Kalantzis and Cope on Differentiated Literacies Instruction

Following are five principles and practices of literacies instruction that addresses learner diversity.

Differentiated Literacies Instruction 1: The Idea of Design

The Multiliteracies approach provides a number of concepts and pedagogical strategies to support learner differences. The first is the ‘design’ idea that we introduced in Chapter 7. Didactic literacy teaching tended to assume that language was just one set of rules to be learnt and modes of good expression to be acquired from well written or literary texts. It was a one-size-fits-all curriculum, assuming or intending to create cultural uniformity. The teacher talked to the middle of the class, the textbook assumed every learner would be on the same page at the same time and the test was ‘standardised’ to a single measure of learner outcomes. This is a reproduction model of literacy. Into the reader go author meanings; out of their learning comes correct comprehension of the meaning of the text. Into the writer go rules and models of good writing; and out come well written texts.

The ‘design’ proposition is quite different. Every student brings to the class a repertoire of ‘available designs’ of meaning across a number of modes—the things they have read, heard and seen as a part of their lifeworld and previous educational experiences. From learner to learner, no two experiences of ‘available designs’ can ever be quite the same. These may be supplemented by new designs offered by the teacher—different kinds of written, oral, visual, gestural and other texts. The student then undertakes the process of ‘designing’. They interpret the new texts the teacher has given them, and no two interpretations will ever be quite the same. They create a new text—in writing, video, recorded voice and the like. And once more, no two texts will be the same, representing the student’s reworking of design elements from their lifeworld and the particular educational experiences. As students share their designs, either as collaborators on joint texts or as readers of other students’ texts, student work re-enters the world of meaning and learning as ‘the designed’—artefacts which can enter the cycle of meaning as new ‘available designs’. This is a model of literacies learning which recognises diversity, voice and constant change rather than uniformity, regimentation and enforced stability.

Kris Gutiérrez describes the space we here call ‘designing’ as a ‘third space’, located between the primary space of lifeworld experience and informal learning, on the one hand, and on the other, a secondary space of formal school learning. Here, she adapts Vygotsky’s notion of ‘zone of proximal development’, which we introduced in Chapter 12. Vygotsky considers this space more narrowly as a site of cognitive development in which children move with teacher and other adult support from complex to conceptual thinking. Gutiérrez expands the zone of proximal development as an intermediate cultural space in which students make connections between the meanings they make in out-of-school spaces with the meanings of school literacy and learning.[1]

Differentiated Literacies Instruction 2: Multimodality

Some students may ‘get’ a meaning in written words, some in a diagram, others in a gestural and tactile demonstration, others in an oral explanation. Some may have a talent or passion for drawing, others for video, others for podcasting, others for crafting words on a blog, still others for concept mapping. Students need to be able to express themselves in the ways they feel most comfortable. However, they also need to be encouraged to move beyond their comfort zones, into modes of communication with which they are less familiar, learning their techniques and their technologies. However, the most powerful learning starts with expression of meaning in the modes that come most easily.

James Green is a social studies teacher in a school serving immigrant and working class families in California. He is teaching a Grade 7 World History class, required of all students in California, covering a period from the Roman Empire to the Industrial Revolution and beyond. This is an enormous stretch of time and requires students to do a lot of reading. To make the subject matter more compelling, he involves the students in role-plays, discussions and art projects. He shows videos, and has the students search the web and look up a variety of books. He makes connections between past and present. The class discusses whether there are parallels between the Crusades and present-day terrorism. When investigating the agricultural revolution, he has the students explore where the food in the local supermarket comes from and how it got there. Wanting the students to understand the nature and processes of history, he has the class work on an oral history project. Here, students record parents and family members, learning how to develop historical questions and frame historical interpretation. These oral histories are then presented in the form of digital storytelling, and when completed, shared with parents.[2]

Differentiated Literacies Instruction 3: Knowledge Processes

Using the pedagogical terminology introduced in this book, some ‘knowledge processes’ are particularly well suited to bringing diversity into the literacies classroom. In ‘experiencing the known’ students are prompted to bring into the classroom texts which are familiar to them or of interest to them, and in so doing to introduce perspectives, experiences and knowledge from their social worlds. In ‘analysing critically’, students reflect on their own and others’ perspectives and interests as reflected in the texts. And in ‘applying creatively’, students take new ideas and capacities to communicate and apply them in creating and communicating real-world texts.

These kinds of pedagogical moves create avenues in the curriculum for learners to express who they are in all its subtlety and richness. This is a way to value what they already know. Such a learning environment opens a window onto student identities and helps teachers and fellow students figure out what makes them ‘tick’. By honouring their lifeworlds as places of valid and relevant knowledge, these knowledge processes create a sense of belonging that is central to inclusive education. African American educational theorist and researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings calls this culturally relevant teaching.[3] In the case of the ‘knowledge process’ notion specifically, Keiju Suominen describes the effect of this kind of pedagogical open-ness as a kind of personalisation: ‘although the learning [is] designed by the teacher for the entire class, the nature of the activities work[s] to personalise the learning for each student.[4]

Researcher Jim Cummins describes the work of three students in a Grade 7/8 literacy classroom in Canada. Kanta and Sulmana had arrived in Toronto in Grade 4 and were reasonably fluent in English, but Madiha had arrived more recently and was still in the early stages of English language acquisition. In an integrated social studies and language unit, they created a bilingual text, ‘The New Country’. They researched and wrote the story over a period of several weeks, writing it in English, but discussing it in Urdu. Later they translated the English text into written Urdu. ‘In a “typical” classroom’, Cummins concludes, ‘Madiha’s ability to participate in a Grade 7 social studies unit would have been severely limited by her minimal knowledge of English. … However, following simple changes to the social structure of the classroom, Madiha was enabled to express her intelligence, feelings and identity … . She contributed her ideas and experiences to the story, participated in discussions about how to translate vocabulary, … and shared in the affirmation that all three students experienced with the publication of their story in print and on the … web.’ Cummins calls this ‘transformative Multiliteracies pedagogy’, a process which activates students’ prior knowledge and which ‘constructs an image of the student as intelligent, imaginative and linguistically talented’.[5]

Differentiated Literacies Instruction 4: Alternative Navigation Paths

A Multiliteracies pedagogy does not require that every learner is on the same page at the same time. For instance, in the era of blended e-learning delivery, individual students or groups of students might be working over different units of work or ‘learning elements’ at any one time.[6] Or learners will be able to negotiate to change the sequence of knowledge processes so they start with an activity type with which they are most comfortable. Some students, for instance, might prefer big picture ‘conceptualising’ before they immerse themselves in ‘experiencing’, for instance; others the reverse. Or they will be able to negotiate preferred modes of expression of meaning. Some learners may prefer to video an oral story before they attempt to create the story as a written text.

A key area for the creation of alternative navigation paths pivots on distinctions of ‘disability’. Some students may not be doing well at school for reasons related to corporeal differences: cognitive issues, visual or audio impairment, autism, ADHD, dyslexia and the like.[7] Early identification, intervention and progress monitoring will help them achieve to the best of their abilities. Many students are also falling behind for a variety of reasons related to the material and symbolic conditions of their lives, not disability.

To address this range of differences, tiered intervention strategies are developed, one of which is called ‘Response to Intervention’.[8] At a first tier, children whose performance is below expected at that age level are catered for in the mainstream curriculum as the teacher differentiates instruction to meet their needs and to optimise their progress. The teacher constantly evaluates how these students are performing and provides them with learning tasks that are within their zone of proximal development. At a second tier of intervention, supplementary teaching is provided one-to-one or in small groups by a specialist literacy coach, speech therapist or teacher’s aide. Typically, such interventions might occur several times per week for periods of half an hour or an hour. A third tier of intervention is more intensive, requiring one or two sessions per day for a period of two to three months, according to an individualised plan which sets goals, describes strategies and plans assessment. Trained special education or English as a Second Language teachers are required for this level of intervention. [See: Response to Intervention.]

‘Reading Recovery’ is an example of an intervention strategy for early literacy learners. Developed by New Zealander Marie Clay, Reading Recovery aims to assist students struggling with learning to read in daily one-on-one lessons for approximately twenty weeks. In each session, a child re-reads yesterday’s book, examines some words and their phonemic makeup for a few minutes, composes and writes a story, reassembles a story as a puzzle from its parts, and is introduced to a new reading book, which they start to read. The teacher makes on-the-fly responses to areas of difficulty and maintains daily records, identifying specific areas in which the child is struggling with text.[9] [See: Marie Clay on Reading Recovery.[10]

Differentiated Literacies Instruction 5: Creating a Learning Environment of Productive Diversity

When learner lifeworlds are so varied, diversity of knowledge, experience and perspective becomes a learning resource. Students benefit from the varied texts their peers bring to the classroom from amongst the ‘available designs’ of their lives. Learning activities highlight and value the varied knowledge and experiences that learners are able to contribute. Learners benefit from the varied texts, perspectives, opinions and worldviews that not only introduce them to a wider range of curriculum content, but also demonstrate the important role of interpretation in all meaning-making.

Collaborative Reasoning is a strategy developed by Richard Anderson and his colleagues at the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois. In small groups, and with minimal intervention on the part of teachers, children discuss story or information books that they are reading. They think out loud as they engage in argumentation and reasoning about the text—the moral dilemma that a character faces in a story book, or an environmental problem that a natural science information book poses, for instance.[11] As a reading pedagogy, Collaborative Reasoning involves oral response to written text (what in the Multiliteracies theory we would call synaesthesia), topic and turn taking in the context of presentation of one’s own opinion, and reflection on the multiple possibilities for meaning in a text, which are neglected in ABCD tests of ‘comprehension’. Students also learn to appreciate the different interpretations and insights that different people bring to a text. In fact, the text is most powerfully interpreted through the synthesis of multiple perspectives.

Developed by Annemarie Palinscar and Ann Brown, initially also while they were at the University of Illinois, Reciprocal Teaching is a strategy for interpreting the meaning of a text. It prompts students to clarify meanings (including decoding words and exploring vocabulary), predict (or bring one’s background knowledge to bear on the meaning of a text), question (or demonstrate self-awareness about how the reader is making sense of the text) and summarise (discriminating aspects of the text that are of greater or lesser significance to its meaning). The pedagogy is dialogical, at first between teacher and students as the method is learned, then between learners in small group Reciprocal Teaching sessions.[12] Once again, the principles of productive diversity come into play—as group members combine their knowledge for the purposes of clarification, bringing their varied life experiences together in the interpretative task of predicting meaning, and assigning significance to different aspects of the text.

A ‘workshop’ approach to writing begins with generating ideas about the topic students will write on, with a focus in language learning on topics that are meaningful to learners’ own lives. Teachers then workshop the developing text with students, exploring their intended meanings and assisting them to express these meanings. Finally the finished text—in Multiliteracies’ terms, the ‘redesigned’—is shared with the whole class and published.[13] Here, too, the diversity of student voice is supported and highlighted.

Learning-knowing is most powerful when the invariably diverse perspectives of students are deliberately introduced into the classroom and used as a resource for learning. This is the basis for learning and knowledge ecologies very different from traditional ‘transmission’ models of pedagogy, which are generic and uniform. The broader educational outcome of a more diverse and inclusive approach to literacies learning is the development of kinds of person who have the capacity to negotiate deep diversity and navigate change. They can engage in sometimes difficult dialogues; they can compromise and create shared understandings; and they can comfortably extend their cultural and knowledge repertoires into new areas. They are tolerant, responsible and resilient in their differences. The key questions for educators, then, is how to support the learning of these new ‘types of people’ as they learn to express themselves and learn to communicate with others.

See also: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 2009. “Learner Differences: Determining the Terms of Pedagogical Engagement.” Pp. 13-30 in Beyond Pedagogies of Exclusion in Diverse Childhood Contexts, edited by S. Mitakidou, E. Tressou, B. B. Swadener, and C. A. Grant. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. || Amazon || Worldcat

[1] Gutiérrez, Kris D. 2008. “Developing a Sociocritical Literacy in the Third Space.” Reading Research Quarterly 43:148-164. Gutiérrez, Kris D., Joanne Larson, Patricia Enciso, and Caitlin L Ryan. 2007. “Discussing Expanded Spaces for Learning.” Research in the Teaching of English.

[2] Cummins, Jim, Kristin Brown, and Dennis Sayers. 2007. Literacy, Technology and Diversity: Teaching for Success in Changing Times. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. pp.149-165.

[3] Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 2001. Crossing Over to Caanan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass. —. 2009. The Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.

[4] Suominen, Keiju. 2009. “Students Learning by Design: A Study on the Impact of Learning by Design on Student Learning.” School of Education, RMIT, Melbourne. p.132.

[5] Cummins, Jim. 2009. “Transformative Multiliteracies Pedagogy: School-Based Strategies for Closing the Achievement Gap.” Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners 11:38-56. pp.50-51. —. 2006. “Multiliteracies and Equity: How Do Canadian Schools Measure up?” Education Canada 46:4-7. Cummins, Jim and Margaret Early. 2011. Identity Texts: The Collaborative Creation of Power in Multilingual Schools. Stoke-on-Trent UK: Trentham.

[6] http://newlearningonline.com/learning-by-design/the-learning-element/

[7] See Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 2008. New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 5.

[8] Buffum, Austin, Mike Mattos, and Chris Weber. 2009. Pyramid Response to Intervention. Bloomington IN: Solution Tree Press.

[9] Clay, Marie M. 2005a. Literacy Lessons: Designed for Individuals. Auckland: Heinemann. —. 2005b. An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Intervention. Auckland: Heinemann.

[10] —. 1998. By Different Paths to Common Outcomes. York ME: Stenhouse. pp. 226-229. —. 2000. Running Records for Classroom Teachers. Auckland: Heinemann.

[11] Clark, Ann-Marie, Richard Anderson, Li-jen Kuo, Il-Hee Kim, Anthi Archodidou, and Kim Nguyen-Jahiel. 2003. “Collaborative Reasoning: Expanding Ways for Children to Talk and Think in School.” Educational Psychology Review 15:181-198.

[12] Palinscar, Annemarie Sullivan and Ann L. Brown. 1984. “Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Comprehension-Monitoring Activities.” Cognition and Instruction 1:117-175.

[13] Fletcher, Ralph and JoAnn Portalupi. 2001. Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann.


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