Saturday, October 30, 2021

Helping children to access and use stories to understand and represent their world

I was asked recently to send one of my followers a conference paper on literacy that I presented in 1986! While looking for that paper it led me to sort through many of my older publications from the 1980s and 1990s. I stumbled across one piece I’d written for an international journal in 1990 on “Intertextuality”. This was a buzz word in the 1980s and early 1990s. My interest in the topic arose as part of classroom-based research I had done with children aged 5-12 years. The work was published in a number of journals. As I read the old article, I was pleased that I still agreed with it!


One of the papers was from research titled ‘Intertextuality: Infectious echoes from the past’. It was published in ‘The Reading Teacher’ (March, 1990). I opened the article with a quote from J.R. Tolkien, who had claimed there are no new stories, only a “cauldron of stories” into which we dip as we write. Of course, Tolkien wasn’t the first person to observe that writing always occurs against a backdrop of our prior literary experiences. And there will always be a level of reciprocity between reading and writing. In fact, the reading of one text will always prime and connect with the memory of other stories. So too, writing can be inspired by books (or other media).


Margaret Mahy (1936-2012), the great New Zealand author of children’s books and a dear colleague to many of us writing about literacy, expressed this point well when reflecting on her childhood experiences that helped to shape her:


“I wrote because I was a reader, and wanted to relive certain experiences more intimately by bringing them back out of myself”. (Margaret Mahy)


She suggested that stories “infected her” and she engaged in dialogue with them in a type of “reciprocating discussion”. Books offered her (and us) a “cauldron of stories” from which to draw inspiration, and even ideas.


When I suggested this in conversation with a very well-known Australian author she was indignant, feeling that I was suggesting writers plagiarise from other writers. But of course, this was not what I meant. Our ideas are formed as original ideas against a backdrop of others stories. This in essence is what “intertextuality” means, it is the interconnection between texts written and read. Such connections might affirm ideas, offer us new insights, or help us to grasp the depth of meaning of something in those “aha” moments, when another text challenges, inspires, or perhaps even creates dissension.  


The details of my work and the many scholars who inspired my research on Intertextuality can be found in my original articles. The many scholars included colleagues like Professor Jerry Harste (Indiana University), Margaret Meek, Umberto Eco and many more. Those who are more interested should source my original article and others on the topic. But for parents and teachers there are a few basic points worth stressing here:


1.   From birth, fill your children’s lives with expository, descriptive (including poetry, journals/diaries, novels, & plays) and persuasive texts (e.g. letters, advertisements etc).

2.   Parents, read to your children from birth. And teachers, always make time to share literature in the elementary years of schooling.

3.   Preschool, primary and Secondary teachers, never lose your own passion for literature, so that you might ‘infect’ your students with this same passion.

4.   Help children to celebrate each other’s writing, and acknowledge the inspiration for their writing and ideas.

5.   Encourage experimentation with writing, in form, at the ideas level and in purpose.

6.   Classroom teachers and parents, try to create an environment where stories are shared, talked about and celebrated.

7.   Make sure you use the school, and local library if you have one nearby, to consider books and borrow them.


Never forget that one of the most significant things we can do for our children is to provide access to a “cauldron of stories” into which we they can ‘dip’ as they grow as writers and readers.