2.1 Perspective 1: Literacy as cognitive skill

Much research on literacy has focused on reading; the ways that individuals make sense of written language. This is probably the oldest tradition of literacy research, within which psychologists have been particularly active. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, a common interest in such research was in explaining the strategies by which readers ‘decoded’ texts. In the 1930s, for example, there were many studies of the eye movements of readers as they scanned the page (sometimes carried out using ingenious apparatus which recorded light reflected from the reader’s eyes). While some of that research was motivated simply by interest in the psychological and perceptual processes involved, it also informed approaches to the teaching of reading (Giordano, 2000). Within this line of research, literacy was treated as an individual skill, dependent on a reader’s intellectual and perceptual capacities. Research based on such a perspective continues today, though not now narrowly focused on eye movements. It includes, for example, the study of the sense-making strategies readers use to comprehend text, and how children learn to use alphabetic and other scripts (see Harris and Hatano, 1999). It has underpinned investigations of dyslexia and other specific language processing difficulties, and has also influenced the design of ‘remedial’ reading programmes, including computer-based methods for teaching reading.

Associated with this cognitive perspective on literacy has been a theoretical position which argues that ‘becoming literate’ has specific and profound effects on ways of thinking, both for societies and for individuals. You will find this position explained in the next reading.

Reading 2 Literate mentalities: Literacy, consciousness of language, and modes of thought

Timing: Allow about 1 hour 30 minutes

Now read ‘Literate mentalities: literacy, consciousness of language, and modes of thought’ by David Olson. As you read, pay special attention to the following topics:

  • the distinction between oral and written modes of language
  • how the acquisition of literacy is claimed to be related to the development of knowledge of ‘actual linguistic meanings’ and metalinguistic awareness
  • the implications that Olson sees literacy development having for the development of reasoning. How does this seem to relate to the claims discussed in section 1 about language use and the development of reasoning?

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2 Literacy and learning

2.1.1 Oral and literate modes