Guiding Principles

All activities of the Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center will be guided by seven principles. These principles are derived from Dorothy Watson's work in literacy education and are intended to be consistent with the philosophical orientation that underlies her work. They are meant to apply to all learners who are reached through the Literacy Center, including children, preservice teachers in professional education coursework, and inservice teachers seeking professional development. Through these principles, Dorothy Watson's work will be extended into the future by the Literacy Center.

Principle #1

Learners and their literacy development come first. The overriding goal of the Literacy Center is to help every child, young adult, and adult learner achieve her or his full literacy potential. Reaching as many learners as possible is of paramount importance and is the primary focus of the Center.

The Literacy Center rejects a "deficit approach" to learning and takes a positive approach that starts from learners' strengths. This is congruent with the whole language philosophy embraced by Dorothy Watson: "Whole language instruction always begins with what students are doing right and builds on these strengths. Successful readers take ownership of their own language and are empowered by an understanding of what they can do and where they are headed (Watson, 1988b, in Wilde, 1996, p. 98)." The positive focus does not deny that some learners have challenges that must be addressed, but insists that learners' strengths are always the first focus when literacy programs are built, and that learners' needs and problems are approached from that perspective.

The Literacy Center will operate based on the idea that "students' not textbooks or preformed guides or tests, are at the heart of teaching and learning (Watson, 1988a, in Wilde, 1996, p. 173)." Although the Center will include some published instructional and diagnostic materials, all materials will be examined critically, and will be chosen with the idea that "students are at the heart of curriculum planning; nothing is set into classroom motion until it is validated by learners' interests and motivated by their needs (Watson, 1989, in Wilde, 1996, p. 189)." Assessment will be approached from the same viewpoint, rejecting an emphasis on assessment tools (such as standardized tests) that "underestimate and underrepresent students' knowledge and their ability to use language (Watson, 1981, in Wilde, 1996, p. 124)" and that fail to capitalize on the rich stores of prior knowledge that learners already possess.

Principle #2

The Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center will work especially to reach learners who are underserved. Although the Literacy Center will not work exclusively with any one population, and is dedicated to helping all learners, special efforts will be made to reach individuals (including children, young adults, preservice teachers, and inservice teachers) who do not have power or voice and are not part of the dominant, "privileged groups" within society.

Dorothy Watson (1996, in Wilde, 1996) wrote that "whole language teachers believe that all students can learn--all of them, not just the rich ones or the tidy ones or those with high IQ scores or the ones fluent in English or those with no physical problems. These teachers know that in a nourishing environment, children's intellect and creativity are boundless. Once motivated, the sky's the limit (p. 291)." The Center will seek to serve populations that are diverse as well as to honor and celebrate diverse viewpoints.

In her presidential address to the second annual Whole Language Umbrella conference in 1990, Dorothy Watson (1994a, in Wilde, 1996) invited educators to consider "those students who are overtly and covertly denied because they bring their nonstandardized minds, bodies, ages, interests, and needs to a standardized classroom and curriculum (p. 257)", and to "think about those students whose lives are shaped by rich traditions and language that clash with or in some way are not comfortably and conveniently matched with the larger society, which includes organized schooling . . . (pp. 259-260)."

The Literacy Center will be a place where all voices may be heard and honored, a "safe place" in which learners of all kinds, children and teachers alike, can "invent, create, learn, teach, make mistakes, and create meaning (Watson, 1996, in Wilde, 1996, p. 271)." Such an environment is consistent with the ideals that underlie the whole language philosophy as well as the democratic system, including "freedom with responsibility, respect for all learners, the need to hear all voices, choice, self-regulation, and attention to process (p. 272)."

Principle #3

Meaning is at the heart of literacy; the construction of meaning is the purpose of literacy instruction.

A guiding question that will focus critical reflection about any method, resource, approach, strategy, or other idea concerning literacy that comes up in the Literacy Center will be: "Is meaning being constructed?" In all literacy acts, whether it be reading, writing, speaking, listening, or any other way of representing or receiving text, meaning comes first and is the reason for literate activity, for "if there is no meaning there is no impetus for using language (Watson, 1983, in Wilde, 1996, p. 145)."

The Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center embraces the idea that literate people seek meaning, and that approaches which emphasize breaking texts down into its smaller, less meaningful components (e.g., focusing on sounds, words, parts of speech, etc. ) miss the whole point of and reason for literacy. As Dorothy Watson (1982, in Wilde, 1996) wrote in an account of her tutoring experience with a college-age student who struggled with reading: "Don't worry about unlocking words--concern yourself with unlocking ideas (p. 92)."

A meaning-based philosophy is at the center of the "transactive" view of literacy proposed by Louise Rosenblatt (1978), Frank Smith (1978) and Kenneth Goodman (1982). In this view, literacy is an active, two-way process in which ". . . readers construct meaning as they bring information that is already in their heads to the messages authors have encoded in text . . . reading is a transactive process that involves both the potential of the reader and the potential of the text (Watson, 1985, in Wilde, 1996, p. 22)." The transactive process is not limited to reading: "Reading is basically receptive, writing is basically expressive, but both are transactive. That is, in both there is a lively negotiation between the writer and the unseen reader or between the reader and the unseen writer in which the potential of both writer and reader is affected (Watson, 1983, in Wilde, 1996, p. 134)." Thus, literacy is an active process, with both the receiver and the sender of the message participating, and with both text and reader being shaped and changed by the transaction.

The Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center embraces this transactive view of literacy; along with that view come implications for practice. If educators believe that each literacy act is an active literacy transaction, they must reject the notion that any one person's construction of meaning is the only "right" meaning. This means that they must build environments that foster risk-taking, allow students to take ownership of meaning transactions, honor diverse meaning constructions, and treat the inevitable miscues that learners will make as they experience transactions with texts as opportunities to learn rather than as "mistakes." It means that they must reject any program that stresses "simplistic exactness, prescription, and mastery (Watson, 1981, in Wilde, 1996, p. 125)" as well as any type of evaluation that requires "a template answer or cloned response that is an instant replay of the speaker's or author's message (p. 128)." Once again, the guiding question must always be asked: "Is meaning being constructed?"

Principle #4

Literacy is a holistic process, with all language systems working together. People acquire and develop literacy by doing literacy; that is, through authentic, holistic literacy tasks, in real contexts and for purposes that are meaningful to them.

This principle is consistent with the whole language point of view: "that language is inherently integrative, not disintegrative. It follows that language is learned and should be taught with all its systems intact. That is, all the systems of language—semantics, syntax, and graphophonemics (call it phonics if you must)--are maintained and supported by pragmatics (language in natural use) and must not be torn apart if language is to be learned naturally (Watson, 1989, in Wilde, 1996, pp. 188-189)." The whole language point of view also rejects the notion that the "language arts" (reading, writing, speaking, listening) are learned or should be treated as separate entities but that children learn literacy processes simultaneously; in fact, that each literacy process supports all the others as children learn receptive (reading and listening) and expressive (writing and speaking) literacy processes within various contexts. "If children become authors as they become readers, they discover through experience that writing and reading are related, with meaning and use as the link between them (Watson, 1983, in Wilde, 1996, p. 137)."

The Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center is built upon the belief that if language is learned in an integrative way, then literacy instruction should be designed the same way. "Students learn to speak, listen, read, and write by engaging in a great deal of speaking, listening, reading, and writing (Watson, 1983, in Wilde, 1996, p. 126)." The Literacy Center supports literacy development through authentic literacy tasks that lead to meaning-making in context, and rejects instruction consisting of "unnatural activities, assignments, and materials" that have no meaning as well as "contrived, isolated, and impersonal drill (p. 124)." The Literacy Center will strive to promote holistic, meaningful instruction for learners at all levels, from preschool through graduate school.

Principle #5

Teachers need to be grounded; that is, they need awareness of their own beliefs about literacy and literacy instruction, clear understandings of how personal beliefs lead to coherent theories, and the ability to translate theory into instructional practice.

Dorothy Watson (Wilde, 1996) recently spoke to the need for groundedness, stating that "Even teachers who are doing very good things are not sure why they are doing them (p.8)." Although trying new things may be one way to begin the change process, clearly it is not enough just to change on the surface: "When beliefs are clear, teachers have a better understanding about their expectations of readers, as well as a guide for making instructional decisions (Watson, 1985, in Wilde, 1996, p. 22)."

In addition, beliefs, theories, and practice must form a coherent whole if they are to work well for teachers. "Because our beliefs are so closely related to what we deeply value, it is critical that the theories and practices we accept be in harmony with them. If there is no compatibility, teachers report consequences ranging from discomfort to burnout (Watson, 1996, in Wilde, p. 274)." How is coherence achieved? "Through reflection on theories, practices, and beliefs, teachers sort out which assumptions hold water, which practices pay off, and which beliefs are confirmed. When practices are examined, theories get examined as well; some are rejected and some are so powerful that they become the trustworthy foundation of a belief system (p. 274)." The Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center will be a place where teachers can find resources and support as they build foundations for literacy instruction.

Principle #6

Teachers need to engage in active inquiry about "language, literature, learning, and learners (Watson, 1992, in Wilde, 1996, p. 58)"as they build grounded theory and practice.

The Literacy Center will be a place where active inquiry and meaning-making can occur. One of the best sources of information is learners themselves; one focus of the Literacy Center will be helping teachers discover ways to seek information from learners that will inform literacy instruction. "By watching and understanding learners, teachers themselves become learners. They learn about students as individuals and as members of the classroom community; they learn about themselves as teachers and members of the classroom community; they learn about the curriculum and its appropriateness; and they learn about their own theories of literacy and learning (Watson, 1992, in Wilde, 1996, pp. 59-60)."

Active inquiry should focus upon real students in real classrooms. Inquiry in the Literacy Center will always be directed toward such authentic settings, with an emphasis on teacher action research. Teachers will be assisted in asking questions and in testing theory and practice within classrooms and with students. They will be supported and encouraged as they move beyond a focus on instructional activities and grow into grounded practice: "Serious educators may begin their journeys with an activity, but they move and grow by asking questions and by collecting evidence (Watson, 1994b, in Wilde, 1996, p. 210)."

Inquiry is an essential component in teacher growth, and is necessary throughout a teacher's career. Inquiry is a source of renewal, a way to avoid falling into the "rut" of unexamined past experience: "We know that the past can lead us, but we know too that it can mislead if we don't take control of the knowledge by constantly testing it--and by generating new information while confirming or disconfirming what we think we know (Watson, 1988a, in Wilde, 1996, p. 178)." The Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center will be dedicated to the idea that beliefs and practice must be continually examined, and that no belief or practice should be exempt from examination: "An examined belief system is set in theory and practice, not in concrete; only blind beliefs resist examination. Whether or not we discard, alter, or keep a particular belief often depends on the depth and honesty of our reflection, inquiry, and self-evaluation (Watson, 1994b, in Wilde, 1996, p. 213)."

Honest and deep inquiry often requires teachers to enter a discomfort zone, to experience uncertainty and dissonance, but this is necessary for learning. Inquiry is often uncomfortable "because it requires great honesty in evaluating one's own past, as well as patience and time for reflection. Some educators are hesitant to take on such an introspective inquiry (Watson, 1989, in Wilde, 1996, p. 186)." The Literacy Center recognizes that inquiry can be difficult and will work to provide help, scaffolding and support for preservice and inservice educators as they pursue active inquiry about literacy.

Principle #7

Collaboration within a community of scholars is essential to support teachers as they engage in active inquiry and construct grounded theory and practice in literacy.

The Literacy Center will be an example of the kind of "talking place" described by Dorothy Watson (1993, in Wilde, 1996, pp. 242-243). "Talking places" allow teachers to construct knowledge with others rather than in isolation, for "there is a growing realization that learning is not only a personal experience, but also is a social one, and that it thrives best in a social setting described as a democratic community of scholars (Watson, 1996, in Wilde, 1996, p. 277)." This does not mean that individual goals are suppressed, but rather that collaborators share with and support one another as they pursue their goals.

Collaboration must occur because we need each other as learners. This is true for learners at all levels, from preschool to graduate teacher education. Dorothy Watson (1996, in Wilde, 1996) described the ways collaborators work together and assist each other. Although her description relates to collaboration within a K-12 classroom, the ideas she describes here can be just as easily applied to postsecondary settings and teacher education:

Classmates help each other as resources for coproducing meaning... Inquirers need each other--kids helping kids--to clarify what they know, don't know, and need to know... Learners make each other look a head taller because they have been the supportive resource--someone who asked the right question or made a needed comment at the right time... Inquirers are also evaluators, critics of their work and of other learners' work. Within a community of scholars the purpose of such evaluation is not to find fault but to help one another build on strengths, to keep momentum going and motivation alive (p. 286).

The Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center will strive to be just such a community of scholars.

Collaboration will be seen and heard in many different ways in the Literacy Center:

1. Teacher-to-teacher. The Literacy Center will be a place where teachers can work together and support one another as they seek answers to the literacy needs of their students, and may engage in collaborative inquiry projects and teacher action research together through the Center, either independently, through preservice or inservice coursework based there, or through workshops and other professional development opportunities there.

2. Teachers and teacher educators. As in all collaborations, both parties can learn from each other. Teacher educators may provide resources and information, but teachers can help teacher educators remain up-to-date about classrooms and students. It is expected that there will be collaborative inquiry/classroom research projects done with teachers and teacher educators working together, and teacher educators will often be in classrooms observing, working, and consulting with teachers and their students.

3. Students, teachers, and teacher educators. Students are the best source of information about students! The Literacy Center will not just be a place for adults. Although it may often be more practical for teachers and teacher educators to come to students within school settings to work with them (and they certainly will be doing that), there will also be times when students will come to the Literacy Center, perhaps to help with testing instructional strategies and diagnostic procedures, or also for experiences where the Center can assist them and their teachers in developing the best, most appropriate literacy instruction for them. Through the Literacy Center's "Outreach" strand, activities and projects inviting children and young adults to the Literacy Center as well as going out to where they are and working with them, will be developed.

4. Collaboration with other stakeholders. Although the three types of collaboration listed above will be the types of collaboration seen most often in the Literacy Center, many other types of "partnerships" may occur. The Center will be open to anyone who is interested in literacy and literacy instruction. For example: Teacher educators from other universities may collaborate with teacher educators in the Literacy Center. Area school administrators will be approached and may seek out information and help from the Literacy Center, perhaps initiating projects within their schools. Families and community members may seek assistance and consultation from the Literacy Center. Many other forms collaboration may take place in the Literacy Center.

The following words by Dorothy Watson (1988c, in Wilde, 1996) sum up well the need for and benefits of collaboration, and why it will be a guiding principle of the Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center:

Teachers must be open about what they know, and they need to find out what others are doing—really doing—if there is to be positive communication. Teachers need to talk to parents, administrators, and other teachers in order to support each other's endeavors, always maintaining the child at the center.

Teachers need support. How frequently does someone come into the classroom to talk with teachers or to discuss curricular matters? Teachers often close their doors, hoping to be left alone. Whole language teachers have found it necessary to metaphorically "open their doors" to other teachers who can, in turn, share their own successes and problems (p. 171).


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