Thursday 5 April 2012

Who owns words?

I've tried asking the question, who owns literacy? and seeing if I can answer it.

To get at it, I try to think about what are the 'literacy objectives' of schooling? What kind of literacy do we want school students to end up having at the age of 16? You can answer that question in terms of what kinds of exams they can pass but that doesn't actually answer the question. That just tells us that they've passed tests for something. I'm talking about a literacy that you use away from tests. I don't suppose there's any universal agreement on this, but what I'd go for is something to do with 'ownership'. That is, in particular in relation to writing, that you feel entitled to write what you want, when you want; that you feel you can say what you want through your writing.

As it happens, one of the things that has happened in the last period is that phone and internet literacy has massively increased in the last few years. It's a literacy that no one controls. It's not taught in schools, users make up the rules. If you don't like doing it, you don't do it. How long this new-(ish) literacy will last, isn't certain because smart technology will enable people to speak their written messaging. They won't have to write it. This may well turn out to be a revolution in what we understand by literacy.

But what happens through schooling?

Let's go earlier than that, though. When we're babies and toddlers we learn language through need, want and desire. We also learn it through a need to say, tell and explain. However, a good deal of very early language-use in its fullest sense includes of course the making of sounds - not just the making of words, grammar and morphology (how words are constructed and reconstructed to make meaning). So a good deal of language-play goes on with very young children, some of it involving the selecting of that particular language's repertoire of phonemes (the sounds of the language) from all the sounds you can make with your mouth, others involving play with word order (a key component of English grammar), the morphology of words and so on.

One key aspect of all this is that the language-user (the child, in this case) mostly does this voluntarily. And though we teach young children rhymes and tell them stories, read them stories and so on, most of this learning of the language seems to go on as a result of face to face talk, and, just as important, face to face sympathetic and loving listening. Most parents and carers have a sense, I think, that we are helping a child to become an owner of language. Aren't we saying to the child, 'Have this, it's yours.' - and very soon we spot what seem like original utterances, new ways of speaking, ways of speaking that are that child's way of talking?

I don't want to idealise this too much, because there are many, many occasions when parents and carers tell their very young children to be quiet and to stop talking or singing; many occasions when parents and carers tell their children that they shouldn't or should say this or that. Even so, my experience of talking with 4 and 5 year olds is that they talk as if talking belongs to them. If they're asked, most will talk about anything they know about. You can hear them talking while playing in the 'home corner' or outside in the play areas. Or, if you tell them an appropriate short anecdote, they've got plenty to tell you. Not all, but most.

Then we have the job of teaching them to read and write; acquire literacy.

What I want to know is how often do children in schools get a chance to approach this matter in any way like the way they approached the matter of learning how to speak - or indeed in the manner in which they approached things like discovering the properties of, say, a ball, or water - which is mostly through prolonged and repeated investigation, play and discovery? Mostly but not entirely in the company of parents, carers and other children who more often than not played with them - throwing a ball, supervising them playing in the bath and so on.

So what does that approach look like when transferred to the acquisition of literacy?  Investigating, playing with, and discovering the properties of the written language?

I think some or all of the following are crucial: looking for, choosing, selecting, browsing, comparing, speculating, discussing, playing.

So at one very basic level - words - what would looking for, choosing, selecting, browsing, comparing, speculating, discussing and playing with words look like?

We can say that every child is a Word Detective and their job is to find words, groups of words, lines, paragraphs, chapters, books of words that they like. They're not pupils, they're Detectives and it's their job to find these. Their resources are everywhere - in what people say, in what's written up on walls, in newspapers, comics, magazines, books. Stuff in schools, in the street, in markets, at home, in churches, temples, mosques, going with their parents to work - anywhere.

But where to put it? On the wall to share with others - either as words, phrases, overheard stuff from parents, on buses, from TVand radio, lines from songs, poems, books. In journals - poems, songs, paragraphs, thoughts...On shelves for books, magazines and comics that they've found in libraries, charity shops or wherever...

What about 'scaffolding' or 'modelling'?- well, the teacher can model all this, showing the children how to collect things that people say, favourite phrases from stories, songs, poems and plays and TV.

What to do with it?

The key thing is talk. Where did this word or phrase or verse come from? Why did you choose it? What's it about?

And...the key thing is that all this collected language provides fantastic starting points for writing and fantastic resource in the process of writing. So, if this or that phrase or paragraph. or chapter was interesting or brilliant - why? how? And what if you or I wrote like that? How could you or I do that?

Again,the modelling or scaffolding going on here is the teacher showing how you can start from this material and write stories or poems or explanations or recounts or persuasive writing. Indeed, to give direction to some of the Word Detectives' collecting,  the teacher can ask them to look for examples within such categories if they haven't turned up already.

And what to do with what's written? Audience. The key thing is audience. We now have the technology to make beautiful books in schools, powerpoint displays and the like, but also it's so easy to make blogspots like this one. These can be pages on the school website or separate and you can make them as private or as public as you want. We now have the means for children and teachers to publish and to share - whether that's just with the writers, with the whole school community or beyond to other schools in this country or another country or wherever. There are of course a thousand ways to share and discover what others think...performance, display etc etc.

All this is about working from the principle of making literacy your own, making it the thing that you go out and investigate, collect, select and play with; making it the thing that you produce and quickly find out its effect on others. Going back to when we first acquire language, an enormous amount of that is involved in finding out what works. Shouting 'ma' works pretty well when you're about 11 months old for example if you want something. Many speakers of English start there or thereabouts and it gets results! The equivalent in writing is for you to hear from your friends, your family, your teachers that what you've written is interesting or indeed that they start to talk of what you've written as if it is the start of a conversation. That's to say, they start talking about something related to what you've written. This is the most important motivator for writing - of any kind, fiction, poems, plays, non-fiction, writing-up of school sports, visits by visitors to the school, comic strips or whatever. Effect, effect, effect.

By way of postscript: I know that many teachers do this sort of stuff anyway. What I'm doing here is grouping together what I've seen in schools, or heard about. It's not meant as a criticism of anything that anyone does at the moment. It's offered as a set of suggestions, as things to play with, adapt and improve. If anyone wants to write to me to tell me about stuff they've done in this area already, what worked, what didn't work, I'm more than happy to post it up here. I'm thinking primarily of literacy practices informed by the idea of 'how to help children own literacy and take control of it.'  If anyone has done any research on this basis and wants to publicise it here, then pass on the title and place where your research is published and, again, I'm more than happy to put it up here. At present, I have some teachers and librarians doing an MA writing up some research in this area, and Jenny Vernon and I at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education will be seeing a group of teachers do their presentations in May in this area too. UKLA and NATE journals are full of practices along these lines.

Ultimately, the answer to the question, who owns words, who owns literacy is: we do. We're the users and with language it's the users who own it. Because we own it, we take it upon ourselves to change it and adapt it to our own purposes. This is sometimes contested by people who want to keep telling us that we're not allowed to change it or adapt it or use it in this or that way, when in fact, social existence tells us what's appropriate every minute of our lives. One of the key ways to finding out about all this is to investigate, investigate, investigate. Language is a human activity. It's not a fixed system separate from humans. It comes out of people's mouths and off paper and screens in many, many different ways - all produced by humans. The more we each look at it, investigate it, discover things about it, hear different views about it, to try out using it in different ways, observe the effect this has on others - the better able we are to make it our own.