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.

A story that cuts right to the heart of the Opportunity to Learn issue

I have mentioned it before and it is a concept that I will return to again and again; the issue of equality in opportunity to learn. Today, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting on a short story I once wrote that relates directly to the main topic: considering whether all learners have equal opportunity to learn and succeed.

Photo by Ahlapot/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Ahlapot/iStock / Getty Images

You won’t have a chance to read the actual story. It is stored somewhere so safe that the best minds are yet to uncover it. You must instead rely upon my synopsis. As far as the setting, the story takes place in inner city San Diego in the late 1990s. It is a low socio-economic community with issues common to the time: drugs, gangs, racial tensions and the working poor. I was teaching at a high school in the community when I wrote the story.

The story itself is an appropriation of “Eveline” by James Joyce. In Joyce’s tale, the main character - Eveline - is a young woman who is sitting forlornly in front of a dilapidated house in a crowded street in Dublin. Her mother has passed away, and she left behind a baby girl, Eveline’s sister. Eveline’s brothers have moved out of home, her father is a drunkard, and she is now responsible for raising her baby sister whilst working part-time and avoiding her father’s abuse. Her opportunities are fairly limited by poverty, circumstance and the expectations placed on a woman of the times (early 1900s).

In the story, Eveline is approached by a “fellow” who confesses his love for her, and promises to take her away from this misery and start a new life overseas. We might expect her to rush towards this door of apparent freedom, but she doesn’t. At the critical moment where she is to board a ship bound for the New World, she stands frozen on the docks and she watches the fellow leave her behind. We don’t know if she stays due to a promise she made to her mother - "to hold the house together" - or her fear that she would face another type of servitude as a wife in a foreign land. Eveline’s opportunities are severely limited by complex factors, which serve to paralyse her. 

In my appropriation - “Jinicia Sings the Blues” - my main character - Jinicia - is a young African American women - aged 18 or so - leaning on a railing outside her house, watching her younger brother deftly navigate a local game of street soccer. Inside the house, Jinicia’s baby sister is asleep. Her dedicated father is at work, and he works three jobs just to pay the bills. Her mother left the family with another man. And her older brother was shot dead in a gangland dispute a couple years ago. Meanwhile, Jinicia watches her younger, talented brother with a mixture of pride, envy and pity. He is good at school, good at sport and is a born leader. She wants him to dribble the ball down the block and out of the neighbourhood and never look back. She is afraid that the community will eventually swallow him up in some minimum wage job or worse, and that the dream of a scholarship to college will be left unrealised. Jinicia is a clever young woman who wavers between hope and fear, and can’t help battle a deep cynicism. The story ends as she walks back into the house to cradle her waking sister, who she also looks upon with both love and trepidation.

At one stage, I entertained the thought of extending the story. I thought of introducing a character from the other side of the tracks, or across the bridge in the wealthy peninsular community of Coronado. I imagined Jinicia reflecting on the differences in the two worlds. She wouldn’t be able to stop herself from thinking, “would my older brother still be alive if we could have bailed him out of his trouble? would I even worry about my younger brother if our circumstances were different?”

I think the story cuts right to the heart of the Opportunity to Learn issue. Whilst the story might not be about literacy, it engages with an issue raised by Donaldo Macedo, “reading specialists … who have made technical advancement in the field of reading … [must] make linkages between their self-contained technical reading methods and the social and political realities that generate unacceptably high failure reading rates among certain groups of students.” (Macedo, 2001, pg xiii) 

If the components of reading development are known (National Reading Panel and others), why is it that success rates are directly linked to differences in socio-economic factors and not to differences in cognitive functioning or personal motivation? (Chiu, McBride-Chang & Lin, 2012) We need to know, “the sociological processes which control the way the developing child relates himself to his environment. It requires an understanding of how certain areas of experience are differentiated, made specific and stabilised … What seems to be needed is the development of a theory of social learning which would indicate what in the environment is available for learning, the conditions of learning, the constraints on subsequent learning, and the major reinforcing process.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg. 55)

As stated by James Paul Gee, “caring about [students’] rights means caring … about the trajectories of learners as they develop … as part of communities of practice, engaged in mind, body, and culture, and not just as repositories of skills, facts, and information.” (2008, pg 105) We must be ever diligent on issues of equity, both in enhancing opportunities and respecting diversity. We must be conscious of the socioeconomic, motivational and neurocognitive factors that are brought to bear on learning. We must be mindful of the impacts of poverty, discrimination and instability. The conditions for success are multifaceted, long and intricate.

 

References

Bernstein, B. (1964). Elaborated and Restricted Codes: Their Social Origins and Some Consequences. American Anthropologist, 66(6_PART2), 55–69.

Chiu, M. M., McBride-Chang, C., & Lin, D. (2012). Ecological, psychological, and cognitive components of reading difficulties: testing the component model of reading in fourth graders across 38 countries. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(5), 391–405.

Gee, J. P. (2008). A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel, & L. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76 – 108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macedo, D. (2001). Foreword. In P. Freire (Ed.), Pedagogy of freedom: ethics, democracy and civic courage (pp. xi – xxxii). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Getting to the Rough Ground of Language and Literacy Learning Through the Language Experience Approach

Early language learners benefit from rich tasks that provide learners with ample opportunities to hear, see, use and manipulate language in contextualised, purposeful ways. The videos to the lower right provide compelling examples of the multiple learnings achieved through a humble kitchen garden project for newly arrived refugee children at a primary school in an urban Australian community. The project illustrates the potential for deep learning when the learning develops from authentic, engaging experiences.

I'd like readers/viewers to notice how the kitchen garden becomes a central device to develop language, literacy, culture and knowledge. You should notice how language is reinforced through practical activity, how language is assisted visually in the classroom, and how it is transformed into knowledge through writing.

This is an example of a teaching method known as the Language Experience Approach (LEA), which is a catch-all term for teaching that anchors literacy and language learning in shared experiences. In most cases, the “experience” is a physically, shared experience, but there is a more and more avenues to share experience virtually through video, interactive tools and online content (such as web quests). 

The Language Experience Approach emphasises language learning through carefully scaffolded and reinforced language in context and through activity. Teachers and learners diligently document the experience, so the experience can be revisited and developed through further reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and representing in the classroom.

The following are a number of questions to consider when building language and literacy through authentic, mutual practices. Even though we will elaborated on the teaching method in the future, these initial questions illustrate the significance of a number of essential practices in the LEA, such as scaffolded talk, documenting the experience, revisiting the experience in the classroom, pulling out rich vocabulary, expanding the experience through writing, and using the experience for further comprehension and [content] learning. In this system, the teacher must be adept at orchestrating, sequencing and extending a variety practices (often within a tight timetable).


Before and During the Experience

  1. What is the experience? Is this an actual or virtual experience?
  2. How is joint attention achieved and how is language being scaffolded?
  3. How is vocabulary emphasised/reinforced/introduced/recorded during the experience
  4. How is the experience being documented (digital cameras, information scaffolds, graphic organisers, scaffolded questions, etc)?
  5. How do the instructional conversations that take place throughout the experience build a common discourse and assist learning?


After the Experience

Students benefit from a variety of activities that reinforce language and literacy in the classroom: word walls, flow charts, exemplary texts and further hands-on learning.

  1. Are word walls / glossaries / semantic maps / flow charts / storyboards developed from the experience? Are they prominent, accessible and rigorous?
  2. How is the documentation used to help the class jointly and/or individually re-construct the experience? Is the sentence cycle used to generate rich, juicy sentences?
  3. How is the joint construction phase used to refresh people’s memory and knowledge of events?
  4. Can the newly constructed text(s) be used as “familiar text(s)” that can be re-read as fluency practice?
  5. Has the teacher selected a portion of words to use for further word study?

 

Extending the Experience

  1. Can you link new readings to the shared experience? For instance, now that we have explored the world of the garden, can we explore:
    • poetry about gardens or which use gardens as a motif;
    • procedural/information texts about gardening;
    • stories and/or picture books which takes place in a garden; and 
    • news articles about community gardens?
  2. Can the writing be extended to the inclusion of the writing of recognised genres related to the experience? (procedural texts, brochures, etc)
  3. How have non-verbal knowledge, expertise and attitudes been fostered through the activity?

 

Final Note

The Language Experience Approach (LEA) does not replace systematic, intensive instruction in word study, nor does the LEA replace the importance of regular shared and guided reading of age- and skill-appropriate texts. That said, shared and guided can be incorporated into the LEA. The LEA provides an important avenue for the exploration of guided and extended writing and language learning. Within the LEA, there are many micro-teaching moments which should take advantage of best practice language and literacy methods.

 

Further Reading

Au, K. H. (1979). Using the Experience-Text Relationship Method with Minority Children. The Reading Teacher, (March), 677–679.

Labbo, L. D., Eakle, A. J., & Montero, M. K. (2002). Digital Language Experience Approach: Using Digital Photographs and Software as a Language Experience Approach Innovation. Reading Online, 5(8), 1–19. Retrieved from http://www.readingonline.org/electronic/labbo2/

Landis, D., Umolo, J., & Mancha, S. (2010). The power of language experience for cross-cultural reading and writing. The Reading Teacher, 63(7), 580–589.

Moustafa, M. (2008). Exceeding the standards: a strategic approach to linking state standards to best practices in reading and writing instruction. New York: Scholastic.

Nessel, D. D., & Dixon, C. N. (2008). Using the language experience approach with English language learners: Strategies for engaging students and developing literacy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Wurr, A. J. (2002). Language Experience Approach Revisited: The Use of Personal Narratives in Adult L2 Literacy Instruction. The Reading Matrix, 2(1), 1–8. Retrieved from http://www.readingmatrix.com/articles/wurr/?collection=col10460/1.

Structuring the rhythms of practice: the foundations for learning

Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images News / Getty Images

Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images News / Getty Images

We are pleased to announce that a new page has been added to the Teaching Folder. The Establishing Meaningful Practices page seeks to "get to the rough ground" and emphasise the importance of establishing effective practices in home, school and community environments, which are based on quality teaching principles. We are interested in contrasting what may appear as sporadic, isolated activities with those activities that are carefully arranged and which contribute to the development of meaningful literacy skills.

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, pg 166). For some reason, people pray, brush their teeth, complete their tax, hike in National Parks, long for the next dance, etc. Each “activity” is part of - let’s says - religious practices, hygienic practices, economic practices, artistic practices, social practices and more. Each practice is much more than the sum of its parts. For instance, the combination of prayer, worship, scripture, and stewardship amounts to more than a collection of disparate activities. They amount to a form of life, and they rely upon resources, other participants, a sense of attachment, cultural artefacts, instruction (or initiation) and more. Likewise, literacy involves the orchestrations of many experiences which culminate in the fostering of the literate practitioner. Time and space must be carved out in the great hurly burly of life so that the practice can grow, flourish and evolve.

So ... how do we make certain activities part and parcel of the practices of home, school, the community, etc? What are the material and social conditions that make this happen? What role do adults and peers play in establishing the conditions of a practice? Is it realistic that all budding "apprentices" will have access to "teachers" (including parents) with sufficient expertise and wherewithal? Overall, how does something become a practice and, through practice, how does the learner's engagement with the world change?

Please click here to explore the Establishing (Literacy) Practices page in the Teaching Folder.

Two New Essays: On Literacy & On Practices

This entry comes with a sense of accomplishment. We are pleased to share two (new) essays that reflect important principles from Wittgenstein On Learning. As with many of the essays, both essays initially appeared in the Journal and have been revised and updated for the Essays Section. One essay appeared fairly recently in the Journal (3 July) and it is titled A Framework For Considering Literacy Instruction. The essay seeks to provide a framework for comprehensive and balanced literacy instruction which reflects the developmental stages of literacy and the multifaceted nature of language development.

The other essay is a more expansive attempt to cover its topic. It first appeared as a five-part series starting in January and it now exists as a unified essay that comes in at over 7,000 words (which - in hindsight - is not very much). It focuses on our practices and it is entitled Why Do We Do What We Do?.  Taken together both essays reflect upon two principles that underpin the themes on this site: how we come to see (read) in particular ways and how we come to act (practice) with others within a community. Please explore and enjoy!

Book Tip: Taking Wittgenstein at His Word

A Textual Study by Robert J. Fogelin

Taking Wittgenstein at His Word closely examines three concepts in Wittgenstein's philosophy: rule-following, private language and the philosophy of mathematics. The book is divided into two sections: rule-following and private language are examined in Part One, and the philosophy of mathematics is examined in Part Two. In particular, Fogelin stipulates that he is conducting a close textual reading, and - therefore - chooses not to engage at length with the vast secondary literature. The result is a book that asks, "what does Wittgenstein actually say on these topics?"

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How is it that we are able to communicate at all?

Following hot on the heals of the previous entry, I share the numbered remarks below. The notes originated over 10 years ago when I was conducting a research project that was investigating English language learners, their acquisition of  "school discourse", and the teaching practices which assisted learning. There are 13 numbered sections, which all play around with the question, "how is it that a message is communicated at all, whether as intended or in an altogether new interpretation?" Please enjoy. Like any notes from old, I cringe at certain phrasings but would rather leave them as is.

1. The foundation of any communication depends upon messages expressed and messages received. 

  • <1.1> Not all messages (in fact, few messages) expressed will be received as intended.
    • <1.1.1> Messages expressed and received are encoded in a system of meaning which includes grammatical relationships; intrapersonal, interpersonal and cultural delivery; and a referential ontology, epistemology and ideology.
  • <1.2> Messages that are received do not necessarily and rarely do match the explicitly intended expressed message.
    • <1.2.1> The expresser and the receiver do not, in fact, have to be separate people and so can be the same person (communicating in order to transfer/solidify information)

2. The rules of communication (while providing an analytical framework) are flexible and under constant modification

Please click below to continue with the remaining numbered remarks ...

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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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Why We Do What We Do: Part Two

“Our philosophical experience now, finding ourselves here, necessitates taking up philosophically the question of practice.” (Cavell, 1989)

I am proposing that if we are to seek an understanding of the grand values and beliefs of an individual, community or culture, we must first seek to observe/describe/reflect upon the very ordinary, everyday and cyclical practices that come to constitute the entity’s form(s) of life. For Stanley Cavell, “[In Wittgenstein], I seemed to find what I could recognise as this space of investigation, in [his] working out of the problematic of the day, the everyday, the near, the low, the common, in conjunction with what [we can] call speaking of necessaries, and speaking with necessity.” (Cavell, 1989) The practicalities of one’s existence “takes place around the aspects of daily life, the ordinary and the everyday events of eating, talking, queuing, exchanging pleasantries, greeting people of different age, sex, and gender, drinking, sleeping, dressing, washing, and so on.” (Peters, 2010a, pg 28).

With the above introduction, I launch again into “Why Do We Do What We Do”. In today’s entry, I aim to touch upon the conditions under which given practices flourish. Any given practice - let’s say, brushing one’s teeth - is optimally accompanied by a whole raft of practices along with concepts, knowledge and narratives that justify the practice. In this picture, full participation in the practice of - as stated, brushing one’s teeth - is contingent on understanding the significance of the act within a community that values and engages fruitfully in the practice. And young children are often brought into such activities. Over time the children gain a fuller understanding of the significance of each activity as part of a network of activities that make up - in this case - hygienic practices. Wittgenstein considered the process in terms of training into the application of particular rules that underlie the cultural acts, “I cannot describe how (in general) to employ rules, except by teaching you, training you to employ rules.” (Zettel #318) Therefore, “every instance of the use … is the culmination of a process of socialisation ... Training differs from explanation in that - at least among children - it is largely non-verbal and it is aimed at producing certain actions.” (Phillips, 1979, pg 126).

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Talent is made manifest through practice

Genius is what makes us forget the master's talent. (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value) 

The video in this journal entry is an ABC News piece that can be examined through a Wittgensteinian perspective. The topic is talent, and the article examines what contributes to the realisation of talent (or ability). In brief, the news item makes reference to the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and emphasises that the important roles of hard work (practice), effective teaching, and access to the space and time for total concentration.

Isn't this common sense? How else would success be achieved? Surprisingly, this picture contradicts another prevalent world picture that is sustained in the American public and media; that is, there are those in the community who exhibit extraordinary talent which can launch these individuals into the heights of the culture through their innate ability alone. In the words of Coyle, "talent is the last magical thing. It's magic ... Tiger Woods is magic. Michael Jordan is magic. Mozart was magic." 

Contributing factors such as context, culture, practice, relationships and circumstances are pushed to the periphery because they may threaten to unseat the prevailing mythology that some people are just amazingly talented.  One would prefer to believe in genius, luck, and egalitarianism rather engage in deeper questions into the people, opportunities and culture that fosters skills and practices. The ideas presented in the video do not deny that innate ability plays a role in the realisation of talent; however, the ideas seek to correct a misleading view, which is one that wants to forget that other key factors play vital roles in the fostering and maintenance of talent.

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Why Wittgenstein? Why not simply a site about literacy and learning?

Why did I create a website about Wittgenstein and learning? Wouldn't it have been smarter to create a direct site about language, literacy, numeracy and learning? And refer to curriculum outcomes rather than a philosopher's axioms? Clearly, a more general site would allow for more flexibility. I must admit that Wittgenstein's philosophy can appear obscure at the best of times. That said, I don't feel it will take too much time to explain myself, and I will do so in reference to three of the major texts.

As a result, we gain insights into three dimensions of language: language as structure and form; language as diverse practices; language used to convey knowledge. In each of these perspectives, both communities and individuals must use their imaginative and cognitive capacities to use, deploy and think through language in the great hurly burly of life.

"Doesn’t understanding start with a proposition, with a whole proposition? Can you understand half a proposition?" (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Grammar)

The above applies to all three dimensions. Understanding comes from a full command of the forms, uses and knowledge inherent in our utterances.

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