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by Mark Willis (1996)
When I look at a written text, I see it only as a whole field. If there is sufficient contrast between ink and paper, I can tell that a text is present, but it differentiates no further. I do not see words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs. I do not begin to extract semantic meaning from the text's individual semiotic signs. What I see becomes a kind of meta-sign that reminds me of two inseparable experiences that could represent the "meaning" in my life: my visual disability and the ongoing process of adapting to it. For me, a text is a barrier to cross, a problem to be solved.
My visual disability results from a degenerative retina condition known as Stargard disease. It has diminished my photopic or focused eyesight gradually over the past twenty-five years. My remaining sight is mostly scotopic or peripheral. I typically identify myself as partially blind and partially sighted. I meet the definition of the label legally blind, but a more useful way to describe my disability is to say that I am socially blind. My most significant functional limitations involve the ability to see, decode, and exchange visual information in social situations. This includes the nonverbal, gestural communication exchanged among individuals, the traffic signals and street signs that regulate the pace and efficiency of social life, and written texts presented in the print media or displayed on computer screens.
As a child with normal eyesight, I acquired the traditional literacy skills promoted by public schooling. I became an insatiable reader, and I already had begun my career path as a journalist, before the onset of my disability at age 18. After that literacy became increasingly problematic. Limitations with accessing and using written texts interrupted my college education and my employment as a writer. During a two-year period when I read no books at all, I doubted whether I was capable of literacy. Over time, however, I began to develop new literacy skills and behaviors to meet my particular needs. This process of making adaptations and negotiating accommodations has continued throughout my adult life. I refer to it now as the search for a literacy without limits, and I recognize it to be the leading edge of my lifelong learning and development.
Although this search is
driven by individual motives, it follows social paths. My experience
of literacy as an adult cuts against the grain of widely held intellectual
assumptions -- that literacy is an individual rather than a social activity,
that reading and logical thinking are mostly silent processes distinctly
different from speech, that written texts exist as autonomous entities
apart from their contexts. A better fit for my experience of literacy
is the broad definition proposed by anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath
(1992): literacy is a social phenomenon embracing the skills necessary
to store and retrieve information in written form. When literacy is
viewed first as a social phenomenon, it follows that disabilities involving
literacy are also social phenomena. The same is true for the adaptations
and accommodations needed to live with such disabilities.
The work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1895-1934) provides a rich theoretical framework for examining the social context of literacy and disability. Vygotsky was a founder of Moscow's Institute of Defectology in 1924. Defectology was then the Soviet appellation for the field known today as special education. The term probably reflected the Soviet predilection for a scientific approach to disability rather than any implicit attitude toward disabled people, according to Vygotsky biographer Alex Kozulin. In the decade following the Russian Revolution, Kozulin writes, "All forms of deviancy and disability were viewed primarily in terms of their social consequences and requirements for the welfare state" (p. 198). Vygotsky's view was no exception. He stated in 1925, "Blindness or deafness, as a psychological fact, is not at all a misfortune, but, as a social fact, it becomes such" (1994b, p. 20). The significant limitations of a disability resulted not so much from the physical or sensory defect itself, but from its impact on social relationships and psychological processes. Instead of correcting the defect, Vygotsky believed that rehabilitation efforts should try to adjust the disabled child's social relations to find alternate processes of psychological development.
The scope of Vygotsky's work was not limited to problems of special education, however. The psychological theories that he articulated between 1924-34, based on research with disabled and nondisabled children, sought to explain how human cognition is shaped by social and cultural forces. The central tenet of Vygotsky's cognitive theory maintains that all higher mental processes (language use, voluntary attention, and logical memory, to name but a few) originate in social relationships. Language use, for example, begins as communicative speech between a child and parent, an external activity in a social situation. Only then does a child begin to use language as inner speech, the internal activity that becomes the basis of subsequent forms of thinking. The process of mentally reconstructing shared external activities is internalization. Higher mental processes can be understood as internalized social relationships.
"The internalization of socially rooted and historically developed activities," Vygotsky concluded, "is the distinguishing feature of human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology" (1978, p. 57). According to Michael Cole and Sylvia Scribner, who brought Vygotsky's Mind in Society to publication in the U.S. in 1978, Vygotsky was "the first modern psychologist to suggest the mechanisms by which culture becomes part of each person's nature" (p. 6).
Vygotsky proposed the concept of the zone of proximal development to explain how a child's learning and cognitive development evolve together, dynamically, in social situations. He defined the zone of proximal development as
Vygotsky's concept was
a theoretical challenge to the standardized intelligence testing that
began to influence educational policy-making in the 1920s and 1930s.
His research found that children who were assessed at equal levels of
mental development could vary greatly in their ability to learn with
a teacher's guidance. Such children were not the same mental age, he
concluded, and the course of their learning necessarily would be different.
Testing a child's actual developmental level looks backward at mental
functions that already have matured. Assessing a child's zone of proximal
development looks forward at mental functions that are embryonic and
not yet matured. It thus allows a perspective on the child's dynamic
developmental processes that are still forming, in addition to what
already has formed.
Vygotsky believed that learning was ineffective when it was oriented exclusively toward developmental levels that had already been achieved. Instead, learning activities should push the learner toward potential developmental levels. The education of mentally retarded children, for example, was based on "concrete, look-and-do" learning activities because they had limited abilities for abstract thinking. Vygotsky believed that such methods reinforced the children's disability. "Precisely because retarded children, when left to themselves, will never achieve well-elaborated forms of abstract thinking," he wrote, "the school should make every effort to push them in that direction and develop in them what is intrinsically lacking in their own development" (1978, p. 89).
In Vygotsky's original formulation, the zone of proximal development enabled interaction between the "scientific" or systematic concepts of an adult and the "everyday" or spontaneous concepts of a child. As an educational tool, interaction in the zone is structured by a teacher to guide the child's participation in a shared activity until the child can perform the activity independently. Kozulin operationalizes the concept thus, "The educator diagnoses the depth of the zone and constructs a sequence of activities with the gradually diminishing contribution of an adult and the growing contribution of the ... child" (p. 202).
Effective learning drives actual mental development, according to Vygotsky, and it does so by creating zones of proximal development. "(L)earning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his [or her] environment and in cooperation with his [or her] peers," he concluded. "Once these processes are internalized, they become part of the child's independent developmental achievement" (1978, p. 90).
When Vygotsky first formulated
his theory of internalization, he noted that only "the barest outline
of this process is known" (1978, p. 57). His work began to attract
the attention of Western psychologists and educators only in the 1970s.
According to Kozulin, investigators in the West have expanded the concept
of the zone of proximal development, shifting from Vygotsky's original
emphasis on the interaction of systematic and spontaneous thinking to
examine other "dialogical, intersubjective" aspects of learning
in social environments (p. 170). Vygotsky's theories are most widely
applied today to issues of child development and learning in formal
educational settings. I believe Vygotsky's ideas also can illuminate
the social processes that adults follow as they adapt to disabilities.
To illustrate my point, I will retrace one path I followed in my search
for a literacy without limits.
As I lost the ability to read printed texts, I actively sought new information through experiences that were rich in oral discourse. In addition to social conversation with all types of people, I attended lectures, meetings, poetry readings, plays, and movies. I listened avidly to public radio. Occasionally other people read texts orally to me. I realize now that these experiences were precursors for developing a literacy based on listening to texts rather than seeing them. Perhaps the most important precursor was my growing awareness that, if I wanted to acquire new knowledge, I had to actively seek social interactions that provided diverse opportunities for dialogue. I think many of these dialogical experiences functioned as zones of proximal development, albeit informal or tacit ones.
My second literacy blossomed when I began to read "talking" books, the popular name for oral/aural texts recorded in several sound reproduction media. I can trace this transformation to a particular social interaction with one of my most influential mentors, my sister Diana. She is 13 years older than I, and she also has a visual disability. Diana has more focused and less peripheral eyesight than I have. Her limited vision began as a young child and presented problems throughout her public school education. Our parents and school officials recognized that she had a problem, and vision testing became a frequent, frustrating, and inconclusive experience for her. The tests did not lead to a medical diagnosis, treatment, corrective eyeglasses, or classroom accommodations. When she graduated from high school in 1960, a guidance counselor told her that she should "just be a housewife" because she could never get through college. Despite that advice, perhaps in spite of it, she completed a bachelor's degree in four years at Ohio State University and became a first-grade school teacher.
Diana's retina disease was not diagnosed until mine was in 1973. At that time she was age 31, and her diagnosis was retinitis pigmentosa. Eight years later I travelled to Memphis, where she lived, so that a retina specialist there could examine us both at the same time. Although our fields of vision differ significantly in configuration, he concluded that we had to have the same genetically determined condition. Diana's diagnosis was changed to Stargard disease.
During the same visit to Memphis, Diana showed me a talking book cassette player loaned to her by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a division of the Library of Congress. At her prodding, I sat down and listened to the book she was reading then, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. We listened together for a time, then I plugged a cheap wire earphone into the machine. For the first time in years, I had the sensation of private, solitary reading. The cassette player was bulkier than a book, but it was portable. I could carry it from room to room or walk outside to read in the garden. By the end of my visit I was hooked on this new way of reading. Diana sent me home with a spare cassette player that she somehow had finagled from the NLS, and I called the NLS regional library the next day to borrow my own talking books.
This was not my first exposure to talking books, however. Several years after the onset of my disability a rehabilitation counselor had given me an NLS disk player. Before the NLS developed cassette books, talking books were recorded on thick celluloid disks that resembled 78 rpm phonograph records. They played at 16.5 rpm, a much slower speed that enabled about an hour and forty minutes of audio text per record side. A typical book required four to six records. The disk player was not portable and could not be used with an earphone. Reading with it was not a private or moveable feast.
The disk player gathered dust in my house. Every two or three months the NLS sent me sample books that I did not want to read. The automatic distribution program was intended to introduce new talking book readers to the library's offerings. My impression of the NLS catalog then was that it offered little more than the Living Bible, Louis L'Amour westerns, and inspirational self-help books. There seemed to be little that could interest a twenty-something writer who was losing his eyesight and struggling to maintain a once boundless literacy.
As often as not I misplaced the unread books and failed to return them to the NLS. I became what librarians for the blind call a "hoarder," a borrower who must be nagged, cajoled, or threatened to return talking books. I also qualified for a malaise that rehabilitation counselors call the "dresser drawer" syndrome. This occurs when disabled people neglect to use the adaptive devices given to them by rehabilitation programs. This behavior is sometimes explained as the disabled person's denial of the need to adapt or resistance to the rehabilitation efforts of others. Hoarding and the dresser drawer syndrome are common enough phenomena to acquire bureaucratic labels, but little attention has been paid to the behaviors that may motivate them.
So what made the difference when I began to read my sister's copy of Anna Karenina? The change in technology from disks to cassettes was part of it. So was the discovery of a recorded book that I really wanted to read. Both factors eased the transition from print to oral/aural literacy. Cassette technology enabled me to read by myself whenever and wherever I chose to do so -- familiar reading behaviors from print literacy. The novel, recorded by a mellifluous professional narrator, was an appealing and easily readable introduction to audio texts. I could read it with the same speed and attentiveness that one reads a "page-turner" at the beach. By comparison the audio editions of Vygotsky's Thought and Language or Mind in Society would have been discouraging introductions to a new literacy. Oral/aural reading of technical, expository texts can be slow going, requiring close concentration and frequent pauses and rewinding of audio tape.
More significant than reading technology or content, though, was the social context in which this transformation occurred. From the perspective of Vygotsky's theory, the context created a zone of proximal development in which I could participate in a new literacy activity with a more skilled and influential peer. Reading Diana's talking book began as a shared external activity. Then I internalized it as an individual behavior, at first adapting it to familiar behaviors already internalized from print literacy. The development of my second literacy began in this zone of social interaction, but it was not completed there. After 15 years of reading this way, I know that developing the social and cognitive skills necessary for oral/aural literacy has been an ongoing process that has unfolded through many other social contexts.
The zone of proximal development
described here differs in two important ways from Vygotsky's original
formulation. It involved an adult-adult rather than an adult-child interaction.
Although one of the adults was more skilled in oral/aural literacy than
the other, the interaction was not planned structured to achieve an
explicit learning goal. Nonetheless, the zone created an environment
with dialogical interaction and intersubjectivity where learning could
take place. According to psychologist James Wertsch, participants in
a zone of proximal development -- indeed, in any dialogical situation
-- must agree at some level about the definition of objects and tasks
in the situation. The negotiation of meaning (situation definition)
by the participants establishes their intersubjectivity, a temporarily
shared social reality (Wertsch, 1985, pp. 156-66).
Diana and I share a durable social reality. Its intersubjectivity includes a longstanding sibling relationship, a genetic retina disease, and a similar visual disability. She is the closest person in my social world who experiences literacy in the same ways I do. The strongest intersubjective element in our zone of proximal development, although it was not acknowledged explicitly at the time, may have been our shared motive. Our first literacies were valuable to us, and our disability presented a shared problem which we had to solve to gain a second literacy. A teacher or rehabilitation counselor could have told me about talking books in a prescriptive way, but could not have shared the same motive to solve a mutual problem.
Vygotsky's attention turned to motive near the end of his life, but he did not live to explore its implications fully. In the concluding chapter of Thought and Language, he traced the process of internalization through several functional planes, beginning with external speech (communicative speech shared with others) and moving inward to inner speech (thinking for one's self). Vygotsky considered motive to be the inward-most function in the process. His discussion of motive does not limit it to a purely internal function, however. Its function is inextricably linked to problem-solving on the external, social plane. Vygotsky wrote that "every thought creates a connection, fulfills a function, solves a problem" (1994a, p. 249). In Vygotsky's model, motive is not the final result of the process by which language is transformed into thought; motive is the source that drives the process. "Thought is not begotten by thought," he wrote, "it is engendered by motivation, i.e., by our desires and needs, our interests and emotions" (1994a, p. 252).
When I apply Vygotsky's
ideas to my own experiences with literacy and disability, I find that
a possible outcome of a zone of proximal development could be the renewal
of motive. My sister and I have "talked" talking books ever
since we first listened to Anna Karenina together. Our shared
experiences with oral/aural literacy has deepened our understanding
and use of it. Our shared motive to solve literacy problems has sustained
the search for solutions until literacy itself was transformed. We make
up a learning community of two in our particular, intersubjective way.
We have created zones of proximal development for one another throughout
our adult lives as we continue to adapt and live with our disability.
My fitful, uneven progress toward new ways of reading underscores a final point about oral/aural literacy. This literacy is not simply a shift in sensory perception (from vision to hearing) or information technology (from print to audio texts). Reading an audio text, no matter how carefully it is recorded, is not the same as reading a printed text. Oral/aural reading involves complex cognitive processes (Vygotsky's higher mental functions). I think the development of these processes requires transformations, rather than simple extensions, of processes involved in speech events and recognition of visual signs. Developing the skills necessary for a different type of literacy is not innate, and it is not guaranteed by the availability of adaptive technology. An adaptive device, crucial as it may be, is only a tool in the larger social process of adaptation.
From a Vygotskian perspective,
developing a different type of literacy requires the internalization
of socially rooted and historically developed activities -- activities
that are shaped and transmitted by culture. I believe the internalization
of oral/aural literacy is as complex and richly varied in possibilities
as the internalization of print literacy. The cognitive and social processes
involved in oral/aural literacy have not yet been studied in any detail
from the perspective of psycholinguistics, ethnography, or education.
Although an oral/aural text represents a barrier that has been crossed,
it continues to present problems to be solved. In my experience, those
problems represent the developmental potential for literacy and learning.
Cole, Michael & Scribner, Sylvia. (1978). Introduction to L. Vygotsky, Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (pp. 1-14). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Heath, Shirley Brice. (1992). Literacy: An overview. In W. Bright (Ed.), The International encyclopedia of linguistics (Vol. 2, pp. 337-340). New York: Oxford University Press.
Kozulin, Alex. (1990). Vygotsky's psychology: A biography of ideas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tolstoy, Leo. (1965). Anna Karenina. Narrated by Guy Sorel. New York: Modern Library (Audio text RC 12563. Washington, D.C.: National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped).
Vygotsky, Lev. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Edited by Michael Cole, et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vygotsky, Lev. (1994a). Thought and language. Translated, newly revised, and edited by Alex Kozulin. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.
Vygotsky, Lev. (1994b). Principles of social education for deaf and dumb children in Russia. In R. van der Veer and J. Valsiner (Eds.), The Vygotsky Reader (pp. 19-26). Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.
Wertsch, James V. (1985).
Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Last updated 031104 (MW).