A Comprehensive Literacy Pedagogy Would Account For ...

"In becoming literate, one must acquire skills that are only remotely related to print as well as those that are directly related." (Snow, et al, 1991, p. 5)

McKenna, M. C., & Stahl, K. A. D. (2012). Assessment for reading instruction. 2nd Edition. Guilford Press.

Catherine Snow's observation is particularly relevant to managing balanced literacy instruction. In addition to attending to comprehension skills, compositional skills and print-based skills (e.g. phonemic awareness, spelling skills, fluency, etc), such instruction must take into account the learning of the language itself; the situations in which we speak, listen, read and write; what we are actually trying to learn (e.g. cooking, gardening, football, etc); and the desires, needs, preferences, relationships, experiences and knowledge that we bring to the learning. The diagram to the right represents this parallel development of word recognition skills, strategic reading skills, and language and knowledge

A comprehensive literacy pedagogy would be one where developed a mastering of "the code" along with ample and diverse experiences of using language and literacy in everyday practices and in learning. Such a balanced literacy pedagogy  would include a focus on:

  • creating environments and experiences that foster learning, language & literacy;
  • scaffolding reading;
  • scaffolding writing;
  • developing word recognition skills;
  • expanding vocabulary and depth of word meanings;
  • encouraging the representation & retention of knowledge; and 
  • keeping a pulse on a learner's development, interests and motivation.

Such a pedagogy would recognise that:

  1. Human language is a practice and it involves practice.
  2. That practice involves attending to and mastering salient aspects of language.
  3. Whilst spoken language is arguable developed by all, literacy is the acquisition of a code that many take for granted.
  4. This development is incremental and moves through stages. Adults must be ever vigilant and sensitive to this development.
  5. At every stage it is important to emphasise and model that language and literacy should be meaningful, purposeful and about discovery.
  6. The teacher’s role is to help the child by arranging tasks and activities in such a way that they are more easily accessible. The teacher must also ensure that adequate time and space is made available (especially in the great hurly burly of contemporary life). It is important that learners achieves closure.
  7. This requires an introduction to the routines, habits and ways of using language and literacy as mediating tools.
  8. It is vital that the learner has adequate time and space for this engagement (a) to be modelled for them, (b) to participate in guided practice, and (c) to try out new strategies and skills on their own.
  9. We should not underestimate the important role that emotional commitment and attachment plays in the intake, uptake and embodiment of learning.
  10. We must acknowledge that all learning is conducted with others in context and is dependent on access to tools and resources.
  11. It is important to recognise that there are multiple ways of reading/writing and it is vital to create contexts where a range of literacies can be developed.
  12. An individual's reading and writing practices become more specialised as he or she grows into social, community and economic spheres.
  13. Teaching practitioners must be aware of the material and social factors that impinge upon an individual's successful development of a range of language, literacy and learning practices.
We must remember, in the words of Moyal-Sharrock (2010), how "acquiring language is like learning to walk: the child is stepped into language by an initiator and, after much hesitation and repeated faltering, with time and multifarious practice and exposure, it disengages itself from the teacher's hold and is able, as it were, to run with the language." (2010, pg 6)



Cavell, S. (1969). Must We Mean What We Say?. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Moyal-Sharrock, D. (2010). Coming to Language: Wittgenstein’s Social “Theory” of Language Acquisition. In SOL Conference 6-8 May 2010. Bucharest.

Snow, C., Barnes, W. S., Chandler, J., Goodman, I. F., & Hemphill, L. (1991). Unfulfilled expectations: home and school influences on literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Why We Do What We Do? Part Five: Conclusion

“Practical holism ... is the view that [any theory of language] can only be meaningful in specific contexts and against a background of shared practices’. ... Background practices, equipment, locations, and broader horizons ... are part and parcel of our ability to engage in conversation and find our way about.” (Stern, 2004, pg 163 - 164)

To sum up, Hans Sluga once wrote that “human language games are not based on knowledge but on practice.” (Sluga, 2011, pg 107) I have applied this observation to the broad notion of existence or practice. It is not what we know that gives shape to our existence. It is what we do. Our knowledge comes to serve and - in fact - justify why we do what we do and the standards of excellence that we expect from these endeavours. If I am to conclude, then I would say that a practice is something that we do not just once but on a regular basis. Unlike an activity, the participant in a practice attaches a certain level of significance or commitment  to the action. In the practice, one comes to acquire certain rules that give shape to the practice. The participant comes to act in accordance with the rules, some which are explicitly stated and others which are acquired through experience and understood as conventions of the practice. 

To be fully immersed in a practice requires an understanding of the standards and expectations, the intention behind the activities, and the motivation and significance that underpins the practice. One becomes adept in the practice through experience, and this is assisted through instruction (or guidance) by those who are more experienced. These “masters” set the stage for engagement and they scaffold subsequent engagement and development. This is done in the hope that the practice will be internalised and the participant will “go on” in accordance with the rule. By “going on”, the learner is committed to the practice by adhering to the practice, contributing to the practice and being part of the practice’s evolution. Collectively, one’s practices give shape to one’s form of life within the stream of living. One’s practices provide one with a habitus (or culture), and one’s habitus (or culture) gives rise from one’s practices. 

At the same time, we should never forget any single practice or set of practices is open to disintegration or entropy. Entropy is formally defined as "the lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder." Any system must have energy placed into it so that the system is maintained or preserved. If the practices of a cultural system are not reinforced, then the system and the form of life to which that system is attached will suffer and decay. According to the concept of entropy, the natural state of any system is decay unless efforts are made to maintain it.


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

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

Never forget … language and literacy are learned with steady guidance from others

Today, I will be discussing the teaching and learning of language and literacy. Clarity is my aim. I intend to continually point to those factors which should be most obvious but which can be lost in practice. For - in truth - it is when this topic becomes clouded in technical abstractions that we - as teachers and parents - suddenly feel unequipped to support learning in the most natural of ways. Do not get me wrong; every use of language and literacy is highly complex and these instances require the orchestration of a myriad of skills that are deployed virtually automatically by the expert user. That much is true. That said, the child (or emerging learner) is not faced with the prospect of developing such complex skills from the get go. There is a progressive, temporal dimension to this learning where the child is supported by others to develop foundational skills which lead into competency which lead to mastery which lead to further disciplinary practice. Meanwhile, the learner is surrounded by others (family, a community, peers, a culture) which exerts their own practices, knowledge, values and ways of navigating the spoken and written word.

In the words of Moyal-Sharrock (2010), "acquiring language is like learning to walk: the child is stepped into language by an initiator and, after much hesitation and repeated faltering, with time and multifarious practice and exposure, it disengages itself from the teacher's hold and is able, as it were, to run with the language." (2010, pg 6) Whilst some may take issue with the literal comparison of walking and talking, I ask you to appreciate the intention of the metaphor. That is, acquiring language and literacy is not so direct, inevitable and individual as we would like to think. It requires the patient and steady guidance of others to support the learner develop emergent to elaborated to independent practices.

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Learning as Puzzle Solving

"A thinker is very much like a draughtsman whose aim it is to represent all the interrelations between things." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)

Learning is often completed collaboratively with others, and features a sense of mutual accomplishment as the learners embark on a journey of discovery, consolidation and confidence. The seven principles of "learning as puzzle solving" are taken from the following reference:

  • Geekie, P., Cambourne, B., & Fitzsimmons, P. (2004). Learning as puzzle solving. In Grainger, T (ed) The RoutledgeFalmer reader in language and literacy (pp 107 – 118). London: RoutledgeFalmer

Please continue to read to explore the seven principles and how they apply to effective teaching.

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