The Power to Depict

Once again I feel the desire to return to the inspiration for The Literacy Bug: the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein

By this stage, it lies in the distant past that this website was once known as Wittgenstein on Learning, but despite the passage of time Wittgenstein’s influence remains ever present.

The man was preoccupied by how we are able to express anything whatsoever through language. And in his flawed masterpiece Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein presents us with a conceptualisation of language which encourages us to be amazed by our ability to transfer pictures of the world through our utterances. From this perspective, a function of language is to express propositions of the world to one another. That is, language is powerful because we can use it to propose states of affairs to one another through a system of sounds (to which we attach shared meaning). By propositions, we can take it to mean “sentences on the world”. 

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Through the lens of the Tractatus, each proposition (or sentence) paints a picture of a state of affairs, and that state of affairs is open to consideration and contemplation (as long as the speaker and the listener share some form of language). In other words, language permits people to generate, communicate and examine possible states of affairs, whether real or fictitious ... declarative or speculative ... true or false. I can convey and receive pictures through language, and there is no necessity that I am able to experience these pictures directly for me to understand them and draw meaning from them. 

The Tractatus 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. Even these paragraphs - the ones you are currently reading - are valuable in that they present a picture of abstractions - languages, propositions, sentences - that may influence your future perception of “how certain things work”. In Wittgenstein’s own words from a later work,

"This picture has a double function: it informs others, as pictures or words inform -- but for one who gives the information it is a representation (or piece of information?) of another kind." (Philosophical Investigations, 280)

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. We are builders of how our concepts are meant to fit together. In writing, we may chisel out an unfolding picture as we lay sentence after sentence onto the page with the aim of describing how something occurred or how something works. We must have the patience, motivation and care to find this recording process beneficial and - in fact - important to how we live our lives. That is, we must find some value in recording an observation for ourselves and others to return to. In reading, we must find some benefit in encountering and constructing a mental image of a state of affairs as we come to navigate texts. Some texts may be more accessible, whilst other texts may be “harder to crack” because they are more difficult for a particular reader to generate pictures from them.

Implied in all of this is a substratum to language: our ability to experience, perceive, notice, visualise, critique and represent aspects of the world or possible words. And whilst we have all read mechanically (focusing merely on decoding) at least once in our lives, we have also had to reread a section of text to get a proper image of what we failed to grasp in the first place. And if I am to demonstrate my comprehension, I’d be compelled to represent my understanding in some way (either in words, images or schematics). And we share these representations with others to determine whether our understanding of a text is shared by others. Have we extracted the right image?

So … amidst The Literacy Bug’s recent focus on the alphabetic principle, I feel it is important to splash a bit of paint on the purpose of our reading and writing, since the acquisition of literacy is a means to an end - not an end in itself. We want learners to become dexterous with the written word so they can discover, debate, and develop knowledge of the world, of themselves within it, and of people around them. And the learners should be deeply motivated to do so, and it is our role as teachers - in whatever capacity we serve - to foster this compulsion to examine, express and explore. This sentiment is elegantly captured by Mr. Stanley Cavell,

"The pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying [and writing], have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, and so on) … 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 [writing and reading] at all." (Cavell, 2005, pg 115)

So … please imagine, explore and enjoy! The path to discovery involves many patient moments of illumination.


References

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

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

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

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.

Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language

 

Introduction

Please permit me to be abrupt ... at the start, at least. Isn't literacy merely the encoding, decoding and understanding of language? Simplistic though it may sound, print is the younger cousin of the much older member of the family. 

The above schematic addresses this rough relationship between language and literacy. If one is developing the components of language - e.g. phonological, lexical, morphological, grammatical, textual and pragmatic skills - then the learning of “the code” serves to facilitate the transference of the learner’s speech into print, which itself can serve as a platform upon which further literate language can be built. In this case, the code is the interface between language and literacy, and this code requires that learners develop additional skills in order to coordinate and manipulate language-in-print. 

From an early age, a child is learning language, but this child will only slowly develop an awareness of print. By age 6, a child will know thousands of words in oral language, but only know a few - if any - when read (Chall, 1996). This rich oral language provides ample stimulus for learners to begin exploring known (oral) words in print. In the coming years, the child’s oral language will continue to be stronger than what he/she can express on the written page. It is only at 13 years of age that your skilled readers are as competent in oral language as they are in literacy. By 15 to 17 years of age, print (finally) overtakes oral language. At this stage, a learner is apt to be better equipped to explore complex ideas on the page than verbally, particularly if the learner has a strong corpus of academic language. Across this prolonged developmental period, learners become increasingly more adepts and fluid in navigating and representing ideas in literate language.

The remainder of this entry will sketch some thoughts that may come to impact how we approach the encoding, decoding and understanding of literate language. I enter into the discussion with a profound appreciation of print’s older cousin, even though we will not discuss the specific uses of language here.


Part One: Encoding

WORDS [EITHER AUDIBLE OR INAUDIBLE]  ---> DIVIDED INTO SYLLABLES & SOUNDS ---> ENCODED WITH GRAPHEMES ---> RECONSTRUCTED INTO PRINT WORDS [WORDS THAT I RECOGNISE]

Isn't it logical to analyse known words, and harness a learner's phonemic awareness to become adept at anticipating how to spell such-and-such a word which is already familiar to the learner? And - then - provide scaffolded opportunities for learners to monitor their own speech to use this skill in their emerging writing? Can't we leverage oral language and visual prompts as vehicles through which the learners become curious about words, the sounds in words and how these sounds and words are represented in print?

These are my queries in relation to the following possible lesson sequence, which could be considered an analytical approach to language-in-print:

  • A known word is uttered orally;
  • That word is segmented into syllables and phonemes (evidenced by phonemic awareness);
  • The learner identifies the matching phoneme cards (pictured below);
  • The learner has a go at spelling the word based on emerging sound-to-letter knowledge (invented spelling);
  • That spelling is tested against the word's conventional spelling, which opens up a platform for discussion of common patterns;
  • We return to the meaning of the word, and of using the word in context.

If a child can recognise all the letters of the alphabet (26 items), what's stopping him or her from memorising all possible English phonemes (45 items, give or take one or two)? And then using this knowledge to "phonemically spell" words that are part of the learner's oral language vocabulary? Sounds logical to me.

We ask kids to memorise the alphabet. Why don't we ask children to remember and apply all possible phonemes in English?

This is effective up to a point. The learner becomes adept at monitoring external and internal speech, and the learner develops a process to more rapidly represent this speech in print. Over time, the learner will process this information more rapidly as he/she recognises certain words and word patterns as whole units. For the time being, the learner is discovering the language-to-print connection, which is a step toward the writing-to-reading connection.


Part Two: Decoding

Eventually, the tables are turned, though. It is no longer enough to be able spell words by relying upon the stimulation of internal and external speech. The learner will need to decode words that are presented first in print. The learner will need to derive oral language from print, which will require that he or she recognises regular patterns, such as phonics patterns, syllable constructions, sight words, word families, morphological regularities and more.

By 6 - 7 years of age, a child is experiencing direct instruction in letter-sound relations (phonics) as well as practice in their use. He or she is reading simple stories using words with these phonic elements as well as high frequency words. By ages 7 - 8, direct instruction extends to include advanced decoding skills along with wide reading of familiar, interesting materials that help promote fluency. Meanwhile, the child is being read to at levels above their own independent reading level to develop language, vocabulary and concepts (Chall, 1996). The child should be motivated to extend themselves in relation to both expressiveness and comprehension.

PRINT WORD(S) ---> DIVIDED INTO SYLLABLES & GRAPHEMES ---> SOUNDED OUT ---> RECOGNISED ---> VOICED FLUENTLY [EITHER AUDIBLY OR INAUDIBLY] ---> UNDERSTOOD IN CONTEXT

The sequence when reading words in isolation as well as those in connected text is:

  • Do I see the word(s) and attend to the word(s)?
  • Do I recognise it/them as one(s) I know?  Do I recognise it/them immediately or do I need to decode it/them? Can I begin to guess it/them based on context and other cues? Do I simply recognise it/them or can I also sound it/them out?
  • Can I "chunk it/them"? (e.g. identify syllables, onset-rime and graphemes)
  • Can I allocate sound(s) to individual letters or letter combinations (e.g. graphemes)?
  • Can I refine how the word  or words are read in syllables and use my knowledge of patterns to read more proficiently and meaningfully?
  • Can I recognise the word or words along with words around it/them (if applicable)?
  • Can I re-read the word or words and the sentence (if applicable) with expression and confidence?
  • Do I consider the meaning of the word, the current utterance and other potential utterances?
  • Can the learner begin to develop a more systematic understanding of how English words work?

As learners firmly grasp the concepts of words, phonemes, graphemes and morphemes, then it becomes more feasible to systematically study graphemes in what would be called a synthetic manner. This would extend to involve further exercises which refine the learner's knowledge of spelling rules, stress patterns and more. For the moment, consider the following order of phonics to be taught in a synthetic manner (source: Bear, et al., 2015):

Letter Name-Alphabetic (Semi-Phonetic) Stage [typically between 4 - 7 yrs old]: CVC word patterns with the following sequence of graphemes and blends: short a, m, t, s, short i, f, d, r, short o, g, l, h, short 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

Syllables & Affixes (Independent) Stage [typically between 9 - 11 yrs old]: multisyllabic words, adding inflectional endings, homographs & homophones

Derivation (Advanced) Stage [typically between 11 - 14 yrs old]: focusing on advanced prefixes, suffixes, roots as well as word families (e.g. exclaim, exclamation, exclamatory) 

In this model, learners become familiar with letter-sounds after they are supported to navigate sounds-to-letters. Furthermore, one is exploring language well before this or - at least - alongside this study. Upon recognising words from a string of letters and/or sounds, and pictures/intentions from a string of words, then there is hope that learners can process that which has been portrayed within the coded text as well as in the spoken stream. There is hope that one is informing and being informed; is entertaining and being entertained; is greeting and being greeted; etc.


Grapheme / Phoneme Charts


Part Three: Understanding

At this point, it is no longer enough to merely encode, decode and understand basic texts. One needs to encode, decode and understand diverse texts rapidly and accurately in order to read with enough fluency so as to make way for deep comprehension. This requires the learner to coordinate a range of skills, including attention, perception, language knowledge, background/contextual knowledge, phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, word/morphological pattern recognition, sight word memory, grammatical knowledge, knowledge of text types and the ability to anticipate/select language based on this prior experience.

In this case, there is a text (perhaps spoken, maybe written). I recognise language/words in it (at least most of them). I know the context and the purpose of the text. I know what to look for. There are words that I may need to define in context or have explained to me. I can follow the logic/context, though. I can piece it together to make some logical whole. There are certain occasions where I may get stuck. For instance, I might need to clarify unfamiliar language. I might get stumped by a turn of phrase or two. I might lack some background knowledge or experience. I may just miss the point altogether. I may need the meanings of things explained to me. (What should I be thinking when I read this? What is meant/intended here?) Or I might need help sounding out more complex or unfamiliar terms. What I need most is daily practice which can lead to discoveries about the world, about language and about literacy.

When we process literate language, we process surface features for recognition AND we process deeper features to extract meaning. This is portrayed in the above Iceberg Metaphor.

A significant amount of experience is required to read and write in this meaningful manner. Without this, reading is like looking through a muddy window; you need to strain too hard to see clearly; you can only see things in bits, if at all. However, even if the window is clear (e.g. decodable) you still need to know what you are looking at and what you are looking for.

This reminds me of two parallel experiences of "learning to read". This first involved my stuttering attempts to read in a foreign language, albeit Spanish which shares many common features to English. My lack of vocabulary and insufficient grammatical knowledge meant that I regularly lost my train of thought when reading even the most basic of paragraphs, which - if presented in English - would have been easily comprehended, leaving much space to interpret and apply the information. However, in Spanish, I could not confidently interpret what I was reading, because I lacked confidence and clarity in exactly what I was decoding. I lacked adequate language knowledge. 

A much different experience involved the poetry of e.e. cummings, a poet I adore but who I needed to learn to read ... or - rather - make sense of. In the case of e.e. cummings, I could easily recognise the language, yet it took time to make sense of cummings' innovations with linguistic and poetic forms. It took time to realise the intent behind his innovations, and to come to appreciate how he wanted me - his audience - to feel, think and envision. In order to better understand this latter experience, please explore the essay "To understand, you need to part of the conversation". In practice, reading requires limited background knowledge in the earlier years and substantial background knowledge and concepts as one progress through adolescence into adulthood.


Conclusion


What's the story, then? Our expectations change across time. That much is obvious.

"Word reading is the best predictor of reading comprehension level in the early years (Juel, Griffith & Gough, 1986); but others skills (e.g. background knowledge, inferring, summarising, etc) become more important predictors of comprehension level as word reading ability develops through experience (Curtis, 1980; Saarnio, et al., 1990). Thus, the relative importance of different skills may change during the course of development." (Cain, Oakhill & Bryant, 2004, p. 32) 

There is a time when we are happy that a learner is exploring new words, is using language, is curious about letters and print, and is aware of sounds within words. There comes a time when we expect more, though. We expect learners to spell and read and write and talk more confidently and proficiently. Nothing more, nothing less. And - then - even this is no longer adequate. There comes a time when learners need to process information, organise  and communicate thoughts, discuss with peers and synthesise one’s knowledge. We expect more because ...

“... literacy isn’t a single skill that simply gets better with age ... Being literate is very different for the skilled first grader, fourth grader, high school student, and adult, and the effects of school experiences can be quite different at different points in a child’s development.” (Catherine Snow, et al, 1991, pg 9) 

Diligence, scaffolding, practice and challenging experiences are required. Nothing more, nothing less.


References 

Bear, S., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2014). Words their way: word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (5th edition). Essex: Pearson.

Cain, K. E., Bryant, P. E., & Oakhill, J. (2004). Children’s reading comprehension ability: Concurrent prediction by working memory, verbal ability, and component skills. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.96.1.31

Chall, J. S. (1996). Stages of reading development (2nd ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovic College Publishers.

Curtis, M. E. (1980). Development of components of reading skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 656–669

Juel, C., Griffith, P. L., & Gough, P. B. (1986). Acquisition of literacy: A longitudinal study of children in first and second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 243–255

Saarnio, D. A., Oka, E. R.,& Paris, S. G. (1990). Developmental predictors of children’s reading comprehension. In T. H. Carr & B. A. Levy (Eds.), Reading and its development: Component skills approaches (pp. 57–79). New York: Academic Press.

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

Fostering Reading Comprehension ... and Dispelling a Few Myths at the Same Time

How can one explain the expression, transmit one’s comprehension? Ask yourself: How does one lead anyone to the 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 unambiguously. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, #533)

Reading is not reading if it does not lead to comprehension. Otherwise, it would be known as “word calling”. With that premise, I launch into a brief entry about reading comprehension. It is not comprehensive. Nor is it very technical. Instead, it is a few, common ideas that have been hanging around my head for some time. To help organise my thoughts, I have set out to dispel a few myths that I have heard expressed from time to time:

 

  • Myth #1: Once one solves issues of decoding and the reader is fluent, then comprehension should take care of itself.
  • Answer #1: Whilst automaticity and fluency does facilitate meaningful comprehension,  learners need ample practice and instruction in order to process, interpret, and respond to the information presented in a texts.  Developing readers also need to build a diverse portfolio of knowledge, interests, reading experiences and vocabulary to make sense of what is read.

 

  • Myth #2: You cannot teach comprehension, because you cannot teach thinking. Someone either understands something or he doesn’t.
  • Answer #2: Cannot teach someone to think? You have got to be kidding! We teach people to think all the time. We direct people’s attention to significant details. We encourage individuals to imagine. We ask people to draw connections between observations and concepts being learned. We present pictures to people so that we can persuade and inform. Of course we can teach comprehension. 

 

  • Myth #3: Comprehension is a singular skill that one completes by oneself.
  • Answer #3: To comprehend requires the orchestration of a wide range of skills, whether this involves visualisation, summation, interpretation, comparison, application, etc. Over time, learners are taught to deploy a range of techniques in order to focus on what they read and to make sense of what they read. All of these techniques may not have been made explicit, but this does not mean that they do not exist, that they should not be taught and that they do not become more complex over time.
  • Myth #4: Reading comprehension is a general skill. If one is a good reader, then one can read and understand just about everything.
  • Answer #4: No! It may appear that a good reader can read anything (as long as the reader can control his or her reading diet). Most of us can’t necessarily choose our reading diet. The ability to read a novel is different than the ability to read legislation or philosophy or a science textbook or a government policy or an electricity bill. Furthermore, our ability to comprehend a given text will be impacted by our background knowledge, our experiences, our context, our educational experiences, our language and our motivation. A physicist might devour Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman. For the novice, is it so easy? Perhaps not.

We become better readers by reading, discussing, re-reading and thinking reflectively and critically. In the context of books, we explore new words, new knowledge, new ideas, new perspectives and more. What we read and how we read are things that change across the lifespan. Please enjoy what you read and explore!

The Literacy Dialogues: Episode 1: Manna From Heaven

The Literacy Dialogues are a type of experiment. Each episode presents the characters in a dialogue about a particular text (to be written and/or read). It follows the process of meaning making, and what needs to be in place for meaning to be made. Episode one presents the two character in a discussion over a parable. The dialogues will be designed to be interactive, though this first episode is quite basic.

The dialogues aim to demonstrate a framework for reading comprehension and written composition, whilst also demonstrating that meaning making and responding are highly dynamic. A teacher should not reduce the process to a mechanical exercise. Nor should the teacher avoid establishing routines that move from lower order to higher order skills engagement. Most importantly, the teacher must be careful not to teach beyond the learner's capacity to engage meaningfully, purposefully, enthusiastically and strategically. Each dialogue explores questions such as:

  • How are the characters oriented to the text?
  • Is there a reason for them to attend to the text? and why?
  • Do they have the language and cognitive skills to decode/encode and make meaning from/through the text?
  • Do they have the background knowledge and experiences required to make meaning of the text?
  • How does the meaning making process unfold?
  • Do the readers/writers gain a clear sense of the state of affairs represented in the text? What might be the barriers to comprehension or expression?
  • What conclusions are being drawn? 
  • How is this knowledge interacting with prior knowledge and immediate investigations?
  • Are the readers/writers comfortable with the meanings being expressed? 
  • What can the readers/writers take from this experience? Knowledge? Reflection on practice? Language?
  • What will be memorable? What needs to be in place for this to occur? What needs to occur to consolidate this experience?

Please explore Episode 1: Manna from Heaven.

Read More

To understand you need to be part of the conversation

The philosopher Rush Rhees (2006) begins his essay "Plato, language and the growth of understanding" with the following,

"The people who argued with Socrates and Plato may have thought language was just a collection of techniques, and that that was what understanding is: knowing the technique ... For them, the growth of understanding could only mean the growth of skill (efficiency, I suppose) or the multiplication of skills ... A skill would have the sort of unity that a calculus does ... Is understanding just competence?" (pg. 3)

By ending with a rhetorical question, Rhees is expressing some doubt in the idea that understanding is a measure of technical proficiency. I agree that learning how to spell can be considered to be a technical skill. Knowing how to parse a sentence is also a technical exercise. I put forward the arguable assertion that technical skills develop in a more linear fashion as one develops a more sophisticated mastery of the system under study. There are technicals skills that one must develop in order to gain a command of language and literacy. But can we reduce the understanding (or comprehension) of a Shakespearean sonnet to a mere technical exercise?

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Managing a Balanced Approach to Literacy: Part Four

As raised in the previous journal entries, a balanced literacy pedagogy must

  • focus on building skills;
  • scaffold rich and diverse comprehension;
  • model and support composition as a cognitive and social practice;
  • anchor reading and writing in authentic, real world learning practices; and
  • motivate and inspire learners to become (embody) the role of readers and writers.

The goal is to foster learners with robust language systems who are equipped with the habits of mind for comprehension and composition with an awareness of how literacy serves as a mediating tool in real-world practices. Even though we have identified that literacy development requires explicit instruction on linguistic elements, progressive practice in comprehension and composition, and rich opportunities in authentic reading and writing practices, this does not mean that the instructional dilemma has been resolved.

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Managing a Balanced Approach to Literacy: Part Three

At one stage, I became very relaxed. I felt that I had come to a resolution. If someone walked up to me and asked, ‘what are the core components of literacy?’, I would be able to declare

  • — control
  • — comprehension
  • — practices

 

First, literacy is a notation which requires a significant amount of control over the linguistic system.

 "Just as in writing we learn a particular basic form of letters and then vary it later, so we learn first the stability of things as the norm, which is then subject to alteration." (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #473)

One main tenant of this is as follows, ‘overlearning the basics of decoding reduces the amount of mental effort to read.’ 

"This shape that I see - I want to say - is not simply a shape; it is one of the shapes I know; it is marked out in advance. It is one of those shapes of which I already had a pattern in me." (Wittgenstein, Zettel, #209)

 

Courtesy of Reading Hozisons

As Maryanne Wolf (2008) would say, the more fluent one becomes, the more cognitive space is made for higher order processes in reading (e.g. comprehension). The learner takes time to be able to develop the confidence to extract meaning from the written word.

"A script you can read fluently works on you differently from one that you can write; but not decipher easily. You lock up your thought up in this as though in a casket." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)
 

 

Wolf (2008) is quick to remind us that fluency provides the cognitive space for comprehension but this does not guarantee that the learner will make the leap to making meaning independently. Learning to read requires one to develop the habits of the mind that enables the learner to concentrate, visualise, process and get the gist of the text.

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

Reading is serious exercise for the brain, and the act of reading is the subject of the imagination and of the will. We must acknowledges that learners need considerable help to paint the pictures that are encoded in the squiggles that appear on the page.

Ask: What result am I aiming at when I tell someone: "Read attentively"? That, e.g. this and that should strike him, and he should be able to give an account of it. (Wittgenstein, Zettel, #91)

 

If we refer to the diagram to the left, we will see the significant range of cognitive activities that a reader must be encouraged to engage in to draw connections, pursues conclusions, and seek clarity.

 

And - indeed - James Paul Gee reminds us that, “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). Therefore,  “Even when we want to think about a child learning to read initially, we want to think about what sorts of texts we want the child eventually to be able to read in what sorts of ways. No learner grows up able to read all sorts of texts in all ways.” (Gee, 2003, pg 28)

In these cases, learning to read is embedded in certain practices - the things we do in the great hurly burly of life. "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, and so on) ... 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) I think of terms like "intention", "expectation", and "purpose".

 “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." (quoting Wittgenstein in Monk, 2005, p 69)

 

“Following a rule, making a report, giving an order, and so on, are customs, uses, practices or institutions. They presuppose a human society, and our form of life.” (Phillips, 1977, p 36) .

 “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 ... 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)

It is this concept of language games that brings the final piece of the puzzle: acquiring the literacies (and numeracies) requires an understanding of literacy as part of authentic, real world practices. A balanced pedagogy requires the following: (a) regular, explicit instruction in linguistic features, (b) time spent on strengthening comprehension, and (c) embedding this development in authentic practices so that the learners are developing a repertoire of linguistics practices. 

 

More yet to come ... Zones of Proximal Development and Activity Systems .... 

 

References 

  • Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In S. Cavell, Philosophy the day after tomorrow. (pp. 111 - 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  • 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
  • Monk, R. (2005). How to read Wittgenstein. London: Granta Books.
  • Phillips, D. (1977). Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge. London: MacMillan Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • _____________ (1980). Culture and value. Translated by Peter Winch. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • _____________ (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.
  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.