The Reading Matrix
Vol. 5, No. 2, September 2005
Dimensions of Literacy: A Conceptual Base for
Teaching Reading and Writing in School Settings (2nd ed.)
Kucer, B. Stephen (2005)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
ISBN: 0-8058-4941-6 (paperback), xi + 368pp
Cost: USD $39.95
Reviewed by Lawrence Jun Zhang
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University
1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616, Republic of Singapore
The ever-evolving nature of literacy, of literacy studies and of approaches to literacy instruction has always been a fascinating topic for researchers, educators and classroom teachers, but to many classroom teachers the diversity of perspectives on literacy may not always be familiar. From the early days when literacy tended to be viewed as either predominantly cognitive or linguistic in orientation until the present-day when literacy is viewed from multiple perspectives, concepts such as connectivity, multimodality and interdisplinarity have been talk of the day among literacy educators (see e.g., Luke, 2003; New London Group, 2000). All this suggests that literacy is not confined to the traditional mode of discourse representation in the form of printed text on paper.
However, given that the available literature on literacy and literacy studies, and particularly reading, most often treats literacy from different angles, a comprehensive and multidimensional view of literacy is usually difficult to present in one single book. For example, if a book strongly holds the view that literacy is a cognitive act or a linguistic ability of language processing, most often, neglect of social, cultural and critical aspects that are equally important for understanding the nature and process of literacy learning and instruction is inevitable. In other words, there was generally a lack of a systematic synthesis in one volume of the growing body of literature on literacy and literacy studies in a language accessible to classroom teachers before the publication of Kucer’s first edition of Dimensions of Literacy: A Conceptual Base for Teaching Reading and Writing in School Settings (2001). Most books that were available were written mainly for the research community. Kucer’s publication was timely, as it has served well the goal of “conceptualizing literacy in a more harmonic and holistic manner” (Kucer, 2001/2005, p. ix). This goal has been nicely maintained in the second edition (2005). By virtue of the author’s well-planned execution, the new edition has made a substantial attempt at bringing together various aspects of literacy studies and literacy education in one volume that is more systematic, comprehensive, inclusive, analytical, thought-provoking and instructive than the first edition.
Dimensions of Literacy is comprised of 6 parts and 12 chapters. Part I, “Introduction,” starts the topic on dimensions of literacy with Chapter 1, “A Multidimensional View of Reading and Writing,” where, as the title indicates, Kucer presents a multidimensional view of reading and writing. It is in this introduction that Kucer summarizes succinctly the development of the major schools of thought that have exerted influences on literacy and literacy studies in different times—ranging from linguistics, cultural studies to psychology, each having different focuses. As Kucer explains, linguists view as important the linguistic aspects or textual dimensions of reading and writing, cognitive psychologists are more interested in the readers and writers’ mental processes in generating meaning. Socioculturalists highlight reading and writing as acts of literacy which are expressions of readers’ and writers’ group identity that is associated with, or signals, power relations. So, the nature of knowledge, its production and its use are linked to how literacy, ideology, and power are being uncovered, as seen in the work, for instance, of Cazden (2001), Gee (1990, 2000), Luke (1995, 2004), the New London Group (2000), and Street (2003), among others. Kucer reminds his readers that because of this sociocultural focus the impact of these perspectives is reflected in literacy practices where literacy educators need to be acutely aware of the cultural consequences of literacy. He adds that literacy educators also need to develop a higher degree of sensitivity to the range of socially-based experiences that students from different sociocultural backgrounds bring to the classroom (see also Wallace, 2003). Kucer also stresses the need for having a more diverse representation of and more equitable access to knowledges in the curriculum and that these should be given some serious thought in the literacy education agendas. Culturally responsive teaching should accompany acknowledgement of the educational impacts thus generated (see the work of Au, 1980; Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1995, for more explanations about this notion). Because of these factors Kucer maintains that literacy educators need to have a full understanding of the developmental nature of literacy instruction that is based on appropriate curricula and instructional mediation through scaffolding, which he zeros in on again and thoroughly discusses in Chapter 12. This is necessary, as, according to Kucer, there is a tendency that each discipline tries to “create literacy in its own image” (p. 4). So, the diagram on page 5 is particularly useful illustration of what a multidimensional view of reading and writing is.
In Chapter 2, “Nature of Language” of Part II, “The Linguistic Dimension of Literacy,” Kucer starts with clear explanations about what makes language language, the systems of language, context, situation and the systems of language. He goes on to elaborate all these aspects, stating that language is iconical, indexical, symbolical, rule-governed, creative and generative. The outcome of any literacy event is typically the construction of a “text”. The systems of language are complicated ones that comprise a pragmatic system where the functions, uses, and intentions of the language user are represented; they also comprise the semantic system, where meaning relationships among morphemes within the sentences are embodied. The next system he describes is the syntactic system of language, one in which the knowledge of grammatical or structural arrangement within the sentence is defined. The morphemic system of language presents the knowledge of “wordness”, with morphemes being the smallest meaningful units. Rules for spelling and letter-sound relations within the language are expressed in the orthographic and graphophonemic systems. Various text types, genres, and text structures make up another system of language which works as a larger context that can function as internal and external motivations for the construction of meaning.
Chapter 3, “Oral and Written Language,” begins with a presentation of typical interactional and situational features of oral and written language. Kucer then summarizes oral and written language distinctions along these dimensions: pragmatic, text type, genre, text structure, semantic, syntactic, morphemic, phonological, orthographic, graphophonemic and graphemic (p. 51). All major points are highlighted in Table 3.4. Language variation, causes of language variation, and contentious issues regarding the impact of oral dialect on reading and writing are explained in Chapter 4. Although variation is an inherent part of language and its use due to historical, geographical, educational, economic and political factors, Kucer explains that variation is more due to the very nature of language than anything else. However, the rules governing the use of the systems of language are human constructions, therefore, they are not static. The change in language use is always in relation to change in communities in which language is used. Kucer also emphasizes that language reflects the experiences of individuals and the social groups to which they hold membership (Kucer, 2005, p. 85) and that these human experiences surely find expression in language. What is interesting and thought-provoking is his argument that speakers of a non-prestigious variety of English (dialect speakers) as a group may experience difficulties with literacy but the contributing factor is not the variety itself. Instead, the real problem in literacy acquisition for these users of literacy is racism, poverty and societal resistance to accepting the non-prestigious or non-standard variety.
Part III, “The Cognitive Dimension of Literacy,” includes 3 chapters. Chapter 5, “The Constructive Nature of Perception,” starts with some examples of how perception occurs in us as readers. His objective is well achieved when he wants to show the role of perception in reading, as he does so by engaging his readers with lively experiments. He then moves on to present the language, memory, and perception systems. He compares his own transactional view with the traditional view of interaction among the systems of language, memory and perception. He states that the traditional view is a linear uni-directional process of getting the visual information through the eye and then processing occurs in Short-term Memory (STM) and when meaning/deep structure is worked out, language is stored in Long-term Memory (LTM) as schema or script. In his transactional view, he says, meaning-making is made possible by both visual information and non-visual information and readers in fact actively select available information in order to understand a text.
Chapter 6, “The Reading Processes,” and Chapter 7, “Understanding Written Discourse,” deal with reading and comprehension processes in detail. Factors that influence the reader-text-writer transaction are presented. These include systems of language, strategies readers use, background knowledge readers have, purposes of reading and readers themselves. More significant is that Kucer has developed a theory and model of the reading process (Figure 6.1, p. 124). In his model, readers’ comprehension strategies are included under the category of “monitoring”. Readers search for knowledge relevant to the communication situation in the reading process their schema or background knowledge needs to be activated from the LTM. Kucer illustrates the contextual dependency of reading and the intentionality of reading in a transactional relationship through a diagram (p. 130). He also briefly discusses issues related to bilingual readers. Table 6.3 provides readers with some strategies found to be used by successful readers. Figure 7.3 is equally useful in helping readers understand the nature of comprehension as transaction. Although within the cognitive framework the reading and the writing processes share something in common, as summarized in Figures 8.2 and 8.3 (p. 191), the writing process is unique in itself, as Kucer explains in Chapter 8, “The Writing Process.” He posits that, because writing is a productive skill, it is more difficult to master in school settings than reading which is traditionally known as a receptive skill.
Part IV, “The Sociocultural Dimension of Literacy,” has two chapters. Chapter 9, “Understanding Literacy as Social Practices,” makes a good shift away from the cognitive and linguistic dimensions of literacy which focus mainly on the text and the mind. It presents different sociocultural perspectives on literacy. Issues such as multiple literacies, identities and social practices, and literacy in and out of schools are explained. It is also in this chapter that Kucer summarizes literacy and its relationships to cognitive and socioeconomic development. Chapter 10, “The Authority of Written Discourse,” more closely examines the relationships among power, authority and written discourse. Instead of viewing literacy as understanding decontexualized texts, here literacy is again defined as a series of literacy events—it is a set of autonomous and universal features imbued with the “workings of power and desire in social life” (Gee, 1990, p. 27). The nature of knowledge and the nature of texts and text interpretation are also fully expounded. Recent positions on literacy and new literacy are also briefly presented (Gee, 2000; Luke, 1998; New London Group, 2001; Street, 2003; Street & Street, 1991).
The only chapter, Chapter 11, “Constructing the Written Language System” of Part V, “The Developmental Dimension of Literacy,” addresses issues related to language learning. These include why we learn language, developmental patterns and principles in language learning, and interrelationships between reading and writing. Culture and literacy development and the phonics questions are discussed next. Given the historical background, Kucer’s survey of the phonics questions gives his readers much clearer information about contentious issues among literacy educators, especially in relation to a time when in the USA educational institutions, teachers and all those involved in literacy education are under close scrutiny as the standards movement and high-stakes examinations determine what is taught, when it is taught and how it is taught to make sure that “no child is left behind”.
Similar to Part IV, Part V, “The Educational Dimension of Literacy,” also contains one chapter, Chapter 12, “The Dimensions of Literacy: Implications for Teaching Reading and Writing Instruction.” But unlike Part IV, this part concludes the book with more solid educational implications. Kucer first summarizes the five dimensions of literacy—linguistic (text focus), cognitive (mind focus), sociocultural (group focus), and educational (classroom focus), reiterating the characteristics of each. He then asks his readers to examine their own beliefs about literacy. He then provides a relatively thorough review of the “great debates”. The old great debate on decoding, skills, and whole language paradigms is first presented, and the new great debate that suggests critical literacy as a solution follows. All these ideas boil down to a series of good implications for teaching reading and writing. An integrated view of the curriculum is presented, where “subject field thinking processes” (Literature processes, Social Science processes, Science processes), “communication systems” (Arts, Music, Language, Math, Movement) and “theme topic: core generalizations and concepts” are presented together (p. 304). Within these parameters, Kucer also points out the politics of instruction and the challenges for literacy education on a number of fronts—from parents, teachers, politicians, religious leaders, and the like. He concludes that literacy educators need to help “others understand the multidimensional nature of reading and writing without reducing complex processes to simple slogans and sound bites” (p. 310).
Upon finishing reading the second edition, I strongly feel that Kucer deserves accolades for the several new features of this new edition I am to highlight next. Unlike the first edition, Kucer expands the original one chapter on oral-written language relationships (Kucer, 2001, pp. 40-56) into two full separate chapters in this new edition (Kucer, 2005, pp. 46-66). This has allowed him to address the nature of language and oral-written language relationships more thoroughly. He also discusses the reading process and reading comprehension in two separate but inter-related chapters (Chapters 6 & 7). Given that the “reading wars” has been a hot topic among reading specialists and reading educators in North America, especially in the USA, Kucer develops his discussion extensively and summarizes clearly the points of contention existing among the participants. Different from the first edition where literacy instructional issues and implications are presented in the last chapter, in this new edition Kucer addresses literacy instructional issues and implications more fully throughout all the 11 chapters, summing up all of them in Chapter 12. All the references are also updated to make sure that recent thinking on literacy is included in the text.
The tables and figures which appear in different chapters are strong features that are to benefit readers. Those tables and figures are intended to illustrate or summarize major theories or movements in literacy education, and in turn, they are extremely helpful to practitioners, teachers who are too busy to go into all the details of the book but are interested in exploring the field. Although the target audience of this book are mainly literacy educators, researchers, graduate and undergraduate students, and school teachers in first-language (L1) settings, I feel that most of the chapters are equally useful in L2 contexts. In particular, recent work in the field of applied linguistics has already bridged the differences a bit, which makes it even more feasible to look at language learning and teaching from a wider perspective that Kucer proposes in his book (see e.g., Canagarajah, 1999, 2002; Kramsch, 1993; Luke, 2004; Norton & Toohey, 2004; Penneycook, 2001; Wallace, 2003). I have already been using the first edition in my postgraduate diploma courses, and the striking features of the new edition have given me confidence to extend the use of this textbook to the Masters-level courses that I teach.
Au, K. (1980). Participation structures in a reading lesson with Hawaiian children: Analysis of a culturally appropriate instructional event. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 11(2), 91-115.
Canagarajah, S. (1999). Resisting linguistic imperialism in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Canagarajah, S. (2002). Globalization, methods and practice in periphery classrooms. In D. Block & D. Cameron (Eds.), Globalization and language teaching (pp. 134-150). London: Routledge.
Cazden, C. (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning (2nd ed.). Portmouth, NH: Heinmann.
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gee, J. P. (1990). Sociolinguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. New York: Palmer.
Gee, J. P. (2000). The New Literacy Studies: From “socially situated” to the work of the social. In D. Barton, M. Hamilton, & R. Ivanic (Eds.), Situated literacies: Reading and writing in context (pp. 180-196). London: Routledge.
Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kucer, S. B. (2001). Dimensions of literacy: A conceptual base for teaching reading and writing in school settings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(4), 465-491.
Luke, A. (1998). Getting over method: Literacy teaching as work in “new times.” Language Arts, 75(4), 305-313.
Luke, A. (2003). Literacy and the Other: A sociological approach to literacy research and policy in multilingual societies. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(1), 132-141.
Luke, A. (2004). Two takes on the critical. In B. Norton & K. Toohey (Eds.), Critical pedagogies and language learning (pp. 21-29). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Luke, C. (2003). Pedagogy, connectivity, multimodality, and interdisciplinarity. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(3), 397-403.
New London Group. (2000). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. In B. Cope & M. Kalantzis (Eds.), Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures (pp. 9-37). New York: Routledge.
Norton, B., & Toohey, K. (Eds.). (2004). Critical pedagogies and language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Street, B. (2003). What’s “new” in New Literacy Studies? Critical approaches to literacy in theory and practice. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 5(2), 1-14.
Street, B., & Street, J. (1991). The schooling of literacy. In D. Barton & R. Ivanic (Eds.), Writing in community (pp. 143-166). London: Sage.
Wallace, C. (2003). Critical reading in language education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lawrence Jun Zhang, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics and Teacher Education at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he teaches Language Studies, Psycholinguistics and Reading Methods. Besides working as the Coordinator of the Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE-English Language) Programme, he also supervises MA (Applied Linguistics) theses. His current research interest lies mainly in language teacher education, especially preservice reading teacher preparation. His work has appeared in journals such as Asia Pacific Journal of Language in Education, Asian Journal of English Language Teaching, International Journal of Educational Reform, Language Awareness and RELC Journal.