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Catalog Number 1000 0001 6694
Object Name Book Chapter
Title Literacy and Learning
Scope & Content Galley proofs of Ernest L. Boyer's book chapter "Literacy and Learning."

Enclosed with general memo dated April 5, 1996 (1000 0001 6693).
Download PDF Literacy and Learning

It is indeed fitting that we are gathered here to share our beliefs and findings
on reading as a tribute to the truly remarkable contributions of Professor
Guy Bond. For almost 30 years, this outstanding scholar served with great
distinction at the University of Minnesota. Even more important, as one of
the most outstanding reading educators of his time, he served children and
teachers throughout the nation. While Professor Bond's specific focus was
on reading, in a larger sense his entire professional career affirmed what I
would describe as the "sacredness of language."
Language is our most essential social function. Steven Pinker reminds
us of this in his book The Language Instinct (1994). "Language," he writes,
"is so tightly woven into human experience that it is scarcely possible to
imagine life without it." He goes on to say, "If you find two or more people
together anywhere on earth, they will soon be exchanging words. When
there is no one to talk with, people talk to themselves, to their dogs, even
to their plants" (p. 17). We cannot help but talk. First comes life, then
In most respects the human species is far less well equipped than other
creatures on the planet. We are no match for the lion in strength; we are
outstripped by the ostrich when it comes to speed. No human can outswim
the dolphin, and we surely see less acutely than the hawk. But in one area,
the exquisite use of symbols, we are, in fact, superior. This capacity sets
human beings apart from ail other forms of life, the porpoise and the
bumblebee notwithstanding. It is through language that we define who we
are and imagine what we might become, and it is through language that we
are connected to each other.
Language begins, of course, long before a child marches off to school.
It begins, I'm convinced, even before birth itself, as the unborn infant
monitors the mother's voice and listens to the rhythm of her heart. There is
a theory that the reason the first words are mama and dada and babe is that
they have the rhythm of the heartbeat. It is fascinating, and I believe no
accident, that the three middle-ear bones—the hammer, the anvil, and the
stirrup—are the only bones that are fully formed at birth. Young children
start to listen before they start to speak.
Following birth, a child's language exponentially expands, first with
coos, then phonemes, then isolated words, followed by complicated syntax.
By the time a child enters school for formal learning, he or she has mastered
on average more than 3,000 words and has achieved a remarkable competence
in both understanding and using the complexities of grammar. But all
of this has occurred without a teacher. The instinct for language is imprinted
in the genes, a God-given, gene-driven capacity that emerges with
life itself. Lewis Thomas (1983) captured the essence of this miracle when
he suggested that childhood Is for language.
I am dazzled by the capacity of young children to use words not only
for affection or questions or conversation, but also as weapons of assault.
When I was growing up in Dayton, Ohio, I used to say to playmates who
would tease me, 'Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will
never hurt me." What nonsense! I'd usually say that with tears running
down my cheeks, thinking all the time, Hit me with a stick, but stop the
words that wound so deeply. Isn't it amazing that 2- and 3- and 4-year-oids
discover this power, put the words together, and sling them out like arrows,
knowing precisely how to hit the mark, and all of that without a formal
Research reveals that children who fail to develop proficiency in Language
during the first years of life are up to six times more likely to experience
reading problems when they go to school (Clapp, 1988). Parents are,
in fact, the child's first and most essential teachers. It is in the home where
children must become linguistically empowered. Wouldn't it be wonderful
if every child in this country grew up in a language-rich environment, where
words were used to encourage what is best in humanity? Wouldn't it be
wonderful if children received thoughtful answers to their questions instead
of "Shut up" or "Go to bed." Wouldn't it be wonderful if bookshelves in
every home were filled with children's books instead of knick-knacks and
plastic flowers? And what if all parents would turn off the television and
read to their children at least 30 minutes every night?
Excellence in education means understanding that language begins
early and that all children need and deserve an environment that nurtures
and enhances the natural intelligence for communication. Hannah Nuba, a
librarian at the New York Public Library, has said that one wonderful way
parents can promote language is through reading to their children beginning
right after birth (Nuba-Scheffler, Sheimaa, & Watkins, 1986). She said, "I
am often asked by . . . new parents about the best time for introducing
books to young children. My answer is always: "Right now'" (Nuba, 1989,
p. 19). This bonding around books can be a great experience for parents
and grandparents, too. I must have read Dr. Seuss a hundred times, to my
children and my grandchildren, but each time is a joyful journey as we
playfully imagine eating green eggs and ham.
Reading expert Bernice E. Cullinan, of New York University, put it
well when she wrote: "Children who sit beside a reader and follow the print
from an early age learn to read quite "naturally.' We know that the modeling
has a lasting effect; children do what they see others do" (Putnam, 1994, p.
363). Children who are read to by their parents are inclined to become good
readers later on.
Children's curiosity about language is stimulated not just by books,
but also by the signs, signals, and symbols that surround them in their
neighborhoods. Recently I talked with Kristy McDaniel, a wonderfully creative
teacher at Jackson-Keller Elementary School in San Antonio, who
told me that she began the first day of school last year by asking her new
students, "How many in this class know how to read?® All the children
dropped their heads in silence. Ms, McDaniel then switched on a slide
projector and flashed familiar neighborhood images on the blackboard.
First came a stop sign, and she asked, "How many can read this?** Every
child shouted out the word, "StopT Then came the image of a green traffic
light, and everyone shouted, "Go/" Then came a picture of the "golden
arches" and everyone shouted, "McDonalds.?" She then asked, "How many
of you can read?" Every hand enthusiastically went up.
I am not suggesting that preschoolers be forced to learn the alphabet,
or to memorize words, or to move methodically through a printed page. I
reject absolutely any so-called "reading readiness test" that would keep
children out of school or place them arbitrarily in a rigidly restricted group.
What I am suggesting is that children, even when they are very young, begin
to assign meaning to the symbols and to the objects that surround them,
and that the most essential obligation of parents, as the first teachers, is to
give love, then language, to their children. Simply stated, reading, as a
complex act of interpretation, starts long before school, and the task of
formal learning is to build on the symbol system already well in place.
On my own first day of school, walking there with my mother, I asked
if I'd learn to read that day. My mother replied quite wisely, "No, you wont
learn to read today, but you will before the year is out." Well, I walked into
the classroom and there she stood, half human, half divine—Miss Kice, my
first-grade teacher. Miss Rice said, "Good morning, class. Today we learn
to read." These were quite literally the first words I heard in school.
Fifty years later, when I wrote a book on high school and then another
one on college, I placed chapters near the front of each book on the centrall
y of language. It occurred to me one day that this was no accident. It was,
in fact, the influence of an unheralded first-grade teacher at Fairview Avenue
Elementary School, who taught me in my First year of formal learning
that language is the centerpiece of learning, that it is through words that
we're linguistically and Intellectually empowered.
Recently, the Carnegie Foundation published a report on elementary
education called The Basic School (Boyer, 1995). In conducting this study,
we asked hundreds of teachers all across the country to name the most
important purpose of education. Almost without exception, they said,
'Teaching children to read." According to elementary school principals,
more than one-third of all instructional time, from kindergarten to grade 5,
is devoted to language arts, to the mastery of symbols (Carnegie Foundation
for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990).
I'm suggesting that language is not just another subject, but the means
by which all other subjects are pursued. The first and most essential goal of
formal learning must be to ensure that all children read with comprehension,
write with clarity, and effectively speak and listen. If, by the end of
the third or fourth grade, all children were linguistically empowered, their
successive learning would expand exponentially, and later failure would be
diminished dramatically.
Thirty years ago, Guy Bond began the second edition of Reading Difficulties:
Their Diagnosis and Correction (one of his influential books, of
which there were very many) with this paragraph:
The ability to read well constitutes one of the most valuable skills a person can
acquire. Our world is a reading wo rid. It is difficult la discmer say activity . . .
that does not demand some, and often considerable, reading. And, in many
situations, reading constitutes the indispensable rharsr.f-i of communication.
(1967, p. 4)
The key issue, of course, and the one that has led to the inspiration of
this volume, is how this essential goal of literacy is to be accomplished. The
data show that, in spite of much effort and new insights, overall reading
improvement among the nation's children, for the past 20 or 30 years, has
been marginal at best. How then do children learn to read? I tfrmfc it's
correct to say that no one really knows. And further, I suspect that the
secret will not be fully revealed until the mysteries of the mind and the brain
are themselves understood. This does not mean, however, that teaching
reading is all guesswork. We do have brilliant instruction and profoundly
successful reading teachers in every school and great progress in literacy all
across the country.
Throughout the years, proven procedures have been discovered, beginning
with the most basic truth that children learn to read if they are well
motivated and if they believe that they can and will succeed. Ln a beautiful
story about her work with children in South Texas, Ann Alejandro writes:
"I know my students are geniuses, but I wont tell them that until they show
me that they are." Her whole year, she says, "works toward their recognition
of genius in themselves and their ability to go out independently, like
the people in the Nike commercials, and 'Just do it*" {1994, p. 19).
James Agee wrote, "In every child who is born, under no matter what
circumstances, . . . the potentiality of the human race is born again" (Agee
& Evans, 1966, p. 263). This inspiration, this absolute confidence in the
potentiality of each child, is the conviction that must undergird every successful
reading program.
Beyond confidence and positive motivation, success in reading also
means being flexible in adjusting the method of instruction to the uniqueness
of each student. This is, of course, a touchy subject. Still, progress in
language arts has been diminished dramatically in the past precisely because
of the inclination of reading specialists to organize into competing camps,
driven more by ideology than insight. At the same time, I find it encouraging
that today thoughtful voices on all sides recognize what I'd call "the
essentialness of balance." For example, a recent report from New Zealand
(1985), arguably the most literate country in the wo rid, declared that the
best strategy for effective reading is a comprehensive strategy, one that is
both balanced and eclectic.
Children differ in their approaches to reading, and for some, understanding
the phonetic structure, the building blocks of language, may be
helpful. My own field was medical audiology. I was professionally engaged
in working with children with inner-ear deafness. They couldnt speak because
they could not hear. Frequently, I was saddened by the debates of the
profession in which the "lip-reader people" and the "sign people" fought
their ideological battles—while children were caught in the middle. I remember
children who could not communicate, who had no method of
reaching out, who became enraged because they could not make connections
with each other. I observed that deaf children, were led to understanding
as they began to grasp the phonetic structure of language. I became
convinced that the obligation of those of us in education is to make available
all of the linguistic tools and pedagogical procedures that, taken together,
will be useful to children.
Dorothy Strickland, one of the nation's most influential and insightful
reading experts, has it absolutely right. She says that we should treat instruction
in phonics as an important part of beginning reading, not as a
precursor to it. We should view phonia for what it is, one of several
enablers for literacy—nothing more, nothing less (1994/1995). In helping
children to read, however, phonics is surely not the ultimate point of focus.
Children need a rich vocabulary that is continually expanding. Reading is
most successful when sounds and words are placed in larger contexts as
children discover meaning and become linguistically empowered.
Children gain meaning from the printed page, but they also must bring
their own experience to what they read, and to the observant, sensitive
teacher, this vital interaction in reading can provide powerful insights about
who the student is. As part of my doctoral dissertation, I asked students to
read a series of statements, some of which were evocatively loaded, and
others not. What I discovered was that the students became far less fluent
when reading the emotionally loaded passages, even though the sentences
were otherwise the same. The obvious conclusion was that the students
weren't just looking at words; they were bringing meaning to the message.
Their reading fluency was, in fact, controlled by the content of the message.
They were wrapping themselves within the words, and the meaning was
flowing back and forth.
Clearly, when we say a child cannot read, what we may be observing is
a child who, in reality, may be reading "too much." The child may be
experiencing nonfluency precisely because of the deep emotional responses
that are being stirred by the passages he or she encounters. Consider, for
example, a student who is asked to read a story about a father. What if the
child, the preceding evening, had a confrontation with his or her own
father, or experienced abuse? In the reading class, it's quite possible that
such memories could preoccupy the child and interrupt the flow of speech
we call reading. The emotional dimensions of reading—the feeling children
bring to the printed page—remind us that reading is a dynamic, interactive
process between the child and the passage on the page.
When fully successful, reading is discovery—a joyful, exciting process,
one that is ultimately an empowering engagement. Diane Stephens (1994)
describes that powerful scene in The Miracle Worker in which Helen Keller
feels the water with her hand and then feels the sign for water with her
hand, and, in one magical moment, makes the connection. Oh, that and
that connect! The sign means water. Aha! And Helen Keller, having
grasped that elegant and empowering insight, rushes around; she leaps and
runs, filled not only with comprehension, but also with great joy. This
discovery, this sense of exhilaration, is precisely what language instruction
is all about.
When all is said and done, reading is not just about sounds, it^s not
about isolated words, it's about meaning—that powerful interaction be
tween the reader and the page. I am sure that teachecf and many /
parents, too, hasj^urely felt the excitement when a young child sees a symbol,
discovers meaning, and is joyfully empowered.
We also know that students learn to read as they learn to write. Writing
is, in fact, the other side of reading. More than any other form of communication,
writing holds students responsible for their words. Writing is not
copying, writing is not penmanship—writing is a creative act that allows
children to be wonderfully self-expressive. Through clear writing, clear
thinking can be learned. It's exciting to observe young children as they
become authors and then read with pride what they have written.
During the Carnegie Foundation study of the American elementary
school, we_visited one classroom that had what the teacher ^Qj
'SiAutHor's Chair," a place where children could go with a friend and &ad
aloud the stories they themselves had written. This was, we were told* one
of the most popular exercises of the day, in which a child could make a
statement of his or her own that went beyond the familiar. The goal of
writing is, in fact, to encourage students to be creative, to express themselves
in imaginative new ways.
Recently, I spoke at a commencement exercise at Mount Union College.
I thought I'd given an effective speech, but I was upstaged by the
valedictorian of the class, who said thai the spring before, she was babysitting
her 5-year-old niece and to pass the time, brought along a new
coloring book and a new box of crayons. The two of them sat down together
and immediately the child flipped through the first 30 pages, skipping
all the line drawings to be colored in. At the back page, which was
completely blank, she took out the crayons, coloring furiously. The young
woman asked, "Why did you skip over ail those pages and go to the back?"
The little girl answered, "Well, on the back page there arent any lines and
you can do anything you want."
In writing and in speech, children should learn about grammar and
about syntax, but they also should learn to think creatively, to choose bold,
descriptive words, to paint vivid language pictures—to color outside the
Prospects for enriched reading also are enhanced as students read great
children's literature, not just bland basal readers. Several years ago, when I
was Commissioner of Education, I walked unannounced into a sixth-grade
classroom in New Haven. There were nearly 30 children crowding around
the teacher's desk. I discovered that, rather than confronting an emergency,
I had, in fact, become part of a moment of great discovery. The children
had just finished reading Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, and these sixthgraders
in inner-city New Haven were rigorously debating whether little
Oliver could make it in their city. After much discussion, the children
concluded that, although Oliver Twist had survived in far-off London, he
could never make it in New Haven.
Apart from the poignancy of their conclusion, the beauty of that moment
was that an inspired teacher had related the insights of great literature
to the reality of the children's lives. It seems evident that we can take
nineteenth-century syntax and translate it into twentieth-century understanding.
Classic literature can speak to children today and can empower
their desire and ability to read. Years ago, Guy Bond (Bond & Wagner,
1966) put it this way: "A child learns to read well only when what he is
asked to do seems both useful and vital, both compelling and authentic"
Thus far, I've suggested that achieving literacy for all children means
holding high expectations for students, exercising flexibility in teaching
styles, connecting reading to what students write, and introducing children
to great literature that relates learning to life. Beyond these essential tools,
however, success in reading depends ultimately on helping students to see
connections, to discover, through language, relationships and patterns.
In today's fragmented academic world, students complete the separate
subjects, they fill in the worksheets, they're handed a diploma; but what
they fail to gain is a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated,
more authentic view of life. IVe observed that when young children
come to school they are filled with curiosity. They keep asking why. They're
searching for connections. They are dissatisfied with little fragments that
don't present a larger pattern. However, very soon children stop asking why
and begin to ask, "Will we have this on the test?" Those two questions tell
us much about diminished inspiration as children move from their own
curiosity to conformity to the Systran.
More than 50 years ago, Mark Van Dor en wrote: T h e connectedness
of things is what the educator contemplates to the limit of his capacity, . . .
The student who can begin early in his life to think of things as connected
. . . has begun the life of learning" (1943, p. 115). I'm convinced that what
American education urgently needs today is a curriculum with connections.
It should begin in the language arts. I think it is really sad that in the world
of language we have reading specialists and writing specialists and speech
specialists and hearing specialists and literature specialists and linguistics
specialists and the list goes on, who do their own research, while we have
too few academics engaged in what we called, in a recent Carnegie report,
"the scholarship of integration" (Boyer, 1990).
Frank Press, former president of the National Academy of Sciences,
sent me a copy of a speech he gave several years ago|in which he said that
the work of the artist and the work of the scientist are essentially the same
(1984). To illustrate his point, he referred to the magnificent double helix
that broke the genetic code, suggesting that it was not only rational, but
beautiful as well. When I read the speech, I thought of the lift-offs at Cape
Kennedy—those spine-tingling moments that many now take for granted. I
remember watching the engineers on the TV screen, anxiety pasted on their
faces. When the count reached "three, two, one, lift-off," and the spacecraft
began to rise, the anxiety fell a»ay and there wee great smiles of
satisfaction. They didnt say, "Well, our formulas worked again." What
they said, almost in unison, was "Beautiful/" They chose an aesthetic term
to describe a technological achievement. Where does the world of the scientist
or the mathematician and that of the artist begin and end? fa it possible
that, fundamentally, we are all searching for relations hips and patterns and
When Victor Weisskopf, the renowned physicist, was asked on one
occasion, "What gives you hope in troubled times?" he replied, "Mozart
and quantum mechanics." Where in our fragmented academic world do
students see connections such as these? The good news is that we are beginning
to make connections in what Michael Polanyi (1967), of the University
of Chicago, called the "overlapping [academic] neighborhoods" (p. 72).
Some of the most exciting work going on today is in the hyphenated disciplines—
psycho-linguistics, bio-engineering, and the like—and I would like
to see more hyphenated disciplines within language arts itself.
Jo Stanchfield, of Claremont College, made this important observation:
"For the last fifteen years, IVe been convinced that reading cannot be
taught in isolation, but rather as a part of the whole," a part of what she
called the "gestait of literacy. . . . Today, most educators stress the word
literacy, rather than reading. If we can implement this holistic concept in
our curriculum, we will be well on our way to producing better readers and
more literate citizens" (Putnam, 1994, p. 365).
I couldn't agree more. The issue is not reading, in its narrow sense; the
issue is not even literacy. The issue is understanding, in its fullest sense,
which means cutting across the narrow specialties and discovering how they
reinforce each other. The vision of the wholeness of language is, I believe,
absolutely right. Reading and writing and speech and listening belong together;
they are all what I'd call "verbal literacy," and they reinforce each
What I'm really talking about is bringing together all of the symbol
systems we use to communicate with one another. Consider, for example,
that language and literacy also must include sot just words but mathematics,
a universal language by which we communicate about quantity, space,
and time, and which, incidentally, also requires words for discussion. At a
recent conference in Big Sky, Montana, Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate
in science, said to me: "I wish we would stop saying "math and science.' I
wish we would start saying "words and science' because learning the word
symbols is even more important than the number symbols, since we have to
use words to talk about our numbers."
Surely literacy must include the language of the arts, another universal
symbol system by which we express feelings and ideas. We ail understand
that words cannot portray sufficiently the joy of a spring morning, or the
fruits of a fall harvest, or the grief and loneliness that mark the ending of a
love relationship. To express our deepest and most profound feelings, we
turn to art. Art is, as a teacher once told me, the language of the angels."
I'm intrigued that very young children, even before they can speak, respond
intuitively to color and to music and to rhythm.
The structure for art is within our children in the same way as the
structure for words. Yet art often is considered a frill in schools, and by the
time students are in the third grade, it is something they do to fill in time.
Again, for the most intimate and most profoundly moving human experiences,
we need music and dance and the visual arts. Conductor Murry
Sidlin put it this way: "When words are no longer adequate, when our
passion is greater than we are able to express in a usual manner, people turn
to art. Some people go to the canvas and paint; some stand up and dance.
But we all go beyond our normal means of communicating, and this is the
common human experience for all people on this planet" (Sidlin, 1978).
Several years ago, I read an interview with Victor Weisskopf, who was
discussing the Big Bang theory. Near the end of this provocative conversation,
Weisskopf said, I f you wish to understand the Big Bang theory, you
should listen to the works of Haydn." At first I was bemused and bewildered,
but this proposition, upon reflection, seemed to be absolutely clear.
Weisskopf was reminding us that occasionally human experiences are so
profound, so intellectually and emotionally overwhelming, that they call
for symbols beyond words or numbers for full expression. The Big Bang
theory, he was saying, must be felt as well as thought.
Simply stated, we as humans have three elegant symbol systems—the
verbal system we call words; the numbs- system, which allows us to think
about quantity, space, and time; and the arts, which allow us to deal with
profound feelings and ideas and express them in ways that words and
numbers cannot convey. These are the tools we use to describe our world
and engage intimately with each other. To be truly literate means becoming
proficient in all the symbol systems and discovering how they are inseparably
intertwined. This is literacy at its fullest.
In the end, literacy, like love, knows no limits. It is a lifelong journey.
The spirit of this journey was poignantly captured by Carl Sandburg (1964)
when he wrote,

Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence,
Then man came
To the deeper rituals cf his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones.
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
Once having so marched, {p. 235)
We have a moral obligation to empower the coming generation with
this capacity that makes us truly human, John Gardner (1984) wrote that a
nation is never finished. You can't build it and leave it standing as the
pharaohs did the pyramids. It has to be rebuilt with each new generation.
And so it is with schools and with the education of our children. Clearly,
the most urgent task oar generation now confronts is to ensure literacy, not
just for the most advantaged, but, as the title and theme of this book
remind us, for all children.

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Collection Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching - CFAT
Search Terms University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota
"Literacy and Learning" (book chapter)