Researching Literate Lives

Jerome C. Harste & Carolyn L. Burke

Emeriti Professors, Indiana University


            Children growing up in literate societies see adults responding to oral and written language on a daily basis.  They also see what roles art, music, mathematics, drama, movement and other forms of literacy play in meaning making.  Not surprisingly, they engage in literate behavior long before they are able to independently read or write.  Literate behavior is what they see demonstrated when interacting with the members of their family on a daily basis. It is in family settings that they begin to experiment with language in an effort to figure out how language and literacy works as well as where they learn how chunk their world in terms of ideas for purposes of thinking, talking, writing or representing it.  From this perspective the family is the child’s first language learning laboratory. 

            The parent-researchers in this volume are all experts in the field of literacy education – they are researchers who happen to be parents.  They have taken advantage of their expertise and their privilege to look at language and literacy learning from an “insider” perspective.  In so doing, these studies make a significant contribution to the profession’s ongoing debate concerning how literacy develops and how it might best be supported.

            However, the audience for this volume is clearly more broad than parent-researchers.  These studies provide insights and perspective into language and literacy learning that are useful to teachers, teacher educators, language researchers, and parents.  The volume is an invitation to think together about how best to support language and literacy learning.

            There are several things to consider should you wish to join the conversation.  First is consideration of the theory of language and of language learning that underlies these studies.  You need to identify both the language assumptions made by the authors and those made by yourself.  Which are being tested?  Which are being supported?  Which are being challenged?    

            Second is to note and value the unique position that parents and parent-researchers have in observing uninterrupted and unselfconscious language learning.  Taking advantage of the opportunities to observe your child in a host of everyday literacy events gives you knowledge of your child’s language development that outsiders need.

            The third issue deals with the conduct of research itself.  Not all research settings are equal.  Take note of the context in terms of which tenets of the language theory are operating, which ones are violated, and which are not being tested.

            In what follows we explicate each of these characteristics by looking across the chapters.    Our intent is to pull together what we see as three key aspects of parent-research that the authors of this volume address, sometimes explicitly and sometimes tacitly.  In either case we unabashedly adorn the authors’ points by drawing from our own ten year study of written language learning among young children (Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984).


Understanding and Contributing to Theory

One of the strengths of this volume is that all of the studies reported operate from a consistent theory of language learning.  While some of the authors have called it a transactive socio-psycholinguistic theory of language learning, others have called it a socio-cultural theory of language learning, and still others a socio-semiotic view of language learning.  Despite the various labels, from a linguistic perspective the studies in this volume are anchored in a systemic functional model of literacy and learning (Halliday & Matthiesen, 2013).  Some of the basic tenets of this model are delineated below.

            Literacy Learning is Social.  Language did not develop because of one learner, but because of two learners, who wanted to communicate.  Figure 1 illustrates the fact that all that confronts the senses are stimuli of various sorts.  If we as perceivers see a table or a person or an object, it is because of what the brain did in sorting and organizing these stimuli.  Our individual making of meaning is called semiosis (for example, calling some array of stimuli “a table”).  The process by which an individual convinces others to call this same array of stimuli the same thing he or she is calling it, is called semiotics.  Semiotics, then, is the study of how groups of people come to make and share meaning.

            In making sense of this bombardment of stimuli, the brain uses sign systems (language, art, music, math, dance) to placehold the meaning that was made as well as share that meaning with others.  This is the core process in meaning making:  The signs humans create allow them to communicate with each other as well as make sense of their world.  (For a more elaborate definition of signs see Kabato, this volume.)


            There are several corollaries to this tenet.  Most of what anyone knows about language and other semiotic systems has been learned from being in the presence of others (Wells, 2009).  This is why examining the impact of significant others (parents, siblings, playmates, teachers) on a child’s linguistic development is vital to the profession’s understanding of literacy learning. Marcia Baghban’s study of Giti (1984) was one of the parent-research studies that first explored how siblings influence each other’s language learning.

            A further corollary of this tenet is that all texts reside in context.  This means that whatever is produced is affected by the context of situation in which it occurs.  One of the best examples we can provide is the three writing samples we collected from 4-year olds in our study of early literacy (Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984).  Dawn is a 4-year old from the United States.  Najeeba is a 4-year old from Saudi Arabia.  Ofer is a 4-year old from Israel.  In comparison to the writing that Najeeba and Ofer penned, Dawn’s writing looks distinctively American.  When Najeeba finished writing her piece, she said, “Here, but you can’t read it, because in Arabic we use a lot more dots than you do in English.”  Ofer’s grandmother commented, “Uff…it looks like Hebrew, but he wrote it backwards!”


            What is important about these writing samples is that they: (1) clearly show that children pay attention to print and are written language learners long before schooling; (2) that children are very sensitive to the context in which they are learning language; (3) that meaning making drives the language learning process; and (4) that children learn written language much like they learn oral language, by growing up in a literate environment as they interact with others in everyday events.  The studies in this volume show that children are written language learners long before 4 years of age. Several of the studies in this volume – specifically, those conducted by Miller, Lopez-Robinson, and Haddis – highlight context and its effect on language learning.

            To understand literacy from a community perspective it is helpful to think about what social practices are in place.  The social practices parents engage in at home and that teachers engage in at school each maintain certain forms of literacy while discouraging other forms.  More educators are coming to consider art, music, mathematics, and the like as literacies.  However, if the social practices that are in place in either the school or the home fail to recognize these literacies, learners come to see them as not valuable.  Sometimes the social practices that are valued in the home are very different from the social practices that are in valued in school.  Many of the chapters in this volume talk about the tensions that arise when children encounter different discourse communities. 

            Maderazo’s study of Leo demonstrates how children may seem literate by their parents prior to going to school and then be labeled “struggling” in school where passing a standardized test is the only literacy valued.   How teachers, parents, and researchers view literacy makes a huge difference to the learner.

            Different social groups have different ways of inducting their children into literacy.  Sometimes the social practices that certain groups have in place hinder, rather than facilitate language learning.  Insisting on “correct” spelling (linguistically this is conventional spelling) can stop a child from writing.  By 4 years of age most children know that there is a “preferred way” to spell a word.  About this time parents get harangued with questions like, “How do you spell…?”  Rather than allow their children to make correctness the focus of their language learning, the parent-researchers in this volume told their children to “Do the very best you can.”  They did so operating out of the belief that in order to continue to grow as language learners, children need to rely on their own linguistic resources rather than rely on resources outside of themselves, like someone spelling the word for them.  They also knew that the ability to search for a conventional spelling in a dictionary is based on the ability to generate multiple functional spellings of any word.

            A literate society needs to understand what literate practices are valued.  This information will inform them, as well as outsiders, what literacies are in place.  If we as a society want to change what counts as literacy, the social practices within that society has to change.  Just defining literacy differently doesn’t do a thing.  The kinds of behaviors and social interactions that children experience on an everyday basis are what alter how literacy is perceived.  One of the most positive and hopeful outcomes of the parent-researcher studies reported in this volume is that all of the researchers have taken what they have learned and created more supportive literacy learning environments in the schools and universities in which they teach.

            Meaning Making Drives the Language Learning Process.  From their first scribbles children assume that what they write makes sense.  Debbie Rowe (2013) has documented how intentionality develops.  It begins, she argues, with parents saying things like, “Read me what you wrote.”  Even a child’s question, “What did I write?” assumes intentionality.  From their first day-to-day interactions with others, children recognize that meaning is the core of language learning.

            Language is made up of four language systems – graphophonemics (letter-sound relationships), syntax (the flow of language; sometimes referred to as the lexico-grammatical system), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (the rules of language use that operate in a particular context of situation).  Figure 3 illustrates that any instance of language involves all four systems, but that the heart of language is semantics or meaning.


            Language has four expressions: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  It is important to understand that experiences in any of these expressions form a linguistic data pool (Burke in Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984, p. 211).  This means that what one knows in one expression of language becomes a resource for use in another expression of language.  By extension, what one knows in one semiotic system (language, art, music, mathematics, dance) becomes a resource in any of the other semiotic systems.  What individuals learn about the world from others becomes a resource for testing the new hypotheses they are considering.  Kabuto’s bilingual study reported in this volume suggests that this linguistic data pool operates not only within a language, but across different languages.


            There are several corollaries to this tenet.  Anything you can say about one expression of language you should be able to say about any other expression of language.  This is the basic tenet underlying Ken Goodman’s breakthrough insights into reading (1967).  At the time of his studies the profession knew a good deal about oral language learning.  Professor Goodman hypothesized that these same insights ought to hold true for reading.  His thinking revolutionized the profession’s understanding of the reading process.

            A second tenet follows naturally, but may be dangerous.  Anything you can say about one sign system you should be able to say about another sign system.  Because this is a logical conclusion, many language researchers refer to art, music, dance, movement, and the like as “languages.”  While all sign systems have an expression plane and a meaning plane, it may be dangerous to look at other sign systems from the frameworks that is being used to talk about language.  Looking at art, for example, through the framework of language – as having an equivalent graphophonemic, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic structure, for example – may not allow researchers to see what affordances art may have that language doesn’t.  Researchers may, as Gunther Kress has recently suggested (see Harste & Kress, 2012), be better off looking at sign systems other than language on their own terms for purposes of moving the profession’s understanding forward.

            Meaning Making is Multimodal.  Children very freely move across sign systems in an attempt to mean.  In our studies of young children, some learners used the paper and pencil we gave them as props for the story they were telling.  The pencil becomes the rabbit.  The marks on the paper serve as a trail of the hops the bunny is taking.  The paper itself is the stage for the play that the child is putting on.  As reported in Kabuto’s study, when given a new implement (such as a pen or a box of markers), young children often spend hours exploring what this particular implement affords.

            Figure 5 shows Alison’s recording of a telephone conversation that she had with her friend Jennifer.  After church Jennifer was going to bring her tutu, slippers, and hair ribbon in a bag over to Alison’s house and Alison was going to get her tutu, slippers, and hair ribbon from the dresser in her room.  Together they were going “to play ballerina,” (Alison’s words).  What is important to note is that Alison uses language (letters), art, and mathematics (the plus sign) to record her message.  (We only wish our telephone conversations ended in as tidy a presentation as what Alison managed to record in seconds after getting off the phone.)


            Our research found that young children have not compartmentalized the sign systems as adults in their society have.  Yet, by the age of 3 we found they were beginning to make distinctions, using circles, for example, to placehold their writing, and up and down strokes to placehold their drawings, or vice versa.  One surprising thing we found is that if their name started with a curved letter (like the ‘s’ in Shannon), they tended (91 percent of the time) to use circles or curved letter to placehold their writing, and up and down strokes to placehold their drawings.  The opposite was true for children whose name started with an up and down stroke (like Thomas).

            A corollary to this tenet is that children invent language for themselves from the inside out.  Rather than learn through imitation (passively), children learn language by being active agents, formulating rules for how they think language works and then testing these out.  This is why children produce oral language sentences like, “I eated breakfast” or as Alison announced when coming home from preschool one day, “Megan was being so unconcentrative that she didn’t see me fall.” 

            This same process operates in written language learning as Prisca Martens demonstrates (this volume) in her ethnography of her daughter’s journey toward literacy.   It is also one of the reasons that we do not like to talk about early literacy learning as being a different process than what we as adults engage in.  This is the problem we have with the term “emergent literacy.”  It suggests that “real literacy” somehow is an end result and that what the child is doing right now is just preliminary to the real thing.  We would argue that while the quality of our hypothesis may vary based on experience, the underlying process that 3-year olds are engaged in is the very process we too are engaged in.

            Language is not a commodity to be mastered.  The profession used to think about literacy as something you either had or you didn’t have.  When seen as a commodity, literacy was likened to an on and off switch.  Most of the time, literacy was also seen as an all or nothing affair.  You either could spell or you couldn’t.  You either could read or you couldn’t.  You were either literate or illiterate.

            By seeing literacy as a process educators wishing to understand language and literacy learning made great strides.  First off, they begin to value scribbles.  Secondly, they found that literacy learning paralleled learning more generally.  By looking closely language and literacy learning researchers could ferret out what hypotheses children were testing and to what effect.  Unfortunately convention – the ability to do things by a preselected response -- is often seen as the pinnacle of what it means to be literate.  For all too many people in our profession, the degree of someone’s literacy is seen as corresponding to the conventions they have mastered.

            Scribbles often are demeaned and dismissed as random.  We once did a presentation called, “What is in a scribble?” to demonstrate that scribbles are not random, but an instance of literacy (Harste, Burke,  & Woodward, 1981).  In an effort to mean, language learners of all ages apply what they currently know in testing their best available set of hypotheses.  This process doesn’t change by age or stage.  What changes are the hypotheses that are tested.  No one ever fully masters language.  The difference between the professional and the amateur is the nature of the hypothesis tested, not the process they go through.  Behind every professional there first was an amateur (Burke in Harste, Short, w/Burke, 1988).

            Sarah, a 5-year old we worked with, made a Mother’s Day card (Figure 6).  It reads, “Once upon a time there was a loveable bunny who picked a rose for his mommy.”  What is interesting about this example is that “Once upon a time” is written as a single conceptual unit.  Sarah knows that “Once upon a time” means something quite different than the meaning one would get by defining each word and then stringing the individual words together.  “Once upon a time” signals to the reader to leave reality behind, this is make-believe.  Notice also that “Once upon a time” is written very differently than the rest of her text.  Throughout the rest of the text Sarah writes using “words” as we know them.  What is also obvious is that Sarah has not mastered conventional spelling, though her writing shows a lot of letter-sound sensitivity and correspondence.  In fact, she makes distinctions that we as adult members of her language community have decided to ignore.  When the ‘s’ in a word makes a ‘z’ sound, she uses a ‘z’ rather than an ‘s.’ We could have come up with this convention too, but decided as a language community in favor of highlighting the plural function.  In a very real sense Sarah is inventing language from the inside out.  Her sentences read like sentences.  Sarah understands how language flows, all of the lexical units – verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and so on are in their rightful slots (syntax).  And her message is not only touching, poetic, and coherent (semantics), but it is the kind of message that one finds on Mother’s Day cards (pragmatics).  You almost hope that she gets a job at Hallmark when she grows up.


            Let us reiterate the point we are making:  There is no particular order in which language must be learned.  What is being learned is dependent upon what Sarah or any learner is interested in at the moment, as well as what prior experience with language the learner can draw upon.

            Language is constantly changing.  A semiotic perspective on language acknowledges that semantics is an open system of meaning.  That is why new vocabulary words are constantly popping up and why the meanings of words keep changing.  It is also one of the reasons why studying adolescents is fun; they play with language more than most of us do.  Linguists have tried to map the graphophonemic system of language (with some success), the syntactic system of language (with less success – while they can parse grammatically correct sentences, most of the sentences that are spoken in English are grammatical segments), and the semantic system of language.  What they found is that there is no end.  Language is a living system that reflects the kinds of functions language users and language learners want language to perform.  Both language and literacy are moving targets.

            Risk-taking is central to language learning for all of us.  If learners play it safe they do not, literally, outgrow themselves.  It is only by taking risks – testing their best hypothesis – that learners grow in our understanding and use of language.  A language user’s goal is to create a successful text (one that does the work the language user want it to do), rather than an appropriate text (one that meets someone else’s notions of acceptability or conventionality).


Understanding and Using Your Privilege

Parents and parent-researchers are ideally positioned to study language learning because of the potential comprehensiveness there is for data collection.  Because parent-research is focused on understanding literacy learning, chance encounters between children and print afford parents and parent-researchers an understanding of the interactions that are at the core of literacy learning, yet not accessible to everyone.  These unique moments are particularly important as they can provide new insights into the profession’s understanding of literacy learning.

            Expanding the Boundaries of What is Data. Miller’s study in this volume explores the concept of race as three young children grapple with it.  While one can be certain that this is only a small slice of the data that Miller collected, she took advantage of this unique data set to explicate the development of one aspect of social consciousness in young children.  Kabuto takes advantage of the bilingual setting in which her child is being raised to look at writing.  Lopez-Robertson took note of the problems involved in raising bilingual children in what she calls “a monolinguistic era.”  Few language and literacy researchers have ever done these kinds of studies before.  Similar opportunities exist for other parents and parent-researchers.  The key is close observation and attending to difference.

            Because parents and parent-researchers have an opportunity to see their children in a variety of places and spaces, data can take many forms.  Reoccurring conversations about a puzzling concept, Post-It Notes on the refrigerator, tape-recorded conversations between siblings, email messages sent or responded to, responses to environmental print, attempts to read junk mail, wadded up pieces of paper stuck together with tons of scotch tape, are just some of the possibilities.

            It is, however, important to understand that language and literacy researchers need to collect more than just the conversation or artifact created.  One of the frameworks that socio-semioticans use is M.A.K. Halliday’s framework of “field,” “mode,” and “tenor” (1975).  “Field’ is defined as a detailed description of what is currently happening and how it relates to earlier events in the life of the learner.  In other words, not only what is happening, but what is the history of this literacy event.  “Mode” is used as a reminder to record what modes of communication were present in the literacy event as well as which modes of communication were directly involved in the production of this artifact.  While the event you are observing may well involve language, it may also involve technology, art, music, dance and/or drama.  “Tenor” refers to the social actors that are present in the literacy event and how these persons are related to the event itself and to each other.

            Explicating the Taken For Granted.  Research has been defined as “making the known strange” (Heath, 1983).  Rather than describe events in a once-over-lightly fashion, research means to “re-envision” or to “re-search” what now is taken for granted.  The goal is to unpack for purposes of clarification what language users and learners may have seen but never taken the time to think through carefully.  Put another way, simplicity is not the goal of research.  While anyone can explain a complex process simply, this, in itself, does not alter the complexity of the underlying process.  As Burke said, “Complex processes may be clarified, but never simplified” (Burke, 1971).

            Researchers operating out of a socio-semiotic model of literacy have talked about complexity through the use of the term “demonstrations” (Smith, 1981).  In any literacy event there are multitude of demonstrations.  When you as a parent read a story to your child at bedtime you are demonstrating the importance of story, under what conditions you like to read, how readers hold a book, how books work (front to back), what things you think are funny, and how the voices of various characters sound. 

            There are even more demonstrations in this literacy event.  Reading is relaxing. Reading is a great way to unwind. Reading is fun and a great way to connect with someone.  Which demonstrations a child will latch on to and learn from depends on the interests of the child at that moment in time and his or her past experience.  Said more scientifically, what is being learned will depend on the current hypothesis that the child is testing.  From the perspective of “demonstrations” the job of the observer is to pay attention to which demonstrations are being registered and to what ends.  God lives in the details, so the more complete a description the observer can provide, the better.

            As a “kid watcher,” to use Yetta Goodman’s term (1978), one has to assume that there is a reason for everything that happens, even when what happens doesn’t initially make sense.  The assumption that soico-semioticans make is that all signs are motivated (Eco, 1976).  Sorting out what the meaning of a particular sign is and its significance can be tricky, but from a research perspective one has to assume that nothing that happens in language learning is random.  This assumption is important.  Inevitably, things will happen that seem anomalous.  The more the event seems anomalous, the more important is detail.

            As the studies in this volume show, anomalies force researchers to rethink their current understanding of literacy and, more often than not, lead them to new and important insights into literacy learning.  A good example is Lopez-Robinson’s report in this volume on her husband’s and her efforts to make sure that their children speak Spanish and retain their cultural heritage even while residing in a dominant white culture.  One overheard comment by their child (a teacher saying in reference to someone else, “I’m going to knock the Spanish out of that girl”) can have a long-range effect that is puzzling until the initiating event is understood.

            You Are Your Child’s Best Advocate.  As a parent or parent-researcher with an eye on literacy learning, you are in a unique position to advocate for your child.  It is important that you take this opportunity and responsibility seriously.

            When the first grade teacher said that Jerry’s daughter Alison did not know her letters ‘m” and ‘l’ and therefore needed letter-sound work in reading, Jerry brought in a tape recording of Alison reading It Didn’t Frighten Me! (Goss & Harste, 1981).  When others have jumped to a conclusion about your child’s literacy learning which you want to refute, getting indignant or into a shouting match rarely helps.  Better to bring in a counter-example from the observations you as a parent or parent-researcher have made at home.

            One of the nice things about parent-research is that you are playing two roles simultaneously.  By alternating between looking at something as a language researcher would and then again as a parent, the sheer quantity of what there is to think about is increased.  This notion of multiple viewpoints is important as it allows you to see the data you are collecting as well as your child in more robust ways.      Then too, there are often others involved in parent-research besides the researcher and the child.  Siblings and other family members can be interviewed to gain new insights and perspectives.  Triangulation (Cohen & Manion, 2000) is a self-correcting strategy built right into parent-research.  Observations can and should be triangulated by paying attention to the perceptions (or “readings”) of significant others involved in the literacy event that is under observation.

            One of the most hopeful aspects of the studies reported in this volume is how each of the parent-researchers was able to use the data they collected from their child to either make important decisions (like to home-school their child), improve the learning environment in the school their child was attending, or design more supportive learning environments for the children and teachers with whom they were working.

            Judith Lysaker (2002) makes the argument that researchers studying literacy learning have to pay attention to the quality of the linguistic environment in which a literacy event occurs as well as the quality of the human relationship that exists within that event.  She argues that researchers have paid more attention to the linguistic environment than the human environment.  Marcia Baghban concludes her chapter by reminding us that parents have a particularly strong bond with their children.  While the findings in all of the chapters in this volume are affected by the quality of the human relationship present, Baghban and Kabato specially make the case that studying the effects of this relationship is one of the unique affordances offered by parent-research on literacy learning.


What Research Is and Isn’t

We see research as a formalized version of the learning process as well as a perspective from which to view the whole of education.  Since we view language as an instance of learning more generally (and learning as a process of inquiry) the very theory of language we hold informs how research on literacy learning ought to be conducted.

            We argue that research on language learning from a socio-semitoic perspective has supported inquiry in shifting its stance in education.  Education is inquiry; inquiry is education.

            Research is an inquiry process.  In many ways research is the same process that young children engage in as depicted in a socio-semiotic view of language learning.  Researchers test hypotheses and on the basis of their observations come to conclusions, sometimes changing their minds and on good days outgrowing their current selves.

            Said differently, with the increased understanding of the role that language plays in learning, inquiry is seen as a process involving voice, conversation, reflexivity, and action.  It involves beliefs, changes in social practice, and engagement and re-engagement in the cycle anew. 

            Research is not innocent. It is important that readers understand the theoretical set of beliefs that undergird the studies in this volume, and why we have tried to explicate at least some of the major assumptions underlying the language learning theory that is operating in these studies.  Researchers operate out of theory, with theory being defined as an interrelated set of beliefs about how the world works.  In the case of literacy learning, theory lays out what is believed to be key processes underlying literacy learning.

            Within any theory there is a set of assumptions, many of which go unexamined under even the best of conditions.  Too often researchers report their research without pointing out to readers what assumptions are being made.

            In order to do research one has to have faith in the tenets underlying the theory being researched while at the same time suspect that at least one tenet of that theory is either wrong or in need of further clarification.  Charles Sanders Peirce says (1931-58) beliefs are facts at rest.  More often than not what is taken as “fact” is proven faulty when looked at closely and put to test.

            Research does not generate truth.  About all research can do is help a learner or a community of learners interrogate their values.  It can also add credence to hypotheses, but that misses the point.  It certainly doesn’t prove anything, though this seems to be the misguided intent behind a lot of educational documents parading as summaries of research.  The fact that inquiry is good at getting learners to interrogate their values makes it a different but still a very valuable commodity in education.

            Research guidelines.  We are assuming that readers of this volume – parents, parent-researchers, teachers, and teacher educators – are interested in studying language learning either informally or formally.  The following set of rubrics are guidelines when reading, observing or researching literacy learning.  Importantly, they characterize the studies in this volume.

            Openness.  Does the research allow you or the person who did the research to learn from surprises?  Language is an open system of meaning.  Research on language has to be designed to capitalize on this openness.

            Vulnerability.  Can participants derail the research by doing things other than was expected or predicted?  Questions that might be asked are, “Can the participants talk back?,” “What new voices are being heard?”  The Shannons (this volume) open their account of literacy learning by wanting each of the members of their family to contribute their own voice to the write up of their study.  Susie Long (this volume) opens her chapter with a dialogue between herself and her daughter.  We compliment both sets of researcher on not wanting to speak for their collaborators.

            Reflexivity.  Does the research force the researcher to interrogate his or her beliefs?  A good example of reflexivity in action is Haddix’s chapter (this volume) in which she attempts to reconcile her decision to home school her African-American son while at the same time being involved in the preparation of public school teachers.

            Community.  Does the research both build from as well as add to the current conversation?  This is why it is so critical to understand what theoretical assumptions are being made as well as to understand how this inquiry furthers the ongoing conversation.


Researching Literate Lives:  Some Concluding Thoughts

While there is a lot to think about, the parent-research journey is well worth the effort.  As a result of participation – whether you are a parent, educator, or researcher – one can’t help but be astounded with the phenomenon of language and literacy learning.  That is the marvel, motivation and impetus behind each of the authors of this volume.  It is why they wrote up their contribution.  Not only were they astounded with their child’s literacy learning but with their own.

            On one occasion while we were collecting data on young children’s literacy learning, Jerry’s daughter, Alison took a piece of paper she was working on to her room announcing, “You can’t have this.  I’m saving it.”  Later, that same day, she came out of her room carrying the same piece of paper and said, “Here, I suppose you and the teachers you are working with will need it.”

            Years later at a teacher inservice on literacy learning, Alison, on the way home after having been interviewed said, “Dad, those teachers think I’m still 3-years old!” 

            We close this chapter with these language stories to illustrate that despite the best laid plans, parent-research does complicate the ongoing, everyday events in family life.  Readers as well as the parent-researchers in this volume are bound to wonder at times, “Did I (they} get it right?”  The answer is probably “No.”  But a word to the wise:  What you initially see as a problem in a study, in all likelihood, is data.  When you can see what you thought was a problem as data you will have grown by leaps and bounds.

            Connectedness is one further criterion that is useful in judging the quality of parent-research.  Does the research create needed, new conversations in education?  One of those conversations hopefully will explore what kind of literate world the research envisions and what kind of literate people the researcher envisions populating that world.  Connectedness is why one first has to be a philosopher in order to be a parent or parent-researcher, and why, after reading the research in this volume it is time to be a philosopher again. 



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Figure 1.  Sign Systems Mediate Our World

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Figure 2.  Uninterrupted Writing Samples:  Dawn, Age 4 (United States), Najeeba, Age 4 (Saudi Arabia), Ofer, Age 4 (Israel)







Figure 3.  The Systems of Language (with Pragmatics as Context)

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Figure 4.  The Linguistic Data Pool


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Figure 5.  Multimodal Writing Sample (Alison, Age 6)




Figure 6.  Mother’s Day Card (Sara, Age 5)