Traditional Academic Feuds in Literacy Studies Part 7: Empiricism

Note: This is the seventh and part of a multi-part series which (eventually) will become a term paper for a class seminar on literacy. Note that all citations in quotations can be found in the bibliographies of the linked items.

Previously on My Neverending Blog…

In my last post, I suggested that Whole Language and Skills-Based Literacy–the two opposing viewpoints in the Reading Wars–were languages constructed with weak conceptual grammar, where the fundamental phenomenon–that is, reading–was defined differently by each language. Whole Language, represented by Edelsky (1990) , defined reading as a “sociopsycholinguistic process” (p. 8), whereas Skills-Based Literacy, represented by McKenna et al., 1990a and McKenna et al, 1990b , defined it as constellation of skills working in concert (p. 3). These differing definitions, symptomatic of weak grammar, and the feuding relationship between the theories, also a feature of weak grammar, account for the next two features of horizontal knowledge structures, which deal with empirical research within disciplines.

Aside: In retrospect, I should have collapsed these features into a single feature, making the final total of horizontal knowledge features eight. Maton & Muller (2007) seem to suggest two main features for knowledge structures: grammaticality and verticality. It may be that the features I have abstracted here are corollaries of these two larger features, which are represented as features six and five respectively in my list.

7. “Relations between languages or [theories] cannot be settled by empirical research and are confined to critique.”

8. “Languages [do not] purport to share the same empirical referents.”

In a vertical knowledge structure, conflicts are resolved by empirical research. Maton & Muller (2007) explain that during a feud where Integration occurs, the new theory must be able to “explain [its] predecessor’s success” (“Differences between knowledge structures”). Following Popper (1994), the new model must explain a phenomenon at least as well as an old model–plus provide better predictions than the old model. In order to do this, conflicts must be able to compare different theoretical predictions of the same empirical phenomenon. The comparison question is essential in vertical knowledge structures to resolve feuds and Integrate knowledge.

But comparison did not happen in the Reading Wars. McKenna et al. (1990a) argue for a research agenda aimed at the comparison task, although their question asks to compare effectiveness of pedagogical methods (p.5-6). Edelsky rejected the research agenda. Why? McKenna et al. (1990b) offer one possible answer: “One of the anonymous reviewers of our article offered this observation: ‘In essence, it is no longer a scientific issue since the whole language people share a system of beliefs and they claim they have evidence to support their beliefs. But, when you look up what they cite as evidence, it is often just someone else’s published beliefs'” (p. 12, emphases mine). The word scientific here might be read as empirical–that is, the issue cannot be resolved by appealing to comparative research on some common empirical referent. The issue is less one-sided than McKenna et al.’s reviewer describes it: the system of belief is not just the efficacy of Whole Language as a pedagogy, as may be extrapolated by the comparative effectiveness focus of McKenna et al. overall, but includes the definition of the fundamental phenomenon of reading. Skills-Based Literacy’s definition of reading and Whole Language’s definition of reading are not the same; therefore, any comparison is not valid if made between each model’s predictions about reading (or, jumping ahead with McKenna et al., between each model’s methods of teaching reading) since predictions would be of different empirical phenomenon. Put more simply, McKenna et al. is making predictions about apples; Edelsky is making predictions about oranges. If we try to compare the predictions to see which one is more accurate, we will be conflating apples with oranges.

Both McKenna et al. and Edelsky recognized, on some level, there was definitional differences between them. McKenna et al. (1990a) argued that
“whole language proponents (and their antecedents) have tended to confuse the process of fluent reading with the process of learning to read (Carroll, 1976; Chall, 1933; Stott, 1981)” (p. 8). In this passage, McKenna et al. critiques Whole Language’s definition of “fluent reading,” arguing that in the Skills-Based Literacy’s language, the phenomenon deemed “fluent reading” by Whole Language would be defined as “the process of learning to read.” The relationship between these definitions cannot be resolved through appeal to “empirical research” because in order to do “empirical research,” one needs to have a common understanding of the object of study–thus, as Maton & Muller (2007) argue, the issue can only be resolved through “critique.”
In like fashion, Edelsky highlights another definitional divide: “[Whole language] takes seriously a distinction between using language and doing language exercises, between doing science or history and doing exercises in science or history” (p. 8). Edelsky argues here for the social context of reading being integral to the definition of reading, and thus critiques the Skills-Based inclusion of acontextual “language exercises” as part of “reading.” Again, the difference can only resolved by argument.

If we take my last post’s explanation of the intentions of horizontal knowledge structures, there is one other way to resolve the issue: consolidation of power. That is, rather than a definition being agreed upon by rational argument, the definition that amasses the most adherents and political power may become the common referent upon which empirical research may be based. This would allow for the process of Integration to begin and verticality to arise. But verticality itself, as this discussion has shown, is dependent upon strong grammar. Integration cannot happen without referring to a common, explicit, non-overlapping phenomenon. But strength of grammar may itself be a function of consolidated power. Tying power to empirical referents is, admittedly, a part of the social constructivist critique of positivism. But the social constructivist paradigm that seems to describe knowledge structuring and making in horizontal knowledge structures may itself limit the ability of the field to make rational predictions. At times it seems that research within horizontal knowledge structures is circular: that is, we often find results that our models predict–not because some objective reality creates only these results–but because our definitions of phenomenon constrain the observer to seek only data that satisfy the features of the model. It may be that Skills-Based Literacy research finds that students demonstrate skills in reading because they have defined reading as unified use of skills. Similarly, Whole Language research may find that students engage in contextualized meaning-making in reading because they have defined reading as contextualized meaning-making.

But from a post-positivist perspective, I am inclined to suggest there are two objective possibilities. Either 1) both definitions are useful and can be productive for empirical research if they recognize the definitional differences and acknowledge that they are studying different phenomenon Or, as perhaps is the aim of Balanced-Literacy, 2) both definitions are accurate descriptions of the same phenomenon–reading–and that, by combining the definitions, the phenomenon might be more restrictively defined, which could lead to a stronger grammar and the possibility of scientific progress on reading. But, as was argued in my third post, the fundamental epistemological assumptions and methodological criteria of each language are not obviously compatible. If Balanced-Literacy seeks to Integrate knowledge, resolving the philosophical differences would be necessary. That endeavor is not within the scope of this blogpost.

As I transition to the next and hopefully last post, I want to acknowledge that the thoughts previously articulated are, I’m sure, better and more thoughtfully articulated in the philosophy of science literature. My research program focuses on writing pedagogy from a linguistic perspective, and this venture into understanding the structure of my own field is a relatively new development in my studies. I welcome references that either confirm or reject my claims as stated here.

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