Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Response to learning not to intervention

Ken Goodman, Professor Emeritus University of Arizona
Consider that without instruction virtually every human infant becomes able to use one or more languages before the age of three. They have learned the grammar, the phonology and the set of abstract combinations of sounds that their community uses to symbolically represent their world. And they can use that in connecting socially, emotionally, physically and communicatively. Every human has the ability to learn relatively easily one or more languages and that ability is equally available to learn alternate forms of those languages as they become necessary and available. This facility does not require any high degree of intelligence- you don’t have to be smart to learn language- nor do you have to be privileged. Language is easy to learn because it corresponds to the way the brain works. It learns and stores what it learns by using a semiotic system - a system of symbols.

Fortunately we grow up surrounded by language in use. All we need to join the community of language users is to be immersed in its use.  Our universal ease at learning language is not confined to oral language. Children who can’t hear the language around them can and do learn to use manual signs as easily as any hearing child learns to talk.  Human brains are brilliantly equipped to make sense of the world through language. Any child who has learned to speak one or more languages without any help is fully capable of learning to read and write. Written language is in fact an extension of oral language: it comes about wherever there is the need for connecting beyond face to face immediate situations.

So why are some children not successful in learning to read and write in school? It’s because those who create instructional materials have not understood the necessary conditions of learning and have constructed programs to teach literacy as a school subject. By making literacy school subjects they created curricula for teaching reading and writing based on arbitrary sequences.

Reading has been taught from part to whole, skill by skill, word by word. Programs start with little things. In this attempt to create an instructional sequence learning language becomes learning a series of abstractions which are harder to learn than language itself.

There is no sequence in language learning (It must be whole and in the context of its use). Any attempt to impose a sequence or to teach something less than language as it is used makes learning harder. What is worse the arbitrary sequence becomes reified: it becomes reading itself to such an extant that children who are successful readers are still required to go through the sequence and judged by tests of the components rather than reading.

If children are not learning to read and write in school, it is because the instructional program is interfering with the normal development that should be taking place.

The ability to learn to read and write is so universal that there is no instructional program that is so bad that it has prevented most students form learning to read and write. In truth, success in becoming literate in many school programs is in spite of rather than because of instruction.

The real problem in the teaching of reading and writing is instruction that treats reading and writing as school subjects.
Supporting children – all children - in becoming literate is of central importance. Literacy development should be part of all school learning and curriculum. But that means continuous attention to opportunities to use language in all its forms.

There is no reason why poor children in advanced societies or children in developing nations, or in fact any child anywhere should be unable to learn to read and write having already learned one or more oral languages. Isn’t it ironic that little African children are very likely bilingual or multilingual at the same age as most other children have become competent in one language.

The only factors that can explain differences between groups are :
Access: Children and adults who live in remote places with little contact with the outside world may not have access to written language. If life in their communities does not require written language they are not likely to acquire literacy or feel the need to do so. And ironically the communities may be suspicious about literacy education because it makes the learners less likely to stay in the community.
Children in literate communities may suffer from lack of access either because they are not able to afford books, magazines or digital devices or more commonly now because the very programs imposed on them in schools deprive them of opportunities to read and write by requiring them to master decontextualized “skills” before they are permitted to use literacy.

Ironically the less successful the program is the more intensively it is applied to the end that by the time many children have learned to read and write they still consider themselves unsuccessful – how many times can you hear yourself described as a failure before you start believing it? And many others have learned to consider reading and writing so unpleasant that they use them only when they have to. The effect of structured literacy programs in developing nations is likely to cause school drop outs. If parents are worried about what school is doing to alienate their children what’s the point of keeping the child in school if he or she is failing anyway.
Most literacy learners overcome the dysfunctional instruction and become literate. But some become discouraged to the point of literally or figuratively dropping out.

Lack of success is then blamed on the learner who goes through a series of intensive repeating of increasingly decontextualized skill instruction. In short term trials these appear to work as the pupils do a bit better on the inappropriate exercises. But the long term effects are devastating.

SO what should happen in school:

Reading and writing (as part of a language arts program) should focus on participation and gradual development of making sense of written texts. Fortunately many children at early ages have access to devices such as email, ipad, and smart phones. They are often becoming literate as they learn oral language just because it is accessible and needed to connect with their peers. 

Many modern children are digital natives who, with access to digital devices, are learning to read and write as easily as they learn to talk. Modern teens’ favorite way to hang out is through texting. Chatting now applies also to written language. Ironically children are considering failing in kindergarten who are already reading because they can’t handle the speed drills on abstract bits and pieces of words. 

Any attempt to teach reading and writing as school subjects is at odds with  how language is learned and the conditions necessary for literacy to be a natural extension of the language learning virtually all children have already achieve

Other children need rich experience and access to literacy experiences in school. School is where the social uses of literacy become accessible and the ability to connect with peers is supported.

Subsequently the focus should be on expanding on efficiency, effectiveness and choice in a widening range of uses of language including literacy. That requires a school atmosphere that encourages conversation, presentation, creativity, engagement and critical use of language.

That means teachers must be expert kidwatchers and be highly educated in understanding and promoting language development.

It means access for every student to a wide range of experiences with the authentic materials and forms of written and oral language and with continuous encouragement to learn language while learning about language and learning through language.

Instruction must be a response to learning rather than limiting learning to a response to instruction. By responding to language learning, we build on what has worked for all children in learning language without our help.