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A Multidimensional Approach To Literacy

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Structured WITH Constructivist | Constructivist WITH Structured

Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend of a friend. For two people who hardly knew each other, we discussed some deep thought-provoking topics- politics, religion, health, poverty, identity, gender, racial and world issues. I know, pretty intense for an afternoon Sunday sip sesh! What we also uncovered were the similarities and differences in our personalities and in our behaviours- for two people with a ‘black and white’ thought process and who find it difficult to recognise the shades of grey in between, it became obvious as we continued our discussion, that our responses and answers stemmed from two perspectives- his from logic and mine from emotion.

Throughout the many back and forth deliberations, the dialogue was becoming a dance- an exchange of thoughts, experiences, values, ideas, feelings, perspectives, ideas and biases towards the topics. What came to light was the mutual respect, the space we were holding for one another and the willingness to be open to hearing about a difference of opinion, an alternative perspective and a justification behind the stance- whether it be logical or emotional. It was a beautifully strange learning experience, oddly in the middle of a dance floor, lights shining, soda in hand, in front of the DJ!

And while we only scratched the surface of this deep and engaging interaction, what I was coming to understand is that there CAN be more than two sides, IT ISN’T always black and white, evidence and research WILL almost always be available to support either side, and at times, logic and emotion CAN be intertwined.

I couldn’t help but liken this to the literacy space at the moment which is noisy, loud and overwhelming. The current debates taking place about how ‘best’ to teach reading and writing. We know that there isn’t a one-size fits all, and there never will be (nor should there be). We know that no fixed program or script is ever going to replace the expertise of the teacher. We know there are many aspects to how we teach students to read, write, speak and listen. We know that those gorgeous little faces staring up at us each day are different and unique, just like our teaching practice.

A Constructivist Approach

It was on one of my pre-service teacher placements, where I sat in on collaborative planning with an external facilitator leading and guiding the discussion which was centred around student interests, student understandings, student curiosities and students knowledge, skills and dispositions. This was my first experience with what I now understand to be, ‘Inquiry Learning’, here learning is student-centred, with an emphasis on exploration, questioning, investigation, active engagement in the scaffolded learning process. Later on, in my final year as a school leader (read more about my journey here), I also wore the hat of IB PYPC, a.k.a International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme Coordinator. Just when I thought I had learnt all there was to Inquiry Learning, my entire teaching practice shifted, and I've never seen Inquiry Learning in the same way- it was a game changer!

To me, Inquiry Learning is heart-felt and emotional.

A Structured Approach

At the same time, in the same school, I was exposed to a range of structured instructional teaching practices- modelled, shared, independent, guided, interactive, etc. I was in my final year of placement (remember the days?!), where I watched my associate teacher directly and explicitly teach her students letters and sounds, ways to compose sentences with detail and I learnt how she organised her classroom with routine and structure. To this day, I’m still in touch with her and forever grateful to have been placed in her classroom. It was here where I learnt how she used the instructional practices in action, and how I learnt the role and responsibility of what the teacher does, what the students do and what we both do- collaboratively or independently. We now refer to this as I Do, We Do, You Do or The Gradual Release of Responsibility.

To me, a Structured Approach is logical and systematic.

Over the past 13 years in education, I’ve witnessed many different approaches, strategies, tools, skills, and resources most of which have been evidence-based and informed (long before scripts and prescribed teaching materials came into play). As you know, there’s a plethora of resources out there (including my instructional video series, The Comprehension Coach!) to be used to effectively and consistently teach, but nothing can replace the experience, expertise, skills, knowledge and ability of the teacher. When I think about the concept of ‘multidimensional’, initially, I think about the idea of many facets and layers to something, and that there isn't a one size fits all. To me, multidimensional is often complex, adaptable, flexible and holistic. I shared more about this in a recent Podcast with Jason Marshall, listen here.

So, what does all of this have to do with the Sunday Session and all that talk about differences of opinion and logical and emotional perspectives? Well, my ‘multidimensional approach to literacy’ is exactly that- there are elements of logic and structure, and there are elements of emotion and depth.

Enter, my ‘multidimensional approach to literacy’.

First, let’s unpack the word ‘multidimensional’.

Ironic, right? Especially for someone who is such a black and white thinker, here I am telling you that there ARE shades of grey in education, many variables, many characteristics and many components! So when we work together, we apply ‘a multidimensional approach to literacy’, with the many depths and facets to the way we teach reading, writing, speaking and listening. I liken these to existing on a continuum which flows back and forth… back and forth…and with ebbs and flows...ebbs and flows...

I believe in strengthening literacy practice by building teacher capacity through awareness and being reflective- bringing to light the knowledge, skills and content in a certain learning area, in our case, in literacy, so that they’re best equipped to not only teach confidently, but so that they can select the best structured or constructivist approach at any given time based on the needs of their students. When coaching teachers, this is an integral part of my work with them. Believe it or not, and dare I use the ‘b’ word, but this where the BALANCE takes place. And how there can be space for both a constructivist AND structured approach when we teach literacy skills. A ‘balance’ can only come from developing the confidence within your own practice to know how and when to use which one at the most appropriate time. (A blog post to follow in 2024 will outline the practicality of this in the classroom, the benefits and limitations to both approaches to learning.)

When we teach our students to read, write, speak and listen, remember, there CAN be more than two approaches or strategies, teaching these literacy skills ISN’T always black and white, and at times, logic and emotion CAN be intertwined in the learning process, evidence and research for both ends will always exist if you look hard enough.

  • Find your own peace in the literacy space which is extremely noisy and loud at present when so many people have so many opinions.

  • Have mutual respect with your colleagues even if you disagree.

  • Hold space for one another to share each other’s reasoning.

  • Research your own evidence-informed practices and implement the ones that resonate the most to you.

  • Have the willingness to be open to hearing about a difference of opinion, an alternative perspective and a justification- whether it be logical or emotional.

  • Grow in empathy and understanding.

Land somewhere on the ‘multidimensional literacy spectrum’ which resonates with you, and know that it is completely okay and necessary for the pendulum to swing and shift.

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