Friday, April 16, 2010

A search for meaning, the heart of literacy

The title of this post is one that I am using for a keynote address that I will give to an Australian Literacy Educators' Association conference in Adelaide South Australia on Friday 16th April. This post is an introduction to the address and is a way to organise the various posts that relate to my talk as a resource for the attendees at the conference. Hopefully, it will be of interest to other readers too, especially those who are early childhood or primary school teachers interested in reading comprehension. The post covers one of the 5 sections of my address and draws on ideas from my book Pathways to Literacy (1995).

Helping young readers with comprehension

The foundations of reading comprehension occur in the first 5 years of life when children learn language as they relate to other people. Language learning occurs in rich social contexts as an extension of their relationships with others.

Research conducted with one of my students in the 1980s into the way language is socially situated (Cairney & Langbien, 1989) illustrates just how deeply embedded early literacy experiences are within the social relationships that they experience at home and school.

The following description based on field notes from Susan Langbien's classroom give a rich sense of what was going on one typical day in this Kindergarten in the Queensland Canefields.
Susan was reading to her children. Nineteen small four-year old faces were looking up at her as she chatted with them about the story, 'The three little pigs' (in Jacobs, 1969). The children were sitting cross-legged on a large carpet square at the front of the room, the venue for news, music, discussion, sharing ideas, and last, but not least, stories. The group had been asked to comment upon the story and was responding enthusiastically. Ideas flowed quickly as the comment of one child stimulated other responses. The discussion moved from one part of the story to another. Different characters were mentioned, and favourite parts shared. Sometimes the comments related closely to the story, at other times they were more egocentric. Their attention turned to the big bad wolf and Robert announced:

I've got a big bad wolf and I put him in hot water

Louise replied:

My bad wolf got shot with hot rocks

Christian responded with a somewhat deeper and more emotional thought:

The wolf got hurt because he tried to hurt the pigs
These young children were part of a small learning community in their Kindergarten (we'd call it a preschool in New South Wales), where language was important to them. They were delighting in the sharing of reading and writing. There was a nature table in one corner, large and small building blocks, easels, paints, clay, and a reading corner that was physically appealing. The reading corner included a brightly covered divan, a few cushions, a variety of books, newspapers and magazines. A sign was hanging on the wall asking "Have You Read Any Good Books Lately?" Artwork displays also showed the influence of literature, and group craft efforts to depict characters from books were proudly on show.

Above: A preschool classroom (this is NOT Susan's classroom)

The teacher in this classroom had been actively attempting to develop a community of readers and writers. Observations of the room showed that literacy was an important part of the world of this class. Each session of the day included the reading of a piece of poetry or prose. Frequently, these sessions were followed by lively discussion. Daily independent reading time was provided on the carpet area. News time frequently involved the spontaneous sharing of books. Opportunities were provided for response to reading, and this took many forms - drawing, writing, dramatic re-enactment, mime, and singing.

Even when the teacher was not initiating reading or writing, the classroom was filled with literate behaviour. In the dress-up corner several children were including story reading in creative play. Children took turns as mother reading to her baby. Genevieve was asking her pretend mum to explain why the dog in I'll Always Love You (Wilhelm, 1985) had such a sad face (this is a book about death). Mum was doing a wonderful job explaining the relationships within the story. Another group playing shops was using a receipt book to record purchases. Receipt books were often referred to in the home corner. 'Mum' and 'Dad' were reading the newspaper and later flicking through the pages of the telephone book.

This classroom was living evidence of the complex social nature of literacy. A teacher and her class were talking, listening, reading and writing as parts of a dynamic community. Literacy was being learned as children related to each other, meaning was being jointly constructed and negotiated within a complex community of relationships.

Susan's class was being introduced to the world of literacy in an environment where it was valued. Reading and writing were being shared and enjoyed, as an extension of close relationships (teacher-to-child, child-to-child). Whether inside the classroom, or in the playground, reading and writing often found their way into the language of the group. For example, at recess Christian began to chant:

Wombat stew, wombat stew, crunchy munchy for my lunchy,
wombat stew

This was obviously inspired by 'Wombat Stew' (Vaughan & Lofts, 1984), a book that Susan had shared.

Other children soon joined in and pretended their morning teas were lizards' eyes, a cane toad, mud and slime and a crocodile's tooth. A new and complex 'socially' constituted wombat stew was created. As they played they not only relived the experience of the book, they learned about language.

The linguist Michael Halliday Meaning demonstrated to us in the 1970s how language is constructed and used in social contexts (Halliday, 1975; 1978). Catherine Snow (1983) a little later showed how language learning is dependent upon social relationships. Snow examined the language interactions of parents and children in the preschool years. A particular focus of her work was the role of adults in children's language development and she noted that teachers and parents frequently facilitated language development in a number of ways:
First, adults often continued or elaborated topics that the child introduced.
Second, they reduced the uncertainty in the language task by structuring the dialogue.
Third, they constantly encouraged the pursuit of the task or the language interaction.
Homes and classrooms that create, sustain and encourage opportunities for rich language communities like Susan's classroom, will be places where literacy is stimulated and comprehension develops.

Other blog posts related to this topic

'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
'Truth and the Internet' (HERE)
'Reading to Learn Using Text Sets' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
'Children as Bloggers' (HERE)
'Why Kids Re-read Books' (HERE)
'Making Books Come Alive' (HERE)
'Online Reading is Different' (HERE)
'What Rappers can Teach us About Language'? (HERE)
'Getting Boys into Books Through Non-fiction' (HERE)
'Great Science and Technology Books for Children Aged 3-12 years' (HERE)
All posts on 'Children's Literature' (HERE)
'The Power of Literature' series (HERE)
'Juvenilia: The Study of Writing from Youth' (HERE)

Books I've written that are relevant

Cairney, T.H. (1990). Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work, London: Open University Press.

Cairney, T.H. (1991). Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature. Portsmouth (NH): Henemann.

Cairney, T.H. (1995). Pathways to Literacy, London: Cassell.

References cited in this Post

Cairney, T.H. (1995). Pathways to Literacy. London: Cassell.

Cairney, T.H. & Langbien, S. (1989). Building Communities of Readers and Writers, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 42, No. 8, pp 560-567.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1975). Learning how to mean. London: Edward Arnold, 1975.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978). Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning, Baltimore: University Park Press, 1978; London: Edward Arnold, 1978.

Snow, C.E. (1983). Literacy and language: Relationships during the preschool years. Harvard. Educational Review, 53, pp165-189.


Marita said...

We love Wombat Stew. One of my girls fav. books, so much fun to act out :D

PlanningQueen said...

Thanks for putting this post together Trevor - there is so much great info here.