and civic engagement and help people of all ages think critically about their own lives and the world we share.” The book club may or may not have used the Great Books material, but it definitely was designed to provoke deep discussions about justice, fairness, and individuality, whilst providing a platform for weaker readers to practice deep reading and discussion skills.

In the end, it meant that there were five adolescent boys sitting around a table once a week at lunch who all had a shared understanding of the situation that was presented in the story. We all came prepared. We read the weekly story in advance, because it was embarrassing to let the group down. We didn’t debate what occurred in the story. Instead, we debated our interpretations of the situation(s). And that meant that we interpreted macro features, such as how a character acted and whether such actions were fair. It also meant that we interpreted micro features, such as the choice of words and other details which provided information - occasionally ambiguous - on how a character might have been feeling or how the character might have been motivated to act in a certain way. 

These weekly discussions - at times heated - inducted me into deep reading, perspective taking, and evidence-based argumentation. I often had to disagree with a friend, and still respect him as a friend outside of the weekly meetings, even though we were discussing significant issues of moral, social and civic behaviour. I also needed to be in a position to listen and alter my viewpoint of a character or event if someone in the group presented evidence that I initially overlooked and had not appreciated.

Sourced from Olson, C. B., & Land, R. (2007). A cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction for English language learners in secondary school. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 269–303. 

You see — here you have a group of students who had all learned to read proficiently (i.e. decode and understand), but who had yet to learn how to read meaningfully and critically. The teacher provided us with a space where we could learn to read more insightfully, discriminatingly and deliberately, which reminds me now of a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, “seeing an aspect and imagining are subject to the will” (PI, Part II, xi). We had to learn to work hard as we read. In other words, one doesn’t comprehend merely because he or she can read. One must put effort into navigating the details of a text to find one’s way about. One has to *deliberate*, and the routines of deliberation are based on experience, practice and guidance in how to engage deeply. One has to ask questions, “where do I begin?”, “what does this mean?”, “am I right?”, “do I agree?”, “do I have the right picture?”, “is anything unclear?”, “do I need to read this again?”, “what am I thinking and feeling?” (See accompanying figure from Olson & Land [2007] for other common ‘mental moves’) This can all be exhausting if one hasn’t had the chance to take a breath and find the time to practice, interpret and discuss increasingly complex information. 

Whilst this next bit may be off topic, I am often struck when I have failed to properly read a bank form or government form. I might only pick up my errors either on a second/third reading or with the help of another person. Imagine the person who struggles to read and who struggles to hold attention on key details. It can be mentally exhausting and stressful to navigate complex material if one is struggling and concurrently lacks confidence and guidance. Everyday documents can be technical jungles if one lacks confidence/experience in navigating multifaceted material. 

The following passage from Wittgenstein illustrates why it is important that all teaching includes explicit guidance in how we regulate our thinking. This includes teaching that fosters the types of dialogue that govern our activities. As Vygotsky (1978) observed, "every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people..., and then inside people... All higher [mental] functions originate as actual relations between human individuals." (p.57) In my case, the group discussion with my peers came to shape my internal deliberations as I learned to read deeply on my own.

Let us imagine someone doing work that involves comparison, trial, choice. Say he is constructing an appliance out of various bits of stuff with a given set of tools. Every now and then there is the problem “Should I use this bit?” -- The bit is rejected, another is tried. Bits are tentatively put together, then dismantled; he looks for one that fits etc, etc.. I can now imagine that this while procedure is filmed. The worker perhaps also produces sound-effects like “hm” or “ha!” As it were sounds of hesitation, sudden finding, decision, satisfaction, dissatisfaction. But does not utter a single word. Those sound-effects may be included in the film. I have the film shewn me, and now I invent a soliloquy for the worker, things that fit his manner of work, its rhythm, his play of expression, his gestures and spontaneous noises; they correspond to all this. So I sometimes make him say “No, that bit is too long, perhaps another’s fit better.” -- Or “What am I to do now?” -- “Got it!” -- Or “That’s not bad” etc. (Zettel, #100)

The lunchtime book club was an important part of my growth as a reader. I would still count the pages of the next chapter of my book. I would still often consider reading an endurance sport. However, I became aware of the times when I was “just going through the motions” of reading and when I was reading with my full attention. I also grew to appreciate how important it is to discuss what we read and also discuss what we write. This would became apparent in my later years of high school when I joined a weekly poetry circle at a local bookshop. That - though - is a story for another time.

 

References

The Great Books Foundation - http://www.greatbooks.org

Olson, C. B., & Land, R. (2007). A cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction for English language learners in secondary school. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 269–303. 

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

_____________  (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Why We Do What We Do: Part Three

My surroundings, my instruction, my peer relations and my own choices taught me to identify with certain practices over others. In this case, “a practice ... is intertwined with our self and sense of identity, on the one hand, and our relations and ways of interacting with other people, on the other hand.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 196). Also, as mentioned previously, part of the aim is that the initiated comes to internalise the practice, “thus changing ‘mere’ activities into practices where standards of excellence do matter.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010 pg 196).

Our practices in which we take part ("What We Do") are framed by the cultures (or communities or habitus) through which we navigate.  And this journey occurs along three interacting planes: the community (and institutional) plane, the interpersonal plane, and the intrapersonal (or personal) plane. First, we have the overarching plane: the community (and institutional) plane. On this level we find the framework for the range of practices that an individual will encounter, whether it is found in institutions, such as schools, or information outlets, such as the media, or through cultural artefacts, such as literary figures or personality archetypes. In many ways, the community plane exerts a normative influence over individuals and it can also stratify participation along class or other divisions. Another plane, which is one step down, is the interpersonal plane, which contains the family, peers, and mentoring relationships which come to shape one’s introduction to, attachment to, scaffolding through and joint engagement in practices. These engagements shed light on how tastes are formed, processes are understood and goals are set and realised. However, the presence of role models is not enough for the adoption of practices. The third level contains the intrapersonal (or personal) plane, which alludes to the deliberation within the individual to choose, develop, select and refine practices. At this level, we consider both attitudinal and cognitive actions that an individual takes in order to become a practitioner. In the words of Rogoff (1995), “this is the process of becoming, rather than acquisition.”

Therefore, engagement in practice is shaped the presence of culture, access to role models and the personal adeptness and understanding to navigate the practice. Here, I want to emphasis the concept of access. Does the learner have access to the broader culture? Does the learner have access to the role models, supportive peers and mentors? Does the learner possess and develop the perseverance and talents that are necessary? And does the learner have access to the materials and enabling opportunities to exercise the practice? The last question introduces use to the issue of access to the material conditions of the practice, which is encapsulated in the activity system model present within communities of practice.

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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.

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