Authentic literacy pedagogy in practice prompts several kinds of strong response. One is a ‘back to basics’ response which argues that didactic pedagogy works better and is best for all students. Another is a cultural response, arguing that poorer and minority students are particularly disadvantaged by authentic pedagogy.
Debating the Approaches: (1) What are the Academic Outcomes of Authentic Literacy Pedagogy?
The first of these, the ‘back to basics’ response, represents one side in the so-called ‘literacy wars’. In a best selling 1955 book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, And What You Can Do About It, Rudolf Flesch railed against the ‘look-say’ methods of the Dick and Jane readers. ‘The American system of teaching children to read is no longer the traditional alphabetic-phonic method. Since 1925, most pupils have been forced to memorize entire words, one after the other, like Chinese characters—a process which ends in disorderly guesswork. Failing to learn how to sound out words, letter by letter, the child never masters the mechanics of reading.’ The second half of the book was page after page of phonics exercises for parents, an example of which we gave at the beginning of this chapter, presumably to help parents who felt their children’s schooling was letting them down. Flesch wrote a sequel in 1981, this time called Why Johnny Still Can’t Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools. The dust jacket captured the tone of the ‘literacy wars’, as they continued to rage. ‘Look-and-say, as Dr Flesch proves with overwhelming evidence in this book, is a fraudulent, pernicious gimmick. Because of this method, the statistical majority of today’s American adults are handicapped readers, and one quarter of them are wholly illiterate. The US literacy rate has already dropped to the level of Burma and Albania and is approaching that of Zambia.’
To this day, the literacy wars rage on. On the one side are whole language advocates such as Goodman, Smith and Graves—although they have become somewhat quieter lately, mainly because the clearest and most articulate advocates of authentic literacy pedagogy have retired or are getting older. On the other side of the battle lines are academic voices, one of the earliest and clearest of which was Jeanne Chall, who, in a survey of the research literature, argued that the code emphasis of synthetic phonics produces better results—at least in the early grades—than the meaning emphasis of analytic phonics. More recently in the US, a Committee for the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children chaired by Catherine Snow issued a report which came out in support of phonics instruction: ‘All members agreed that reading should be defined as a process of getting meaning from print, using knowledge about the written alphabet and the sound structure of oral language for the purposes of achieving understanding. All agreed that early reading instruction should include direct teaching of information about sound-symbol relationships … and that it must also maintain a focus on the communicative purposes and personal value of reading.’ To some, this was interpreted to be a balanced approach to literacy. To others, it represented a return of phonics-first, followed by the kind of reading comprehension that can be tested in standardised, multiple choice tests. We will return to a discussion of these difficult questions in Chapter 8.
Debating the Approaches: (2) What are the Cultural Effects of Authentic Literacy Pedagogy?
The second main kind of response to authentic pedagogy has been a cultural response. Lisa Delpit tells how a Black university student complained about a writing skills teacher he had.
I didn’t feel she was teaching us anything. She just wanted us to correct each other’s papers and we were there to learn from her. She didn’t teach anything, absolutely nothing. Maybe they’re trying to learn what Black folks knew all the time. We understand how to improvise, how to express ourselves creatively. When I’m in a classroom I’m not looking for that, I’m looking for structure, the more formal language. Now my buddy was in [a] Black teacher’s class. And that lady was very good. She went through and explained and defined each part of the structure. … I don’t think the White teacher had any methods.
He was told by the person to whom he had been complaining that she did have a method: process writing. To this he responded, ‘Well, at least now I know she thought she was doing something. I thought she was just a fool who couldn’t teach and didn’t want to try.’
Lisa Delpit goes on to explain the discourse differences that made it hard for this student, a difference between African-American and White liberal discourse. For example, in contrast to the culture of African-Americans, liberal discourse works by using veiled rather than explicit commands. Under the cloak of child-centredness is another discourse of adult authority. ‘Would you like to do this next, Betty?’ White children know that this means they are expected to do something. To African-American children, the White liberal teacher who operates in this discourse appears to have no authority, and the class reacts accordingly. The problem for African-American students is misreading the cues from the point of view of a discourse that expresses authority in a different way.
Donald Graves says that the process writing teacher has to learn to wait and help students only when needed. The teacher has to leave the child to struggle for control and ownership. However, these cultural sensibilities are more characteristic of privileged, White students than others. They are not inclinations one could in all fairness automatically expect of immigrants, or long-time inhabitants of the urban ghetto. Consider also the ‘natural’ advantage children from print immersed environments have in authentic pedagogy. Their homes are full of newspapers, computers, books and letters. They have a sixth sense for how literacy works; the characteristic beginnings, middles and ends of texts; the vocabulary and grammatical forms of ‘educated talk’. They have a feel for the written word. And they have a sense of its relevance and power in the world. Daily they see written text working for the adults in their lives. In a tangible way, they can see the point of gaining this sort of control for themselves. This is part of their common sense. Control and ownership, in other words, are only an inner struggle for students who know the name of the print game. No amount of inner struggle, however, will tell students who do not come from print-immersed environments what text is for and how it works. It is just not a part of their everyday lives outside of school. Print represents a world outside of their intuitive experience. In these respects, authentic pedagogy has an intrinsic cultural bias. It favours children who come from cultures of power.
Students who do not come from privileged environments or who do not speak ‘standard’ forms of the national language often need to be told things directly and explicitly that privileged students will be able to find out for themselves. There was an obvious system of exclusion at work with the traditional curriculum of ‘standard’ English—‘natural’ to some students and not others. But equally, when it is replaced by authentic pedagogy, a new exclusion can emerge, all the more pernicious because of its pretence to democratic openness. By sleight of hand, it formally regards the background, motivations and best ways of learning to be the same for every child, and then abdicates responsibility for the unequal outcomes that result. The bias in authentic pedagogy lies to a great extent in its roundabout, circumspect message that students should find out things for themselves rather than be told (presumably the same) things.
All too often, teachers who practice authentic pedagogy seem to think, says Delpit, that ‘to make any rules or assumptions explicit is to act against liberal principles, to limit the freedom and autonomy of those subjected to the explicitness’. They rail against didactic pedagogy’s ‘direct instruction’ of phonics generalisations, for instance. However, there is a big difference between what is suitable for a student who has a comfortable home in the dominant discourse and one who does not. ‘If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.’
Not only is process curriculum loaded with cultural assumptions which conflict with some students’ understanding of how learning occurs, but these assumptions are themselves far from being explicit. So, they are not open to question and debate. The effect is that these assumptions are imposed by the teacher without negotiation. Ironically, the teacher never dares to be explicit for fear of being didactic or appearing to impose. In this class you must choose your own topic, you must struggle for control and not expect to be taught formal conventions except incidentally to your own writing. You must draft, conference, redraft, and so on. The Black student obviously didn’t want to learn that way, but another learning style was not negotiable in the White teacher’s class.
And there’s another problem with authentic pedagogy, and that is the question of the roots of motivation. Peter McLaren tells a poignant story from when he was teaching a class in a Canadian urban ghetto school. He suggested that the students could choose to investigate something that was important to them—their environment, the arms race, poverty or whatever. But none of the students wanted to investigate anything. If every student doesn’t have a feel for the logic of schooling, why should we assume that all children will be self-directed and motivated when given the chance to follow their own interests in learning? Some students feel they are at school under duress and for no good reason.
Nor does authentic pedagogy have a monopoly on motivation. Didactic pedagogy also had its motivating incentives. Students worked hard to memorise their spelling or get the grammar exercise right or to finish their a-b-c-d comprehension—to get the work done quickly, to get a better mark than last time, to beat other students in competition. This was a series of institutionally generated, school-ish and in that sense, ‘artificial’ incentives that kept the wheels of an equally ‘artificial’ subject turning. In fact, perhaps, to become a good worker and a loyal citizen, learning to be motivated in these sorts of ways meant that the didactic literacy curriculum was not so artificial after all.
There were external motivations too: to get a good report, to please one’s parents, to win a privileged place in the next stage of education, to get a good job, and so on. Now, this pedagogy may well have failed a good many students. In the final analysis it may have left them decidedly unmotivated by education. But this, too, was a faithful replication of the culture of the outside world in which most people have to get used to being made constantly aware of the fact that they are not rich, famous or successful. The motivations constructed and manoeuvred by traditional curriculum, in other words, may well have been just right for a society where the success of a few is supposed to motivate the many to keep on trying—but the barriers are such that most in fact become demotivated. Didactic pedagogy will not collapse for want of student motivation. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons why in many places it remains so strong today.
Debating the Approaches: (3) What is the Role of the Teacher?
Then there’s the question of the changing role of the teacher. Whole language, Goodman says, installs the teacher in the role of a professional. There are no textbooks that can legitimately prescribe correct language or the best sequence of ‘exercises’ to master correct language. The teacher is to be with each student in a more responsive, responsible role than that of a mere mouthpiece for received truths. So, in the process writing conference, the student acts and the teacher reacts; the writer follows language, and the teacher follows the writer. ‘How hard it is for an activist to conduct conferences! Everything is reversed. I have to give up the active, non-delegating, pushing, informing role for another kind of activity, the activity of waiting. Action in conferences is redefined as intelligent reaction. The child must lead, the teacher intelligently react.’
An Australian Aboriginal parent asked his child’s teacher to teach the ‘secret English’ he came across in every brush he had with officialdom. Contrary to the proponents of authentic pedagogy, this parent’s question contains a request to acknowledge again that teachers might have some secrets about the relation of form and purpose in language, secrets that they, as professionals, have a duty to reveal to their students. Too easily, the teacher who defers to what they suppose to be the child’s interest and motivations may be doing them a disservice.
In authentic pedagogy, the teacher is no longer positioned as a bearer of knowledge. Teachers, in other words, are not assumed to have the expert, disciplinary content knowledge they once did. The process writing teacher might get children to do lots of writing and, by degree, they might gradually do it better. But at the same time they might never acquire the tools to understand, other than in commonsense ways, how meaning is made through system in language or how to analyse critically the social roles of different discourses. The process approach relies on immersion. It is a procedural prescription of the steps students must take when they write, but without being explicit about its theory of language, or how written texts work to make meaning.
Teachers in the process curriculum, as a consequence, are principally managers and orchestrators of student activity. And, as came out in the first of the two classroom vignettes at the beginning of the chapter, much of the teacher-student dialogue in authentic pedagogy is managerial in nature. Ironically, authentic pedagogy is almost exclusively focused on telling students to do things—the steps in the process. Gone is the bound textbook issued annually, with its transparent structure of chapters and exercises, where the children know where they have been in the curriculum and where they are going. The next thing the students do in the class is the next step the teacher tells them to take. All too often, this produces a flurry of ‘busy work’ but not a great deal of genuine intellectual challenge and cognitive growth.
Debating the Approaches: (4) How ‘Natural’ Can Literacy Learning Be?
Authentic pedagogy also gives the impression that it is a more ‘natural’ pedagogy, in contrast to the ‘artificiality’ of the formalistic, imposed didactic pedagogy. Didactic pedagogy is based on a model of education as cultural transmission—of rules, of correct usages, of respect for the canon of literary greatness. So authentic pedagogy throws away the textbooks and replaces them with the real stuff of students’ ‘authentic’ experiences and voices, a pedagogy in which students’ knowledge and language develop naturally. But how ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’ is reading and writing? As we saw in Chapter 1, for tens of thousands of years many human societies lived quite well without it. Many people today live without much reading or writing, albeit mostly less well for that. Even in contemporary society, literacy is a much more ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’ thing for some students than it is for others.
The case for ‘naturalness’ in process literacy pedagogy is traced by the supporters of process literacy pedagogy to its roots in the naturalness of learning spoken language. According to Donald Graves:
Writing and speaking are different but writing, without an understanding of its roots in speech, is nothing. The human voice underlies the entire writing process, and shows itself throughout the life of the writer. … Look at a speech written by a professional. The writer makes writing sound like speech. The writing is simple, direct, and forceful like speech. It sounds spontaneous.
Graves may like well written speeches and writing that sounds like speech, but speech is not like writing. Martin Luther King’s oratory springs to mind—a brilliant combination of the faultless control of a text written before oral performance. Certainly, in some social contexts such as an academic lecture, people speak in ways that are more characteristic of written than spoken language. Despite these sorts of crossovers and borrowings, the differences between oral and written language are enormous. This has been a focus of considerable interest in linguistics, as we will describe in detail in Chapter 11. In other contexts, characteristically oral speech is written down. Often, writing creates an impression precisely because it is made to sound like speech. Yet, as a rule, written language does different things, in different social contexts, for different social purposes and using a very different linguistic technology.
The process theorists want to blur the boundaries between oral and written language, partly because they have an ideological commitment to naturalism. They say that the way oral language is learnt at home should be used as a model for how written language is taught in school. Very small children learn oral language informally, by immersion in oral interaction, by their needs to make meaning, and because of their parents’ informal but constant modelling and cajoling. So, the process theorists assume that children will best learn written language by immersion in print, by the need they feel to communicate using the written word, and by gradually refining their use of conventions through repeated exposure and use. But learning to write is not directly comparable to learning to speak. For a start, children learning to write have the invaluable resource of already being able to speak. This means that, unlike the children beginning to learn oral language, they have the ability to name and to generalise about their language use.
Oral language is a tool which allows formal learning, including the learning of written language. Utilising generalisations about language (of which phonics rules and grammar are examples) is not only a short cut to learning. It is a skill which schools should work on, because we need to be able to generalise to make some sort of sense of an enormously complex world. Perhaps ironically, if anyone is to be accused of promoting a pedagogy that mindlessly piles facts upon each other, facts with no immediately apparent order to them, it is authentic pedagogy. Its assumption is that language generalisation cannot be effectively imposed upon children and that they will learn to write by osmosis—by picking up the ‘feel’ of the written word and of the conventions of use through immersion in their factual, practical reality.
Learning to read and write, moreover, occurs in a social setting that could hardly be more different than that of the household. Institutionalised schooling is a formal, public setting, constrained by time and space and material resources to operate efficiently. If we may be permitted a hypothetical notion, it has been calculated that children are immersed in 18,200 hours of oral language in the first five years of their lives. This equals about twenty years of classroom time. Writing, moreover, has so many complex genre variations. The written English of the dictionary has a massive vocabulary, in comparison with the oral language English-speaking children have when they enter school. It would take forever to learn to write without the aid of language generalisations. If learning to read and to write were just the slow accumulation of language facts picked up through immersion, then education would be a slow, inefficient and impossibly expensive business.
How correct, even, is the assumption that learning to speak happens naturally? In fact, all language learning and use are quintessentially and wonderfully products of human artifice. By ‘natural’, the progressivists really mean ‘individual’, in line with their culturally peculiar philosophy about learning as individual motivation. They believe that children learn oral language by immersion as a result of their desire to make meaning. Brian Gray argues that, in the name of supposedly natural’ learning, the proponents of authentic pedagogy shift responsibility onto the child in a way that never happens at home. He shows how, in oral interactions with small children, parents ‘scaffold’ language structures in frequently very explicit ways. In schools, he argues that naturalistic pedagogy ends up playing an unproductive ‘guess what’s in my head game’, quite unlike the parent-child relationship in learning oral language.
Finally, there is a question about the kinds of reading and writing towards which authentic pedagogy is oriented. Jasper Neel criticises what he calls an ‘antiwriting’ which announces itself this way:
I am not writing. I hold no position. I have nothing at all to do with discovery, communication, or persuasion. … What I am is an essay. I announce my beginning, my parts, and the links between them. I announce myself as sentences correctly punctuated and words correctly spelled.
Narratives are an important corrective to the antiwriting of the traditional essay, says Mayer. They express how we think and feel. They do not hide our identities in a pall of objectivity. We need to recognise ‘the slipperiness of knowledge’ and ‘the intertwining of knowledge with expression’. Language is a creative system, and thus there is ‘no evidence that making language rules conscious enhances language performance’.
A pedagogy based on individual motivation and voice skews its interest in the direction of some genres at the expense of others. Authentic pedagogy has a bias towards narrative, such that writing, even in science, often ends up something like having to respond to the question, ‘imagine you are a white blood cell …’. What Neel calls antiwriting, however, is not a bad genre to be overcome, but a reaction against scientific writing which is meant to seem socially neutral and conventional journalism which attempts to tell the truth in a balanced and detached tone. Factual writing genres, however, are not only a more effective way of communicating information about white blood cells than narratives, but they are also just as human and carry just as much social and cultural baggage with them as ‘creative’ or ‘expressive’ writing.
Rather than dismiss factual genres as things which destroy creativity and expression, we need to analyse factual genres for the ways they work and the human interests that they embody. ‘Voiceless’ genres—from the objectivity of the Ramus text, to the language of the technical manual, to the academic argument that studiously avoids using the first person—are powerful discourses. It is not surprising, however, that the most common classroom products of process writing are not even narratives, but more clearly-voiced personal recounts, and this to the neglect of other kinds of writing.
The hero of process writing is the creative individual. Notwithstanding the conversations in the conference process, writing in this model is in the final analysis a solitary business. Students must find their own voices and listen to themselves as they write. They must find their own ways to truth. This is why creative writing can’t be taught. It is a process of self discovery. Graves uses the metaphor of writing as a craft, a medium for creativity, ‘a process of shaping material toward an end’.
A nine year old boy is writing a piece on New Hampshire grey squirrels. ‘Brian listens to his information, changes, cuts, pastes, reorganizes and shapes his material toward an end. He goes through a lengthy process of reading, taking notes, sorting, re-seeing, re-reading, crossing out information, reading for more information, re-pasting his orders and changing words. Brian grows in control of his craft over a five-week period of persistent, self-directed searching for the best way to write his selection about grey squirrels.’ As Pam Gilbert argues, the emphasis in process writing is on personal psychology and a literary model of personal expression which only the privileged few can practise as their life’s vocation.
Adapted from: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 1993. “Histories of Pedagogy, Cultures of Schooling.” Pp. 38-62 in The Powers of Literacy: A Genre Approach to Teaching Literacy, edited by B. Cope and M. Kalantzis. London: Falmer Press. || Amazon || WorldCat
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