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Second language literacy and communicative activity.


This article presents the development of critical literacy in English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL) learners as contingent upon interaction in communities of practice, rather than based solely on the acquisition of linguistic forms in the classroom. In light of sociocultural theory, this paper argues that classroom teachers need to adopt a sociocognitive view of literacy and provides suggestions for its implementation through the development of response, revision, and reflection.


The present work provides ESL and EFL teachers of adolescents and adults with a view of communication that is multi-faceted whose usefulness and implications are revealed through goal-directed, language use. Arguing from within a socioculturally-inspired framework, past notions of literacy are discussed in an effort to present strategies for second language acquisition that are cognitively focused, and socially realized through response, revision, and reflection Moreover, the traditional objective of teaching towards and attaining a monolingual-based view of literacy is examined as the practice of emergent inquiry is introduced in order to promote critical literacy in ESL and EFL students. This piece proposes an approach to instruction, activity, and communication that permits adolescent and adult ESL /EFL students to become co-inquirers in the situated discourses of the language classroom and the community. This focus permits us to view English language literacy as being constructed through the interconnected arenas of our student's daily experiences presents teachers with insights into how to effectively 'teach literacy'.

Literacy and Cultural Historical Activity Theory

Cultural historical activity theory (CHAT), also known as sociocultural theory, offers ESL / EFL teachers with a view of literacy as dependant on the construction of social activity throughout which an individual's mind becomes engaged within communities of practice (Lave and Wegener, 1991; Wells, 1999; Wells and Claxton, 2002). Literacy, in other words, is not the product of individual action, but part of the process of human interaction where students use language to work together in goal-directed activity settings (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988). Within these settings, one objective of classroom talk is task completion and this assists learning a second language (Brooks and Donato, 1994). Literacy, in this light, is task based and cognitively oriented and not exclusively dependent on the acquisition of linguistic skills and forms. Instructors, though, do need to be aware of their students' linguistic knowledge and competence in order to be able to assist students through the process of scaffolding. Knowledge of the student's zone of actual development (ZAD) allows teachers to incorporate language learning objectives within task based activities so that skills are not only transferred from one language to another, but students are also provided opportunities to expand their ZAD into their zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978; Donato, 1994; Hall, 1995). In turn, this supports the formation of the students' internal frames of reference while they (re)structure their own knowledge and literacy base (Samuda, 2001).

Valuing literacy as emergent rather than a priori implies placing ESL / EFL instruction within the foundations of CHAT (Hopper, 1998). In other words, it is not beneficial for teachers to measure or assess literacy based solely on the established rules of grammar or composition that traditionally have been applied and transferred from first language classrooms to second language environments (Rosenblatt, 1938; Street, 1984). Above all, the development of critical literacy entails that reading and writing are perceived as emergent practices within the experiences and contexts of our daily lives.

Traditional Concepts of Communication and Literacy

At its core, literacy is communicative activity that can be directed towards others or the self. Traditional views of communication and literacy hinge on the decoding of linguistic messages between senders and receivers. Reddy (1979) labeled this understanding of literacy and communication as the conduit metaphor where feelings, thoughts, and understanding are transferred from one person to another through the conduits of individual communicative activity that rely on linguistic competence. The possibility of misunderstanding one another, according to the traditional view, exists if people do not share the same linguistic system that is intrinsically tied to meaning (Butler, 1962). Hence, the role of the individual within the conduits of communication is that of a decoder where reaction and interpretation is linguistically-oriented rather than affective in nature.

Approaching second language literacy as presented by Reddy's and Butler's ideas may allow for students to take part in the linguistic decoding of classroom talk and exercises. However, it should be made clear that the ability to decode and encode language may only lead our students to develop strategic literacy (Kramsch, 1985). That is, students may be able to reach certain communicative goals such as ordering in a restaurant or reading a flight schedule in order to travel. Strategic literacy, in this sense, is defined by a priori constructs that decode individual language. Flower (1990) also presents us with a traditional view of literacy known as receptive literacy. Receptive literacy is strictly information-based and allows students to begin to function within the guidelines and norms society. As long as students are able to decode language, they then can 'successfully' reach their individual goals. Receptive and strategic literacy can be readily assessed through linguistic exchanges based on readings or basic dialogues that may not require student's to have cultural knowledge of how interaction takes place in certain contexts (Bygate et al, 2001). ESL / EFL classrooms that do not allow for contextualized, task-based activity may be in danger of treating literacy as being devoid of notions of membership in discourse communities.

Sociocognitive Literacy

By providing an outline of the components of literacy that has been presented by past research in the field of second language education we will be able to make note of the central elements that are responsible for the successful approach to literacy that is guided by emergent discourse and inquiry (Breen and Candlin, 1980; Bernhardt, 1991). Also, Throughout the work of Vygotsky (1978), Strauss and Quinn (1997), and Wells (1999) literacy is multi-faceted and defined through the interrelationship of the three dimensions as presented by Kern (2000):

Sociocultural: Language is used collectively during activity that allows for members to become aware of social practices and their own individual beliefs. Individuals are aware of their roles during the construction of social meaning.

Cognitive: Declarative and procedural knowledge is created and transformed as individuals learn how to predict, infer, and synthesize individual and collective meaning during scaffolding and goal-directed action.

Linguistic: Individuals know and are aware of the relationships that exist between linguistic knowledge (lexical, syntactic, pragmatic, and morphological) and their uses in oral and written genres and styles.

The three components of sociocignitive literacy are dynamic and interrelated in nature. Of the three, student performance of the linguistic component has been traditionally understood as literacy, while the sociocultural and cognitive aspects of literacy have been paid little if any attention to in traditional second language classrooms (Byrnes, 2000). ESL / EFL teachers that present activities and allow for opportunities for students to engage in and co-construct sociocognitive literacy recognize the significance of being able to validate the experiences of others and the self through interaction rather than just the 'practicing language' (as noted by the concepts of strategic and receptive literacy). Furthermore, if teachers view 'teaching literacy' as engaging students in the process of reaching understanding through unity in discourse and activity, then the language used by students will begin to reflect Kerns' dimensions (Wells and Claxton, 2002).

Classroom teachers cannot just have their students 'acquire literacy', so to speak. If students are to be able to take advantage of the learned skills involved in reading, writing, listening and speaking, then they have to do so as they participate in the classroom discourse as part of emergent inquiry (Sfard, 1998).

Reframing Literacy-based Teaching

The presented outline views classroom communication as extending beyond the initiation-response-evaluation (IRE) pattern of communication that is often labeled as active participation and discourse in the ESL and EFL classrooms (Johnson, 1995). The third move, evaluation, often involves correction as demonstrated in the following exchange that took place during a intermediate-level ESL lesson regarding dining practices in the United States: Exchange #1

1. Teacher: What would you like to drink? (initiation)

2. Student: Some chicken. (response)

3. Teacher: Well ... now remember that a drink is liquid ... not solid, so how about some tea? (evaluation)

4. Student: OK

The above exchange demonstrates how students become enculturated into patterns of strategic and receptive literacy if such exchanges become over relied on in the language classroom. The goal of the interaction in exchange #1 is treated as monochronic: successfully ordering a drink from the menu that is contingent upon understanding the linguistic form (drink) rather than language use. It is interesting to think of how the student may have extended the above pattern of communication into a real-life setting. The teacher's response is purely evaluative and doesn't allow for co-construction of meaning or reflection. Imagine if the evaluation move above had been:

3a. Teacher: "The chicken here is spicy. You probably want something to drink with dinner, right?"

Perhaps the student would have found himself engaged in a task that now involves another person's re-interpretation of their utterance that may be more likely to occur in a real-world setting. This very basic example demonstrates how adapting a literacy-based curriculum depends on both students and teachers viewing the role of responses as going beyond that of simple error correction (as demonstrated in exchange #1). And this allows for literacy to emerge and develop around cognitively focused opportunities that have their beginnings in linguistic knowledge.

Becoming aware of the importance of moving beyond the error correction pattern of the IRE is just the first step in adopting a view of literacy that is based on emergent inquiry. The second component of true, literacy-based teaching focuses the students and teachers on developing revisions of their understanding of the tasks and language used and in the classroom. As Tierney and Pearson (1984) note, students must be able to develop a sense of discovery as they approach texts, written and spoken, as draft-like in quality and subject to immediate revision by the co-construction of meaning through various experiences. As a student is able to interact in various activity settings because of their ability to revise their own ideas in light of their experiences and interaction with others, they become successful because they are able to coordinate theft responses and revisions according to the responses of more than one individual in more than one activity setting at a time. Also, this supports the transfer of communicative competence from the classroom to the community as captured in line 3a above.

The final element of a literacy-based curriculum is reflection. Incorporating reflection in a classroom that presents success as multi-faceted allows teachers and students to become aware of their own feelings, thoughts, and abilities as they take part in emergent inquiry that address writer's and speaker's attitudes, responses and societal meaning (Jin and Cortazzi, 1998). The concept of including reflection in the 'teaching of literacy' through speaking and writing tunas the practice of receptive literacy into the very beginning of the process of communication and understanding.

The three elements of response, revision, and reflection are intrinsically connected. In a literacy-based ESL / EFL classroom, students are actively engaged in tasks that have been structured so that affective responses to language use become essential to the transformation of individual practice through collaborative action and collective meaning as presented by the construct of emergent discourse and inquiry.


Supporting critical literacy in our ESL and EFL classroom permits students to respond, reflect, and revise their own thinking as they come into contact with the language(s), practices, and cultures of English-speaking societies. Earlier, the statement was made that the goal of 'teaching literacy' should not be based on a monolingual view of literacy. The underlying motive, then, of supporting critical literacy is to promote intercultural understanding as students use language to mediate two (or more) worldviews with the hopes of affecting the beliefs, activities, and perceptions of others (and themselves). We need to take advantage of our student's rich cultural and personal backgrounds so that they not only learn English, but become educated and can contribute thoughts and direction to the goals that their communities value.

Central to sociocognitive literacy is the understanding of the construct of 'the self' that is (re)created many times over for other individuals as students participate in communities of inquiry (Wells, 1999). Through discourse students and instructors "manage their own and other's roles, and structure situations ... in which they observe and participate in cultural activities" (Rogoff, 1995, p.148) in the second language classroom and the surrounding community. Kern's previous concept of sociocognitive literacy supports Rogoff's realization of literacy as valuable, and is in opposition to the philosophical beliefs reflected in traditional receptive or strategic literacy-based curriculums.

Finally, contemporary classroom teachers are asked to take a close look at their lessons, activities and methods of assessment in relation to the three dimensions of response, revision, and reflection. In other words: Do classroom practices permit students to develop language skills and critical literacy that affords them opportunities to participate in the discourse of the classroom as well as the surrounding communities? It is also recommended that we have other professionals observe and comment on various aspects of our lessons or assessment instruments in order to begin to promote an environment of emergent inquiry among teachers and students alike.


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Miguel Mantero, The University of Alabama

Dr. Mantero is an assistant professor of foreign language and English as a second language education. His research interests include SLA, cognition and language teacher education.
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Author:Mantero, Miguel
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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