Of all the educational technology we have studied, I am most excited by the technology that allows emergency readers and writers to experience ease and fluency in their interactions with the written word.

Twenty-five years ago an interest in emergent literacy was what lead me to the teaching credential program at SFSU. I had just received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from CCAC and was teaching at a preschool. I was enamored with the work of Joseph Campbell, and was a regular at the annual Bay Area Storytelling Festival. Ultimately, I was fascinated by the idea of man as a “meaning making animal”, and felt that we told stories as a way to share our truths and to make sense of the world.

In my application to enter the teaching credential program I expressed my belief that children are inherently literate and that we need to teach them to read and write without losing their inborn literacy. I was aware that I was stretching the term literate- that it actually means “the ability to read and write”.  However I also knew that the term “literacy” could be defined as “the ability to use language proficiently.” And that was the crux of what I was trying to say, that children are already proficient with oral language by the time they get to school, and that somehow we needed to teach them to read and write without inhibiting their natural instincts as storytellers and meaning makers.

This was a hot topic in the educational world in the 1980’s. Starting with Donald Graves publishing Writing: Teacher and Children at Work (1983), and then fueled by Lucy Calkins The Art of Teaching Writing (1986), Writer’s Workshops were showing up in elementary classrooms across the country.  Teachers were learning that children write best when they are given permission to use writing to express themselves. Children were learning to call themselves authors.

It was rich… but at the same time, all these writing programs were still depending on having the child master the mechanics of the written word before they could use it to express themselves. Often there was an adult there willing to take dictation in kindergarten, and sometimes even in first grade. But by second grade the child was expected to use a pencil and do all the writing themselves. Yes, they could use invented spelling, but ultimately being an author still meant having the ability to initiate and imitate fine motor movements while at the same time retrieving a slew of newly acquired information about how the written word works from their long term memory to their working memory, while also generating and organizing the content of what they wanted to say.  For many children this was so cognitively taxing that they gave up before achieving mastery, or at least gave up on the idea that expressing themselves in writing could be enjoyable. We were still seeing children who were starting out their path to literacy as enthusiastic storytellers, but ending up graduating elementary school as reluctant writers.

Now, 25 years later, it feels like we finally have the tools to support the vision of these great researchers and writers in the field of teaching writing. It is exciting to realize that the digital technology of the 21st century is creating so many ways for the emerging reader and writer to engage creatively and fluently with the written word as they acquire mastery of it, rather than needing to master it before they can join in the fun.

04/24/2013 3:27pm

Reading your response gave me new passion. Just what I needed as the school year ends. I do agree with you in that everyone is literate in the sense children are story tellers. Its great how we have developed all kinds of tools to help them tell the stories even if they don't necessarily have the mechanics.


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