Using Social Proclivity to Enhance Literacy Learning for Young Adolescents

By Irvin, Judith L. | Childhood Education, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Using Social Proclivity to Enhance Literacy Learning for Young Adolescents


Irvin, Judith L., Childhood Education


Middle schools teem with language. Students eagerly relate stories about their activities. Mounds of notes are passed, read and answered over the course of a normal day. Young adolescents enthusiastically read, write, speak, listen and think because they wish to communicate.

Vygotsky (1962) maintained that the nature of language learning shifts in early adolescence to encompass more of a social context. That is, language proficiency parallels young adolescents' overall psychological and social development. As students become more psychologically astute and socially aware, their language accommodates these new interests and abilities. Ideally, their academic work should also reflect their new social interests.

This article examines the social aspects of literacy learning, and presents some thoughts on reading development and future demands on literacy instruction. When teachers understand and use students' natural proclivities, they will help their students naturally become more literate.

Social Aspects of Literacy

In the past, learning theorists have considered literacy's psychological and linguistic aspects, but only recently have they paid attention to the social aspects of reading and writing. Everyone would agree that a dialogue in a classroom doorway can be a social event. Reading a play, discussing a chapter in a social studies book and writing a story also can be social events. Passing notes during class creates an opportunity to interact socially.

Just as speakers and listeners interact in social situations, readers and writers can interact through text. "When readers understand a text, an exchange of meaning has taken place. Writers have succeeded in speaking to readers" (Nystrand & Himley, 1984, p. 198).

To understand a social studies chapter about another culture, students must possess information about how people behave politically, economically, spiritually and socially. After reading and understanding text, students can add this information to their store of social knowledge and apply it to new learning situations. To understand a piece of literature, students draw upon what they know about people and relationships. The reading experience, in turn, may later help a student deal with a broken heart.

"In responding as members of an interpretive community, readers share certain strategies and conventions valued by the group" (Beach, 1993, p. 106). It is true that as students gain experience socially, they learn acceptable responses while reading or listening. They learn the norms of the "interpretive community." As students become more proficient with abstract thinking, they are better able to perceive themselves as members of the community and to internalize socially acceptable responses. Of course, families and communities help to shape students' roles, perceptions and attitudes. Students may read and write more naturally, and with more sophistication, when they can read and write about things that are congruent with their home culture.

Educators can capitalize on young adolescents' intense interest in themselves and in social interactions, their emotional ups and downs, and their nascent capacity for analytical thought. Many teachers, unfortunately, view these manifestations as interruptions to instruction, while other teachers recognize them as ways to tap student strengths and interests.

Literacy learning is a complex process that is influenced by cognition and motivation. Equally important, however, is the social context within which students understand and respond to literacy events.

Reading Development

From an historical perspective, today's students meet or exceed student performance from any other era (Kibby, 1993). Chall (1983) maintained that

reading, like income, has both an absolute and a relative value. Just 40 years ago, an 8th grade reading level was typical of people 25 years or over, and that was considered about the stand of minimal literacy. …

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Using Social Proclivity to Enhance Literacy Learning for Young Adolescents
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