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blog entry - Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language - I've gone back to the archives to revisit an unpublished piece from the past.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.

Progress with the Balanced Teaching page

I am pleased to announce progress with the Balanced Teaching page on the Wittgenstein on Learning website. This update includes a comprehensive, referenced introduction for the coming teaching presentations. Select the image and/or link below to begin exploring.

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: The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind

by Jeanne Chall, Vicki Jacobs, and Luke Baldwin

Recently, I wrote about this book in a journal entry titled A Teacher for All Seasons where I indicated that a literacy teacher must be clear, structured and evidence-based as well as expansive, engaging and creative.  Even though by contemporary standards the title - why poor children fall behind - may appear blunt, the authors' observations about the challenges of coordinating a balanced pedagogy are pertinent today. For this reason, I am including it as a recommended read.

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A Comprehensive Literacy Pedagogy Would Account For ...

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

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

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

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

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

Such a pedagogy would recognise that:

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

 

Reference

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

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

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

A Teacher For All Seasons in All Places

I have recently finished a convincing argument that alleviates - if only temporarily - my attempts to seek to identify a singular literacy pedagogy. Visitors to this site will be well aware of my struggle to resolve two images of literacy pedagogy, a conflict which is also apparent in the tension between Wittgenstein's early and later conceptualisations of language. These two images are commonly represented by such dichotomies as practice in print-based skills vs (oral) language development (Aaron et al, 2008); word recognition vs (word) meaning (Chall, Jacobs & Baldwin, 1990); formal practices vs informal practices (Senechal, 2006); or constrained skills vs unconstrained skills (Paris, 2005; Stahl, 2011).

In short, fostering literacy requires that one is adept at systematically reinforcing the core, constrained skills of literacy (to the point of mastery) so that fluency is attained and higher order thinking can be facilitated, whilst providing rich opportunities for students to gain and express meaning in multiple knowledge domains and modes through scaffolded speaking, listening, reading and writing. In my earlier writing, I suggested that such a teacher must be both systematic and expansive, that the literacy pedagogy must be both intensive and extensive, that a teacher must be both precise and discursive, and that a teacher must keep a keen ear our for cognitive development whilst building sociocultural capacities and knowledge. To say the least, a teacher must be organised with an awareness of selecting suitable content, with a clear conception of learning intentions, and with the ability to determine if intentions are being met and whether such learning is fostering all the attributes that will equip the learner for future learning.

A literacy teacher must be "a teacher for all seasons" - so to speak - which is clearly on display in the chapter, "Classroom environments and literacy instruction" that appears in Chall, Jacobs and Baldwin's (1990) book The Reading Crisis: why poor children fall behind. Even though contemporary standards may take exception to the bluntness of the title, the author's observations about the challenges of coordinating a balanced pedagogy are pertinent today.

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Developing literacy presents certain challenges in remote contexts

Developing literacy presents certain challenges in remote contexts for a range of reasons; however, these reasons are not insurmountable, though they do present significant obstacles.

If I need to start somewhere, I will cite the lack of a literate tradition as one factor to consider. In non-remote contexts, children are exposed to literate behaviour in a range of forms from a very early age. A literate sensibility is reinforced in literate environments. And a literate environment is one which is stacked with literate artefacts (e.g. books, magazines, list on refrigerators) and populated by readers and writers. However, children in remote communities are growing up in environments with few age-appropriate books and fewer role models who exhibit the diverse habits of a literate individual. 

Furthermore - in remote contexts - it is often the case that learners are brought into literacy in a language that is not their mother tongue. If early literacy experiences were about rendering in print that which is spoken, then English language learners face additional barriers to see the relationship between speech, writing and reading. In addition to the language barrier, there is also the cultural barrier. It is understood that readers are better able to engage and understand what they read when they have the prior knowledge/experience/schema to find the reading meaningful, not to mention access to an experienced reader to aid reading. However, it is often the case that the learners are exposed to texts which (a) use an unnatural (or unfamiliar) flow of language and (b) do not connect with the learner’s experiences (or desire to attach meaning). Whilst these texts may provide “exercises in reading”, there is some doubt as to the meaning being extracted from such text. A child might “read” the text, but does the child understand what he or she is reading?

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Elements of the Writing Process: A Schematic Diagram

On Tuesday, 19 November, I presented a schematic diagram for the reading process. In this entry I provide a similar diagram on the writing process. Imagine a scenario in which a teacher is establishing an opportunity for purposeful writing. The teacher would need to orient the students to the situation of composition; deconstruct the content, form and audience; model an example jointly with the students; give space for independent construction; and encourage reflective practice. 

Literacy development involves establishing and monitoring practices within institutions

Change occurs at the three levels: the intrapersonal, the interpersonal, and the institutional. The need for clarity, structure and support at the institutional level is often overlooked when examining effective literacy practices. There is a tendency to focus on the activities within the classroom conducted by effective teachers, which are often facilitated by the school infrastructure and its culture that contribute to strong, communicative, resourced and informed practices.

From Irvin, J, Meltzer, J & Dukes, M. (2007) Develop and Implement a Schoolwide Literacy Action Plan. In Taking Action on Adolescent Literacy. ASCD Press.

Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/107034/chapters/Develop-and-Implement-a-Schoolwide-Literacy-Action-Plan.aspx on 28 November 2013

While we are on the topic, it is worth examining the research background to the whole-school Standards Based Change approach to literacy development from well-known literacy academics Kathryn H. Au and Taffy E. Raphael: http://schoolriseusa.com/research-publications/ 

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.