Teaching literacy:

Engaging the imagination of new readers and writers





This short book is intended as a manifesto for a new approach to teaching literacy. What is new about the approach described here is tied up with the ways it uses feelings and images, metaphors and jokes, rhyme and rhythm, stories and wonder, heroes and the exotic, hopes, fears, and passions, hobbies and collecting, and much else in engaging the imaginations of both teachers and learners with literacy.

A modified Vygotskian approach
A part of the novelty of this approach is that it takes off from some of the work of the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). In particular I will be drawing on and extending his work on “cognitive tools” — and explaining what that term means. Vygotsky offers a new approach to teaching literacy in part because his idea about how human beings develop intellectually is fundamentally different from the way we have been accustomed to think of the process in the West since the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78).

Rousseau’s idea was that our minds, like our bodies, go through regular stages of development. He was one of the first to think that our minds are like our bodies in this regard. If we eat lots of caviar (dream on!) our bodies don’t grow to resemble caviar; our bodies follow their own regular developmental process as long as they get sufficiently varied food. Similarly, Rousseau argued, our minds go through a regular process of development, regardless of the particular knowledge a person learns.

So Rousseau’s followers concluded that in educating we should be less concerned that students master special knowledge that was assumed to be good for the mind—the classical or traditional curriculum—and should focus instead on supporting each student’s intellectual development. And, as any knowledge could help that process, why not select for the curriculum the most useful knowledge that is relevant to the lives students are likely to lead? This became a basic idea in the movement we know as progressivism, and one of the central tenets of progressivism has been this belief in the spontaneous development of students in interaction with their everyday environment. We are most familiar with this idea today as it has been developed by the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980). Piaget presented a detailed theory in his many books, describing the spontaneous developmental stages minds go through in normal interaction with their environment. So we have become familiar with such terms as “concrete operations” and “stages of development.”
Vygotsky argued that Piaget was wrong in his belief that there were such regular stages underlying our development and determining our learning. Vygotsky thought that our intellectual development proceeded as a result of our picking up sets of “cognitive tools” as we grow up into a particular society, and the particular tools influence how we make sense of the world around us — as lenses influence what our eyes see. The lenses or cognitive tools “mediate” how we can see and make sense of things. If we want to understand how and what we can learn, then, we should focus our attention on those cognitive tools.

Vygotsky in everyday teaching practice
Well, the theoretical arguments are not really my concern here. What I have done is take Vygotsky’s idea seriously to see how teaching literacy might be affected by it. Rather than try to sort out the theoretical differences between Piaget and his followers and Vygotsky and his followers, I have instead tried to work out what in practice might follow from a Vygotskian view. So that’s what this book does. Obviously I have been persuaded that Vygotsky’s ideas, adapted a bit to current conditions in light of more recent research, offer us quite a distinct and very promising approach to literacy teaching. And work with teachers has convinced me that it is worth writing up what this approach can look like in practice.

An oddity of this book is that it addresses both literacy learning in childhood and in adulthood together. These are commonly seen as rather different fields. I think seeing them as so distinct is largely a result of the long dominance of Rousseauian/Piagetian developmental views. In Vygotsky’s terms, the cognitive tools one has—such as those that come along with oral language and with literacy—are much more important in influencing learning than are age differences. There will inevitably be some differences between non-literate children and adults learning to read and write, however, if only due to the differences in the range of experience they have had, (particularly the experiences that may have made many non-literate adults resist further literacy learning as a source of frustration). But a Vygotskian approach brings into focus the many more features children and adults have in common in learning literacy than has been typically recognized in the past.

Emerging from orality
Vygotsky, then, is one source from which this new approach has emerged. Another source comes from studies of thinking in traditional oral cultures. I recognize that this might seem a second rather unusual source to look to for help with everyday literacy teaching today, but I hope you’ll stick with me as we take this seemingly indirect route to literacy instruction. Clearly children and adults in the West who come to literary classes cannot be considered in any simple sense like people who live in oral cultures. For one thing, the environment of the modern non-literate child or adult in the West is full of literacy and its influences. But despite this, I think many of the “cognitive tools” we find in oral cultures help us to understand how literacy instruction might be made more imaginatively engaging to students. Even very briefly exploring some of the cognitive tools of orality will give us a number of practical techniques.

Cognitive toolkits
What are “cognitive tools”? Well, there’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is that they are features of our minds that shape the ways we make sense of the world around us; the richer the cognitive toolkit we accumulate, the better the sense we make. The long answer will be given in the following chapters, where I will describe a set of the cognitive tools that come along, first, with an oral language and, second, with early literacy. That is, all the students in our classes who can speak will have the first set of tools available in greater or lesser degree. And as they becoming increasingly literate they will develop the second set. The educational problem is how to stimulate, use, and develop these tools to enhance students’ understanding and their literacy skills—and that’s what this book aims to show you how to do.

What do these cognitive tools look like? In Part One I will be looking at such cognitive tools as:
• the story––one of the most powerful tools for engaging the emotions in learning;
• the flexible use of metaphor––crucial for flexible and creative literacy;
• vivid images––generating images from words is central to engaging the imagination in learning;
• binary opposites––a powerful organizing tool, common to nearly all early childhood stories;
•rhyme and rhythm––potent tools for aiding memory and for establishing emotional meaning and interest;
•jokes and humor––certain jokes can help make language “visible” and greatly aid awareness and control of language;
• play––can help students’ develop increasing control over their uses of literacy;
and some others.

These cognitive tools — and I should perhaps apologize here for using the term; it’s the one that has become common, and I can’t think of a better — do not go away with literacy, but literacy affects them in ways I will explore in Part Two. In those chapters I will look at another set of cognitive tools, those that come along with early literacy, which we will be able to draw on as our young or older students begin to read and write. By “early literacy” I mean the two or three years after literacy instruction begins; a period during which students come to read and write reasonably well, but in which they have not yet learned to become entirely fluent and at ease with more complex forms of literacy. The cognitive tools I will explore in this chapter include:
• what Jerome Bruner calls “the redefinition of reality”––in which students’ interest in content shifts in subtle and important ways;
• engagement by the limits of reality and the extremes of experience––students develop a fascination with the exotic and extreme, as, for example, in the Guinness Book of Records;
• associations with the heroic––gives confidence and enables students to take on in some degree the qualities of the heroes with whom they associate;
• see knowledge in terms of human qualities–– recognize that all knowledge is human knowledge, and a product of someone’s hopes, fears, and passions, and so make the world opened by literacy more richly meaningful;
•become involved in collecting or a hobby––the urge to securely grasp some feature of reality can stimulate many literacy activities;
• the sense of wonder––can capture the imagination in the worlds, both real and fictional, that literacy opens up;
and some others.

Literacy, and its associated cognitive tools, is one of the great workhorses of our culture, and it can greatly enrich the lives of those who learn to use it well. What I want to do in this book, then, is show how we might better teach children and non-literate adults to learn to use this great cultural toolkit for their everyday benefit.

In Part One, I will poke around some of the discoveries made in the previous century about thinking in oral cultures. I will begin, in Chapter One, with a brief retelling of the fascinating story of the relatively recent rediscovery of orality. A clearer understanding of orality will also, I think, give us a better understanding of literacy. I will emphasize the recognition that orality — the thinking of myth-using people — is not some kind of defective thinking, as though just waiting for rationality to come and save it from its confusions. Rather, I will show how orality is a set of positive and effective cognitive strategies for understanding the world and our experience within it.

In Chapters Two to Nine I will describe a set of the cognitive tools common in oral cultures, which remain common today as well. It will become clear as we explore these cognitive tools that they are equally available to children and to students entering adult literacy programs now. In general, what I want to show is that we can get a better grasp on how to help people learn literacy by understanding the cognitive tools that underlie it and from which it emerged historically and from which it emerges today. I will give examples of how each of these tools can be used in everyday literacy teaching, how each can directly lead to techniques and practical lessons and units of study.

I should mention that this way of organizing the book is quite different from how I initially envisioned it. I was intending to start with two academic chapters describing the tools one by one, and then at the end move to looking at practical applications. But I have been working with groups of teachers, describing the ideas you will see in Parts One and Two. My aim had been to describe to them the sets of “cognitive tools” and then move directly to the planning frameworks, which were, and are, the overall practical conclusion of this work. I handed around the planning frameworks that you will see in Part Three to the groups of teachers. But before taking on my suggested task of planning complete units or lessons using the frameworks, most of the teachers said they would rather try out the specific tools one by one. That way they’d get a sense of how well they worked individually and also they’d get some practice with smaller scale uses before moving on to the full frameworks. We actually did a bit of both over the months of our cooperation, but for purposes of description I’ll follow the general path they made, describing each tool separately with a few examples first, and only after that moving on to the overall frameworks.

In Part Two, Chapter Ten, I will show how the cognitive tools of orality gave way historically to those of literacy. I will then, in Chapters Eleven to Seventeen, describe a set of cognitive tools that comes along with early literacy. I suspect the clear parallels between the historical process and how people learn literacy today will surprise some readers. Continuing along the path the teachers made, I will give frequent examples of how these tools can be quite easily used in teaching literacy classes. Frequently I will describe the examples we worked out together and that they used successfully in their teaching.
In Part Three I will show how the principles established earlier can be used to design frameworks to assist the teacher in planning literacy lessons and units, and I will give some examples of those frameworks in use in teaching such everyday topics as homonyms and the use of the comma. These frameworks are made up of using many of the tools together. In some senses the frameworks might be seen simply as organized reminders of the set of tools the teacher can count on to engage the students’ imaginations and emotions in the topics at hand.

Having begun this Introduction with a bold declaration, I should finish it by more modestly noting that I don’t envisage the practices and techniques I will describe as simply displacing the many excellent practices and techniques currently in place. And, indeed, a number of items I will describe will be familiar and already much used — for example, can we consider the use of the story as a new idea for teaching literacy? Of course not. Good teachers use a number of these practices intuitively. What I hope to show is how we might routinely achieve in the everyday classroom what currently requires rare intuition and energy.

The claim about a new approach here is due to the combination of the set of cognitive tools I will outline, their interactions, the conception of the move from orality to literacy, and the planning frameworks built from the principles established. In dealing with stories, for example, this approach will show the educational potential of stories in a novel way, which gives them a new and more potent role in teaching. Instead of bothering about such claims, of course, I should just get on with showing how focusing on imagination and feelings and on their underlying cognitive tools can lead us to new practices for literacy teaching, so that’s what I’ll do.

* * * *

The ideas and practices described in this book are also derived from the research and experimentation of the Imaginative Education Research Group, whose Center is at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. You can find further material, and many more examples of lesson and units plans, on their website, at http://www.ierg.net.

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