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.

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”. 

709D150C-7AC0-495B-B7D0-5492C7D43A3C.jpg

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.

The Machinery of Language and Literacy

In light of the most recent blog entry - Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language - I've gone back to the archives to revisit an unpublished piece from the past. Whilst there are some rough edges, it is posted here as part of the ongoing conversation.

 

Introduction 

The layout of the diagram to the lower right might seem odd when it starts with “the world” as the notion at the top and "form of life" at the bottom, but this is to suggests that language and literacy are learned in a particular context. And the context determines the language(s) one speaks and it determines what one is likely to speak about.

In the words of Wittgenstein and Tomasello we find:

“When a child learns language it learns at the same time what is to be investigated and what not.” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #472)
“‘Nothing could seem less remarkable than a one-year-old child requesting ‘More juice’ or commenting ‘Doggie gone’ … From an ethological perspective, perhaps the most astounding fact is that something on the order of 80 percent of all Homo sapiens cannot understand these utterances at all.” (Tomasello, 2003, pg 1)

Let’s say English is a language that is spoken in this environment. And - let’s say - that the word “Madagascar” exists in this world, and I hear the word “Madagascar” uttered in this place of the world. It also refers to a film (that I haven’t seen, but am aware of) and it is a type of vanilla (Madagascar vanilla), which I don’t know much about, either. There is a history to the word, and this history is its meaning. One points to a map to show me where the country is. One offers to watch a film with me. And one shows me a picture of Madagascar vanilla, and - perhaps - I have a chance to taste it. As long as I know that places, films and plants have names, then it is possible that I can know what is being referred to.

 

Phonological Awareness & Phonemic Awareness

I ask someone to say the word slowly, so I can have a go at writing the word, because if one is going to recognise the printed word, one must first be phonologically and phonemically aware of the word.

When I listen closely, I notice that Madagascar has four syllables:

 

Ma / da / ga / scar

 

One must also distinguish each of the sounds within the word:

 

[/m/+/short a/] + [/d/+/schwa/] + [/g/+/short a/] + [/s/+/k/+/ar/]

 

Alphabetic Principle, Phonics & Spelling

Then I attempt to spell the word based on my knowledge of English graphemes

 

M = /m/

a = /short a/

d = /d/

a = /schwa/

g = /g/

a = /short a/

s = /s/

c = /k/

ar = /controlled vowel - ar/

 

I’m pretty confident the opening letter is M to represent the /m/ sound, since I intuitively know that the letter “m” represents the /m/ sound most of the time (94% of the time to be accurate, if you see the chart to the right/above). Similarly, I know the /short a/ sound when I hear it. Whilst the letter “a” represents the /short a/ 96% of the time, I only appreciate this from experience. To make a long story short, I know the word “scar” and intuit that the word ends with the same spelling. I could be wrong, but this is when one’s word knowledge helps one problem-solve new words. That said, I might have spelled it incorrectly, and I might need to consult someone or something (e.g. a dictionary) to see if I am on the right track.

In the end, I heard a word, and I used my phonemic awareness skills to isolate the sounds. I used my knowledge of sounds-letters and my knowledge of words to spell it. If I didn’t have any of these attributes then I could be overwhelmed by the length of the word, etc. But I wasn't. Phew!

 

Morphology

For the time being, let’s say I recognise the word and I know that there is nothing quite morphological about the proper noun Madagascar. There are no meaningful prefixes, roots or suffixes which would assist me.

 

In a Sentence

Do we ever really encounter words only in isolation, though? As noted by Wittgenstein,

“If I know an object (word) I also know all its possible occurrences in states of affairs. (Every one of these possibilities must be part of the nature of the object/word.)” (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, #2.0123)

 

In this case, I read the following state of affairs:

 

Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean.

 

I am lucky. I know English grammar, and I am familiar with all the words - when spoken - but I struggle with the written form of the printed word “island”. I am familiar with the spoken word, which is pronounced

 

[/long i/] + [/l/+/short a/+/n/+/d/]

 

But I don’t know about this

 

[/short i/+/s/+/l/] + [/short a/+/n/+/d/]

 

But a helpful person informs me that the letter “s” is indeed silent, and the opening letter “i” is a /long i/ syllable. In fact, the printed word “island” is familiar in the end. What a relief?

 

Sentences in Context

I know the sentence is a descriptive sentence, and I know that it is meant to convey information. I use my background knowledge to place the sentence in context. This sentence comes next:

The population of Madagascar is over 22 million people, and it spreads over 500,000 square kilometres.

I recognise that the emerging paragraph is a geography paragraph and I anticipate that I’ll find out about the capital city of Madagascar, primary industries, natural sites and cultural practices. I know this because I am familiar with this genre of discourse, and I expect and value this knowledge. I intuitively am comparing this with a similar text I read/heard/wrote earlier. The earlier one was about the island of Taiwan, and I am interested to know the differences between the two island contexts. If I didn’t have this previous experience or background knowledge, then I might not be able to read/hear/write the new text as deeply or critically.

 

Another Attempt

Let us look at another set of words. Let’s imagine that a friend shows me a photo of a red wheelbarrow sitting in the rain and provides with the following poem:

 

“so much depends

upon

 

”a red wheel

barrow

 

“glazed with rain

water

 

“beside the white

chickens.”

 

“It’s beautiful,” she says. “It’s by a fellow named William Carlos William.”

 

I’m not really fussed by the poem, to be honest. And I don’t know why it starts with the phrase “so much depends / upon”. But my friend insists that the poem is meaningful. Even though I know all the words, and I can understand/imagine the scene, I am missing something. So my friend asks me to bring in a photo of something that is significant to me. When we meet again, we both come armed with a photo. My photo is of my late grandmother, and her photo is of a pier jutting out into a river at dusk. She reads out her poem.

 

“so much depends

upon ...

 

"the smell of

the river

 

"of bait, of fish

and blueberries

 

"on hot summer

days."

 

And she helps me write mine:

 

“so much depends

upon

 

"my grandmother's

photo

 

"on the mantle

piece

 

"watching over

me."

 

We do it again next week, and the week after, and I start to get the point. I find it peaceful just stating something meaningful. My friend and I might talk about the “meaningfulness” of the object in the photo, but these "meanings” or even descriptions are left unsaid in our poems. At some stage, she introduces me to haikus, and I find that I have a new way to relax. Every so often I stop and write or think or say “so much depends upon …” I didn’t understand the point at the start but I do now, and I have started to branch out into other forms/purposes of poetry. I’m really quite surprised. In fact, it takes on a form of meditation or secular prayer. Whilst I still need to draft reports and memos at work, I have another written outlet that extends what I achieve in print. I have learned a new "language game" - so to speak.

 

Conclusion

Let’s return to the opening diagram, and we find the following:

  • We live in a world;
  • And in that world there are “things”, “concepts”, “phrases”, “relationships”, etc;
  • These “things” have words, whether they are physical, like “a rock”, or conceptual, like "kindness”;
  • Some of these words are functional and appear in phrases or as single words, like “How are you?” and “therefore”;
  • The words are strung together in sentences to express some sense/meaning, and those sentences are strung together as part of a discourse of some kind;
  • And we communicate about something in some way to others.

To end, let me present the following scenarios:

  • an experienced electrician is wiring up a new electrical system. The electrician knows what everything is called and what everything does, but quivers when someone hands him an installation manual full of words and abstract schematics. “Mate, I can’t makes heads or tales of that thing” as he points to the manual. “I know what I’m doing.” Is it the technical nature of the manual that catches him off guard?
  • a philosopher is asked to wire up a new electrical system. The philosopher has no clue about electronics and quivers at the sight of the wires. Someone hands him an installation manual full of words and abstract schematics. After much effort, the philosopher eventually says, “Mate, I can’t makes heads or tales of that thing” as he points to both the manual and the box of wires.
  • an average person who is familiar with electronics, but is in no way an expert or practiced, is asked to wire up a new electrical system. She has a strong grasp of literacy and she is able to process information accurately. She knows what NOT to do in relation to voltage and amperage. She is eventually able to get the job done with the help of the manual, a few YouTube videos, and a couple calculated phone calls.

How would you go about explaining what is occurring in each of these scenarios? You may use the following diagram to help.

 

References

Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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

_____________. (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.

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.

Language is the carrier of the human culture

And language is the carrier of the human culture, by which mankind continually produces and contemplates itself, a reflection of our species–being. Language, one might say, is the medium of mind, the element in which our minds dwell as our bodies dwell on earth in the air. In mastering language, we take on a culture; our native language becomes a part of ourselves, of the very structure of the self. Thus language has dual aspects: it is our means for self-expression, for articulating our unique individuality; yet at the same time it is what we have in common with other members of our community, what makes us like them and binds us to them. As a consequence, language lies at the heart of the problem of membership - in a group, in a culture, in a society, in a polity - central to almost every theoretical issue in social and political study.
— (Pitkin, 1972, pg. 3)

Pitkin, H. F. (1972). Wittgenstein and Justice. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.