Diane DeFord


My name is Diane DeFord. I am at Ohio State University, often times referred to as The Ohio State University.

Um, if you’re thinking about the field of reading and what has in—interwoven into the current theories of what reading is about, um if you think about several different influ—areas of influence, one of those is psychology. And from the field of psychology which deals with mostly the cognitive aspects of learning, and actions, and behavior, um cognitive uh views or perspectives on readings would come about because someone is thinking about what happens inside the head as one reads.

If you’re thinking about uh reading and what are some of the different ways in which one can characterize what happens during reading, you could explore a cognitive view of reading. However, to think that everything happens only inside of the head will not necessarily be appropriate because as a reader starts to read, they bring with them certain background of experiences, they are reading the purpose about which they are reading for, and that will usually come from certain contextual factors like the social context or maybe the fact that they’re reading for an assignment. Um, if they’re reading for a test they may be reading only to survey the information. If they’re reading for the first time and it’s a story that the teacher has given uh a wonderful introduction for and gotten them very excited about the possibilities, from the moment they start to read they will be using some of the social factors um that are a part of this. They may also be using some cultural factors um that are going to play into their reading. What kinds of language forms are they most use to engaging with? Um, what are some of the story frames that might be a part of the cultural experiences they’ve had, uh moral stories, for example, versus uh stories that have been written stories. So if you’re thinking about describing what happens when one reads, you have to take a multiple perspective view rather then a singular perspective view.

Well, each of the fields of study, whether it be sociology, or psychology, or linguistics, um or anthropology, um each of those fields have brought to our understanding of reading some different layers that we need to consider in today’s world because those domains of knowledge have been each in their own way filled out in ways that may, in fact, pertain to what we’re doing. So if you are looking at uh, um a social view of learning a language or reading, you’re going to be paying attention to the social dynamics, uh the interaction patterns, um maybe the—the conversational terms in terms of who initiates information. And when you look at—at social um settings, for example, um several research projects have in the past looked at if you were, let’s say, a reader reading a passage and we were in a social setting like the gymnasium and the passage was somewhat ambiguous but one of the interpretations might be about um wrestling. That reader who would be reading in that social context of the gymnasium where there may be mats on the floor would be more likely to interpret the meaning of that passage as having to do with wrestling, then they might have uh the interpretation that it may be related to some other possible interpretation. And the same thing is true that if students are reading it in another setting that maybe an alternative possible interpretation, the setting will influence most strongly their interpretation. So if you’re thinking about social setting, um it really does have an impact um when one sees a message in a one setting and the same message in another setting. Uh, they may in fact have different meanings because of the social context in which you see those signs are a very good example of that.

Um, much of my research has been about a teacher’s theoretical orientation. And my search for um a teacher’s theoretical orientation has several different ways of progressing because theory is in fact an abstract and theoretical orientation is an abstract notion. Um, so the only way that you can examine um theoretical orientation is to contexualize it in someway. So if I look for a teacher’s theoretical orientation, what I want to see is “How does that teacher view the world? How does that teacher integrate um different aspects of professional knowledge um, and theory from different perspectives?” Uh, the theory of how one reads, how one learns. What is good reading behavior, what is um behavior that may not be looked at as positively in the teacher? Um, something as gross as me be picking one’s nose. Um, so a teacher’s theoretical orientation is going to be made up of multi-layered concepts that the teacher has derived from her interactions or his interaction in the world. And for a teacher um they need to understand that as they interact with people, they’re going to be acting on their own theories. And in acting on theories in a teaching/learning situation uh what may happen is that uh the teacher’s views will play out. If the teacher believes that they are in fact the holder of information and that students are learning information um and the teacher is dominant in that learning interaction, then in fact the teacher’s questioning or the teacher’s talk will predominate. And so a teacher needs to be um understanding of how their own views and how the views that the child brings into the interaction are playing out uh to direct the outcome one way or another. Um, and one could think about it as uh a teacher may be um more dominating in the interaction and initiate or demand certain outcomes. And the student may be very passive and uh allow for that because maybe in previous interactions the same pattern has happened and so the teach—the child gets quieter and quieter and brings forth less and less language. Um, and so for a teacher to be able to evaluate their own teaching and to evaluate whether or not the goals that they have set for the um teaching/learning interaction are being met, they really have to be analyzing are their own theories of interaction and their own theories of learning being played out in a positive instance to accomplish the goals that they may have as a teacher, or jointly the goals that the teacher and child may have together.

As I look at um my interactions with teachers and I think that the—this comes from my own desire to help teachers meet their own goals which is to become a better teacher—that if I can help a teacher see through their own acts of teaching, that they can take a reflective stance on their own teaching. That in reflecting on their teaching in light of their own purposes, um and whether or not those purposes were well met and whether or not in that interaction the child is doing as a learner what the teacher wants the child to do, then I can help the teacher examine their own theoretical assumptions. Um, in every instance of where I work with teachers, I will draw upon the interaction of teaching and the result of student participation in the learning setting as a way of helping the teacher reflect on what is occurring and why that is occurring. And if that is what the teacher wants to occur then I have to in some ways um put in ambiance my own desires if mine are other then the teachers. Um, but certainly I think it’s important for teachers to think about um their interactions with children as a way of examining their own assumptions.

Well, I’ve had uh maybe you might call it a transition point myself in terms of um the study of theoretical orientation. I do believe that theory and practice unite at points along a continuum of practice. And to me that means that um we’re always seeking because of how our mind works to derive theoretical propositions. That’s how we see our wo—way in the world. Um, and so to me that means that theory is always being generated. Hypotheses are always being generated and that what’s going to happen is that there’s going to be the interplay of your own purposes, your own goals, your own background of experiences um in light of your observations of what’s occurring in the world around you. So that theory will be always evolving to some extent. So I don’t see that theory is um going to remain constant rather that theory’s going to evolve. So if I believe that theory is going to evolve, when I started my early work on theoretical orientation, the world was um evolving in such a way for the uh reading instruction and literacy instruction that there was an interplay of orientations that were dominant orientations at that point in time. And at that point in time there was a phonics perspective, there was a skills perspective, and there was a whole language perspective. And each of those um were in some ways finite in that one could say that a—a phonics orientation that teachers from one to another would be more likely to respond in a certain pattern and vice versa, that there were certain expectations for teachers who generally held a skills perspective, that they would respond in like ways. But there was also a bit of overlap such that um teachers who believed in a skills approach but who also help um a part of their orientation, a belief that phonics was important within that might overlap in some of their response patterns. Um, the pat—the pattern that was most dominantly different from—from the phonics and the skills orientation was the whole language orientation. Well, however, now today I think we’ve entered into a different world to some—in some regards. We still have the battle of whole language versus phonics. That’s still at play and so I still think that there is a phonics orientation in the world and that there’s a whole language orientation in the world. But I’m also beginning to wonder if there may need to be um a—a reanalysis done because of the anthropological, cultural, social cultural um political critique. Uh, each of those have begun to have their own interplay in the development of theory in the world. And so they may also have an impact on what comes to be um viewed as the dominant views available for teachers that will have an impact on what they choose to do instructionally. So um I’m um at the point of thinking that it may need for—for me, given my previous work, to reorient myself or at least open up uh for possibilities of some other orientations to be examined in the future.

I think probably the field of study for me that’s the most exciting is young children’s learning. And if I look at what I’ve done in children’s writing development, um it continues to feed my thinking. And the reason is because learning is such a complex event and each event is connected to other events in the way we process and learn. Um, I think of the power of analogy. Um, if you look at narrative and how people talk with each other, they will not reference the single moment or the single topic, they will unbearably link that topic to other instances um that the two individuals may share or if the individuals don’t share that, um a single moment, what will happen is you will have an aside narrative where the individual will expand upon the context so that they have a reference point. Well, I think that what happens in conversation um is also what we are doing as individuals to learn um as well as to interact ‘cause those are dominate needs that we have as human beings. If I look at children’s learning about writing, what happens for them is they’ve been engaged in a world of oral language filled with language, filled with the dynamics of interaction with others around language. And it isn’t language for language sake; it’s language to serve many different purposes. Well writing as another symbol system, print as another symbol system, enters into the child’s engagements with language through purposeful action. So what you have is the child going with mom and dad to get something to eat and so they find themselves at McDonald’s. And within the context of McDonald’s there will be print and there will be examples that the child will tie to mom and dad, food, uh warmth, enjoyment, uh smell, and print. And so you have what happens for the young child is that every interaction they have around language that involves print and purpose that are authentic experiences for them, they will take out of that setting multiple kinds of learning. So what happens when a teacher of kindergarten, let’s say um says hello to many new children that walk through the door of that school for their first formal experiences with learning. What will—the best analogy that I can draw—it was drawn by Maree Clay in her new book, uh “By Different Paths To Common Outcomes.” In this book she uses um a metaphor of a puzzle piece. Each child comes to school with in their hand several puzzle pieces and each of those pieces are extremely important to that child. They characterize in each of those pieces something very important to them. I can start with a name. They invariably know what their name is. And if they can’t write their name fully, first name, last name, middle initial, they will be able to write some aspect of their name. Well it happens that that’s a set of puzzle pieces that are very dynamic for the child because it’s almost as if you could consider their name as the center of a web from which they are going to build multiple connections out to other experiences that relate to themselves, their world, and print that they hold in their hand by writing their name. So if you look at what children come to school knowing and you give a survey of—a test where you want to sample, “Well, what do children come to school knowing?” You could give them a name test. You can give them um a writing test. “How many words do you know? What words do you know? Do you know your—your name? Do you know your mom’s name? Do you know your dad’s name? Do you know your sister’s name, your brother’s name? The name of your dog, the name of your cat?” You can explore names with a child and really get a wealth of information about what they’ve picked up about print. The important thing to understand is what they know about print either by write of the letters that they might know or what those letters stand for in terms of sound relationships to letter relationships or names of people that start like that. Names of—of words that begin the same way. What you’re seeing is that children learn through analogy and so the first analog that has real import to them is their name. And from that they will learn other words that begin the same way, other words that sound the same, other words that mean the same but look differently. (Noise from mic) I, me, my. It’s mine. Each of those will become a stepping-stone for the child to venture forth into literacy and learning more about print just from what they know about their name.

Well, if you look at—at what’s in a name, you can go from a cultural perspective. Um, I was talking about a name from a literacy perspective. Um, when I talk about the child learning about print from—drive from the knowledge they can be—the knowledge that can be derived about their name and literacy and print because of their name. If I look at um what a child comes to school knowing, you really have to begin to understand what the child comes to learning with from their own culture and their own cultural experiences. And if—if you were to think about the importance of language, the important of the home, and the importance of the ritual practices they engage with in the home, whatever you do within a school context ought to draw upon the strengths that the child brings. And one of those strengths is their culture. One of those strengths is the knowledge that they’ve cognitively added up, so to speak. Um, so the survey test, if you want to give a survey, is really a good starting place but really language is the best way of learning about children and coming to know who they are and what they are about and ways that the teacher can begin to use that information, informalizing instruction that actually touches base—base with who the child is and what the child can become given what they bring.

It use to be that we thought about the systems of language, oral language, reading, writing, as being separate ways of knowing so that you could assess and learn about the child’s oral language. You could assess and learn about the child’s understandings about reading and assess and learn about the child’s understandings about writing. It is possible to do that. But for my perspective, the most important thing for us to understand is that oral language is a foundation that provides for a child of—an arena in which they can play. If you would think about football, for example, if you know about football you know the rules for how football is and acted and you kind of have a sense for how does one act in a football field. And you have the roles and the expectations for whether you are a participant or whether you are a spectator, uh whether you are a coach. And each of those have certain boundaries that have to be adhered to in order to play the game of football. Well in oral language, you’re going to have the same set of rules that get derived through interaction, but it isn’t the case that reading is separate from oral language. Um, print is in fact a representation of oral language. It has many similar rules and conditions of use but there are probably also some particularly rules that get enacted in writing that might not get enacted in oral language setting. So what you have is that oral language and written language are overlapping domains and they’re probably more overlapping then they are separate. So for me if I understand oral language and learn and understand how we use language to accomplish our goals and how we use language as a tool, then what we have to understand that when we’re looking at reading, we are drawing upon the resources that we have as a—a language user and we will draw upon what we know as an oral language user. But we will also have to draw upon particular rules that we have to engage and use that are applying in the read—in the print or written setting that the reader has to use a reader. And as a writer one is going to be drawing on the kinds of information you use as an oral language user but also the kinds of conventions that get applied to the written code that might not be part of the code in oral language. And so um part of what we do when we’re teaching in reading recovery children who are just grappling with learning about the written symbol system is to really draw upon their strength and oral language to help them use that oral language and to understand that what we’re doing when we start to write is actually represent in a symbolic form what they want to say as an oral language user. But the result will be that what is said, it gets represented in print. And that’s a very interesting concept for the child to learn because once they grapple with that, that what I see in print is in fact a message that I can relate to as an oral language user. Then they start to learn differently about the symbol system because there’s a more dynamic setting there for them to draw upon which is the relationship between oral language and written language.

Reading recovery is a program that was devised by Maree Clay in work with teacher in New Zealand. If you understand New Zealand as a cultural and geographic setting, it is an island and it is surrounded by several seas and oceans. And one of the dominant events that happens in New Zealand is one of sailing. Reading recovery was—came about as a name um because of the notion of navigation. That one can be navigating a course and find that you have begun to move off course and may need to recover your course. And so reading recovery is about um a—an early intervention program for 1st grade children who are on a path in literacy and within their path they may need to reorient themselves at points along the way um so that they recover in the sense of navigating themselves within the world of reading in more strategic ways.

When Maree Clay initiated the research that gave her the idea for reading recovery, she examined what good readers were doing in—after their first year of school and um also was looking at children um who seemed to be struggling. And as she researched what good readers were doing and what average children were doing and what children who were—were showing themselves to be achieving in low progress forms, she began to see certain markers that would help her understand um what is the path that children are—are on and whether the paths that they are following are going to bring them to the outcome uh that teachers may have, which is learning to read. And what it has led her to think about is that there are actually multiple paths that may bring children to the same outcome. But what the teacher has to have in mind is a very good sense of what are the kinds of actions that good readers employ and therefore help children taking different paths to be able to marshal the same resources in their own reading. And so the—the notion of children taking different paths may mean a child might come to us as a learner and in fact learned an awful lot of items about literacy. They may know many letters of the alphabet. They, in fact, may be able to write several words. They may be able to attempt writing a message and be able to use some print symbols to represent the oral language. They may know, for example, in trying to write the word ‘cat’ that they hear a ‘c’ and will record a ‘c’. So they may have lots of items of information but we know that items are not enough. What—for the child who is learning to read, they have to learn how to orchestrate that information so that they are using a lot of different items of knowledge and forming certain strategies that will allow them to use that information in problem solving ways. So a child who may come to us uh knowing a lot of letters but may not be able to read, the teacher may have to take a different strategic path in teaching to help that child be able to use the knowledge base that they have to develop the kinds of strategies they may need to develop so they can use that information well as a reader. Another child may come and have a very well formed system of meaning and stories but—and—and they may be able to write a lot but they may not necessarily be able to read as well. So what a teacher has to be able to do is to search out and find the kinds of things the children bring as systems of knowledge or resources and help to employ those strengths and navigate a course using that information that will lead the child to be more strategic.

In the field of literacy education I think that schools are at a crossroads. There are very many groups of people, legislators, parents, other teachers at different grade levels, um principals, business men, women, uh corporations, uh all of whom have some stake in literacy. And so they see themselves as wanting to have an impact on literacy and schools are at this point in my minds eye being almost torn apart by the multiple players who are having an impact right now on the context of schooling. And this can be a positive but it can also be a negative. In every instance there can be a positive and a negative outcome. For me schools need to be in charge of what happens in the name of instruction and teachers are the front line of expertise. And so teachers need to be able to take charge of the curriculum and if there are going to be assessments, which I believe are necessary, those assessments need to be done in a planful way rather then a high stakes way. And for me, educational reform is something that I seek for but I cannot let the reform be the tail that I grab onto and lose the horse in the gamble. For me what happens in schools today, I have to have a goal as an educator to work with teachers to bring about the very best teaching that I can. I can do that without the cooperation of the school but it will be a much harder endeavor. The school can take on the enterprise of literacy and they can do that without their community but that will be a much harder endeavor. So I see that all of us are attempting to co-construct a positive but we’ve lost our focus. And to me the focus is the teacher and the child, and the construction of curriculum around learning goals that are checked along the way. And what I see today is that we have many calls for standards, we have many calls for assessment and the assessment is coming closer and closer together and it’s taking over more and more of the curriculum and in my minds eye what’s going to happen is that we will have less and less learning and we will take away from teacher’s hands the very thing they need which is time to create contexts that are the best contexts for students’ learning.

I think that for me what I’ve learned most about teaching and learning is that the teacher has power and the student has power and both of those need to be understood so that the greatest potential for learning can be explored. And within every teaching instance and learning instance—I prefer actually the—the Russian term uh that there is not a term for teaching and a term for learning. There is a term for teaching/learning. And so in my mind’s eye, if we understand that uh we as teachers are learning as we teach and that children are learning but also teaching us, that we can get a sense of the power that the teacher has and the learner has in every interaction. Besides the power of teaching and learning, I think that—that we have to understand that all of us operate best when we can operate from a position of strength. And so the teacher needs to be able to teach from their strength and the child needs to be able to learn from their strength. So that what teaching is about to me is understanding the students’ strength, having an understanding of the processes that are about to be learned in such an intimate way that no matter what direction the child comes from the teacher can catch that ball and toss it back to the child such that the child can catch that ball and use it. So for me teaching is a powerful instance of learning when the teacher works from the child’s strengths. And finally, to understand the power of teaching I think you have to understand the relationship between what is being learning as something new and how it must relate to something the child already knows. So you teach by bringing in new knowledge and relating it to the world of pervious knowledge and embedding in your teaching the lengths that children need to learn.