Evelyn BaldwinLiteracy Seminar
Of the many theories formed to explain adolescent development, five stand out as particularly important. Three of these – psychoanalytic, behavioral, and cognitive – are often called “grand” theories, as they are both attempts to encompass large sections of childhood development and have remained in study for much of the latter half of the twentieth century. The final two – sociocultural and epigenetic systems theories – are emergent theories that, despite their relative newness, are quickly gaining strength in the field and are based on multidisciplinary approaches. Childhood reading experiences can be defined in a different manner in each theory; however, remnants of all five can be seen in the various reading practices implemented in classrooms across the country.
Psychoanalytic theory argues that behavior patterns are governed by unconscious desires and feelings. These feelings both impact all decisions made by a person and contribute to the formation of distinct phases of development.
Psychoanalytic theory was first proposed by Sigmund Freud at the turn of the twentieth century. Freud’s system, which developed out of his work with mentally ill patients, outlines two specific elements to humanity: four stages of development that a child goes through and three elements of personality. As children develop they learn to modify the desires of their particular developmental stage through aspects of their personalities. Each of the developmental stages – oral, anal, phallic, and genital – is based on the child’s ability to gratify a certain bodily need. Freud argued that, as children grow, they satisfy the needs of each stage through eating, controlling defecation, receiving (or not receiving) penile stimulation, and engaging in sexual activity, respectively. Children progress through the first three stages rather quickly but remain in the genital stage throughout their adult lives. However, since human beings do not spend all of their time fulfilling these specific desires, Freud outlined a theory of personality that explains how people learn to regulate them. The personality, he suggests, is composed of three distinct parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the most basic of instincts – the impetus we have to survive and reproduce through the fulfillment of our developmental stages. The superego is the societally-imposed moral judgment that calls for a repression of instincts. The ego serves as a moderator between the two, aiding the child in fulfilling needs within culturally-acceptable boundaries.
Erik Erikson, a second-generation psychoanalyst, retooled Freud’s theory to include what he called the “developmental crisis” of each stage of life. While Freud’s stages are sexual, Erikson’s are social. Each of the Freud’s three early stages corresponds with one of Erikson’s moments of social crisis: in the oral stage, a child learns to trust or mistrust; in the anal stage, a child develops autonomy or shame (based on their success in toilet training), in the phallic stage, children understand taking initiative or developing guilt based on their desires. Erikson outlined five further stages that occur in adulthood: industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role diffusion, intimacy vs. isolation, generativity vs. stagnation, and integrity vs. despair.
Psychoanalytic theory looks for patterns of unconscious desires and urges within texts. Psychoanalysts are less concerned with how children write as with what they write. Children’s work, especially fiction, can indicate stages of development that they may remain trapped in, even if they appear externally to have proceeded chronologically through the stages of development. Freudian scholars look particularly for examples of uncontrolled id in a text. While a child may have, through virtue of the ego, been able to appear to have suppressed a desire, the id might expose itself through writing. For example, a psychologist would read texts like Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle as indicating an author stuck in the oral stage, even if all external forces indicate that the author has reached the genital stage. In the same manner, Erikson’s eight stages can appear in a text as well. Like child writers, child readers can identify with authors or with characters within texts who are undergoing the same stages of development.
Behavioral theory developed in direct opposition to psychoanalytic theory; instead of suggesting that development occurs based on unseen, inherent needs and desires, it claims that training alters human behavior. Behavioral theory focuses on conditioning, the methods and processes through which behavior is learned. There are two main types of conditioning: classical and operant.
Classical conditional was first defined at the end of the nineteenth century by Ivan Pavlov, who famously trained dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell. Pavlov attempted to prove that behaviors which occur naturally can be trained to occur on command. In his dog experiment, Pavlov observed that dogs would salivate when presented with food. In his study, Pavlov began to associate food with the ringing of the bell. He discovered that once the dog had learned to associate the neutral stimulus (food causes salivation) with a meaningful stimulus (the bell), the trainer could cause the behavior to occur in the absence of the food simply by ringing the bell. The behavior has thus been conditioned to occur.
Fifty years after Pavlov, B.F. Skinner suggested that more aggressive steps could be taken to condition human behavior. Rather than simply altering patterns of association, a scientist could train a subject to perform in a particular manner through a system of rewards and punishments. If a positive behavior is reinforced, it will likely be performed again. While Skinner initially tested his theories through the use of sensory stimuli to small animals, the theory was later applied to human social behavior. If a behavior produces the praise of one’s peers or one’s instructors, it will likely be repeated. If it incurs censure, it will not.
For many years, behavioral theory was the primary training tool in teaching children how to read. Students were praised or censured, rewarded or punished based on their abilities to interact with texts. Alphabetical and numeric grading systems are both based on behavioral concepts. Recently, behavioral reading theories have fallen out of favor for a number of reasons. First, they are often counterproductive. Students who are having difficulty reading undergo punishment, which causes them to respond negatively to reading activities. Rather than to limit the undesirable behavior (such as the negative reading skill), punishment often causes students to resist reading entirely. Second, behavioral theory tends to socially stratify students unnecessarily. Students who perform well and receive praise become socially distinct from students who do not perform well. This creates a culture of negativity that encourages the behaviors it seeks to remove. Third, behavioral theory ignores the process in favor of the product. Students may be praised for reading well but might never understand how they performed that activity. Similarly, receiving punishment only looks down on the negative behavior – it does not help students achieve the desired behavior.
Like psychoanalytical theory, cognitive theory argues that behaviors are based on internal workings, but instead of urges, it argues for the development of thought patterns. Jean Piaget, the pioneer mind in cognitive theory, proposed four major stages of thought that children go through. Children progress through these stages in search of what he called “cognitive equilibrium” – as a children grows, new information or cognitive tasks that cannot be fit into a given mindset force the mindset to grow in order to retain equilibrium.
Piaget’s stages roughly coincide with a child’s age. From birth to two years, the child is in the sensorimotor stage. Thinking occurs only so far as it connects to the concrete, physical world. Things do not exist if they are outside of the child’s immediate consciousness. From two to six years, the child is in the preoperational stage. Here, the child begins to understand symbols – that things can be represented to exist even if they are not in the immediate physical present. From seven to eleven, the child is the concrete operational stage. Principles govern the child’s understanding and experiences, allowing the child to make rational decisions based on patterns of knowing. Finally, from twelve years and onward, the child is the in formal operational stage. Here, the child is fully developed and can think about abstractions. The child can apply moral decisions and analytic reason to hypothetical concepts.
In Piaget’s theory, reading practices can begin in the preoperational phase when the child learns the use of symbols. This makes possible two acts crucial to reading: understanding that words are indicative of “things” and that letters make up words. When the child is able to understand that things exist outside of the physical word, he or she can then identify that “doll” the word stands for the object or that “run” indicates the action. Children can then understand that words are developed out of their component parts: letters. These letters work together to form the symbols of words. In the preoperational stage, most reading involves basic concepts such as engaging in direct action or experiencing simple emotions. As children progress to the concrete operational stage, Piaget argues, they are able to reason logically about the texts they engage with. They may question the absolute truth of those texts and can understand the reasons behind text construction. They can begin to classify texts, words, and the ideas they represent into categories and can articulate their own responses to texts. When children reach the formal operational stage, they can engage in metacognitive interpretations of texts, questioning their own reasoning processes and decisions regarding texts. They can also draw similarities between the construction of their own texts and the construction of others’ texts.
The first of the two emergent theories, sociocultural theory suggests that children develop in response to the individuals who are part of their surrounding culture. Development is not universal to all children; instead, it develops for each child individually based on the experiences that the child has with those around him or her.
Lev Vygotsky, who, though he was a contemporary of many of the grand theorists, had his work lost in Stalinist Russia until the latter half of the twentieth century. After the fall of the iron curtain, however, his theories quickly gained credence. Vygotsky proposed that cognition occurs in response to society. His theories centered on the concept of an “apprenticeship in thinking,” the idea that a child exists in a mentorship relationship with mature members of society and develops in imitation of those members. If the adult is actively engaged with the child, a situation of guided participation develops in which the adult trains the child in understanding and conforming to their society’s expectations and values.
Although what is learned differs from culture to culture, sociocultural theory suggests that all children learn in the same manner. Children exist within a range of expected performances, Vygotsky argued: that which is known, that which is not known but can be obtained, and that which is not known and cannot yet be learned. The central range, called the zone of proximal development, includes those performances which a child can do with assistance. The child can only learn those tasks which fall within this zone. If a child does not engage in guided participation with a mentor to perform the activities in this zone, the child will be unable to learn.
Sociocultural reading theory has gained credence through recent movements to create “reading cultures.” Teachers are encouraged to create environments that promote reading as a positive task designed to bring one into coherence with culture. Child psychologists argue that parents who make reading an active part of their family life are training children to adopt these same practices. Furthermore, critics have suggested that the rampant popularity of teen novels is reestablishing reading as a cultural acceptable activity for children. Scholars like Deborah Brandt, who has proposed the concept of “literacy sponsors” argue that readers must be trained by more mature readers and encouraged into a community of literacy, using the kind of guided participation that Vygotsky suggests.
Epigenetic Systems Theory
Epigenetic systems theory argues that development occurs at the intersection of inherited genetic traits and environment influences. Drawing on many of the previously stated theories, epigenetic systems suggests that a combination of nature and nurture – the physical inclinations that a person is born with and the skills and patterns developed through societal interaction – work together to promote development. If a person is born with certain tendencies, cultural forces – particularly those applied by a parent – can either highlight or attempt to eradicate those tendencies. The classic epigenetic case study is that of pairs of identical twins separated at birth. Sharing the same genetic matter but raised in two different cultures, twins exhibit some similar characteristics and other radically different ones.
Just as epigenetic theory combines elements from many developmental theories, modern reading theory suggests that children’s engagement with texts is multi-dimensional. A child may use his formal operational skills to identify an oral fixation in a text through the guided participation of a mentor. Fortunately, many practioners are seeking to meet children’s unique reading needs rather than attempting to apply a single overarching theory to a classroom of diverse individuals. If reading theory remains open to the application of ideas centered on student needs rather than route adherence to antiquated theories, the future of the field looks quite bright, indeed.
Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy.” Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Cushman
Dent-Read, Cathy and Patricia Zukow-Goldring, eds. Evolving Explanations of
Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society.
Freud, Sigmind. A General Introduction to Pyschoanalysis. Trans. Joan Riviare. New
Piaget, Jean. The Origins of Intelligence in Children.
Skinner, Burrhus Frederic. Verbal Behavior.
Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language.