Literacy and the challenges of reading in multiple languages have been at the core of my research interests for over a decade, and I have developed and taught graduate courses in Literacy & Biliteracy (including the pedagogy of reading and writing) and specifically in Reading in a Foreign Language. In 2019-20, I am also one of the facilitators of a faculty learning community that is rather aspirationally named Sustainable Second Language Writing Instruction.

The following text is an excerpt from an unpublished paper that I wrote in late 2010. This paper waded into the “reading wars” in order to compare and consider ways of integrating the social and cognitive approaches to literacy in additional languages. Read the full text here:

Integrating Cognitive and Socio-cultural Approaches to Second Language Reading

What is reading?  Any attempt to answer this deceptively simple question will inevitably open an array of more involved questions that lead into opposing camps in a long, ongoing debate about the nature of this skill.  On one hand, reading can be understood as the ability to derive meaning from written text, a technical ability that resides in an individual’s mind (Goswami, 2006; Grabe, 1991; Perfetti & Marron, 1998). 

On the other hand, reading can be understood as an important linguistic practice that allows an individual to interact with a discourse community of other literate individuals (Heath & Street, 2008; Street, 1995).  Literacy likewise may signify the cognitive ability to read and write, decoding and encoding text, or it can invoke a range of practices relating to textual artifacts that enable, create, and are constrained by features of the socio-cultural contexts in which they take place.  Street (1984, cited in Street & Lefstein, 2007) refers to these two views of reading and literacy as the “autonomous model” and the “ideological model,” and even a brief perusal of the literature on reading in a second language reveals that these models are held and studied by distinct groups of scholars and researchers with distinct priorities who have engaged deeply with the workings of their own constructs but rarely engage with each other’s views. Not surprisingly, this division leads to conflicting messages regarding the most important and effective ways to promote reading and literacy in second language learners and bilingual contexts. 

Cognition, Interaction, Social Context, and Literacy

            These perspectives on language learning as variable, affected and enabled by social context, proceeding through internalization of external activities and tools, and dependent on legitimacy and access should apply directly to literacy, but the connections may not be immediately obvious.  First, literacy may be seen as a tool that enables language learning and higher cognition, as a means to an end rather than an end itself.  Second, the approaches above insist on the importance of language use in response to interlocutors (Atkinson, 2002; Tarone, 2007).  Who are the learner’s interlocutors during the reading process?  If reading is viewed as an individual process that can be isolated from other activities, then the reader’s interlocutor is the unseen author, though this may or may not be apparent.  Taking a literacy practices perspective, however, there are often interlocutors involved in a given literacy event who play a role in mediating the reader’s interaction with the text.  In fact, a sociocognitivist perspective on reading explicitly entails learning not only to derive meaning from print but also to participate in context-appropriate activities around text:

If embodied action and social activity are crucially connected to the situated meanings oral or written language convey, then reading instruction must move well beyond relations internal to texts.  Reading instruction must be rooted in the connections of texts to engagement in and simulations of actions, activities, and interactions—to real and imagined material and social worlds. (Gee, 2001, p. 716)

For young learners, the process of acquiring literacy may begin with play, as they learn to associate symbols with referents (i.e. by pretending that one object, such as a cardboard tube, signifies another, such as a sword), and through activities that help them practice focused attention (Bodrova & Leong, 2006).  Children can also learn the communicative and instrumental purposes of reading and writing before they learn the specific techniques.  One approach described by Bodrova and Leong (2006) involves encouraging young children to compose a plan for their play at interesting activity centers by using whatever symbolic resources they can utilize at their current level of development, from using the color of the station on their paper to drawing to words or sentences (that may or may not be recognizable to adults), to establish what they want to do and to communicate this plan to others.  At a much different level of social, cognitive, and literacy development, Kern and Schultz (2005) suggest that interactions with authentic literary texts in the target foreign language can reveal “how learners attempt to deal (sometimes successfully, sometimes less so) with specific communicative situations and with the linguistic, cognitive, social, and material resources available to them” and encourage them to stretch these capacities, not just to demonstrate “who has or has not met a set of conventional standards” (p. 389).

A sociocognitive approach to reading, then, must include attention to the contexts of learning to read as well as the contexts of reading practices in order to fully understand how the apparently internal process of reading takes place.  This emphasis on context seems synonymous with the social literacy approach that emphasizes the learning of literacy practices in different communities and analyzes the links between these activities and the social patterns, histories, and power relations that impact their development and use. 

This model is intended to evoke two different scientific metaphors visually.  On one hand, it should be seen not as a static unit with specific orders of interaction but as one much like the images of atoms in physics and chemistry textbooks: illustrators can depict the locations of electrons standing still in a flat plane, but in fact electrons move around the nucleus constantly in various directions, and this action gives the atom its volume and structure.  The same is true, theoretically, for the components of this model.  On the other hand, this model should resemble an ecological system, in which many different factors play important and interconnected roles in the success of the system as a whole.  Researchers can focus primarily on one element of the system at a time, but this element still influences and is influenced by the others. The model is now visible as a whole, but as a monoliterate model.  In order to make it biliterate, we need to envision another layer or dimension representing an additional language with connections drawn between each element of the model in each language.