Sociocultural Theory, Semiotics, and Technology: Implications for the Nature of Literacy

By Baker, Elizabeth A. | Reading Improvement, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Sociocultural Theory, Semiotics, and Technology: Implications for the Nature of Literacy


Baker, Elizabeth A., Reading Improvement


From a sociocultural perspective,, the nature of literacy shifts with societal changes. Our society is increasingly using visual and auditory modalities to communicate through such technologies as television and computers. In this paper, I coordinate sociocultural perspectives of literacy with semiotic theories of literacy. Using ethnographic methods, I examined the semiotic nature of literacy activities in a fourth-grade classroom in which the students had computers on their desks and five multimedia workstations in their classroom with internet access. The results indicate that the children's literacy activities had many similarities with the visual and auditory literacies prevalent in our society. The implications of these findings are significant because they do not simply call for new emphases in literacy education, or a new curriculum, but go to the level of redefining literacy education.

The nature of literacy is characterized by the theoretical lens that is used to examine it (Ruddell, Ruddell, & Singer, 1994). From a sociocultural perspective, literacy can be thought of as "the ability to think and reason like a literate person within a particular society" (Langer, 1986). For example, 151) years ago, literacy was defined as the ability to sign your name (Flood & Lapp, 1995); 100 years ago, literacy included the ability to retell literal information from a text (Resnick & Resnick, 1977); and in the late 1960's, literacy was expanded to include not only reading and writing, but also listening and speaking (Flood & Lapp, 1995). Today, our culture is becoming more technological as we spend more time watching television (e.g., Neuman, 1991) and using computers (Coley, Cradler, a, Engel, 1997). Both television and computers offer visual and auditory modalities for "thinking and reasoning."

If literacy is the ability to think and reason within a particular society, and our society is increasingly using visual and auditory modalities (see also Berghoff, 1993; Eisner, 1990; Gardner, 1993), then literacy is becoming semiotic (Buchler, 1955; Clarke, 1990; Deely, 1990; Pharies, 1985). Rowe (1994, 1998) uses theories of semiotics to mediate the dichotomous tension between theories which argue that literacy learning is constructed by each individual versus theories which argue that literacy learning is socially constructed (Goodman & Goodman, 1990). Rowe argues that the meaning of signs simultaneously involves individual invention and social convention. Rowe uses theories of semiotics to examine 3-5 year old children's literacy development. These young children commonly use drawings and scribbles which may sometimes incorporate bits and pieces of alphabetic text. Do theories of semiotics cease to inform literacy learning when children learn to use alphabetic text?

The purpose of this paper is to coordinate sociocultural perspectives of literacy with semiotic theories of literacy. This coordination occurs through reporting results from an ethnographic study which investigated the semiotic nature of literacy in a technology based fourth-grade classroom.

Method

Setting and Participants

I gathered data in a fourth-grade elementary classroom located in the southeastern United States in a suburban public school which had the following equipment: 35 computers, 10 printers, 2 televisions, 2 CD-ROM drives, 1 cartridge drive (predominately used for capturing video), 1 VCR, 1 videocamera, 1 laser disc player, 1 modem, 1 telephone, and 1 scanner. Each student's desk had a personal computer. There were five multimedia work stations available in the classroom. Extra computers were used for tasks such as printing and editing a newspaper, and creating animations. In addition, the students could access materials found on CD-ROMs, laser discs, the World Wide Web, videotapes, as well as more conventional materials such as filmstrips (which often included narrated cassette tapes) as well as textbooks, trade books, and magazines. …

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