I once heard that ontogeny recapitulates philology, or philosophy, or phonology, or something.
Last month, I read a book by some reading researchers who studied children and writing and concluded that writing is a natural process. In presenting their evidence and their argument, they suggested that the processes by which children acquire written language recapitulate the processes by which any human acquires or expands her ability to write.
Last month, I attended the keynote lecture at the annual conference of the International Dyslexia Association by a reading researcher who studied children and writing and concluded that writing is not a natural process. In presenting her evidence and her argument, she suggested that the processes by which children acquire written language knowledge recapitulate the processes by which humans evolutionarily acquired or developed their ability to write.
The book was written by some whole language / language experience researchers. The keynote was delivered by a systematic phonics / direct instruction researcher.
One set of researchers have examined the evidence and concluded that writing is natural, and the other has concluded that writing is unnatural. I wonder what the heck they both mean by natural. Natural for whom? Natural in what ways? What else in the human experience is ‘natural’ in the same way? Is riding a horse natural? Is running a marathon natural? Is playing the harp natural? None of those experiences are natural for me, but they may well be natural for others who do them. Nothing that humans do is the same for every human. Even the most natural things, like eating, and copulating, and dying, are done in wildly different ways across the human spectrum.
Reading and writing abilities, like many other complex processes in the human experience, are on a continuum; the details will vary depending on both the user and the context. The same is true for, say, athletics: some people are naturally very good athletes, whereas others struggle with athletics even with concentrated instruction. And musical ability is analogous: some people seem to come by it effortlessly, while others are tone deaf even after years of piano lessons. Some children enter preschool already reading and beginning to write; others cannot read proficiently after years and years of schooling, despite having normative abilities in other areas.
The speaker at the conference acknowledged that literacy is “hard,” and stipulated that its acquisition is both “a process and a product.” The writers of the book claimed that literacy is natural and not a product, but an event. I would submit that writing can be all three — I have been writing this response for over two weeks, so clearly there’s a process involved. My goal is to have a product, something I can post on my blog; when I do so, there will be a writing event. So I’m not convinced at this point that one ‘side’ in the perpetual dialectics of reading instruction has won out over the other, underscoring this semester’s resounding message of pedagogy as an ongoing dialogue.
The book, Language Stories and Literacy Lessons by Harste, Woodward and Burke, puts forth as its central argument that traditional written language research and instruction obscure and confuse the process of language learning. Specifically, the authors take exception with the practice of removing graphophonemic structures from linguistic contexts and teaching them in isolation. They argue that “the graphophonemic system . . . never operates independently of the other systems in writing” (67), like syntax, semantics or pragmatic. As someone highly trained in the teaching of a traditionally phonics-based approach, I shouldn’t be someone who responds favorably to the authors’ assertions, but I do. I agree with many of the authors’ assertions, just not always in the same way the authors intend them.
First, I was immediately sold on a citation from Halliday that heads up the preface: “A child doesn’t need to know any linguistics in order to use language to learn, but a teacher needs to know some linguistics if he wants to understand how the process takes place — or what is going wrong when it doesn’t” (Halliday, 1980, p. 11, cited on p. ix). I won’t comment here on what a child does or doesn’t need to know to use language, but I heartily concur with the latter assertion: you can’t teach what you don’t know, and teachers teach students about language. When teachers don’t know any linguistics, they may teach prescriptive but fruitless maxims, like “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking” or “don’t end a sentence in a preposition” or “don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.” But I am breaking all three ‘rules’ in this sentence, and I don’t think it messes my writing up. When teachers don’t understand any linguistics, they can’t address the child who makes errors like *jumpt or *yat or *chran for jumped or white or train.
However, the authors reflect a bias toward psycho- and socio-psycholinguistics, even going so far as to articulate that “Language is a socio-psycholinguistic process, not just a psycholinguistic one” (193), but they seem to forget that language is also linguistic. While they articulate “linguistically, language is studied as a rule-governed system” (145), they do not pursue that understanding consistently. If language is a rule based system, then how can they assert that its “conventions are quite simply fringe benefits” (30)? Written language is language, rule-governed, as the authors argue. Its conventions are rule-driven, governed by pattern as much as, if not more than, oral language. While writing can and arguably should be pursued without concern for conventional correctness at every stage, to suggest that conventions are “fringe benefits” for mature language users in the same way that they might be for very young children not yet proficient with print, is facile at best. In a dimensional (not discrete) model, at what point in a child’s literacy development do conventions cease to be “fringe benefits?” And then what?
Second, I appreciate the authors’ focus on that dimensional nature of literacy. “Literacy,” they articulate, “is neither a monolithic skill nor a ‘now-you-have-it-now-you-don’t’ affair” (69). Indeed. At what point can a learner be called ‘literate’? The keynote speaker’s blurb in the conference brochure suggested that “decoding and spelling, grammar and vocabulary” are “development[al] . . . milestones culminating in the ability to read even complex texts.” Really? So then once a learner has achieved the “milestone” of “grammar,” she’s literate? Literacy is a process that “culminates”, that reaches a point of highest development? Implicit in this argument is the idea that, like the evolutionary process literacy acquisition purportedly mimics, literacy acquisition can reach a climax, can be done. Last time I checked, I’m proficient with written language, but still acquiring new words and strategies and understandings, so am clearly not done with my literacy development. As long as we keep reading and writing, we keep developing as users of literacy. A categorical model of literacy, such as the one suggested by the speaker, ignores the inherent dimensionality of reading and writing skill, from user to user and, within a single user, form context to context.
Third, I concur with the authors’ contention that language learning should be exploratory and expansive, and should intersect meaningfully with other content and experiences. Two passages in particular speak to this perspective:
“to learn language . . . to learn about language . . . and to learn through language (ever exploring and expanding her world–which, by the way, is what real literacy is all about)” (39).
p. 51: “Based on our experience, we advocate use of open-ended, real language use situations in which the child, or language user, becomes the research and curricular informant. By real language situations we mean functional instances of language where all language systems (grapho-phonemic, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic) in the event are allowed to transact with the other communication system (i.e. art, music, math, gesture, drama, etc.) which naturally co-occur in the setting. This is in contrast to research settings that isolate a single system of language (e.g. the study of the graphophonemic system of a language using nonsense materials), a procedure which distorts not only what language is, but also how the very language system works as a component of communication” (51, my emphasis).
Okay, so I agree that the purpose of literacy is meaning, learning, ever exploring and expanding one’s world. But why can’t the study of the language’s orthography be exploratory and expansive? As a mater of fact, it can, if a teacher knows how to make it so. And while I agree wholeheartedly with the italicized sentence in the second passage — it is fruitless to use nonsense materials to teach a system (writing) whose job it is to represent sense — I disagree vociferously with the implicit assumption that the study of language, unlike the study of math or art or drama, does not qualify as a “real language use situation.” When linguists study language, are they not in “real language use situations”? If students investigate why there’s a <b> in <debt> or whether <-tion> is, in fact, a suffix, are those not “real language use situations?” Why is learning the patterns that govern the writing system not a “language experience?” What kind of experience might it otherwise be?
There is much that Harste, Woodward and Burke get right about what literacy is and is not, but they get the same thing wrong that too many reading researchers get wrong: they assume that the spelling instruction can only teach us how to spell, which may not matter so much, rather than how spelling works, which is organized, generative, discovery-based and interactive, very much reflecting the patterns that the authors elicit in their subjects’ literacy and literacy learning. The implicit assumption that language study itself is not a “language experience” really deprecates language study categorically, not just certain unsavory practices.
If isn’t it possible to explore and expand one’s world through the study of the writing system, of its structure and its history, then I want my money back. After all, that’s been my life’s work, without a doubt, it’s been — and continues to be — petty darn exploratory and expansive.