Dec. 18, 2020

Meaningful projects key to successful language and literacy pedagogy

Inventive use of free play and comedy for literacy learning earns Canada Research Chair for education researcher Kim Lenters
Werklund School of Education’s Dr. Kim Lenters awarded Canada Research Chair for inventive use of free play and comedy in supporting literacy learning
Werklund School of Education's Dr. Kim Lenters awarded Canada Research Chair Photo courtesy of Kim Lenters

After a few years of teaching and research, Dr. Kim Lenters, PhD, has become accustomed to upending fundamental assumptions about what constitutes language and literacy learning. Her seminal drive to expand this area of study has resulted in a Canada Research Chair (Tier II) appointment.

Despite the numerous accolades the Werklund School of Education associate professor has racked up over the years for her progressive approach, she will be the first to acknowledge that long-standing theories in this field still have value. Lenters says sociocultural theories brought a much-needed focus to the social and cultural aspects of literacy development. However, for too long, these context-oriented theories have been positioned as oppositional to instructing basic skills of reading and writing. She argues that, in reality, rather than either-or, it’s both-and.

The problem, she feels, is that a rigid adherence to skills development can stand in the way of student progress. “There is no one ‘correct’ way for ‘doing’ literacy or for instructing it, but early literacy pedagogy in many Western educational systems is narrowly focused on meeting standardized benchmarks associated with children’s skills of reading and writing," she says.

"What results is a spotlight on what children cannot do and when this becomes status quo, an educator’s focus becomes naming and entrenching student dis-abilities rather than growing their capacities. This has profound implications for equity, diversity and inclusion in education.”

Lenters is in the vanguard of a growing push beyond socioculturalism, which has offered important critiques for skills-only literacy pedagogy; what sets her apart is an interest in not simply offering critique, but also providing real-world solutions suitable for the classroom. To accomplish this, she has developed what she terms ‘inventive literacy pedagogy.'

“Inventive literacy pedagogy does not eschew the teaching of skills of reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and representing but, rather than teaching skills in a prescriptive, isolated manner, embeds them responsively in meaningful projects that meet the backgrounds, needs, interests and capacities of all learners.”

Humour offers innovative learning space

One such meaningful project was her use of comedy with 50 culturally and linguistically diverse Grade 5 and 6 students.

Lenters has long believed in the potential of humour as a tool for literacy learning, so employed improvisational comedy to help these students build storytelling skills in a safe environment that valued collaboration, risk taking and learning through failure.

She explains in a recent Conversation Canada article that learning to tell a story is a critical aspect of literacy development; storytelling allows students to learn to work with language, vocabulary and writing structures in order to entertain, inform or persuade.

As they participated in improv, students showed a growing openness and responsiveness to the ideas of others. Many showed a willingness to take risks and be vulnerable in front of their peers,” she writes.

Lenters was pleased that students built competencies and began to see the world in new ways. One group that crafted a story about a neglectful pet sitter came to engage in ethical discussions around cycles of poverty.

“An important finding is the potential that working with comedy holds for bringing children into important conversations regarding matters of ethics, identity and difficult topics such as race and poverty.”

Exploring literacy in the margins

Lenters says the improv project was a launch pad for her current research, which looks at the notion of play in language and literacy teaching. This new project, which garnered her the CRC appointment, will explore what oral and embodied language play can do for literacy instruction in K-3 classrooms.

Lenters will partner with local school boards, the Calgary Public Library, and community workers in newcomer networks to collectively create new ways of approaching children’s language and literacy development. Children will be engaged through the activities and inquiries initiated in their classrooms and communities.

“A theme permeating much of my work has been inquiring into what is happening in the margins — the edges of classrooms, playgrounds, homes, and cultures, places and spaces in which children are engaging in literacy practices that don’t necessarily conform to ways adults conceptualize literacy. The CRC recognition is a validation of the value of this work and allows me to extend these explorations.”

Literacy matters

The award is also a confirmation of literacy’s foundational role in producing adaptable and forward-thinking community members. Lenters believes that though the task of putting theory that may be considered complex and abstract to work in literacy learning contexts is challenging, it is the kind of work needed for educational systems to meet the needs of 21st century learners.

“Literacy matters. It matters to societies, to economies, and to individuals. Furthermore, tangible academic, social, and economic repercussions exist for individuals, families, and societies when basic levels of literacy are not present.”

The Canada Research Chairs Program stands at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world's top countries for research and development. The program is committed to ensuring access and opportunities to all qualified candidates, while maintaining standards of excellence. The goals of equity and excellence are not mutually exclusive. Equity ensures that the largest pool of qualified candidates is accessed without affecting the integrity of the selection process.
For more information, visit the Research website