What is essential for language & literacy learning?

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ADDED 03/07/14

"Literacy can be seen as dependent on instruction, with the corollary that quality of instruction is key. This view emphasizes the developmental nature of literacy-- the passage of children through successive stages of literacy, in each of which the reading and writing tasks change qualitatively and the role of the instructor has to change accordingly." (Chall, 1996 as referenced in Snow, 2004)

What is essential?

Gaining a command of language and literacy over time is the essential bit. In this, I want to keep things simple. The literacy learner acquires alphabetic knowledge. That is, the individual learns that letters are meant to represent sounds, and that these sounds are combined to form words. These words can come to represent aspects or objects in one's environment, experience or imagination. One is better prepared to break a word down into its sounds (or component parts) if the word is familiar to one.  So we have a picture in which objects or concepts in someone's environment or imagination are connected to words uttered by a person which can be broken down into sounds that can be represented by a written system. However,  we must remember that early readers must first analyse word parts - such as onset and rime features - before identifying a one-to-one association between letter and sound combinations (Moustafa, 1997). And this written system is rule-governed.

Individuals should be motivated by the desire to represent or convey observations about objects, which requires one to string words together in the form of sentences (or propositions).  It is essential that the learner is also able to extract meaning from them, as well. In this case, an individual is motivated to report or narrate or recount, and to interpret reports, narratives, recounts, etc. One can imagine a learning experience in which a finite portion of the language is selected that allows one to learn a portion of particular sound patterns, develop a thematic vocabulary, and use this knowledge to read, write and discuss observations in a particular domain. More advanced language is merely an extension of the earlier practices. And education is the progressive development of skills and knowledge which allow one to make sense of, participate in and critically reflect on the world around one, both in a contemporary and historical sense.

What can we take for granted?

Language learning has many layers and contexts. Explore the significance of the above diagram.

The fluent, literate individual may underestimate the number of formative practices that he or she went through in order to develop the complex narrative, expository and persuasive practices that are currently in his or her repertoire. Similarly, the fluent, literate individual may also underestimate the progressive development of vocabulary and knowledge that he or she now exhibits and which underpins his or her comprehension and compositional skills.

So it is essential that the learner has his or her learning shaped in such a way that he or she is making progress at the right pace, but not too quickly as to risk gaps appearing in the mastery of habits of the mind and of critical practice.

I want us to adopt a picture in which the learner is developing the language that allows him or her to conduct the investigations he or she is conceptually interested in pursuing at key developmental and contextual moments.

What can distract?

To be put simply, if learning is not consolidated, this can distract from progression. One must be given time and opportunities to gain the mastery of one set of skills before moving on to the next. More importantly, if instruction is outside of one's zone of proximal development then the learning can be fragmented and full of gaps.

What then is the zone of proximal development? It is a place between the skills that one has mastered and those that an individual will need to master. So it means the learning is not rehashing old material nor is it out of one's reach. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it is just right.

More specifically, if the words that are chosen, or the pace at which learning is occurring, or the content is inappropriate, too complex or not relevant, then this will distract from the main goal of the progressive development of literacy.

It can be the case that the teacher is out of touch. Or a teacher assumes that certain knowledge or skills do not need to be covered. Or the teacher cannot see the big picture from the day to day desire to cover the content of the moment. In some cases, the teacher finds comfort in teaching those who can rather than those who can't. Over time, the gap grows and it becomes more and more difficult for the teacher to intervene.

We also assume that one has access to teachers. Adult learners have fewer opportunities for intensive, sequenced instruction and often find themselves in tokenistic programs that meet infrequently and are conducted with less experienced instructors who use an inferior quality of instructional materials (Bartlett & Holland, 2002).


How do we achieve equality?

I would like to introduce features that come to enhance one's opportunity to learn. Each of the features listed below will be explored at a future date. For one to have an equitable opportunity to learn, there must be:

  1. A suitable amount of engaged time on learning (practicing);
  2. Quality teaching with quality materials in quality environments;
  3. A coalition of supportive learners and teachers in environments which are safe and secure, which are free from discrimination, and which hold high expectations for success;
  4. A respect for local knowledge (and ways of knowing) and a determination to make learning relevant, pertinent and engaging;
  5. Freedom from harm and abuse;
  6. The meeting of basic needs (health, nutrition, housing);
  7. A broader habitus (or structuring structure) which sustains and extends the learning;
  8. Resilience, grit and purpose on the part of the learner who adopts a productive self-concept;
  9. Opportunities to practice and extend practices; and
  10. Clear links between that which is being learnt and the form of life (e.g. work) that the learning is preparing one for.
"It is of paramount importance to recognize that in actual linguistic communities there is no equal access to linguistic resources. There are differences in upbringing, in schooling, in access to higher learning, and more generally in the social environment in which one leads one’s life. And these differences result in the mastery of different vocabularies and rhetorical devices; in different pronunciations, dictions, and writing styles; and in different discursive competences. It is important to note that language is not used in an abstract space of logical relations but in a social space that is structured by power relations.” (Medina, 2008, pg 99)



In an ideal world, we would all have access to skilled people who we trust and would be able to guide us through the many stages of language, literacy and knowledge development. In this ideal world, we would have access to the resources and the enabling opportunities to engage in reading and writing that is rich, engaging and relevant. In this ideal world, we would feel confident, attached and driven to learn, express and critique. We have the power to make that ideal world our world.

It requires practical determination. I am profoundly struck by a persistent image in my mind that - for me - both clarifies and reflects the challenges of learning to read and write. It is an image of a child moving from skill to skill, actively and with resilience. At times, there are spurts of growth. At other times, it can be hard going. It is an image in which the accumulation of carefully scaffolded experiences turns the child into a reader and a writer. It is an image in which there is significant care taken so that the learner is apprenticed into new practices and the learner is able to reach closure on old skills so as to build new ones. It is an image in which the child encounters new words and propositions, and the child can actively manipulate, refine and process the knowledge encoded in our words.

It is a precarious image. At any stage, the learning can become befuddling and the learner will be unable to progress. It is a progressive image. It is one in which the learner gains a control of the fundamentals, is initiated into different practices with language, and learns to use such learning actively and independently. It is important that the learner engages in the literacy, gradually comes to see the point, and works deliberately and meaningfully with suitable time spent thinking about the content, contexts and forms of messages. The learner is encouraged to visualise, notice patterns, think critically, summarise, predict, etc.

I applaud those who advocate for early intervention in literacy for those children who are most at risk. I empathise with those who crave knowledge and desire to express but who become frustrated in the process of doing so. It is not only an early intervention challenge, though. It is an ongoing challenge to assist learners in developing the means through which to acquire the full reading and writing skills necessary to navigate economic, civic, interpersonal, aesthetic and other roles in the community. This requires the development of a repertoire of skills, not merely the foundations. It involves a growing awareness of language; an appreciation of form, content, context and audience; and a fostering of the non-verbal core of our living in which language and literacy play important roles.

A Model For Balanced Reading Instruction (Dr. Neil Anderson)

I strive to express this understanding in new ways, so as to be able to convey what I can visualise but which I struggle to express in words. I will leave the reader with an diagram developed by Dr Neil J. Anderson of Brigham Young University that expresses an observation that I have found. The left of the diagram emphasises the need to monitor the development of ongoing language proficiencies, such as in phonological awareness, vocabulary development, and sentence development, which will be the reserves that the language and literate user will call upon in instances of reading and writing. The right of the diagram portrays those instances of reading and writing that call upon both verbal and non-verbal abilities. Each literacy event  calls upon prior knowledge, previous experience, an understanding of purpose and context, visualisation and critical thinking skills, habits and routines, and motivation and goal-setting so that reading and writing events lead to comprehension, execution and learning.

I have written previously and will repeat here. I can sum up the importance of language and literacy in three words: independence, control, and participation. A person who speaks on his or her own behalf and who is a skilled reader and writer can independently advocate for him- or herself and navigate his or her own learning. And since literacy is a constructive skill (as Wittgenstein's picture theory suggests), the individual learns ways to control and critically reflect upon experience.  And the development of language and literacy skills amongst a community of practitioners allows one to participate in that group, to contribute to that group and to find a valued identity therein.

Literate individuals have benefited from enabling relationships as well as access to adequate spaces, time, resources and formative experiences that aid and reinforce what it means to be literate. It is indispensable to acknowledge that literate practices are refined in collaboration with others (having people to talk to, to read with and to write to).

References  (back to top)

Bartlett, L., & Holland, D. (2002). Theorizing the Space of Literacy Practices. Ways of Knowing, 2(1), 10 – 22.

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

Medina, J. (2008). Whose Meanings? Resignifying Voices and Their Social Locations. In The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New Series, Volume 22, Number 2, pp. 92-105.

Moustafa, M. (1997). Beyond traditional phonics: research discoveries and reading instruction. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Snow, C. (2004) What counts as literacy in early childhood? In K. McCartney & D. Phillips (Eds), Handbook of early child development. Oxford: Blackwell.