December 2001 — Volume 5, Number 3
Literacy and Language Teaching
Richard Kern (2000)
Oxford: Oxford University Press
Pp. x + 358
ISBN 0 19 4421627 (paperback)
£19.25 / $19.95
For Richard Kern, “literacy” in a second language means much more than the separate abilities to read and write; rather, it is a complex concept of familiarity with language and its use in context–primarily written language, but by extension also spoken communication. It requires “a broader discourse competence that involves the ability to interpret and critically evaluate a wide variety of written and spoken texts” (p. 2). It covers cultural knowledge and pragmatic and linguistic awareness as well as basic knowledge of lexis and grammatical structure. It is promoted through an interaction of reading and writing activities, and through the discussion of language in use in communicative contexts. And for Kern, literacy provides a unifying, overarching concept describing what it is that he is trying to achieve in language teaching, and what it is that will enable second language learners to function adequately in a literate foreign society.
In his book, Kern describes how “literacy” in this very broad sense provides both a framework and a goal for language teaching. It is a scholarly book, drawing on research and ideas from a variety of fields to provide a theoretical basis for the application of the literacy concept to language teaching; but it is also at times very practical, discussing and describing (sometimes at considerable length) how the ideas presented can be applied in the classroom. As the back-cover blurb puts it, “Addressing key research findings in cognitive theory, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, language acquisition, and literacy studies, the book attempts to put literary, cultural, linguistic, and cognitive theory on a productive parity with classroom practice.” This sounds a major undertaking, and indeed it is; the result of the attempt is a complex edifice of interlinked ideas presented in a book which in some ways reads like an extended essay on teaching. Most of the theory involved is derived from other sources–sources which are meticulously documented–but it is the combination of theories to form an overall teaching concept which is Kern’s particular contribution.
The book is divided into three sections. Part One discusses the concept of literacy in the context of second language teaching. Part Two considers the teaching of reading and writing separately, and contains chapters with a number of practical classroom ideas to illustrate how the more theoretical notions can be translated into practice. Part Three contains chapters on those two typical “last section” topics, computers and evaluation, as well as a concluding chapter on “Rethinking language and literacy teaching”. The chapter on computers illustrates in its range of subject matter Kern’s occasional coverage of rather too much ground as he tries to work everything into one grandiose scheme. But on the whole, the planning of the book is logical, and the overall coherence satisfying.
Not surprisingly, the examples of language teaching are illustrative rather than an attempt to provide material for a full course, but they are often unusual and interesting. Though related primarily to teaching the written language, they are mostly classroom activities, not activities for “homework”. Kern writes: [-1-]
The basic curricular sequence recommended for literacy-based teaching is one that works from exploration of meaning, through social interaction, to the internalization of those processes of exploration within the individual, eventually leading to learners’ greater independence as readers and writers. This explains why most of the examples in this book are in-class examples. . .: students need first to be prepared for independence. (p. 213)
As with the theoretical underpinnings of his approach, Kern’s teaching activities are by no means all original; many of them are again drawn from a variety of other sources. Kern’s aim is to show how these various activities, and others like them, can be used in combination to promote literacy.
Kern teaches French at an American university, and this probably affects the view of language learning and teaching which he has developed. Many of his students presumably lack close contact and cultural familiarity with societies where the target language of his teaching is spoken, and his ideas for what should be included in teaching reflect this. His students expect to deal with both language and literature, and Kern’s concept of literacy involves the ability to interact with both literary and non-literary texts. His students would also probably expect to take a slightly academic view of language learning. Knowing something of Kern’s background perhaps helps to understand how his ideas have developed, but it should not be thought that these ideas apply solely to language teaching in a university context; Kern argues forcefully for the literacy concept to be taken into account in teaching at all levels and in all situations. He also stresses the importance of the literacy concept for teaching the spoken language.
Kern’s writing style can be quite ponderous, as the extract above illustrates. The book is not especially easy reading, especially in the more theoretical sections, but it is lightened by the practical examples.
This is an important book, which many teachers will find stimulating and even inspirational. Kern’s ideas probably should not be seen as representing a completely new approach to language teaching, however. Many of the concepts and suggestions are drawn from other sources, and while they are nearly all “modern” in language teaching terms, they are not individually exactly “new”. The combination of these ideas and the justification for that combination, which is the more original contribution made in this book, is perhaps best viewed as additive to rather than a replacement for other teaching approaches. But teachers who discover as they read that they respond to Kern’s views and find they make good sense–as I did–may acquire a fresh and deeper perspective on their teaching, and on what is involved in learning a language.
University of Aarhus, Denmark
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