Elfrieda (Freddy) Hiebert
TextProject & University of California, Santa Cruz
At the outset, I want to make it clear that my expertise lies in the texts that facilitate the reading development of a particular group of students in American schools--the students who depend on schools to become literate. In the U.S., we have approximately a third of an age cohort that can be described as "depending on schools to become literate." The remaining students may learn to read in school but they have at least a modicum of literacy experiences/criterion knowledge when they arrive at school (according to the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study). Unfortunately, our national assessment indicates that we have not been particularly successful in bringing the third of our population that depends on schools to become literate to the levels that are needed in the global-digital economy. Answers, of course, are not simple ones but I would argue that the texts that we have been providing our most vulnerable students have not been as supportive as they can and should be.
Differences in the orthographies of languages are critical and, while I myself came to English as a second language learner, my work has been with children learning to read in English (including but not limited to children who speak English as a second language). Even so, I believe that there are some principles that can be generalized from our work to that of children in other cultures and with languages that differ substantially from English.
While orthographies may not have the strange history that English does--and thus, not the erratic orthography--I want to caution against too much nonsensical text for children who are new to text and are the children of poverty. The U.S. has a genre I call "extreme decodables." The texts contain many of the archaic Anglo-Saxon words that are rarely used in conversation or even text (e.g., vex, wrench, tack). Beginning readers need substantial and consistent data about the code. At the same time, we need to remember why we are doing it (meaning) and function (frequency). Children of poverty are likely to treat school tasks seriously and without the humor that otherwise characterizes their lives. School is a "serious" and literal place. Texts that are silly may not be an appropriate point of departure. They have NOT proven to be so with American children who enter schools with languages and cultures other than those of the mainstream.
Tian, X. (2006). Statistic analysis of the papers published in Chinese journals of computers. Journal of Library and Information Sciences in Agriculture. doi: 1002-1248.0.2006.003-050
Zipf, G. K. (1935). The Psychobiology of Language. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.