When most children learn to read, teachers impress the importance of “i” before “e” except after “c” and other language maxims. And, of course, there are weekly spelling tests and phonic activities, which ensure that students have memorized the spelling and sounds of written words. But is this all there is to literacy? According to Associate Professor Stephen Kucer, many teachers are merely skimming the surface when teaching students to read and write, leaving unexplored many vital aspects that would make the journey of literacy one with fewer holes and greater understanding. Kucer’s new book, Dimensions of Literacy: A Conceptual Base for Teaching Reading and Writing (Erlbaum, 2001), examines literacy from a multidimensional and interdisciplinary perspective with the hope of creating a broader foundation for literacy curriculum and instruction.
“Literacy is a really hot field right now, being explored by psychologists, linguists, socioculturalists and others,” said Kucer, who teaches language and literacy education in the Graduate School of Education’s Division of Curriculum and Teaching. “My book argues that if people ignore one of the four dimensions of literacy, they may fail to fully understand the whole picture and be forced to negotiate their way in the world with deficits in their literacy abilities.” Literacy’s four dimensions, according to Kucer, are: cognitive, or the thought processes and strategies the individual uses to make meaning; linguistic, or the individual’s understanding of the internal nature and characteristics of the written language system; sociocultural, or the individual’s various social identities that impact reading and writing, and developmental, or the strategies and mediations the individual uses to become a more effective and efficient reader and writer.
“You can’t teach reading and writing without fully understanding what reading and writing entail,” said Kucer. “Unfortunately, any of our current literacy tests and instructional practices are extremely reductionistic, oftentimes limiting reading and writing to sounding out and spelling words.” Kucer classifies his book not as a methods approach, telling teachers step-by-step what to do, but rather as a synthesis of literacy theory and research which explores the nature of what it means to be literate within contemporary society. One of his central messages is that every reading and writing event has the potential to promote development in people’s literacy abilities and that people continue to develop until the day they die. For example, reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would at first be difficult because of Mark Twain’s use of dialect.
However, by reading the book, one becomes more familiar with the dialect so that when the time comes to read Twain in the future, it will be easier to navigate and understand. Kucer also believes that reading reflects sociocultural identities. In other words, when people read a text, they not only bring their own personal experiences, but also the experiences of the various social groups in which they hold membership. “Our gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class, for example, all impact how we understand or interpret any article we might read in the New York Times,” say Kucer. “We never read alone; our social identities are always sitting on our shoulders.” “I hope to see a more nuanced discussion of literacy and see that discussion incorporated into testing, instruction, and other school materials,” said Kucer. “When this happens, we are more apt to avoid ‘quick fix’ solutions to the literacy difficulties many of our children are experiencing.”