Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 1999 Issue »

    Editor's Review - Children’s Early Text Construction eds Clotilde Pontecorvo, Margherita Orsolini, Barbara Burge, & Lauren B. Resnick, Writing Development ed Clotilde Pontecorvo, & A History of Reading in the West ed Guglielmo Cavallo & Roger Chartier

    Barbara M. Brizuela
    Children’s Early Text Construction
    edited by Clotilde Pontecorvo, Margherita Orsolini, Barbara Burge, and Lauren B. Resnick.
    Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996. 368 pp. $89.95.

    Writing Development: An Interdisciplinary View
    edited by Clotilde Pontecorvo.
    Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1997. 336 pp. $69.00.

    A History of Reading in the West

    edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier.
    Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. 496 pp. $40.00.

    In the last few decades, important shifts have occurred in some linguists’ and psychologists’ perspectives toward written language. Previously, most twentieth-century linguists tried to establish and maintain oral language as their primary object of linguistic analysis. From their position, writing was conceived of as a mere device for transcribing speech. The view of writing as a representation of speech is a classical view held by Aristotle, as well as by contemporary linguists such as Saussure and Bloomfield. Saussure, for example, concentrated exclusively on the oral aspects of language for methodological reasons considered valid at the time. According to Saussure (1916/1983), “The sole reason for the existence of [writing] is to represent [speech]” (p. 2324). In these terms, writing has been called “the wandering outcast of linguistics” (Derrida, in Sampson, 1985, p. 11).

    Only recently have linguists begun to consider writing as an object of analysis (Catach, 1996; Olson, 1994). Psychologists have also begun to consider written language as a valid conceptual object relatively recently (see Ferreiro, 1991; Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1979). Only in the last few decades have psychologists considered literacy development and writing to be something more than a mere decoding and graphic, perceptive-motor exercise; they have now begun to argue that children can think, develop ideas, and reflect about written language.

    These positions are exemplified in the books Children’s Early Text Construction, edited by Clotilde Pontecorvo, Margherita Orsolini, Barbara Burge, and Lauren B. Resnick, and in Writing Development, edited by Clotilde Pontecorvo. Children’s Early Text Construction is a collection of research reports resulting from a meeting of scholars from several disciplines at an international workshop held in Rome, Italy, in October 1988. As the editors of the volume explain, the different authors challenge the assumption that “writing is only, or mostly, a system for transcribing speech” (p. xi). Writing Development, the result of a series of workshops organized by the European Science Foundation as part of their Network on Written Language and Literacy, explores “the cultural and psychological processes involved in the development, acquisition and use of written language from a variety of disciplines” (p. xvi). The volume includes interdisciplinary perspectives from linguistics and psycholinguistics, from the history of culture and the anthropology of writing, and from neurolinguistics.

    As the editors of Children’s Early Text Construction explain, “The word text [in the book’s title] connotes the centrality of writing in the process of becoming literate. . . . Learning to produce and comprehend texts is what it means to become literate” (p. ix). The volume successfully places writing and text at the forefront of the literacy process and situates them as the focus of attention of linguists and psychologists. Moreover, the book’s examination of writing moves beyond a consideration of writing in isolated and single units, such as words, to texts as written messages, such as a book, a letter, a t-shirt, or a food container.

    Children’s Early Text Construction includes works of researchers from many nations: Brazil (Marie Bernadete Marques Abaurre), France (Jean-Marie Besse), Italy (Pietro Boscolo, Maria Pia Conte, Paola Di Giacinto, Marina Pascucci Formisano, Raimonda Maria Morani, Margherita Orsolini, Clotilde Pontecorvo, Laura Pagliari Rampelli, Nora Scheuer, Raffaele Simone, Lydia Tornatore, Virginia Volterra, and Cristina Zucchermaglio), Mexico (Emilia Ferreiro), Spain (Ana Teberosky and Liliana Tolchinsky Landsmann), and the United States (Yetta M. Goodman, Miriam G. Martinez, Elizabeth Sulzby, and William Teale). In their essays, the authors explore writing systems as being more complex than a simple reflection of oral language. Underlying their various presentations, we can identify Olson’s (1994) proposition that “to invent a writing system is, in part, to discover something about speech; to learn to read is, similarly, to discover something about one’s speech, and ultimately, about ‘what is said.’ The script provides the model, however distorted, of one’s speech” (p. 78).

    With this in mind, the authors explore the idea that writing systems provide the concepts and categories for thinking about the structure of spoken language rather than the reverse (Olson, 1994). Believing that “awareness of linguistic structure is a product of a writing system not a precondition for its linguistic development” (Olson, 1994, p. 68), they research children’s development of different structures, concepts, and categories in written language. Ferreiro explores children’s interpretation of the doubling of letters (with Pontecorvo and Zucchermaglio) and their use of quoted speech (with Zucchermaglio). Simone explores the use of the comma. Orsolini and Di Giacinto write about children’s use of referential expressions in their narratives; Boscolo explores children’s expository text writing; and Conte, Pagliari Rampelli, and Volterra present their investigations of deaf children’s text construction. Instead of arguing for the classical Aristotelian view of writing as secondary and dependent on speech, they explore writing systems as models for language and thought (see Olson, 1994).

    The structure of Children’s Early Text Construction reflects the editors’ conceptions about written language and takes us from the linguistic realm to the psychological and finally to the educational. The book begins with a section exploring “Written and Oral Forms in Children’s Language,” where the relationships between orality and literacy are discussed. The editors then take us to a consideration of “Writing as a System of Representation” where the authors explore different positions on children’s acquisition of reading and writing, and then to “Learning the Different Uses of Written Language.” This last section explores another idea put forth by Olson (1994): that writing systems were created not to represent speech but to communicate information. The volume ends with “Written Language in Educational Contexts,” where projects with kindergartners, first graders, and deaf children are presented.

    Children’s Early Text Construction
    explores “the rich structure of meanings involved in the word text” (p. ix) and represents an important addition to our understandings about children’s becoming literate by reflecting both of the issues presented at the outset of this review: that writing is not a mere transcription of speech, and that written language is a valid and important conceptual object for both children and researchers.

    A good complement to this volume is Writing Development, in which the interdisciplinarity seen in Children’s Early Text Construction is explored even further. Editor Clotilde Pontecorvo explains the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of writing by stating that the complexity of the writing phenomenon “requires that each expert of the field (even the neurolinguist or the paleographer) is aware of the scientific results from other disciplines that study the phenomenon of writing and literacy from different perspectives” (p. xxiv). Because writing and literacy are interdisciplinary objects, Pontecorvo argues that they require contributions from different disciplines, as well as the interdisciplinary use of texts and results from other disciplines.

    Writing Development includes unexplored areas such as neurolinguistics and its take on written language in the context of development. Again, this volume represents an international perspective and includes researchers from Austria (Heinz Wimmer), Canada (David Olson), France (Claire Blanche-Benveniste, Michel Fayol, Jean Hebràrd, Serge Mouchon, and Colette Sirat), Germany (Hartmut Günther), Israel (Ruth Berman), Italy (Giuseppe Cossu and Clotilde Pontecorvo), Mexico (Emilia Ferreiro), the Netherlands (Ludo Verhoeven), Spain (Ana Teberosky and Liliana Tolchinsky), Switzerland (Georges Lüdi), and the United Kingdom (Brian Butterworth and Uta Frith). The essays collected in Writing Development explore historical, sociocultural, linguistic, psycholinguistic, neurolinguistic, and cognitive psychology perspectives on writing development. The historical and sociocultural explorations lay the framework for the idea that we need to go beyond the “restricted view of literacy as ‘learning to decode and transcribe’, and take into account that becoming literate requires participating in a complex process of cultural socialization in which a large range of acts of reading and writing have to be regarded as socially positive” (p. xvi). The studies presented in this volume describe linguistic aspects that are sensitive to differences and similarities of structures in oral contexts and written texts. The psycholinguistic research, developmental in nature, explores children’s construction of written language and of different writing systems such as Spanish, Hebrew, and Italian. The studies from the neurolinguistic perspective show how the study of dyslexia, retardation, and aphasia can shed light on the normal functioning of reading and writing. The studies from the cognitive psychology perspective focus on the study of the cognitive processes involved in the acts of reading and writing, from constructivist and information processing perspectives.

    Like Children’s Early Text Construction, Writing Development also brings the writing process to the forefront of researchers’ attention. Its contents explore and reflect on the two issues presented at the beginning of this review: the shift from the consideration of writing as a direct reflection and transcription of speech, and the consideration of written language as a conceptual object. Writing Development broadens our view of writing and exposes us to the “cutting-edge” of research in the area of literacy from multiple disciplines.

    Many of the essays in both volumes ground their interpretations and explorations in the history of reading and writing in different cultures. The authors seem to share the assumption that there are similarities between writing development and children’s text construction on the one hand, and the history of writing and reading on the other. The similarities involve the types of mechanisms of thought and cognitive obstacles that can be identified in the development of writing and reading (see Ferreiro, 1991; Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1979). These similarities, however, do not mean to imply, in any way, a causal relationship between the history of culture and children’s writing development and text construction. The authors assume, in other words, that an exploration of the history of reading and writing can help to shed light on developing understandings about children’s literacy development. In Writing Development, for example, Olson describes how the history and ethnography of writing systems show that “writing systems are not necessarily linguistically based” (p. 5). He describes how negations or absences have been represented by different peoples in different times and places, and explains that this task was impossible for cultures that had writing systems that were graphic but not linguistically based. He asks,

    How do you depict a negation without inventing a merely conventional mark representing a word rather than a thing? . . . Such graphic signs convey information, they represent things and events, they do not represent utterances or statements about those objects and events. That is, the signs do not represent words or sentences; they are not linguistically-based scripts. (p. 6)

    To illustrate this point, Olson refers to a story from Ernst Hans Gombrich of a Greek city state that asked its artists to carve a picture into the city gates announcing that their city had never been captured. According to Olson, the task was impossible because their script was not linguistically based. This way of representing — the nonlinguistic way — could have cultural and cognitive implications, says Olson. Similarly, it is not obvious to children that writing represents words; their focus is on meaning, a story, or an object.

    Another example of how the history of reading and writing can be used to shed light on research in literacy development is provided by Ferreiro, Pontecorvo, and Zucchermaglio in Children’s Early Text Construction. In their psycholinguistic research, they use data from the history of writing. Their study of children’s interpretation of the doubling of letters in writing explores both the appearance and disappearance of double letters in Italian. The authors explain that the Italian language best exemplifies a language that tried to double in writing those letters that are doubled in speech. In addition, Italian retained double consonants already present in Latin orthography. After written Italian stabilized in the second half of the sixteenth century, double letters began to disappear with the additional standardization of print and typography. The authors’ explanation for the inclusion of historical data is of interest:

    This historical digression is not aimed at supporting a hypothesis of parallelism between the psychogenetic and ontogenetic development of writing. . . . It is possible, however, that during the acquisition of written language the child is faced with some fundamental problems that were present in the historical development of written languages. (p. 149)

    Identification of the cognitive obstacles and approximations to this problem throughout history can help shed light on children’s own attempts to represent the same concepts.

    A History of Reading in the West
    , edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, further exposes the complex interrelationships between reading and writing. The editors bring together a collection of essays by distinguished scholars in the field who explore the transformations in reading methods and materials in a wide range of historical and geographical contexts. The authors are Robert Bonfil, Guglielmo Cavallo, Roger Chartier, Jean-François Gilmont, Anthony Grafton, Jacqueline Hamesse, Dominique Julia, Martin Lyons, Matthew Parkes, Armando Petrucci, Paul Saenger, Jesper Svenbro, and Reinhard Wittmann. The perspectives and views presented in this volume include explorations of reading practices and transformations in classical Greece and the Roman world, of reading throughout the Middle Ages and in Jewish and Protestant communities, and of reading in different constituencies such as popular and scholastic contexts, among the working class, women, and children. The essays illustrate the editors’ point that “transformations in the book and transformations in reading practices necessarily went hand in hand” (p. 15). Cavallo and Chartier describe the transformation from the use of the papyrus roll to the use of the codex or book with pages, beginning in the second century AD. They explain that a growing number of Christians and a wider demand for reading matter — transformations in reading practices — brought about changes in book production. While papyrus rolls used materials imported from Egypt and servile manpower or fairly costly craft copy shops, books used parchment, found anywhere, with text on both sides of each page. Books also had a more practical format in terms of manufacture and distribution, and the per-copy price of books was less. Books also made possible “a reading style freer in its physical movements, and . . . a form of reading reliant on references and requiring intellectual concentration (Christian reading, juridical reading) that gradually became predominant in late antiquity” (p. 15).

    A History of Reading in the West
    also explores “how the encounter between the ‘world of the text’ and the ‘world of the reader’ . . . operates” (p. 2). The connections among the three books — Writing Development, Children’s Early Text Construction, and A History of Reading in the West — are highlighted by Cavallo and Chartier’s argument that “any history of the practices of reading is thus necessarily a history of both written objects and the testimonies left by their readers” (p. 2).

    An additional link between reading and writing and among the three volumes here reviewed is to be found in the histories of both practices, for as Olson explains in Writing Development:

    The explanation for the seemingly progressive changes in the writing systems of the world is the simple consequence of attempting to use a graphic system invented to be “read” in one language, for which it is thereby reasonably suited, to convey messages to be “read” in another language for which it is not well suited. (p. 14, emphasis added)

    The widespread use of Latin as the written language during the early Middle Ages in territories that had once been the Roman Empire exemplifies Olson’s position. These included Anglo-Saxon and romance language users. “Speakers of a romance language reading a Latin text encountered a written form which approximated to their spoken language, but was recorded according to an ancient tradition which excluded a large number of features in their speech as unacceptable in that written form” (Cavallo & Chartier, p. 95). The changes introduced into written Latin by romance language users thus had to do with the introduction of “contemporary or colloquial forms to interpret what were regarded as archaic, obsolescent or unfamiliar words” (p. 95). At the same time, however, Latin was an alien linguistic system for Anglo-Saxon speakers. The changes introduced by Anglo-Saxon users had to do, among other things, with misreadings of letters and a failure to identify words correctly; with a failure to identify words correctly because of faulty word separation; with problems in construing the syntax; or with difficulties in distinguishing between different pronouns or between pronouns and adverbs. It was precisely in these insular nonromance language contexts where many of the changes began to be made to the writing of Latin. For nonromance language users, the graphic characteristics of the written language accentuated the alien nature of the language. Until the early Middle Ages, the common practice was for Latin to be written as scriptio continua, with no separation between words and no punctuation marks. The need to have an easier access to information and texts led Irish scribes “to isolate not only the parts of speech but also the grammatical constituents within a Latin sentence. They clarified punctuation by substituting new marks in which the number of marks increases according to the importance of the pause” (p. 97).

    Exploring these three volumes brings evidence to bear on Olson’s suggestion in Writing Development that “the discovery of linguistic form may be gathered in two quite different domains, one the history and ethnography of writing; the other from children’s learning to read and write” (p. 5). Through the three texts, we can begin to understand and explain the process of literacy development, taking data from children’s learning and the analysis of the history of culture as sources of reflection. The texts lead us to reflect that the nature of development may not be an “either/or” situation in which, for example, someone can or cannot write or read, but that it may be a series of progressive approximations that are reflected both in children’s learning and in the history of reading and writing. Moreover, taken together, the texts highlight the idea that writing is not a mere transcription of speech, but a conceptual object in its own right. Through the analysis of the three books we are also led to reflect on the fruitful articulation of descriptions of development at both psychogenetic and ontogenetic levels. The connections made between the study of children’s development and the development of the practices studied throughout history can help us to develop a more complex and accurate understanding of literacy development.

    Bárbara M. Brizuela
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    Winter 1999 Issue


    Literacy Learning and Economic Change
    Deborah Brandt
    Writing Development
    A Neglected Variable in the Consideration of Phonological Awareness
    Sofia A. Vernon, Emilia Ferreiro
    In His Prime
    Dirk Jan Struik Reflects on 103 Years of Mathematical and Political Activities
    Arthur B. Powell, Marilyn Frankenstein

    Book Notes

    Boarding School Seasons
    By Brenda J. Child

    Sharing Words
    By Ramón Flecha

    White Reign
    Edited by Joe L. Kincheloe, Shirley R. Steinberg, Nelson M. Rodriguez, and Ronald E. Chennault

    Country School Memories
    By Robert L. Leight and Alice Duffy Rinehart

    Country Schoolwomen
    By Kathleen Weiler

    The Incredible Journey to the Planets
    By Nicholas Harris

    The Art and Science of Portraiture
    By Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffmann Davis

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.