Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds

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  • of Literacy Research online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1080/10862969809548000

    1998 30: 297Journal of Literacy ResearchKathryn H. Au

    Students of Diverse BackgroundsSocial Constructivism and the School Literacy Learning of

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    Literary Research Association

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  • Social Constructivismand the School LiteracyLearning of Students of

    Diverse Backgrounds


    This theoretical review builds on the idea that socialconstructivism offers implications for reshaping school-ing in ways that may correct the gap between the lit-eracy achievement of students of diverse backgroundsand that of mainstream students. A diverse social con-structivist perspective may encourage literacy educa-tors to progress from a mainstream orientation towarda serious consideration of the significance of students'ethnicity, primary language, and social class to literacylearning. From a social constructivist perspective, 5 ex-planations for the literacy achievement gap appearplausible: linguistic differences, cultural differences,discrimination, inferior education, and rationales forschooling. Incorporating these 5 explanations andbuilding on the work of Cummins (1986, 1994), a con-ceptual framework for addressing the literacy achieve-ment gap is proposed. This framework suggests thatthe school literacy learning of students of diverse back-grounds will be improved as educators address the goalof instruction, the role of the home language, instruc-tional materials, classroom management and inter-action with students, relationships with the commu-nity, instructional methods, and assessment.

    JLR Journal of Literacy ResearchVolume 30, Number 2,1998, Pages 297-319 at UVI on May 13, 2014jlr.sagepub.comDownloaded from

  • IN THIS ARTICLE, i ADDRESS ISSUES of the school literacy learning of studentsof diverse backgrounds. I use the phrase students of diverse backgrounds to re-fer to students in the United States who are usually from low-income fami-lies; of African American, Asian American, Latina/o, or Native American ances-try; and speakers of a home language other than standard American English.Differences between the school literacy achievement of these students and thoseof mainstream backgrounds have long been documented. The National Assess-ment of Educational Progress has compared the reading and writing achievementof students of diverse backgrounds to that of students of mainstream back-grounds for a period of over 20 years, providing what appear to be the mostcomprehensive results on this issue. These results indicate that, although theachievement gap appears to be narrowing, African American and Latina/o stu-dents at all three age levels tested are not learning to read and write as well astheir European American peers (Mullis & Jenkins, 1990).

    The gap between the school literacy achievement of students of diversebackgrounds and those of mainstream backgrounds is a cause of growing con-cern, especially given demographic trends. Urban school districts in particularare faced with the task of educating an increasing number of students of diversecultural and linguistic backgrounds from families living in poverty (Pallas,Natriello, e^McDill, 1989).

    The main orientation to be explored here is that of social constructivism.From the perspective of social constructivism, it may be argued that both suc-cess and failure in literacy learning are the collaborative social accomplishmentsof school systems, communities, teachers, students, and families (e.g., McDermott& Gospodinoff, 1981). The thesis to be developed is that a social constructivistperspective on the literacy achievement of students of diverse backgrounds canbe strengthened by moving from a mainstream orientation to an orientation to-ward diversity, giving greater consideration to issues of ethnicity, primary lan-guage, and social class (see also Reyes, 1991). Although issues of gender play animportant role, a discussion of these issues and feminist perspectives is beyondthe scope of this article.

    To develop the argument for a diverse constructivist perspective, I discusssocial constructivism and its application to research on school literacy learning.Then I outline what appear to be the major explanations, consistent with a socialconstructivist position, for the achievement gap between students of diversebackgrounds and those of mainstream backgrounds. Finally, I propose a con-ceptual framework for improving the school literacy learning of students of di-verse backgrounds. In discussing this framework, I review concerns about thelargely mainstream nature of the constructivist orientation as applied to issuesof school literacy learning and instruction and highlight the implications of tak-ing a diverse constructivist orientation toward these issues.


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    Social Constructivism

    At the heart of constructivism is a concern for lived experience, or the world as itis felt and understood by social actors (Schwandt, 1994). Constructivists rejectthe naive realism of the positivists, the critical realism of the post-positivists,and the historical realism of the critical theorists, in favor of a relativism basedon multiple mental constructions formulated by groups and individuals (Guba6- Lincoln, 1994). There are many forms of constructivism, which appear todiffer along several dimensions including the relative importance of humancommunities versus the individual learner in the construction of knowledge(Phillips, 1995).

    Spivey (1997) presented the most detailed available treatment of constructiv-ism and its influence on contemporary literacy research. She noted that, in con-structivism, communication or discourse processes are compared to processesof building, and generative acts, such as those of interpreting or composingtexts, tend to be emphasized. Themes in constructivist work include active en-gagement in processes of meaning-making, text comprehension as a window onthese processes, and the varied nature of knowledge, especially knowledge devel-oped as a consequence of membership in a given social group. In exploringdifferent conceptions of constructivism, Spivey highlighted the issue of agency,and whether the focus is seen as the individual, small groups and dyads, or com-munities and societies.

    Both sociology and psychology have undergone a transformation fromviews of constructivism centered on the personal, subjective nature of knowl-edge construction to views centered on its social, intersubjective nature (Mehan,1981). These newer views are generally called social constructivism. The social isseen to encompass a wide range of phenomena, from historical, political, andcultural trends to face-to-face interactions, reflecting group processes both ex-plicit and implicit with intended and unintended consequences. In the case ofliteracy research, the social can include historical changes in definitions of lit-eracy, functions and uses of literacy within communities, and the social con-struction of success and failure in learning to read in school, to name a few.

    Social constructivists argue that the very terms by which people perceiveand describe the world, including language, are social artifacts (Schwandt, 1994).Because reality is seen to be created through processes of social exchange, histori-cally situated, social constructivists are interested in the collective generation ofmeaning among people. Social constructivism includes the idea that there is noobjective basis for knowledge claims, because knowledge is always a human con-struction. The emphasis is on the process of knowledge construction by the so-cial group and the intersubjectivity established through the interactions of thegroup.

    Vygotsky (1987) is the theorist who appears to have had the greatest influ-ence on literacy researchers working from a social constructivist perspective.


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  • Social, cultural, and historical factors all play a part in Vygotsky's theory ofcognitive development. Vygotsky saw the focus of psychology as the study ofconsciousness or mind, and he wanted to discover how higher or "artificial"mental functions developed from the "natural" psychological functions thatemerged through maturation. A higher mental function, such as literacy, is anaspect of human behavior, present in some form from humanity's beginnings,that has changed over time as