Evolution of Literacy Theory and Research

To understand the recent focus of literacy research across academic disciplines, a brief journey through the evolution of reading theory and research over the past six decades is needed (see Table 1). As noted in Chapter 1 of this textbook, notions of literacy have expanded beyond reading and writing to include listening, speaking, viewing, and performing, and the eras reflect the recognition of the importance of taking this wider view of literacy.

Era Duration Focus
Table 1. Historical Perspective on Reading Research (Alexander & Fox, 2004)
“Era of Conditioned Learning” (p. 34) 1950-1965 Teaching and reinforcing of basic reading skills, such as word decoding
“Era of Natural Learning” (p. 37) 1966-1975 Facilitating language experiences to help children make meaning
“Era of Information Processing” (p. 41) 1976-1985 Using cognitive processes to make meaning
“Era of Sociocultural Learning” (p. 45) 1986-1995 Incorporating cultural factors to make meaning
“Era of Engaged Learning” (p. 50) 1996-? Integrating literacy across the lifespan and within multiple contexts

According to Alexander and Fox (2004), a heightened interest in reading research and practice occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with the Era of Conditioned Learning when learning theories were largely based on the study of behavior. What resulted was an instructional model that involved teaching students how to read using discrete skills (letter sounds and phonics). Next, theories emerged that children learn to read “naturally” similarly to how spoken language is acquired by being exposed to language opportunities. During this Era of Natural Learning, reading and language rich experiences created by adults were thought to best help children make meaning of what was read. Then the focus of theory and research shifted to include cognitive processes involved in reading. During this Era of Information Processing, factors such as attention, thinking strategies, and knowledge organization were recognized as important to make meaning of what is read. Also during this time the social and cultural aspects of learning became a focus. This Era of Sociocultural Learning became particularly informative to culturally responsive teaching practices (Gay, 2010; Moje, 2007; Moje & Hinchman, 2004) discussed later in this chapter. More recently, the Era of Engaged Learning has emerged, based on the use of digital literacies (e.g., websites, audio, video, and other forms of technology-based communication).

Notice how the last era in Table 1 does not include an end date. This means that we are likely in a new era—perhaps an Era of Accountability (Schoen & Fusarelli, 2008), given the focus on high stakes testing and most states’ adoption of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (CCSS; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA & CCSSO], 2010). The CCSS reflect literacy standards that students must meet in English language arts and other academic disciplines, such as social studies and science. Each of the eras is valuable for teachers to draw upon because associated theories and research have offered valuable knowledge toward informing literacy practices.