This article is the fourth in a series drawn from work in the Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III (Kamil, Mosenthal, Pearson, & Barr, 2000). In the coming months, Reading Online will publish additional chapter summaries from the book, prepared by the chapter authors.

Classroom Language and Literacy Learning

Louise C. Wilkinson
Elaine R. Silliman


Overview

To a great extent, the language used by teachers and students in classrooms determines what is learned and how learning takes place. The classroom is a unique context for learning and exerts a profound effect on students’ development of language and literacy skills, particularly in the early years. Some have argued strongly that students should have significant opportunities to integrate oral and written language in the classroom, because these experiences support and encourage the development of literacy.

Three decades ago, the publication of Functions of Language in the Classroom (Cazden, John, & Hymes, 1972) marked the launch of a new direction for inquiry into language and literacy learning. A considerable body of empirical sociolinguistic research now exists that focuses on the use of oral language in classrooms. This article reviews that research, its legacy, and its implications for understanding how children learn literacy. The historical roots of research on classroom language are examined, including the early sociolinguistic studies, which focused on language function, communicative demands of classrooms, and individual differences among students’ language use.

Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory, which views learning as both socially based and integrated, has played a major role in guiding the research in this area. Hence, studies of classroom language and literacy learning generally assume the following:

  • Learning is a social activity -- interpersonal behaviors are the basis for new conceptual understandings.
  • Learning is integrated --- strong interrelationships exist between oral and written language learning.
  • Learning requires student interaction and engagement in classroom activities -- engaged students are motivated to learn and have the best chance of achieving full communicative competence across the broad spectrum of language and literacy skills.

Since learning occurs in particular social contexts, research on actual classroom language -- specifically, instructional conversations -- is reviewed here, along with work on emergent literacy and ability-based reading and writing groups. Implications of the research for educational practice, policies, and students’ learning are discussed.

 

Related Postings from the Archives



Research Origins | Scaffolds for Learning | Integrating Oral Language and Literacy Learning | The Engagement Perspective
Future Emphases | References



The Origins of Classroom Language Research

The early studies of classroom language shared a number of common assumptions, drawn from work in sociolinguistics. For example, sociolinguists hold that differences in oral communication reflect social variables, such as gender, ethnicity, social class, and age. When children enter school, their mode of oral communication has been influenced by these factors; they also already work within a communication system, which consists of language structure (sound structure, inflection, syntax), content (meaning), and use (purposes of communication, appropriate forms of communication). Knowledge about meaning, language functions (pragmatics), discourse genres, and more complex syntax continue to develop during schooling and into adulthood (Scott, 1995).

In the early studies, communicative competence was seen as an end in itself, as a set of rules to be learned by students so that they could understand and participate in the unique classroom context, where particular requirements regarding language use exist. The effects of students’ not knowing these requirements are not limited to the obvious problem of unsuccessful communication with peers and teachers. If children do not understand the classroom and its unique communicative demands, they may learn little from classroom experiences. Accurate assessment of their achievement is unlikely, since access to their knowledge is predicated on optimal communicative performance. Their lack of participation in classroom activities may interfere with their overall adjustment to school and subsequent academic achievement.

Continuity between language use in school and at home is also an issue in children’s development of classroom communicative competence. Most of the research on emergent literacy has been conducted with children from print-rich homes that identify with the dominant, school-oriented culture, where parent-child interactions provide experiences similar to classroom interactions. Through these experiences, children are motivated to learn about literacy events, functions, artifacts, forms (e.g., sound and letter names), and conventions before they learn to read and write (Morrow, 1993; van Kleeck, 1990, 1995, 1998; van Kleeck & Schuele, 1987; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). And, just as formal schooling facilitates students’ acquisition of academic information, early parent-child communication typically involves information exchange (see, e.g., Cherry, 1979; Ervin-Tripp, 1977) -- though while teachers typically evaluate students’ responses, parents do not often do so (Cherry, 1978).

Thus, some children enter school knowing how to use language for a variety of school-like purposes. They have expectations about classrooms. But not all students know the rules of the game, and some have difficulty learning how to participate appropriately. These children may also have less experience with a variety of literacy functions and forms. Since participation in school activities (such as reading aloud, question-and-answer exchanges with teachers, or evaluation of discourse contributions) determines access to learning, educational failure may result for students who lack or have difficulty acquiring classroom communicative competence.

Other difficulties may result from differences in communicative patterns among students and teachers who come from different cultural backgrounds. During the past decade, as waves of immigration altered classroom demographics and special education programs received greater emphasis, diversity among learners has dominated sociolinguistic research in the United States. Studies focused on

To minimize the possibility of mistaking differences in discourse styles and dialect use for cognitive and linguistic problems, teachers and other education professionals need to pool their expertise. The research suggests that students’ development as competent learners and communicators requires that educators understand discourse and dialect differences and the social and cultural practices that children from culturally and linguistically diverse groups bring to school.

A Descriptive Methodology

Sociolinguistic studies are descriptive. Researchers rely on observations, with observers obtaining a verbatim account of the actual language used, along with a detailed description of the context. Resarch often focuses on a process or a pattern of behavior.

Early sociolinguistic research typically recorded everyday language in use, along with additional symbol systems (such as graphic symbols) to capture any accompanying nonverbal behaviors (e.g., Erickson, 1982). Since the early studies typically used audio- and videorecordings, written transcripts and analyses occurred retrospectively. This permitted the researcher to catch patterns and sequences of talk that may have occurred very fast in real time and eluded even perceptive observers. Further, when using transcription and recording, multiple analyses are possible. Researchers can analyze how different aspects of the language system may interact -- for example, how children’s choices of particular syntax or vocabulary interact with their production of narratives.

These early sociolinguistic studies have served as a catalyst for research on oral language and literacy for three decades. Additionally, Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory, with its view that all learning is socially based and integrated, played a major role in shaping the research agenda. Indeed, Vygotsky’s work is the starting point for the discussion of major themes and research trends in classroom language research and their relationship to literacy learning.

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Scaffolds for Learning

Vygotsky’s notion of scaffolds has played a critical role in the development of theory and research on language and literacy learning. A scaffold, of course, is an external structure that braces another structure being built. Used as a metaphor in pedagogical theory, a scaffold is an interactional mechanism for learning and development (Pressley & McCormick, 1995). Through dialogue and associated nonverbal interaction, teachers provide graduated assistance to novice learners as they attain ever higher levels of conceptual and communicative competence. With scaffolding, learners can experiment with new concepts and strategies in ways that would not otherwise be possible (Cazden, 1988; Silliman & Wilkinson, 1991, 1994). An effective scaffold provides “support at the edge of a child’s competence” (Gaskins et al., 1997, p. 45), defining children’s zones of proximal development or their potential for new learning (Stone, 1993; Vygotsky, 1962). “Proximal development” refers to the assumption that skills the child can display with assistance are partially developed, but cannot be employed yet without support (Pressley & McCormick). The wider the zone, the more capable are children to perform tasks (Campione & Brown, 1987); the zone is activated through dynamic connections to scaffolding. However, these concepts do not explain specific mechanisms and outcomes of learning and development (Stone, 1993, 1998). Their appeal is the power with which they describe the culturally mediated activities that constitute the social and communicative contexts of interaction (Palincsar, 1998).

Ideally, the scaffolding teachers provide for students takes the form of classroom discussions and “grand conversations”; in practice, teacher-student dialogues are likely to be “gentle inquisitions” (Eeds & Wells, 1989). The use of scaffolds in both regular and special education classrooms reflects a continuum from interrogation sequences to instructional conversations (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). The type and quality of scaffolding arrayed along the continuum convey expectations to learners about their overlapping communicative roles as listeners, speakers, readers, and writers, and influences their self-definitions as learners (Silliman & Wilkinson, 1994). As Tharp (1994) notes, “The critical form of assisting learners is through dialogue, through the questioning and sharing of ideas and knowledge that happens in instructional conversations.... To truly teach, one must converse, to converse is to teach” (p. 156).

Types of Scaffolds

Silliman and Wilkinson (1994) identified two types of scaffolds used in regular and special education classrooms: directive and supportive. Each has its own structure of social interaction as patterned by the discourse of teaching. Each provides assistance to students in language and literacy learning, but the functions and forms of assistance vary, as does the influence each has on students’ understanding of the purposes, meaning, and possibilities for learning (Mehan, 1994).

Directive scaffolds. From an instructional viewpoint, the most formal organizational unit of classroom interaction, and by far the most prevalent, is the directive scaffold (Mehan, 1994; Silliman & Wilkinson, 1994). In a larger sense, the directive scaffold parallels the direct instruction or skills-emphasis model of instruction (Pressley, 1998; Pressley & McCormick, 1995).

As a scripted format, directive scaffolds presume that the teacher’s primary job is knowledge transmission and assessment (Cazden, 1988). From a structural viewpoint, they are defined by teacher control mechanisms, designed to assess students’ content knowledge in accord with a predetermined standard for acceptable participation (Gallimore & Tharp, 1990). One powerful control mechanism is the initiation-response-evaluation (IRE) conversational sequence, exemplified by question-answer evaluation -- the most well-known and studied of directive scaffolds (see, e.g., Becker & Silverstein, 1984; Cherry, 1978; Durkin, 1978-79; Lemke, 1985; Mehan, 1979; Panagos & Bliss, 1990; Ripich & Panagos, 1985; Silliman & Wilkinson, 1991; Spinelli & Ripich, 1985). Outcomes of this traditional instructional discourse include a passive orientation to learning, an emphasis on the reproduction of information, and the understanding that evaluation is the exclusive responsibility of teachers (Silliman & Wilkinson, 1994).

Because teachers and others seldom question the cultural and institutional belief that the critical function of instruction is knowledge transmission (Mehan, 1994), the common tendency is to fall back on the IRE pattern. Even when teachers shift toward literature-based reading instruction, the preference for “gentle inquisition” continues (Bergeron, 1993; Scharer & Peters, 1996). Since classroom discourse reflects larger sociocultural values and practices (Cole, 1998), an important question concerns what we convey to children through IRE dialogues (Palincsar, Brown, & Campione, 1993). Mehan asks whether students who are taught to conform to adult authority through passive participation can become active participants in a democratic society and in the workplace.

Wells (1993) is the leading proponent of the view that a role exists for the IRE sequence in classroom teaching, particularly if the evaluation element is recognized as a responsive follow-up and not just an opportunity for the teacher to assess the student’s response. Such informative and positive follow-up provides students with information that they can use for improving their subsequent contributions (Gallimore & Tharp, 1990; Roehler & Cantlon, 1997; Tharp, 1994). Gavelek and Raphael (1996) expand on Wells’ position:

What matters greatly are the ways these different language opportunities connect among each other, the ways teachers mine these opportunities for their instructional potential, and the ways students come to understand that language is one of the most important tools of our culture (p. 191)

(See also Collins, 1992; Palincsar, Brown, & Campione, 1993).

Supportive scaffolds. Contemporary instructional applications of supportive scaffolds, which more directly mirror Vygotsky’s notion, derive primarily from the work of Palincsar and Brown (1984). This approach to scaffolding is consistent with current recommendations for learner-centered instruction, values learning as a search for understanding, provides opportunities for responsive feedback, and views the educational process as occurring within a community of learners (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999, online document). Supportive scaffolds allow integration of assessment with teaching, so that evaluation can be immediate and ongoing and allow the level and type of support to be modified “on the spot” (Pressley & Woloshyn, 1995).

From a developmental perspective, supportive scaffolds represent a process by which the student acquires the cultural tools needed to understand, remember, and express her or his perspectives in more literate ways. Responsibility is gradually transferred from adults to students for task planning, strategy choices and selection, monitoring of effectiveness, self-correction, and the evaluation of task outcomes. These functions define the flexible and reflective self-regulation necessary for strategic problem solving (Brown & Campione, 1994; Brown & Palincsar, 1987; Diaz, Neal, & Amaya-Williams, 1990). Well-developed, reflective, self-regulation goes beyond strategy mastery. The critical component is knowing when and where particular strategies should be used (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999; Pressley & Woloshyn, 1995).

Instructional practices are grounded in culturally meaningful experiences that assist students in transferring classroom learning to nonschool settings (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999; Brown & Campione, 1994; Pressley, Wharton-McDonald, & Mistretta, 1998). Effective teaching and learning occur in collaborative activities with teachers and peers. Active learning contexts create classrooms where individual differences are respected due to the construction of “multiple zones of proximal development...through which participants can navigate via different routes and at different rates” (Brown & Campione, p. 236). Collaboration as a process of inquiry also enhances the motivation to learn (Tracey & Morrow, 1998).

The basic form of teaching is instructional conversation that integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing as tools of inquiry serving multiple communicative purposes. Instructional conversations, when organized by thematic units and including elements geared at activation of background knowledge (Goldenberg & Patthey-Chavez, 1995), support development of new conceptual understandings that have educational value (Roehler & Cantlon, 1997). Through collaboration in the conversations, students invest in their own learning, seeking out challenging concepts in order to “form, express, and exchange ideas in speech and writing” (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988, p. 23).

Researchers have studied instructional conversations as central mechanisms for supporting active, strategic learning in language and literacy. Brown and Campione (1994) and Goldenberg (1996), for example, studied African American and bilingual students at risk for literacy failure; other studies have focused on at-risk children with learning disabilities (e.g., Echevarria, 1995; Englert, Tarrant, Mariage, & Oxer, 1994; Gaskins et al., 1997; Graham & Harris, 1996, 1997, in press; Palincsar & Klenk, 1992, 1993; Palincsar, Parecki, & McPhail, 1995), and still others are concerned with the prevention of reading failure (Pressley, 1998).

These studies show significant variations in scope, purpose, design, and types of data collected. Few have routinely assessed children’s oral language comprehension or production or have considered these aspects as variables accounting for individual differences in responsiveness to strategy learning in reading, writing, and spelling through the mechanism of instructional conversations. Finally, few studies include detailed discourse analyses to determine similarities and differences among teachers in their applications of scaffolded instruction. Despite these variations and limitations, however, the studies reveal compelling evidence for the contributions of Vygotskian theory and the concept of supportive scaffolding to constructivist teaching practices with diverse learners.

Stone (1998) describes the limitations of scaffolding for instructional purposes, particularly with children at risk for literacy failure. Stone proposes that scaffolding sequences are cycles of communication challenges and inferences. These sequences are the mechanism by which students come to understand the teaching perspective. In the instructional conversation, the teacher presents students with a challenge (new information or a new way of thinking), mediating its resolution through many dialogic forms and adjusting the type and level of assistance to students’ comprehension requirements. This leads students to infer what the activity means in the particular setting, how to go about implementing it and, eventually, appropriating the tools of the instructional conversation as their own.

Four types of scaffolding sequences have been identified from classroom-based instructional conversations (Roehler & Cantlon, 1997):

  1. Explicit modeling
    Through verbal example, the teacher demonstrates how to “work through” a specific strategy, including reasons for its selection and the steps involved. Students are encouraged to adopt similar schemata in resolving the task. Examples include think-alouds, where comprehension is shown to be an emerging process, and talk-alouds, where the teacher demonstrates how to ask relevant questions and formulate semantically contingent comments.


  2. Direct explanations and re-explanations
    The teacher makes explicit statements tailored to assist students in understanding the underlying concept, the relevance of applying the concept in particular situations, or how concepts are used (Pressley & McCormick, 1995; Roehler & Cantlon, 1997), stating, for example, “It is a good idea to analyze what you have to do before you begin doing it” (Pressley & Woloshyn, 1995, p. 90).


  3. Invitations to participate in the conversation
    Participation is encouraged through such devices as eliciting students’ reasoning to support a statement or position (e.g., “What makes you think that?” “How do you know?”) or creating opportunities for more complex expression through invitations to expand in meaningful ways (e.g., “Tell us more about that” “What do you mean?”) (Goldenberg & Patthey-Chavez, 1995, p. 61).


  4. Verifying and clarifying student understanding
    Explicit and positive feedback is intended to guide students on learning how to evaluate the creation of a shared perspective or revise their perspective when misunderstandings occur. When a student’s statement or response conveys emerging understanding, the relevance of the contribution to the topic is verified -- for example, “We hadn’t talked about that. That’s important, isn’t it?” (Roehler & Cantlon, 1997, p. 19). When misunderstanding happens, students are guided to repair the breakdown by asking appropriate and relevant questions.

For transfer of responsibility to take place in instructional conversations, students must eventually be capable of sharing teachers’ perspectives about the purposes and goals of scaffolding sequences within activities (Palincsar, 1998; Smagorinsky, 1998). Developmental variability in students’ inferencing capacities may therefore explain individual differences in the outcomes of scaffolded instruction for literacy learning (Bishop, 1997; Donahue & Lopez-Reyna, 1998; Westby, 1999).

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Integrating Oral Language and Literacy Learning

Speaking, listening, reading, and writing are integrated because all are primarily communicative processes (Silliman & Wilkinson 1994). Literacy encompasses oral and written modes of communication, with different discourse styles overlapping both (Biber, 1988; Horowitz & Samuels, 1987; Scott, 1988; Spiro & Taylor, 1987; Wallach, 1990). Literacy confers upon an individual a social identity as a full participant in the larger sociocultural community and serves as an essential metacognitive tool for communication, since written language transcends immediate temporal and spatial constraints.

Emergent Literacy

The traditional view of literacy is that it begins when children start school and are “ready” to learn to read and write (Terrell, 1994). The notion of emergent literacy, in contrast, holds that children acquire knowledge about relationships among oral language, reading, and writing before entering school (Morrow & Smith, 1990). Learning to read and write is not a matter of readiness, but is integrated with and naturally embedded in the many routine social interactions with literate individuals that children experience from infancy onward (Heath, 1982; Stallman & Pearson, 1990; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998).

A compelling example of how many young children are taught a literate perspective, even before they learn to read, is found in adults reading aloud to them. Young children are exposed to the forms and formats of literacy as they participate in such book readings; they experience increasingly complex meanings of language, acquire some familiarity with letter shapes and names, and some may even discover on their own that words consist of small sound segments (phonemes), which, in print, are represented by letters (Kamhi & Catts, 1999).

Most children, however, do not discover this alphabetic insight on their own, and this fact has lead to heated controversy over the best way to teach reading. Based on a substantial body of research conducted over the past 25 years, the strong consensus is that the prevention of reading failure is linked to explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and word recognition for all children:

Getting started in alphabetic reading depends critically on mapping the letters and spellings of words into the speech units that they represent; failure to master word recognition can impede text comprehension. (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998, p. 6; online document)

Instability of word-recognition skills also significantly affects the ability to spell accurately (Bruck, Treiman, Caravolas, Genesee, & Cassar, 1998; Ehri, 1997). Note that explicit instruction in phonological awareness is not identical to teaching phonics, which focuses solely on sound-letter correspondence.

Many now advocate a balanced approach to reading instruction, the importance of which resides in knowing the differences between recognizing words as a listener (oral word recognition) and recognizing words as a reader (print word recognition). A balanced approach creates active learning contexts. It also integrates formal attention to phonological awareness as a developmental process with the construction and expression of meaning through quality literature and authentic writing experiences (e.g., Gaskins, Ehri, Cress, O’Hara, & Donnelly, 1996-97; Pressley, 1998; Tracey & Morrow, 1998).

Schooled Literacy

For most children, classrooms are the first environment for formal literacy learning, where reading and writing are generally presented as a set of decontextualized discrete skills to be mastered separately from content in other curricular areas (Zubrick, 1987). However, research indicates that both elementary and middle-grade readers’ knowledge of oral-written language relationships are enriched when they talk informally with peers and more formally in student-dominated class discussions. Almasi and Gambrell’s (1994) study of fourth-grade students provides evidence that students learn more in peer-led literature discussion groups than in teacher-led groups. Eeds and Wells (1989) demonstrated that, in a fifth-grade classroom, the teacher and students “built meaning by working together” in literature discussion groups by discussing key points and negotiating meaning through conversation. Children also construct meaning when they converse without the presence of an adult (Hepler & Hickman, 1982) and as they write, read, select books, and respond to books through drama and art (Guice, 1992).

Alvermann’s (1999) study of high school students’ discussion of texts in content area classes reveals some of the conditions that make discussion worthwhile, including task construction, shared expectations among group members, and the size of the group. Langer (1990) believes that secondary school students’ interpretations of books are best enriched when they are supported in discussions including real questions about books that have been modeled by knowledgeable teachers. Middle school students also benefit from learning different ways to interpret literary texts. For example, Temple and Collins (1992) found that a variety of activities provided students with opportunities to use oral language for interpreting texts in their peer literary discussion groups.

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The Engagement Perspective on Classroom Language and Literacy Learning

The engagement perspective highlights the importance of motivation in learning to read by linking it with strategy instruction, and it underscores the social basis of classroom learning (Guthrie & Alvermann, 1999; Guthrie et al., 1996). Within this approach, classroom activities are designed to motivate students for reading and writing and provide them with opportunities to use oral language for meaningful communicative purposes.

Classrooms as Social Settings: Opportunities to Learn and Be Motivated

In the United States and many other Western countries, classrooms are organized around activities and content. Engaged readers interact with one another as they work to master knowledge (Almasi, McKeown, & Beck, 1996, online document [PDF format]). Morrow and Asbury (1999) show that elementary classroom settings that invite collaboration are likely to engage students. Both effort and attention remain at high levels. Avid students are eager to practice literacy skills in literacy centers, where there is an ample supply of books and the opportunity to interact with peers; they talk together about books, share their writing, and discuss homework. This positive effect is true for poor readers as well. Madden (1988) showed that attitudes of poor readers improved when they learned in cooperative and collaborative reading activities. However, for students with language-based reading and writing problems in inclusion programs, social competence may be improved with cooperative learning, but specific outcomes for word recognition and reading comprehension remain unknown (Silliman, Ford, Beasman, & Evans, in press).

Social interaction patterns can enhance the development of strategies for reading. Students’ prior levels of knowledge and motivation determine how much learning will occur, and the content of learning depends on the quantity and quality of social interactions around learning topics. “What they learn from each other and the teacher is dependent upon and interacts with motivation, strategy use, existing knowledge, and the context and quality of the interaction” (Guthrie & Anderson, 1999, p. 56).

Almasi and Gambrell (1994) showed that particular forms of social interaction during literature discussion in elementary school classrooms foster the growth of strategies for literary interpretation. When teachers encouraged students to listen closely to one another, entertain multiple interpretations of text, and recognize alternative perspectives, the students gained -- that is, they responded and challenged each other, interpreted the text’s meaning, challenged authors’ style, shared opinions, and questioned. Similarly, when students can talk to one another about their writing, they learn an acute sense of audience and authorship.

The Alvermann et al. (1996) study showed high school students prefer studying and working in small groups with other students who hold similar beliefs, and that social exchange facilitates learning. For the group of students studied, open-ended tasks resulted in the most discussion, compared with tasks that could be completed alone or shared with only one other student. Similar to Almasi and Gambrell (1994), students in the Alvermann et al. study achieved more in student-directed than in teacher-directed groups.

Most of the research on book discussions in classrooms has been conducted with literary texts. However, Meloth and Deering (1994) revealed that discussion of informational books can also lead to the learning and practice of critical skills. Students studying science looked for explanations as they read texts; they developed learning strategies, such as collecting evidence, evaluating information, and drawing conclusions.

Peer Learning in the Classroom

How peers influence one another’s learning has been the focus of much research during the past three decades. Webb and Palincsar (1996) provided a comprehensive overview of contemporary approaches to peer learning in the classroom; most allowed extensive opportunities for students to use oral discussion in connection with their literacy learning. Examples include

Other engagement approaches that integrate reading and writing through student inquiry include book club (McCarthy, Hoffman, & Galda, 1999; Raphael & McMahon, 1994), Reading Recovery (Gaffney & Anderson, 1991), and Gallego’s (1992) adaption of interactive semantic mapping.

The role of oral language in facilitating literacy learning is highlighted in the special case of ability-based reading and writing groups (see, e.g., Grant & Rothenberg, 1986). Grouping according to ability for teacher-led instruction may be beneficial because it raises students’ attentiveness and allows more individualized instruction (Wilkinson, 1990). Ability grouping for student-led discussion can also be a beneficial learning format (see, e.g., Alvermann et al., 1996).

Both elementary and secondary students also benefit from learning opportunities in small heterogeneous groups (Webb, 1989, 1991; Wilkinson, 1990 ). However, the group processes that promote positive effects for learning are not well understood. Research and theory do suggest a central role for social factors, as manifested in verbal communication in groups. There have been several studies, primarily involving mathematics learning, examining student interaction in heterogeneous groups (e.g., Webb, 1991). Under certain circumstances, low-ability students seem to achieve at higher-than-expected levels after placement in small, heterogeneous ability groups (Wilkinson, 1990). However, if those students are regarded as having low status, their achievement is less than that obtained by high-ability students accorded high status in the same group (Cohen, 1984). A series of related studies of elementary reading and mathematics groups provided evidence that low-ability students remain low achievers throughout the school year and show a lack of skill at requesting and providing needed information during seatwork (Wilkinson & Calculator, 1982; Wilkinson & Spinelli, 1983). Indeed, heterogeneous groups may serve to maintain the status quo among students and consequently deny those of low ability opportunities to engage in the rich verbal interactions crucial for learning, unless teachers intervene to alter the group’s processes of interaction.

Also important to review are the cooperative learning studies. Given the opportunity, students successfully form partnerships and small teams, both in regular education and special education populations (e.g., Kamps, Leonard, Potucek, & Garrison-Harrell, 1995; Madden, 1988). Goals of the individuals in the group determine, to a large extent, the quantity and quality of social interaction. Johnson, Johnson, and Stanne (1989) demonstrated that, when the goals are shared, group collaboration and communication increased. Equity is also a critical feature. When students on a team contribute equally, communication is most likely to be more motivating, resulting in increased learning. When students performing a small-group activity trust other group members to listen and accept their suggestions, they invest personally in that activity (Alvermann et al., 1996).

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Future Emphases

Questions remaining to be addressed include how instructional conversations are actually used in literacy instruction, and how they affect the motivation of individual students to read and write for a variety of communicative purposes. Educators should be encouraged to implement more discussion-based activities -- such as debating, questioning, clarifying, and elaborating -- which can be initiated in the classroom by the teacher or students. Such activities employ instructional conversations to varying degrees and assist students in developing effective strategies for comprehension and expression as tools of inquiry.

Hynd (1999) suggests the following:

  • Optimal tasks for group discussion are open ended and subject to multiple interpretations
  • Optimal discussion groups are friendly and motivated by the topic
  • Optimal motivation for students includes their own ideas for topics of discussion
  • Middle and high school students should have the opportunity to evaluate their own work
  • Teachers may need to guide discussions (themselves or via students) if they have a specific direction they want the discussion to take

Today's teachers must master methods of alternative assessment. We are faced with the challenge of variability in language and literacy skills among students, and we must determine in each individual case how best to assess and promote the development of these skills. In addition to standardized tests, which are limited in the information they provide, educators need to use alternative methods to determine the progress of individual students. Particularly important are the use of observation to reveal students’ literacy competencies and interdisciplinary approaches that yield a full picture of students’ developmental strengths and educational needs. Meaningful assessment must also include systematic observations of classroom interactions, interviews with students, teachers, and families, and the interpretation of outcomes through the prism of the cultural and social practices that frame home and school values.

Finally, the engagement perspective requires educators to change their instructional practices significantly, creating a student-centered classroom and adopting the instructional principles that Hynd (1999) describes. Reading lessons should be designed to motivate students to read, and to provide them with opportunities to develop their literacy skills, knowledge, and social competencies. Activities such as debating and discussion, having students serve as teachers, and using portfolios as a primary method of assessment are typical of classrooms where students are engaged for learning and should be incorporated as hallmarks of education.

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References

Almasi, J., & Gambrell, L. (1994). Sociocognitive conflict in peer-led and teacher-led discussions of literature (Rep. No. 12). College Park, MD/Athens, GA: National Reading Research Center.
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Almasi, J.F., McKeown, M.G., & Beck, I.L. (1996). The nature of engaged reading in classroom discussions of literature. Journal of Literacy Research, 28(1), 107-146. Available (PDF document): www.coe.uga.edu/jlr/v28/article_28_1_7.pdf
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Alvermann, D. (1999). Modes of inquiry into studying engaged reading. In J. Guthrie & D. Alvermann (Eds.), Engaged reading: Processes, practices, and policy implications (pp. 134-149). New York: Teachers College Press,.
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Alvermann, D., Young, J.P., Weaver, D., Hinchman, K.A., Moore, D.W., Phelps, S.F., Thrash, E.C., & Zalewski, P. (1996). Middle and high school students’ perceptions of how they experience text-based discussions: A multicase study. Reading Research Quarterly, 31, 244-267.
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Bishop, D.V.M. (1997). Uncommon understanding: Development and disorders of language comprehension in children. East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.
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Bramlett, R. (1994). Implementing cooperative learning: A field study evaluating issues for school-based consultants. Journal of School Psychology, 32(1), 67-84.
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About the Authors

Louise Wilkinson is dean of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education (New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA) and a professor of educational psychology. She and Elaine Silliman are authors of Communicating for Learning (1991, Aspen), and she is editor of the Rutgers Invitational Symposia on Education (published by Lawrence Erlbaum) and a coeditor of Communicating in the Classroom (1982), The Social Context of Instruction (1984), Gender Influences in Classroom Interaction (1985), and The Integrated Language Arts (1994). She has served on the editorial boards of several professional journals, on the advisory board of the National Reading Research Center, and as vice president and national program chair of the American Educational Research Association. She is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, and the American Association of Applied and Preventative Psychology, and in 1998 was appointed to the Council of Academic Policy Advisors to the New Jersey Legislature. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from Oberlin College and an Ed.D. from Harvard University. Reach her by e-mail at lwilkin@rci.rutgers.edu.

Elaine Silliman is a professor of communication sciences and disorders and of cognitive and neural sciences at the University of South Florida (Tampa, Florida, USA) and a member of the Ph.D. interdisciplinary program in the Department of Psychology. She received her Ph.D. from the City University of New York. She is a member of the Specialty Commission on Child Language and of the advisory board for the Guilford Press series on Challenges in Language and Literacy. She is coeditor (with K.G. Butler) of Speaking, Reading and Writing in Children with Language Learning Disabilities, forthcoming from Lawrence Erlbaum. She has published her research on language and literacy learning and instructional discourse in such journals as Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools (of which she is a past editor), Topics in Language Disorders, and Linguistics in Education. She has also published numerous book chapters on language, literacy, and scaffolding. Reach her by e-mail at silliman@chuma1.cas.usf.edu.

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Citation: Wilkinson, L.C., & Silliman, E.R. (2001, February). Classroom language and literacy learning. Reading Online, 4(7). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/handbook/wilkinson/index.html




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Posted February 2001
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