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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Language on Teaching

        The regular and distinguishable characteristics of story language, its uses and quality of engagement, suggest storybook reading aloud is part of another literacy ability in co-emergence with reading and writing. Stories are part of children's narrative literacy. This is not to suggest print literacy and narrative literacy are mutually exclusive, neither are they "rival modes." Rather, "they seem to answer different questions" (Taylor,1987: 220).
            Narrative literacy, described only partially in this paper in relation to storybook reading aloud, is a growing facility to enter a story materialized by one's own imagination. It is an ability to orchestrate story meaning of images, events and plot lines. It is metaphoric fluency. It demands a particular logic and meaning making ability. It is a growing ability to cross and connect the interior and exterior worlds of the reader-listener.(11) It is growing competence in a language that describes and identifies a self in relationship with other than self (Ricoeur 1992). It is an ability to recognize social patterns and relate them to one's self. It is growing mastery to negotiate common social values with personal dilemmas. In each of these, narrative literacy is an oral, social and personal facility with story.
          At the present time two literacies do overlap to mutual benefit. The successful use of stories for teaching print literacy demonstrates a vital complement-arity. Two text-approaches nourish shared needs for growing abilities and knowledge. Narrative and print literacies are most often mutually supportive and interdependent. Storybook reading aloud continues to be a fine strategy when it is part of a complex of approaches to teach print literacy. "It is clear that when a teacher provides more routes to the goal of literacy, more children will find a route to take them there" (Cunningham & Allington, 1999: 16). Storybook reading aloud, as I've already pointed out, nourishes print literacy learning through social interactions around reading-listening. These develop language abilities that include vocabulary growth. Reading together develops understandings of print awareness and book functions. Stories exercise imagination and creative thinking. Storybook reading aloud is a highly motivational activity for print literacy learning. However, teachers and caregivers must realize, as did Mrs. Gardner, uses of a story diverts attention from phonemic awareness, alphabetic and word recognition.
          At this time I note two aspects of print and narrative literacy to acknowledge two other important and related contingencies for story and print engagements. Cultural resonance and reading abilities affect engagements. A story, as a social language interaction is a cultural expression. As Anderson and Matthews (1999) point out, storybook reading bears many of the signs of a culturally specific strategy:
Many educators, while attempting to help all children acquire literacy, have adopted ethnocentric view of literacy development which reflect a western, middle-class bias... The results of the present study suggest that we need to examine some of the assumptions that have been made in this regard. Katt (1995) maintains that the applicability and appropriateness of the concept of emergent literacy across socio-cultural contexts require reexamination. (Anderson & Matthews, 1999: 297)
          And secondly, a significant difference exists between a story in the air or in imagination and its trace on a page. An oral story engagement is available to nearly anyone, while a print story demands a high-level of specialized print-literacy ability. In fact, reading engagement with a story demands such skill that a reader must be able to see the story through the screen of text, as through window. Non-readers will find themselves short of stories after grade three in most classrooms. But neither of these aspects mitigates the different qualities of engagement of a story from other language interaction.
Present practices in school direct children's emerging narrative literacy into text-attentive strategies and approaches to print.(12) Anxiety over reading abilities has exacerbated this in recent years. But failure to recognize narrative literacy as a distinguishable learning ability and type of knowledge in the classroom is consequential to education. Egan, (1997) who describes storytelling as part of "mythic understanding," wonders:
           If some degree of metaphoric fluency and imaginative vivacity is necessarily to be sacrificed for literacy what should be done?... We will always want to preserve as much as possible and lose as little as possible, but the current bland and comfortable belief that any skill gain comes at not cost, at no potential loss, just cannot any longer be sustained. If we fail to recognize potential or actual intellectual losses we will certainly do nothing to minimize them (1997: 57-58).
          As Egan notes, there is a cost. Confusing two kinds of reading abilities, text-attentive and text-inattentive, and using stories persistently to facilitate text-attentive kinds of reading, suggests a range troubling consequences. I put forward five possible costs to learning. First, imaginative experience, the listener's deep private engagement with the story is not adequately valued, developed or exercised. Imagination is a critical faculty in learning work. Its need is felt in every discipline where it is necessary for problem solving, developing empathy, or conceptual thinking. Currently, although imaginative capacity is recognized as important, its practice is weakly developed. Secondly, as already mentioned, educators teach literal reading habits. Abilities for story-meaning-making are undernourished while attention is paid to words on the page. Children learn to study a story as a text. Such an approach to text is similar to communications like a report, description, evidence or information. This weakens ability to "read" metaphor, orchestrate images, or make wide-ranging connections. Thirdly, story experience is trivialized. Strong personal experiences, emotional dilemmas, ambivalences are turned into print literacy exercises. Meaningful encounters on the "busy bridge" become material for learning to read and write. Stories are turned into (mere) exercises, assignments and illustrations. Fourthly, static expressions are valued over dynamic interaction with a subject. Written text is the stated or felt purpose of story engagement. It is the culmination of every story activity. Conversation and story engagements prepare participants for a higher, more valued engagement: print. The high value given to text can be contrasted with the lower value assigned to oral and social engagements. The ramifications of this frame are far reaching. Finally, storytelling and listening as oral, aesthetic, social language learning abilities are not deliberately attended in teaching. This is as true for teacher training practices as it is with children in the classroom.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Story in Teaching

          Today another teacher read for us. We're in another room and another voice carried us into the story. Ms. A. read from I was a Rat. She read with expression and with a strong clear voice. When we went back to our room I asked Mila, "So, what do you think about Roger's being stuck in the circus now?!" Mila is an expressive and usually strongly engaged reader, writer and listener.
"I dunno. Well, actually I didn't hear it so good. Missus A. doesn't read it right."
"What do you mean?"
"I, well... I dunno. It's just... uh... I couldn't hear."
I feel puzzled. Mila clearly was quietly seated for the whole twenty minutes. And Ms. A.'s volume and diction were stronger than Linda's.
(Personal journal notes, November 2002)
          A story is part of a social oral interaction. It is grown in oral tradition even when it is held under book covers. In schools, framed by literary traditions, a novel or storybook is presented as the work of an author, the product of one mind. A book is an object in hand, free of the noisy, often messy social life that grew it. Two works redirect attention to stories in print as part of a "folk" conversation outside storybooks. In the first, Bakhtin (1981) identifies stories as part of oral folk-telling, a social interaction. In his essay outlining the history of the novel, he considers storytelling inside novel writing. He concludes,
the familiar strata of folk language that played such an enormous role in the formulation of novelistic discourse and that, in altered form, entered into the composition of the novel as a genre...the novelistic word arose and developed not as a the result of a narrowly literary struggle among tendencies, styles, abstract world views - -but rather in a complex and centuries-long struggle of cultures and languages. It is connected with the major shifts and crises in the fates of various European languages and the speech life of peoples (Bakhtin 1981: 83).
          In the second work, Foucault (1977:113-138) deconstructs authors as origins of writing works. He, like Bakhtin, describes a writer as one who layers and voices the myriad other storytellers in the writer's world. Thus, stories are less creations than collations, a gathering of the group's voices in one speaker. A storybook read aloud is the small frozen tip of a great berg of people, places and happenings.
Even as a story is privately engaged with, its meanings are made in the participant's conversations and situations of social interaction. A story is constructed and reconstructed in fluid collaborative work. A story is dynamic, bounded by its tellers and listeners, changing with every telling. The construction, meaning and form of a story is inextricable to the situation in which it is told, at every instance.(9) That organic aspect of a story is quickly understood if we think of how the outer life of the listener is made of every aspect of shared life (Cohen, 1989); their physical landscape and history (Basso 1996); and the group's social expectations and references (Cruikshank, 1998; Kermode, 1967). Stories in the works I have mentioned are social, interpersonal events in which lives are remembered, puzzled over, and used for mutual benefit (Coles, 1989; Cruikshank, 1990). In those stories and in the life of the classroom, it becomes clear that even the smallest passage of time between storytellings, in listeners' lives, and changes of circumstance change the story engagement. Changes of voice, place or participant grouping changes the slants of meaning offered by the story.
When Ms. A. takes up the voice of Roger or Bob from the children's usual teacher, Linda, something changes in the finely developed nuances of meaning, character, and connections made inside the story. The story on a page is a very small aspect of its meaning and form. A focus on text, as contained on pages, encourages an idea about a story as bounded by covers and a static object of study.(10) A story is a subject or topic, rather than object of study. In practice and at its root, stories are part of bodied conversations.
Again we see that the page does not hold a story engagement. It is deeply informed by oral and social interactions and the listener's experience of that present circumstance. Even sprung from the page, as in storybook reading aloud, a story is dynamic, relative to circumstance and moderated by its medium. Again, this aspect of a story conflicts with print literacy text-attentive postures for story engagement.
           I explored storybook reading aloud through a focus on the aspects of story listening and telling. This limited description demonstrates that a story engagement is significantly distinctive from other communications. Storybook reading aloud initiates a specific set of language abilities, a knowledge body and possibilities for application. It depends on imagination, facility with metaphor, social life, reflective abilities and the listener's situation. It is a way of thinking, speaking and interacting distinguishable from other interactions and language engagements (Bruner, 1990; Egan, 1997; Iser, 1993; Ricoeur, 1992). Bruner (1990) describes the difference in this way:
           There appear to be two broad ways in which human beings organize and manage their knowledge of the world, indeed structure even their immediate experience: one seems more specialized for treating of physical "things," the other for treating of people and their plights. These are conventionally known as logical-scientific thinking and narrative thinking (Bruner 1996: 39; italics his).
          He calls stories a way of "thinking." In Frye's discussion (1963) they are "languages" and in Egan's discussion (1997) they are "understandings." Whether there are two, three, four or more "ways," the language of a story is separated in each case, particular to itself. It is a "way" of thinking or talking that differs in organizing structures, uses and qualities of experience. It is understood by its own semantic and syntactic rules as well as the qualities of engagement with itself. A story has a particular system of meaning making. It is nearly immediately distinguishable within other kinds of communications like conversation or instructions or explanation.