Essay: Enhancing literacy

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  • Subject area(s): Education essays
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  • Published on: July 4, 2019
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In recent years, approaches for enhancing literacy have been multifactorial, entailing emotional, technological, cultural and sociological aspects. Literacy serves as a communication tool facilitating the integration of people into the world and enabling them to establish their personal perspective of society. However, people remain profoundly influenced by “overt instruction” and “practical experience” in their daily life; these “pre-established point of views” have the ability to shape our common sense and people naturalise these into practice unconsciously (Kress, G., 1994, P.18). Neelands (1992, p.5) expresses concern regarding the side effects of technological progress in the contemporary world, including “the effects of TV, changes in food technology, the dangers of being on the streets, the prevalence of recorded music in public places and the automation of retailing and industry”, stating that such factors aim to reduce opportunities for young people to experience “shared cultural activity in society”. Additionally, the author of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig, who focuses on the debate associated with the meaning of word and how people assign definitions to words, claims that in the TEDx Berkeley:
 
“We forgot that words are made up, but not all of them mean something. We are trapped in our own lexicons that don’t necessarily correlate with people who aren’t already like us.”

Given this reality, using drama to enhance literacy development has become a striking method to avoid misunderstands from “pre-established” information, as it is worth noting that “drama requires the involvement of the whole person—the active and integrated engagement of mind and body, involving imagination, intellect, emotion and physical action” (Anton Franks, p.242). As depicted by Neelands (1992), drama has positive influences in providing children with first hand experiences in situations that are made by children themselves, whilst meanwhile also having opportunities to use the language when they are completing the role they are performing. In other words, drama offers children a unique way to approach the different definitions of words, helping construct a child’s understanding of language when they are using it and then compare their own understanding to other people’s understanding.

Furthermore, in order to fit the changeable and chaotic world, using drama to assist teaching literacy is a constantly changing process. However, this changeable phenomenon offers language learners good opportunities to approach, analyse and search for those details that they want to know about the specific period, whether an historical or contemporary period. In the process of learning such drama by using literacy strategies, the learner will find that they have made progress with their language skills. There will be more benefits in learning through language than simply language skills. Halliday, M. (1978, p.109) states that, language has its own semantic stratum; when children learn language, they are related to both “the context of situation” and “the context of culture.”

The focus of this essay is exploring the relationship between drama and literacy, and the opportunities and challenges when applying drama to enhance the development of literacy in the curriculum. Related theoretical and practical examples will be drawn upon to explain the above content.

1. The relationship between drama and literacy

Drama and language learning are two different approaches to help people engage with society. Neelands (1992, p.3) suggests that drama offers an individual opportunities to pretend that they are other characters. Under specific circumstances, young people can experience another life from diverse times and disparate societies, whilst in the process exploring their imagination and sharing the harvest from their performance. Neelands (1992, p.4) also argues that in drama, the space, movement and speech all tend to be impressive ways to make meaning. The language acquisition potential of using drama as a teaching strategy is based on the action of reading. Concerning the importance of the act of reading, Freire P. (1987, p22) indicates that:

“First, reading the world, the tiny world, in which I moved; afterward, reading the word, not always the word-world in the course of my schooling”

For young people, Freire’s idea of using literacy to forge the relationship of the learner to the world, drama as an integrated activity could offer a more comprehensive view of the world, which is also the process of exploring semantic exchanges. Young people’s knowledge of the relationship of both language and the environment will be enhanced. More specifically, people learn to read the world before learning to read the words.

Meanwhile, instead of mechanically memorising words, it is more effective for people to grasp language by apprehending the meaning of the words through drama. According to Kempe and Holroyd (2004, p.1), presence concerns the indispensable steps of speaking and writing, as well as performing and interpreting the performance. Additionally, reading the world critically, including “adopting the culture, the modes of thought and action and beliefs and values in the society that being acted out by learners” (Freire P., 1987, p23), will avail young people with opportunities to explore human nature.

As discussed above, in the literacy process, two steps are interconnected with each other to enhance the literacy development, which are “progressive mastery of a number of basic functions of language” and “building up of a ‘meaning’ potential in respect of each” (Halliday, M., 1978, p21).

2. The opportunities and challenges of using drama to enhance literacy development

Engaging in play is a symbolic activity for young people to explore the social interpretation of language and meaning, to look beyond the surface of meaning and to develop empathy. Drama offers them another perspective to view this complicated world.

However, how can we help students build a bridge between their pre-established knowledge and the reality in the social life?

According to Neelands (1992, p.28), drama can transmit real experience through a symbolic form by using specific actions and situations, with a brand new story with known context able to be created through initiative driven interactions in drama due to language being deemed a form of social practice, social process and socially conditioned process (Fairclough N., 2015, p55,). More specifically, the consequence of what people speak, listen, write or read tend to be socially conditioned, with those actions having social effects. Therefore, letting students engage in play to experience and observe is utilising the interactions between different participants in drama to compare different roles and identify with those characters that they perform.

2.1 Example— “Voice in the park”

A practical example of a drama class, “Voices in the Park”, explores the ways drama and theatre pedagogies can be used in the teaching of critical literacy and asking social questions, including social register, place, identity and social structure, in relation to language learning. Students are introduced to ways drama can be used to explore relations and the ways language can be used to influence social change. All the teaching strategies in this session tend to look beyond the surface meaning, to help become aware of the ways language can be used to marginalise and cause social injustice, and to challenge dominant forms of language use. The details of how the teaching methods in this case can be used to enhance literacy will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

In the first place, it is possible that the act of speaking and writing only has a few connections with the situational context, which is the environment where the text comes to life (Halliday, M., p109). As the teacher of the session, Dr Rachel King asked the students to think what the park looks like in the place where they grew up. After the participants shared their memories about the different scenes in the park, including what the park looks like, who are the people in the park, their lifestyle and their daily activities, Dr Rachel asked them to use their bodies to create scenes for several given objects common in the park, such as a bandstand, seesaw and slide. This is the point that the participants started to realise the ways that ‘given circumstances’ may affect the way we make sense of our place in the world. Firstly, the participants were asked to review the scenes from the park in their hometown, then they were divided into groups, with the small groups given the responsibility to continue performing the people in the park at two different times: in the morning and evening. Kempe and Holroyd (2004, p.2) point out that children approach language through spoken form. Kress (1997, p17) states that children learn to speak earlier than they learn to read and write. Furthermore, speech occurs before writing, with still more language being used in spoken than written form. All these “dramatic performances” are for the purpose of constructing a clear theoretical sociolinguistic system, and also related to linguistic and social systems (Halliday, M., P110). This is the point for the participants to use drama as a stimulus to interpret a particular situation type and social context to help them make sense of the “class” or status within society. As Winston (2004) states, drama offers young people opportunities to comprehend the language of different social roles, with practice using drama enabling them to use different language codes, including physical and spoken codes, and learn to understand in which situation and at what time we should switch our language code from one to another. This is emphasised by Vygotsky (1978, p.97):

“Action in an imaginary situation teaches the child to guide her behavior not only by immediate perception of objects or by the situation immediately affecting her but also by the meaning of this situation.”

Secondly, this session provides a practical opportunity for students to create a strong imagined context for literacy by engaging in the “Voice in the Park” story. The students looked at some surrealist images of hats and considered what the hats symbolise. According to Neelands (1992, p.27), children share their experiences when they are invited to perform drama, and in the process of sharing, they will think about their feelings and attitudes. After discussing the symbolic meaning of the hats, the participants were separated into groups and received pictures and texts from the book “Voice in the Park” from the teacher. Each group was required to match the correct picture with the text. The following strategies invite the participants to create and inhabit the fictional world of the narrative in order to expand their definition of the real world. The images and the texts given to each group have different plots but are connected with one another. Dr. Rachel asked each group to enact those scenes by performing the roles, with the students encouraged to reflect on their feelings and inject them into the roles. By setting the images in order, the participants work collaboratively to construct the meaning of the text they were given. As Cook (2000, p.36) argues:

“We do need to consider language play in the context of imaginative thought in general and in particular the relationship between the manipulation of linguistic forms and the generation of hypothetical realities. The imaginary worlds which are created largely or entirely through language, and may in some sense be regarded as entertainment.”

Afterwards, several performances took place after each group had finished their rehearsal, with all the participants bringing the text and images to life. The diverse sounds and dramatic movements appearing in the same place allowed the students to feel and consider the relationship with the language and the power it produced. According to Vygotsky (1978, p.97), through the actions made by children in their imaginary situation, they can be affected by the immediate perception of objects, or by a situation that influences them, as well as by the meaning of the situation. In other words, making order of the images and text will arouse participants’ critical literacy, requiring them to think about the power structures that are in operation. Besides, through observing, participants will be conscious of the different plots that the other groups perform and have a more comprehensive view about the story. Neelands (1992, p.32) states that through working and elaborating to build the drama, the students will have an insightful view of each other both through responding to, and reflecting on what other people do in the drama.

Lastly, the session focused on a discussion of the challenges of using drama to reflect

literacy leaning.

The previous discussion revealed how drama makes the context relevant to real life. However, another challenge that arose during the session concerned whether we could use these approaches to theatre-making to uncover the possible meaning of the text. In the session, understanding the specific characters by thinking about their gestus and exploring the relationship between those characters became the entry point for the participants to come to understand the significance of dominant and powerful forms of language. As Neelands (1992, p.27) suggests, drama can be seen as a method to simulate environments for talk, for the reason that people do not really realise the power of drama as an immediate and accessible symbolic form that allows children to use together to represent practice, interrogate and express key areas of human experience. For example, the whole class focused on a father and mother’s story, with the paricipants going back to their original groups and adding movement and physicality, using gestus to develop the details of the characters. However, how do children get over the obstacle of “ordinary everyday linguistic interaction of family and peer group” and learn the basic patterns of a cultural, including “the social structure, the system of knowledge and of value, and the diverse elements of the social semiotic” (Halliday, 1978, p.108). For example, when children start understanding the characters of the mother and father in the “Voice in the Park”, they will get more deeply into the human condition that reaches beyond two dimensional. Winston (2004) states that with the help from drama based strategies, children can be encouraged to have a sense of ambiguity instead of finding a single answer; and to play with the richness and suggestiveness of language, rather than understanding the literal meaning. Additionally, the process of stretching a child’s understanding, inviting complexity and provoking questions should be reinforced in the future, with the challenge of constructing understanding having a long way to go due to the “practical experience” not needing too much elaborating activity. (Kress, G., 1997, p.18).

2.2 Reading through drama and understanding language diversity

Having shown the relationship between physical activity through drama and critical literacy, young people are given freedom to “manipulate linguistic units and structures in ways which draw attention to their formal characteristics” (Cook, G., 2000, p42). The following drama strategies focus on using text to construct meaning and refer to the real world. By reading text, young people gain a more consciousness understanding of the human condition as scripts or poems are considered to represent the deepest consciousness of a particular epoch, as well as homologous with a specific ordering of the elements of literary work.

According to Bernstein (cited in Cook, G., 1960), affiliations and group solidarity created by the act of sharing a story will have a positive influence on establishing and reinforcing relationships between storytellers and listeners. Moreover, based on Bernstein’s theory above, Fish (cited in Cook, G., 1980) states that the reason why people strengthen their relationships through stories is because those people have a common pool of knowledge for allusion and discussion.

However, is it possible that sometimes reading a story can just become a medium for distinguishing different people, instead of letting making them consciousness about how people behave, learn about the world from within the context of human behaviour and have the same feeling as the characters. Freire (1973, p.71) criticises that it is useless for young people to learn knowledge detached from self-experience. Teachers can not guarantee that each student has the same level reading ability and same high quality reading material. One way to solve this problem is based on an explanation by the Russian historian and children’s writer Chukovsky, who states that the very bizarreness of children’s stories may have the ability to avoid unclear understanding and also be closely linked to reality (Cook, G., 2000, p.44).

As analysed above, specific drama strategies should explore how to use the “strong dynamic interrelation of the resources” to show their abundant dimensional representations accurately when facing students from different cultural backgrounds or with a variety of different experiences.

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