A Literacy Acquisition Perspective

What is perhaps very odd in this 30-year odyssey of mine (literacy acquisition for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities) is a very (almost too late) discovery as to why my theories and methods have all been summarily ignored (and they have been). In a way it’s all too funny.

Just two summers ago my cohort in academic conference presentations, Dr. Monica Gordon Pershey (speech and hearing department Cleveland State University), stated to me, “Tom, no one else on the planet does what you do.” So, I sat down and asked myself why was this dismissal of my work so predominant. This is what I came up with:

Apparently, maybe close to 100% of all academic journal article studies are conducted within college and university settings, where professors, under the proverbial “gun” to publish or perish, while carrying a full teaching and grading load of students, enlist the help of graduate students for 1.) administering a great deal of the recruitment of test subjects (local school children), 2.) organizing the creation of testing materials and intervention protocols, 3.) overseeing the data collection based on brand new theories or augmented predictions for possible new “best practices” in the field of literacy acquisition, and 4.) researching and digging up established tests and texts — previously recorded studies to determine efficacy of teaching and learning strategies.

Unfortunately, these college and university studies are almost all restricted by their available and functional time lines, through quarter and semester limitations: 10, 12, or 15 week periods for the testing of subjects, the intervention placements (for one or more groups who are the test subjects; and for one or more groups who remain the control subjects, without receiving the required interventions), the retesting, the data collection, and the data analysis. The lead author then is responsible for writing up the field history, the analysis of the canon of previously published, yet similar, studies, the nature of the particular study being conducted, the descriptions of what is being attempted, the hypotheses involved, the statistical analysis of the data, the results, the conclusions, and the offerings of ideas for future studies.

It can be surmised that the graduate assistants have very little personal history actually working directly with similar students to the test subjects in the field of literacy acquisition. Even the professor responsible for headlining the study may have had little experience working directly with students teaching them one-on-one over years helping them with literacy acquisition. The time limits of 10, 12, or 15 weeks preclude the possibility of looking at literacy acquisition through a comprehensive lens, as literacy acquisition is actually a lifelong process. The studies, almost all of them that are done, are severely limited in their perspectives, out of necessity. Few studies in literacy acquisition are longitudinal due to the exorbitant costs involved; the practitioners come and go (graduate assistants with their own schooling and life choices), the test subjects are grade school children who necessarily jump from grade to grade, and often from school to school, and the college Deans are incessantly demanding that all professors (either attempting to gain tenure or retain tenure) must continuously publish, right now, and again, and again (quantity over quality; expediency over precision).

My own work has never been predicated on a ‘publish or perish’ mandate. I have no license or accreditation in the balance. I’ve been able to observe (perhaps in much the same way that Piaget observed his own son) the same developmental process of literacy acquisition taking place in more than 50 individuals, long term, step by step, taking many from zero reading skills and abilities to independent reading skills.

Without the actual tutoring of illiterate individuals one-on-one, long term, the world’s foremost experts in literacy acquisition continue to rely on the history of “best practices,” known and used, where 40% of those who are provided educational experiences in our public and private school systems graduate while yet remaining completely illiterate (15%), or functionally illiterate (25%), not being able to read above a 3rd grade level. This rampant failure is too often accusatorially thrown into the laps of the families of those who remain illiterate or functionally illiterate, and the casting of egregious aspersions has remained constant and continuous, though no one apparently is looking more closely at the entire educational process for possible new answers. Our current systems are demonstrating (and have for decades) Einstein’s definition of insanity (he never actually stated anything like this, although it is still mistakenly attributed to him): “Insanity—doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.”

Oddly enough, Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams pretty much uncovered the cores of the dilemmas regarding illiteracy, but no one has taken her discoveries seriously and connected the hugely implicational dots to come up with the very necessary and viable solutions, until now. If possible, please read (and reread) all of the highlighted sections in the two articles which Dr. Adams shared with me almost a full year ago, emphasizing the following points: 1.) literacy acquisition only occurs in one-on-one settings, and it is extremely rare that it is acquired in groups or in classrooms with multiple students; 2.) literacy acquisition is generally acquired by children in their own homes with parents, or older siblings or adults, reading one-on-one with them on a regular basis; 3.) in all classrooms across the US (public, private, and adult Ed.) in a major statistical analysis done by Dr. Adams in the 1990s, it was determined that less than 1 minute per day per student per classroom was actually spent doing oral reading. Seeing as how most classrooms are comprised of anywhere between 20 to 30 students, it is entirely reasonable that one-on-one assistance between teachers and their individual students needing attention falls to that low 1 minute per day average.

I also think that one of the major failings of professionals in the field of literacy acquisition is the ignoring of the inherent and vital receptive skills of those who remain illiterate or functionally illiterate. Having discovered that the only necessary prerequisite for learning how to read is the capacity of carrying on a give and take two way conversation with another, I assume with all of my students (now) that the individuals I’m working with have an immense mental library of words they’ve been exposed to by simply being able to listen for years and years to conversations around them, and to TV shows and news reports, whether or not they’ve ever had occasion to use these words that have been stored like shelved seeds. So, sitting with them and reading rich, contextual, well-anticipated stories amounts to nothing more than the visual exposure to the seed words they’ve been able to store, but maybe have never used. As learning to read is 100% based on the spoken language, it makes sense that learning how to read is actually the simple matching of the visual symbols representing words with the spoken and heard words they’ve spoken and/or heard, being a major part of their accumulated “prior knowledge.” Weekly reading in a cooperative learning style with one (the advanced teacher/learner) who simply states the unknown words that the student does not know (but orally repeats after the teacher has spoken them), is the key to imprinting “new” vocabulary, visually acquired, but perhaps audially heard before. Every new word visually acquired, when in a meaningful context, establishes it as an understood, comprehended piece in the literacy puzzle; and the more it is seen and read the more firmly established in the mind of the student it becomes. Reading promotes reading, which promotes understanding and comprehension. One can learn how to read without having to know all of the mechanics of the language initially, in much the same way that one does not need to know how to take apart and put together a car in order to be able to get a license to drive one.