Monday, September 03, 2018

Reading :: The Psychology of Literacy

The Psychology of Literacy
By Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole

This book was published in 1981, shortly after Cole helped Luria publish Cognitive Development (1976) and after Cole, Scribner and colleagues coedited the Vygotsky collection Mind in Society (1978). It describes part of five years' worth of fieldwork in Liberia conducted by the authors (1973-1978), specifically work with the Vai, a minority population with the distinction of having developed and sustained their own written language. This phenomenon intrigued the authors, who had Luria's Uzbek expedition and Vygotsky's understanding of thought and language in mind as they developed a study of Vai literacy.

The authors clearly ground the study in Vygotsky, who provided grounding in psychology for "testing speculations about written language and thought"—grounding that was otherwise lacking (p.8). Based largely on Vygotsky's discussion of signs and tools and of lower and higher mental functions (pp.8-9), and drawing on Luria's Uzbek expedition for methodology (p.10), the authors hoped to conduct studies that could separate schooling from literacy (p.15).

The authors note, "we failed to find a discrete dimension of Vai life that could be labeled 'literacy'" (p.107): beyond family status in Vai society and sex, no other factors seemed to be common to literacy. They compared Vai literates, English literates (English was taught in schools), and Arabic literates (who were taught in religious schooling) (p.107), recognizing that these groups sometimes overlapped.

Like Luria, they tested the three groups of literates in terms of taxonomic classification: "in our population of informants, the only factor consistently associated with taxonomic choices was urban living" (p.122). In terms of logic, non-schooled literacy did not produce general cognitive effects—that is, there was no general "literacy" phenomenon, and therefore non-school literacies did not function as surrogates for schooling (p.132).

In terms of literacy and metalinguistic knowledge, they found that the adult Vai they studied did not perform like US/European children, with the exception of grammar: studies "had produced consistent results indicating that Vai script literates are better conversationalists about formal features of sentences than their nonliterate neighbors," probably because Vai literates often conversed about what makes good or correct Vai (p.159). In fact, the Vai practice of criticism required well-developed expository skills (p.219).

Literacy, the authors argue based on these studies, produces localized rather than generalized changes in cognitive skills. Yet "we have identified skills that are associated with literacy learning and that are not byproducts of general learning experiences in the classroom" (p.234). They explain these skills with the concept of practice, which "consists of three components: technology, knowledge, and skills" (p.236). Practice is

  • recurrent
  • goal-directed
  • using a particular technology
  • using particular systems of knowledge (p.236)
And "practice always refers to socially developed and patterned ways of using technology and knowledge to accomplish tasks" (p.236).

"This notion of practice guides the way we seek to understand literacy," they add: "We approach literacy as a set of socially organized practices which make use of a symbol system and a technology for producing and disseminating it" (p.236). They conclude, "our evidence justifies the position that literacy, as well as schooling, has identifiable cognitive consequences" (p.251).

This book is slow going in places—the authors really show their work in terms of methodology and data analysis—and sometimes the conclusions seem like they are small in proportion to the work put into the study. But in part that's because so much work has been done in Vygotskian studies of literacy since then. Overall, this book is a strong example of a painstakingly constructed methodology yielding specific results. If you're interested in literacy, cross-cultural studies, or Vygotskian theories of language, check it out.


Simon said...

I would just like to say that i really appreciate these book reviews/summaries. I've learned so much from them and always look forward to receiving them in my inbox. Thank you for taking the time to write these.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

I'm glad they're helpful!