Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Sunday, June 22, 2014

On teaching and learning of literacy


How do readers make sense of print?

They construct a text parallel to the text they are reading using cues from three levels of language (signal, lexicogrammar and semantic)

They comprehend that text drawing heavily on linguistic and conceptual knowledge they already possess.

What are we teaching if we teach kids to read and write? We are trying to support their learning to do what readers do.

People learn language: through the dialectic of invention and convention. They invent their language as they try to connect to those around them but they are constrained by the language others are using to communicate among themselves and with the child.

This dialectic is very productive because the universal ability to represent things, ideas, experiences feelings symbolically is also the way the brain organizes what if learns and remembers. The oral and written symbols move from random to those effective in connecting with others and the grammatical structures and morphology or wording of language are learned at the same time- since grammatical designs and morphemes must match and be assigned at the same time. Since what the child is learning: connecting through language the social conventions shape the inventions and they move closer while the grammar and lexicon grow together.

The ability to think symbolically is totally flexible and recursive, Signs can change their values in the same unit and signs can represent signs. As complex as the system is it is easy to learn because the brain works in much the same way.- organizing what it learns and storing the patterns that it creates to store and learn meanings.

Linguists understand that natural languages only exist as they are used in some context for some purpose and that the functions are processes and not isolatable skills.

From this it follows that language is universally developed and continues to be developed in the context of its use to connect people.

While language can be studied as any dynamic system can be studied. It cannot be learned by deconstructing it into pieces or constituents like pieces of a jig saw puzzle

This understanding of how language is learned leads to a conclusion others have discovered. The role of teaching is to support and facilitate learning in the context of using language to connect.

Furthermore this natural way of learning while using language is going on continuously

regardless of how young learners are taught.


Now let's compare this with the almost universal view that reading and writing are school subjects, that there needs to be broken down to its components- building on the smallest and moving toward the largest. Reading then becomes learning part by part and bit by bit, letter by letter, word by word, rule by rule skill by skill.

While young children are remarkably able to learn language, they are notably much less able to deal with abstraction. No wonder then they do not succeed well in learning sets of abstractions which not only are what they are taught but which are reified as reading in their tests.

Every attempt to create a scope and sequence for learning to read and write- what must be learned in each grade or as prerequisite to further learning is arbitrary and is likely to interfere with learning rather than support it. Fortunately most children will learn anyway though some will doubt their success and others will come to consider what they are taught more important than what they are learning themselves. Even when they are successful they think they have somehow cheated in making sense the wrong way.

Consider one eight year old child. Midway through third grade he had been subjected to DIBELS from his first day in kindergarten, He was thoroughly convinced that he was a non-reader because nothing worked for him. He was indeed a non-writer because all his time was spent on being tested taught to the test and then retested with DIBELS,

DIBELS is a test funded by the US Department of education developed at the University by a group of direct instruction advocates who were put in charge of determining what states could put in their funding proposals under NCLB. That meant that without review by state and local authorities it was mandated in many states for all k-3 students,

The sub tests purport to test the five big things in reading according to the findings of the National Reading Panel, Each of the sub tests is given one-one by a teacher preferably by someone other than the teacher on the school staff. Each test is timed at one minute and each the child has three seconds to respond, Ony correct responses are counted, each test is considered prerequisite to the next. Only the last of the five is a connected "story" and it is scored by the number of words read correctly in one minute.

After some pressure from teachers a retelling was added but the score is the number of words used in the retelling.

At one point this boy became so agitated by the time pressure of the test that he knocked the timer off the desk and left school and walked all the way home.

Now comes the happy ending. A neighbor began tutoring the young boy using retrospective miscue analysis. That's a process where he reads orally a story or article which is recorded. Then his tutor selects some of the miscues starting with those that show some evidence of some success in constructing meaning. In the short period of four months the boy began to be more comfortable in trusting his own learning and letting go of the nonproductive strategies he'd been drilled on. He had indeed been learning all the time he was in school and through the RMI sessions he began to revalue himself and the reading process. At school the DIBELS instruction continued but now a reader he even did better on that- his grades improved and his teachers noting the progress attribute to the success of his school instruction. But they told the tutor that he had the bad habit of making "educated guesses" and would need more instruction to get him to stop doing that.

Reading from the point of the school is what the tests test and the fact that a child is reading is not valued – what is valued is performance on the tests.

Though this is an extreme example of dysfunctional instruction, it is the logical extension of what happens when the instructional program is reified as reading, It reaches the level I call the pedagogy of the absurd.

Vygotsky understood that language is learned in its use. Frank Smith has his 12 easy ways to make learning to read hard and one hard way to make it easy: Find out what the child is doing and help child do it. With informed teachers who understand what reading and writing are and how they are learned, every child can learn easily and effectively.

Then the role of the teacher is to provide challenging experiences in school that will expand on the growing literacy and produce more critical readers and more effective writers.