Closing the Circle: A Practical Guide to Implementing Literacy Reform, K-12

Closing the Circle: A Practical Guide to Implementing Literacy Reform, K-12

by Sean A. Walmsley

ISBN: 9780787996376

Publisher Jossey-Bass

Published in Medical Books/Administration & Medicine Economics, Reference/Words & Language

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


I titled this book Closing the Circle in part be cause that's what I've done with the framework over the past twenty years. I started in Manchester Elementary (Manchester Center, Vermont) in the late 1980s with just one part of the framework-articulating literacy attributes-and ever since then, I've been filling in the rest of the circle. To be honest, I didn't even think of it as a circle until quite recently, but as each of the elements was added, it inevitably took on a circular shape.

The framework consists of a set of five related components:

1. Literacy attributes (clear, simple expectations we have for all students)

2. Instructional contributions (what instruction and experiences each grade level must provide in order for students to acquire the attributes, as well as what is needed to support struggling learners)

3. Assessments of students' progress toward the attributes (through a variety of informal and formal assessments)

4. Reports on students' progress toward the attributes (to parents via report cards and progress reports)

5. Analysis of data to inform instruction and to revise components of the framework

In this chapter, I'll provide a brief overview of each of these components but will first discuss some basic assumptions about the framework and explain the literacy philosophy that undergirds it. Exhibit 1.1 shows a graphic representation of the framework.

Basic Assumptions

The framework rests on some basic assumptions about what counts as literacy and how the various components are related to one another. A language arts curriculum has to address all aspects of both receptive and expressive literacy, and it has to rest on a solid theoretical foundation.

What Counts as Literacy?

I have always been puzzled by the terminology used to define and describe what counts as literacy. Of course, it doesn't help matters when the world's most respected professional organization devoted to literacy is called the International Reading Association (IRA), and my own department at the University at Albany is called the Reading Department. Further, the terms English/language arts, and reading/language arts are still in common use, seemingly to distinguish between English, reading, and language arts. Throw in language and literacy, and no wonder there's confusion!

For early childhood educators, especially, the term language refers to listening and speaking and often is distinguished from literacy by thinking about these as prerequisites for reading and writing. English is traditionally the term used for the study of literature at the secondary level, with language arts as an equivalent term for elementary schools. Reading typically refers to what teachers emphasize in the very early grades, and the term has also been used in remedial classrooms, as in remedial reading or struggling readers. Yet the use of the term reading definitely implies its greater importance as one of the language arts, which is why I think the term reading/language arts is still very common. The problem with adopting the term literacy to cover all of these is that for a long time it was associated with adults or with the United Nations, and it was hard to untangle from these connections. Since Marie Clay (Clay 1972) coined the term emergent literacy to describe the development of very young children and to replace the outdated term and notion of reading readiness, the term literacy has become acceptable to encompass all aspects of language arts, even from the very earliest beginnings. And even if the IRA has resisted changing its name (and our department is still called Reading), there's no question that neither is exclusively concerned with reading. So for me, the term literacy is the right word to use when we are talking about language, reading, English, or language arts. It covers them all.

I define literacy within the two major areas of receptive and expressive literacy. Receptive literacy is all about understanding "texts" (or utterances, gestures, drawings, and so on) that originate with others and are either read, heard, or viewed. Expressive literacy is all about creating and communicating meaning through writing, speaking, and other media (for example, drawing or illustrating, dramatic playacting, making multimedia presentations, modeling, or playing music). No one has to be persuaded that reading, writing, speaking, and listening are important components of language arts, although, traditionally, reading has been considered the most important. Writing is a close second; speaking and listening trail behind; viewing and representing are barely represented.

See Exhibit 1.2 for a graphical representation of my definition of literacy.

For a decade or so, starting in the mid-1980s, the Whole Language movement gave reading, writing, speaking, and listening much more equitable attention (Harste, Short et al. 1987). It also emphasized the notion of literary understanding (as opposed to just reading comprehension) in the early grades-an aspect of literacy that traditionally had largely been confined to the middle and high school. Since the late 1990s, and especially with the passage of No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, reading has again been thrust into the foreground, with decoding given a prominence it hasn't had in decades.

One of the purposes of this book is to advocate a return to a more balanced and inclusive definition of literacy and language arts.

Viewing and representing have never been major components of the nation's public schools, but they have been elsewhere, and they are both included in the joint professional standards of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the IRA. For example:

Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world....

Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

I also learned recently that viewing and representing have been components of Canada's definition of literacy since at least the 1950s. Viewing and "presenting" (that's what New Zealanders call representing) are components of New Zealand's definition, too.

There are persuasive arguments for including viewing and representing in a definition of language arts. One is that very young children initially acquire what they know about the world through viewing and listening, prior to making sense of it through reading. Similarly, they communicate with the world through representations (gestures, facial expressions, cries, laughter, movements) and speaking, prior to their ability to write. Reading has its origins in viewing; writing originates in other forms of representation.

Another is that literacy in the real world has become more visual in the past twenty years, with the advent of the Internet and with the creation of tools such as desktop publishing that put representational skills into the hands of ordinary people. Who, twenty years ago, would have thought that an ordinary mortal, with no more than simple computer skills, could take digital photographs at a wedding, remove all the red spots, crop the pictures, and within an hour or so have them up on a Web site for all to see?

It's interesting, too, to see how important representation is in the "real" world outside of school. You see this every day in newspapers, magazines, and in Web sites. It is especially evident in museums, where a great deal of thought goes into sharing discoveries or conveying knowledge in ways that challenge viewers to examine them from different-and often conflicting-perspectives.

It's no secret that literacy is shedding its preoccupation with text as it dons increasingly digital clothing. Distasteful as this might be to educators and parents wedded to a textual definition of literacy, the world that awaits our current elementary and secondary students both demands and rewards those who can make sense of what they see, as well as read, and can express themselves in a variety of media, not just in writing and in speech.

For these reasons, I argue that receptive literacy should include reading, listening, and viewing and that expressive literacy should include writing, speaking, and representing. Of course, reading is a form of viewing, but viewing encompasses much more than reading. Similarly, writing is a form of representation, but writing is only one of many ways to represent what one wants to share with others.

How Do the Components of Literacy Interact?

At the heart of this framework is what's called the communication triangle, the origins of which can be found in Aristotle and which forms the foundation for the literacy field (Kinneavy 1970). Simply stated, the communication triangle represents the basic relationships among those who create and express ideas (writers, speakers, representers), those who receive and make sense of them (readers, listeners, and viewers), the topics or ideas themselves, and the actual text (or utterance, or representation). All of these interactions lie within a social context that influences-in some cases, controls-these interactions.

But the communication triangle doesn't simply describe the players. It also suggests how they can-and should-interact in ways that support growth in expressive and receptive language. Moffett, for example, in Teaching the Universe of Discourse (Moffett 1967), argues that a writer (or speaker, or representer, for that matter) develops greater control of writing through written compositions that put increasing distance between the writer and audience, have different purposes (for example, expressive, informational, persuasive), range across a variety of topics, and require increasing control of style and language. Similarly, readers (or listeners, or viewers) develop greater understanding through engagement with texts (utterances, non-print material) that range across topics and purposes and represent increasing complexity of ideas and syntax.

See Exhibit 1.3 for a graphical representation of the communication triangle.

More recently, the notion of a social context surrounding all communicative acts has made us realize that certain conventions define and constrain the kinds of communications that typically occur, the ways that language is used, and what counts as appropriate or correct. Thus within the social context of a home, language that's informal and assumes a great amount of shared knowledge is appropriate. However, within the social context of a school, language that's more formal and has to abide by the conventions of school or a state's academic discourse is expected. These conventions vary from one content area or grade to another, but they are different from what's typical at home and what's expected in other social contexts, such as in college or in business.

One way to illustrate how the social context works is to see it in action. Almost every American child has, at some point in upper-elementary school, done the "peanut-butter-and-jelly" exercise. It seems to be a rite of passage. Unless a child has just stepped off a plane from England, he or she already knows what a PBJ looks like and almost certainly knows how to construct one. But no matter-this exercise is to explain, precisely, how to make a PBJ and then have a classmate carry out the instructions. The recipient of the instructions typically fails, because the instruction giver has omitted some essential step (for example, forgetting to take the bread out of the plastic wrapping or not opening the drawer to select a knife). Although it's a fun activity, it's also a sober reminder of the social context at work. In the real world of home, there are so many shared understandings about everyday kitchen objects and groceries that giving instructions for making a PBJ doesn't need to include things like taking the bread out of the wrapper or opening a kitchen drawer to pick out a knife to spread the PB and J. It's precisely because children know this familiar social context that when asked to supply precise instructions, they omit the obvious while focusing on the essentials. So the child who describes the process appropriately ("you take two slices of bread, and on one slice spread some peanut butter, and on the other spread your favorite jam, and then slap the two together") is penalized, while the one who fully understands the literalness of the task starts by describing in excruciating detail how to extract the bread from its wrapper and the knife from the kitchen drawer gets to be the Student of the Week.

More seriously, the social context constantly defines and redefines the content and form of communicative engagement, and it requires students to be flexible and adaptable, as one context insists on Modern Languages Association (MLA) as the basis for bibliographies, while another requires the American Psychological Association (APA). From adhering to the format of a friendly letter in second grade, to creating a PowerPoint presentation in twelfth grade, to writing a college research paper, and eventually preparing a report for an advertising agency, or even designing an exhibit in a major museum, the social context frames what's acceptable in terms of content, style and language, and format. Thus although a graduate student could submit a term paper in the form of a friendly letter, that's not likely to be acceptable. Conversely, giving an academic talk in a gathering of lay folk doesn't work, either. I once attended an amateur society devoted to a regional author in England, only to find half the audience falling asleep as they tried to listen to an overly academic talk on the writer's style. The identical talk in a university setting would surely not have met the same fate.

Learning what is acceptable is very much part of becoming a successful language user. However, what's acceptable depends on the context, and it changes over time, so good readers and writers need to be adaptable, too. In other words, there's a constant interplay between literacy practices themselves and the social context in which literacy practices occur. For example, although many traditional educators rail against the use of abbreviations (for example, LOL for Laugh Out Loud) in instant messaging, the abbreviations themselves have their origins in painfully manipulating tiny buttons on a cell phone to create text. Changes in typesetting and advances in graphic design have seriously challenged traditional ways of writing business letters so that what children are taught in school is often completely anachronistic.

Of course, the social context doesn't merely define "acceptable" discourse; it also privileges particular ways of engaging in literacy and demeans or discourages other ways. So the notion that the social context is benign has to be constantly challenged and guarded against-a topic I'll return to in Chapter Two.

Elements of the Framework

The framework comprises five major elements: (1) literacy attributes, which represent the common set of language arts expectations, preschool through grade 12; (2) non-negotiable instructional contributions and instructional activities in regular classrooms and support programs; (3) assessments that keep track of students' progress toward the attributes; (4) reports that communicate progress to parents, schools, and community, and (5) analysis of data to inform and improve instruction. In the sections that follow, I'll briefly explain each of the components.


Excerpted from "Closing the Circle: A Practical Guide to Implementing Literacy Reform, K-12" by Sean A. Walmsley. Copyright © 0 by Sean A. Walmsley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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