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[xmca] Literacy instruction: was Bruner on Vygotsky

Forgive me for changing the subject line, but a lot of interesting material and resources is appearing here under a subject line which makes it less likely to be found by people looking for it.

I have a few things to say that might be helpful.

Literacy education has only been a peripheral part of my own work, though I've been a theorist-in-the-wings for a long time and closely connected with many people more central to the enterprise, including in Australia.

I'll make several points and then may or may not tie them together ...

David Rose's approach, which I mentioned, follows in the Australian tradition of Jim Martin and Frances Christie (who both studied with Halliday) in emphasizing expository text over narrative to redress the balance in early literacy education which has traditionally tilted heavily to narrative and story. Many people, including Bruner, conjecture that narrative is somehow easier and more natural for people to understand and write (many theories exist on why). But expository-analytic writing, which is what is prized in academic work, and essential in scientific and technical subjects, is generally a LOT more difficult, not easily picked up by osmosis from the surrounding culture, and tends to require very explicit instruction. It has also been characterized as comprising the "genres of power" (Gunther Kress), though that is likely more true in written communication than in oral argument, where, outside academia, a good story is often more persuasive than a good argument (for better or worse).

The intellectual stock of narrative has risen a lot in the last 20 years, perhaps as people have grown disillusioned with the efficacy of analytic writing to solve serious human problems, or perhaps even to give usable insight into them. I think the rise of multimedia and video has also increased our emphasis on narrative. But the point still stands that to succeed in many fields, and certainly in tertiary education, you need instruction in reading/writing non-narrative text.

Direct Instruction has I think evolved over a long period since the 1970s. The critiques are mainly aimed at its earlier versions, and especially its founding assumptions, which were dead wrong about things like the meaning-making capacity of the language of children from economically marginalized groups. A lot of linguistic research, particularly by Labov, but later by many others, established this pretty much beyond doubt. The implementations of the DI approach in the US in the 70s and 80s were heavily scripted and de-skilling for teachers; "teacher proof" was the term used in private. The successes of DI were often due to the abysmal level of the alternative instruction, and in many cases to the fact that teachers previously had little experience, low morale, poor pedagogical training, no understanding of linguistic and cultural differences, etc. Remember that DI was used mainly with so-called disadvantaged populations, meaning kids who were in schools that today would simply be closed down. They were also often racially segregated, if not de jure, then de facto, and if not school by school, then classroom by classroom.

But as I think has been clear here, the names of many of these approaches are in effect Brands, whether commercial or not. And they don't change, while the underlying products do, sometimes substantially. They are also rarely implemented "faithfully", which may be a good thing or a bad thing.

We know that a good theory can lead to educationally and socially dysfunctional practice. But I think it is also the case, though not as often recognized, that a bad theory can lead to good practice. The complexity and messiness of real life means that every theory is a grossly oversimplified representation or model, and most of the real intellectual work comes in "implementing" it. So much more can be added (or taken away) in this process, that the chain of rational connection between theory and outcomes is fragile or altogether illusory. Theories are no more than tools, and their results are only as good as the people who use them. It is those people, and their judgement, that makes the difference, not, in most cases, the theory. Good clubs don't make great golfers, good brushes can paint ugly pictures. And it's amazing what a great artist can make out of even the shabbiest and least likely materials.


Jay Lemke
Senior Research Scientist
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
Adjunct Professor, Department of Communication
University of California - San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0506

New Website: www.jaylemke.com 

Professor (Adjunct status 2011-2012)
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Professor Emeritus
City University of New York

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