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[Xmca-l] Re: Can symbols help people learning to read?
Yesterday as I was leaving the faculty apartments to go to my Saturday
seminar, the door of the elevator opened and I was almost run over by a
pretty little six year old Egyptian girl who lives upstairs. She was being
taken to her Saturday madrasa class to learn to read and write, and she'd
put on the wrong dress. I couldn't help thinking of almost the only Arabic
I still remember, a snatch of poetry:
"Even the dress
Which I had forgotten
Happy to see him
Had danced to the doorway!"
As we went back upstairs to get her dress, I asked her which was more
difficult, Hanggeul (the Korean alphabet) or Arabic. She said Arabic was,
so I asked her which was more difficult, the English alphabet or Arabic.
"Arabic!" she fairly bellowed.
Now--how is this possible? My neighbors speak Arabic at home; it is their
native language. The Arabic script, although it is not a designed script
like Hanggeul, is far more rational than English. Korean was rationalized
by Sejong the Great in the fifteenth century thanks to a highly centralized
system of government which was determined to put written regulations within
the grasp of the whole population; about a hundred years later, the great
dispute between reformers like John Hart and traditionalists like Robert
Mulcaster over English spelling was definitively and fatally resolved in
favor of the latter, and English has been cursed with a system of spelling
which, although learnable, is not really teachable.
I think the answer is that the Arabic a little girl has to learn at the
madrasa is essentially Quranic, and it is, as Vygotsky would say, "given as
something self-contained", something ready made, from the hands of the
teacher; it doesn't develop from the spoken language that the child uses at
home but instead appears as a semi-divine revelation. Every lesson,
therefore, is essentially like the snatch of poetry I declaimed in the
elevator (and in fact, that snatch of poetry is something I learned in a
kind of madrasa in Tunis). There isn't any "prehistory" to this writing: it
has no roots in object play, in drawing, or in grocery lists left on the
refrigerator or irate notices left by the janitor by the elevator.
So, if Vygotsky is correct then there is simply no way to teach someone to
read except by introducing symbols to non-readers, or rather by
incorporating the local systems of natural signs (that is, icons and
indexes) developed by non-readers into the system of conventional symbols
and symbols-for-symbols which has developed by the culture of readers.
That's why Vygotsky sees the line of development that passes from object
play to drawing to writing as unbroken. I think that Maisha Winn's article
describes more or less this process, although I also think the format of
the article, a retrospective review of the author's own research, makes it
almost impossible to trace the process genetically in actual readers.
Isn't the creation of a writing system also the gradual process of
incorporating the non-symbols (that is, icons and indexes which
intrinsically have more sense than meaning) into a system of conventional
symbols (which, at least when they are given as self-contained and
self-identical, from the hands of the teacher in the madrasa, have far more
meaning than sense? Just suppose, for example, my little neighbor were
learning Chinese...or, for that matter, ancient Egyptian. It is all a
matter of getting the dress to dance.
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
On Wed, Mar 11, 2015 at 7:40 PM, Avram Rips <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
> Possibly th JP Das Centre, a Lydia based program.
> On March 11, 2015, at 1:59 AM, Andy Blunden <email@example.com> wrote:
> I am forwarding this message from a good friend who has a question about
> literacy education.
> If you know of research on this question, perhaps you could cc Mike B.
> in your reply.
> My sister is in the education field and she is looking for theory and
> research to refute an influential paper which claims introducing symbols
> to non-readers actually hampers their ability to develop literacy
> skills. The little I have read on AT and semiotics seems to at least
> indicate that under certain conditions, symbols can aid literacy. But I
> am looking for something specific and/or definite.
> *Andy Blunden*