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Understanding that “R” or “L” Word … and Addressing the Mysterious Black Box

From: American Annals of the Deaf
Volume 158, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 393-396 | 10.1353/aad.2013.0030

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I suspect that the title of this editorial elicits your memory of a television commercial showing a father vigorously strumming an imaginary electric guitar and jumping up and down while listening to a classic-rock radio station known for delivering songs from the 1960s and ’70s. His pre-teen daughter, who peeked in the room to witness this scene, runs to her mother and proclaims, “Daddy’s doing it again!” Both mother and daughter rush into the room to see the event.

Well, yes, I am “doing it again.” That is, this is yet another editorial focusing on those convoluted constructs such as theory, research, assessment, and instruction, and their relations to reading and literacy. I recognize that there is more to life (or, rather, education) than reading/literacy. In fact, as indicated by the two letters in this issue (by Jean Andrews and John Luckner), there is indeed more to reading/literacy than just English language, American Sign Language, phonology, and on and on. The book review by Ye Wang (this issue) also cautions against the proffering of a single factor (e.g., the single-factor fallacy)—that is, an all-encompassing factor—to explain the reading/literacy acquisition process. Her discussion of “theoryless” constructs is to blame (or praise!) for the inclusion of the “mysterious black box” in the title of this editorial. Perhaps the title would have been longer if I had included a few constructs from the book review by Stephanie Cawthon (this issue), especially her discussion of evidence-based practices and novice versus expert readers. Admittedly, the contents of these four pieces might be enough to add to the frustrations of parents/caregivers and educators who want straight answers or guidelines for developing reading/literacy skills in their young and adolescent children who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing. Unfortunately, there are no straight or easy answers.

I encourage you to read the letters by Andrews and Luckner and Wang’s book review several times—the main focus of my editorial. (I had to, and also had to take a several walks around the block.) Not only is repeated reading a good thing, but also, you should appreciate the in-depth scholarly analyses provided by these three individuals. To keep this editorial from becoming a book chapter, I focus on a few constructs in order to add my two cents.

The “R” or “L” Word

Let us start with the “R” or “L” word; that is, reading or literacy, which seem to be used interchangeably in the two letters and Wang’s review. If you think these terms are synonymous and need no further clarification, then skip the rest of this section. However, these terms are complex and are not considered synonymous. From one perspective, reading seems to be a subset of literacy (i.e., script literacy; see, e.g., Wang, 2011), and literacy not only includes writing but also a host of other wild and imaginative constructs (e.g., Paul & Wang, 2012).

From another perspective, the focus on the improvement of reading—as documented by the National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) and the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP, 2008)—might mask the larger goals of literacy, for example, “expanded uses of various literacies to serve a range of purposes” (Tierney, 2008, p. 95). Several scholars have argued that this narrowing of reading, as made evident by the recommendations or implications of the NRP, NELP, and evidence-based practices, leads to a narrowing of the direction of instruction (e.g., see discussion in Tierney, 2008). The narrowing of the direction of instruction constrains the creativity of teachers, compels them to teach the test, to view reading as a set of skills to be acquired, and to perform other activities that are not only not meaningful but also seem divorced from the authentic process of learning.

We might not be able to resolve the dissensions or disagreements on the construct of reading (or literacy) or even whether there are effective or best practices for teaching reading to either a group of students or to individual students. Perhaps one way to minimize the confusion of the “R” or “L” word—for now—is to assume that...

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