Reading, Language Acquisition, and Film Strategies
Loretta F. Kasper and Robert Singer
Kingsborough Community College/CUNY
An edited version of the following manuscript appears as Kasper, L.F., & Singer, R. (1997). Reading, language acquisition, and film strategies. PostScript, 15, 5-17.
Literacy can be defined as "a particular way of using language for a variety of purposes, as a sociocultural practice with intellectual significance"(Moll 201). According to the recently published Standards for the English Language Arts:
Language is the most powerful, most readily availabletool we have for representing the world to ourselves and ourselves to the world. Language is not only a means of communication, it is a primary instrument of thought, a defining feature of culture, and an unmistakable mark of personal identity. Encouraging and enabling students to learn to use language effectively is certainly one of society's most important tasks. (1)
Thus, literacy may be viewed as a social institution that amplifies and changes the cognitive and linguistic functioning of individuals. Therefore, the challenge for all college instructors is to help students move toward a greater control of language so that they will be able to participate fully in an increasingly complex, technological, and visual society.
We have found, based on our experiences in the classroom, a compelling resource for the college-level instructor of reading/writing in various cinematic representations of literacy. Films, as diverse as The Blackboard Jungle, To Sir, With Love, Up the Down Staircase, and Open Admissions are appropriate not only as texts in a film studies course, but also as visual resources in the developmental reading/writing course. Upon viewing these films, and others, students actively identify with and respond to representations of group or individual (il)literacy and related learning handicaps. Our students' reactions to these depictions demonstrate their own cultural assumptions, not only about the narrative content, but also about themselves as students. Guided analytical discussion in the reading/writing classroom can reveal film's unique capacity to represent ideological and cultural constructs of class, gender, race, and individual character; the personal reaction/insights of each student can be directed to areas of academic discourse, such as psychology, sociology, women's studies, economics, and others, to broaden the verbal and written perspective.
Literacy is achieved as students learn to use language in broader instructional and experiential activities, in this case, with film as a resource. These activities, which are driven by students' inquiry into the world around them, involve the linguistic actions of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and visually representing (Standards 3). A text does not have to be a given or solely published material; rather, any potential set of meanings produced in the interactions of learners can be considered a text (Santa Barbara 135). In fact, what becomes the text is defined through the interactions of learners with a variety of cultural media (Golden 290). Examples of these cultural media are texts written by others or by the learner him/herself, speeches or oral presentations, and film.
It is insufficient for students to merely react to a print or film text and state why he or she "liked" the work. A more literate student response, whether written or verbal, involves the interpretation of material, one which demonstrates heightened critical thinking. For example, after viewing the film Forrest Gump in class, students evaluate the significance of the metaphor of running, the film's manipulative blending of history (the Vietnam war, racial discord) with personal narrative, and most specifically, the representation of Forrest's (il)literacy. According to Anders and Pearson, "every instructional episode should address a student's declarative knowledge (that is, the what), procedural knowledge (that is, the how), and conditional knowledge (that is, the why and the when)"(315); how the intellectually challenged Forrest communicates, struggles, and survives in the film narrative involves the introduction and analysis of a variety of academic disciplines: history, psychology, science. The analytical student brings an actively engaged and enhanced perspective into the discussion of this "wise-simpleton." Instructional activities that tap into students' declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge bases teach them the instructional strategies they need to become fully and truly literate. The goal of using these strategies is to help students understand and learn from their interactions with texts (Devine 109), from the printed word to the visual image.
The perspective advanced by Anders and Pearson views literacy as based on the interactions that students have with texts within and across a variety of settings, and sees literacy as growing out of the opportunity to interact with a range of text types. Therefore, by engaging in activities drawn from a variety of linguistic genres, students learn how to create knowledge from whatever data is available and how to organize information that links new information with previous knowledge in unique and future-oriented ways.
Verbal Versus Visual Literacy
Students are participating in the process of text construction each time they read, speak, write, listen, view, or visually represent (Standards 3). Unfortunately, the basic verbal skills of a large number among the population of students now entering American colleges are sorely underdeveloped. Our students, in particular, were enrolled in a high intermediate level ESL (English as a Second Language) reading/writing course, as well as in a developmental reading/writing course for non-ESL students. These working-class students represented diverse ethnic, age, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, including Russian, Haitian, Hispanic, Asian, and native New Yorkers for whom English most often functions as a second language in the home. All of the students were working toward, at minimum, a two-year college degree, but most, whether native or non-native speaker, would go on to pursue more advanced college degrees. Both ESL and non-ESL courses were specifically designed as discipline-based sections, in which the content of various academic disciplines, for example, linguistics, psychology, and film studies, was utilized as the medium of English language discussion. It has been demonstrated that discipline-based courses, in particular, facilitate ESL students' language acquisition of English language literacy and subsequently increase students' success in the mainstream college curriculum (Benesch; Kasper "Content-Based"). Film studies has especially become an integral part of both the discipline-based ESL and non-ESL reading/writing course. Whether viewing the complete film text or excerpted sequences, a film (generally viewed on video) can present students with a graphic, visual illustration of key critical thinking concepts. Film analysis helps to consolidate and increase English language literacy as students are challenged to match images elicited from the printed text with visual representations on the screen. Moreover, film helps our students to learn about appropriate behavior within the mainstream (and academic) culture. One example that illustrates the concept of literacy and behavior involves the film Lean On Me and its representation of conflict and power.
Lean On Me is the recreation of the "real-life" story of Joe Clark, the principal of a failing urban high school. Clark is known for an unorthodox and confrontational manner in his dealings with people both inside and outside of the school environment, yet, his no-nonsense methods do appear to get positive results. Scores on various tests rise, and his students react favorably to him; he becomes an absent father-figure for many. In one late critical sequence in the film, a swarming crowd comes dramatically marching in support of the almost ruined principal. He is vindicated and saved from his detractors. Our classes first discussed and then wrote about several related issues: was Mr. Clark a hero in real/reel life? Who should control the curriculum: school board or school administration? Have the minority students in this film been adequately represented or romanticized, and what do you interpret they have learned? To complement this discussion, newspaper and magazine articles, both critical and supportive of Mr. Clark's performance, along with essays on test scores and educational psychology and the economics of public education, were introduced into the discussion to develop a more comprehensive perspective.
Building English language literacy skills is especially complex for our ESL students; if they are to succeed in an English-speaking academic environment, ESL students must meet not only the linguistic expectations, but also the behavioral and cultural expectations of this environment (Benesch "Needs" 725). Thus, for ESL students (and underachieving non-ESL students), the definition of literacy encompasses linguistic, psychological, and sociological needs. Because students are eager consumers of television, movies, and the electronic media, their visual skills are usually more well-developed, and these students typically have learned more by viewing than by reading or writing (Costanzo 69). As a result students often rely heavily on visual imagery when they interact with verbal, or written, texts. Thus, in the case of individuals who are deficient in verbal literacy, it makes sense to integrate activities, such as viewing a film, which tap into and capitalize upon visual literacy. This has been the active teaching experience in our classrooms.
William V. Costanzo suggests that by expanding the definition of literacy to include personal, cultural, and cognitive connections between verbal, or written, texts and visual, or cinematic texts, instructors can use students' visual literacy to strengthen their verbal literacy (70). There is evidence from cognitive psychology to support Costanzo's position. Cognitive psychologists like Allan Paivio and Gavriel Salomon have shown how the mind stores and manipulates information pictorially as well as linguistically. Further, the work of the developmental psychologists, Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder, indicates that visual processing appears to be the developmental foundation of our language skills.
Therefore, we should not separate visual literacy from verbal literacy; rather, we should treat word and image as equally valid textual modes. Visual literacy can and should be viewed as both an ally and a strong complement to verbal literacy. Gallagher believes that in establishing links between verbal and visual forms of articulation, instructors should go beyond mere content analysis of the visual medium to establish "valid structural connections"(60) between visual and linguistic actions. Thus, the analysis of a visual form of articulation, such as a film, can be used to help students shape the content of a verbal form of articulation--an essay or a book.
Constructions of Meaning
There are a number of socio- and psycholinguistic factors which contribute to the ways in which students will interact with a text and will construct meaning from that text. These factors include: prior experiences, background knowledge, and patterns of beliefs, actions, and expectations. The construction of meaning involves a process of interpreting a text, not merely one of extracting information from it. According to Clay, interpretation of text is a sociocultural action which is "embedded in and is inseparable from the multiplicity of contexts in which we live"(xi). Thus, learning is socially mediated, as meaning is constructed from information and experience filtered through each individual's unique perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.
Moreover, the cognitive and linguistic resources that students bring to each individual text are based on connections within and among a vast network of other related texts and events. These intertextual connections influence how students construct meaning from an individual text and the ways in which they interact with that text through language (Bloome and Bailey 199). Becoming literate involves learning how to define equivalences between experiences and how to perceive differences involving similar phenomena (Dyson 302-5).
This intertextual interplay assumes that "readers understand texts as extensions of their previous reading experiences, (and) that with each new text, readers become more proficient in understanding texts by attending to relevant information and by relating or connecting each new text to evolving knowledge"(Beach, Appleman, and Dorsey 696). Roland Barthes describes this intertextual interplay in the following way: "the Text is experienced only in an activity, a production. . .the constitutive movement of the Text is a traversal; it can cut across a work, several works"(75). In this process, students recall related texts and experiences and then elaborate on those texts and experiences. By elaborating on their recollections, students begin to discover their attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about the topic of the current text. This process of discovery aids in the construction of meaning, enriches the experience of the text, and thereby improves students' comprehension of that text. In summary, because literacy involves an active process of interaction with information and ideas presented in a range of text types, both past and present, it can be viewed as a sociocultural process which is continually being defined, redefined, constructed, and reconstructed.
To assist students in the attainment of literacy, it is important both to expose them to texts of different genres as part of the process of developing their linguistic competencies and to engage them actively in the construction of meaning (Moll 180). When students become active participants in their interactions, or "conversations," with texts, they come to understand that a conversation with text is a "true dialogue, (and as such is) fluid and dynamic in its properties, sensitive to the vagaries of context, and infinite in its range of possible variations"(Bialystok and Hakuta 166). By participating in the process of meaning construction in and across a variety of linguistic genres, students learn how to be literate as they develop an understanding of the content of diverse texts. According to Tierney, "literacy involves a complex intermingling of meanings, embedded within different texts"(1177). It is here that the written text and the visual text can be used most effectively to develop and to reinforce the students' experience of literacy.
Developing Literacy: Multidisciplinary Analysis
Literacy is best developed by exposing the learner to texts of different genres; this is a multicomponent process and as such requires a multidisciplinary perspective (Beach 1205). In such a multidisciplinary perspective, literacy is developed by exposing students not merely to texts drawn from a variety of different genres and taking a variety of different forms, but also to those representing a diverse spectrum of disciplines. Thus, students become literate through their discoveries of intertextual links between and across disciplines. As they gain knowledge of a variety of multidisciplinary text types, students' perceptions of experience are shaped and refined. This process serves to enhance both students' ability to interpret texts and their capacity to remember and define relationships between concepts (Langer and Applebee 136).
Taking a multidisciplinary approach to the development of literacy provides students with several important linguistic and cognitive benefits (Kasper "Theory and Practice" 223). From a linguistic perspective, the rationale for the multidisciplinary perspective is based on the principle that successful development of linguistic skill occurs when learners are presented with material in a meaningful, contextualized form in which the primary focus is on the acquisition of information (Brinton, Snow, and Wesche 3).
From a cognitive point of view, a multidisciplinary approach facilitates the achievement of literacy because multidisciplinary content builds and activates domain- related knowledge, or schemata, from which the learner may draw to aid in the comprehension of related text (Anderson .
Students who read extensively and talk about their reading and who are writing to learn become more successful academic readers, writers, and learners. Moreover, Nelson and Schmid have found that when students develop their linguistic skills through discipline-based texts, these skills transfer to other unrelated texts, thereby improving overall literacy (539).
The enhancement of overall linguistic skill, and hence literacy, results because in a multidisciplinary approach language and learning are viewed as interdependent, and lasting learning, intellectual growth, and language are inextricably connected. This suggests that "classroom learning contexts where learners learn both language and multidisciplinary content through an abundance of language- mediated activities and projects"(MacGowan-Gilhooly 52) will promote enhanced English language literacy.
Language Acquisition and Film Strategies
If we take the position that literacy is achieved most easily and efficiently through a multidisciplinary perspective, we are then faced with the task of curriculum development. For reading and writing to become discourses of power and inclusion for our students, they must be provided with an educational environment that requires them both to read and write extensively and then to talk about language and about what they have read and written. They also require an educational environment that allows them abundant time for and that provides them with constructive feedback on reading and writing. Finally, to develop their language and literacy skills most fully, students need an educational environment that encourages them to formulate and test the hypotheses they have derived from the texts they have read and written.
By incorporating pedagogical activities grounded in a variety of disciplines and choosing texts which are drawn from diverse media and which represent diverse viewpoints on crossdisciplinary issues of interest, we can provide our students with such an educational environment. To illustrate this principle, we furnish a description of a lesson on the topic, "The Acquisition and Use of Language." This lesson uses material drawn from a variety of disciplines, genres, and text types, specifically three written and two film texts representative of three disciplines: psychology, sociology, and linguistics.
The first text read is "Language: Its Acquisition and Use," by Loretta F. Kasper. This text provides students with a general introduction to language acquisition, including its stages, the critical period theory, the language acquisition theories of Noam Chomsky and B.F.Skinner, and contrasts between the processes of first and second language acquisition. In its discussion of the critical period theory, this text describes the case of Genie, a young girl who was deprived of exposure to language, from the age of 18 months to 13 years, by her schizophrenic father. After reading the text, students discuss, both orally and in writing, the case of Genie in terms of its relationship to the critical period theory and to the theories of Chomsky and Skinner.
To expand their knowledge and understanding of the Genie case, students next read the text, "The Civilizing of Genie," by Maya Pines. This text provides a detailed description of the various aspects of this case, from Genie's discovery, to her intensive language training, to the lawsuit filed by her mother against the researchers working with her. Then, after reading and discussing the texts, students watch the NOVA documentary, Secret of the Wild Child, produced by Linda Garmon. This documentary provides students with the opportunity to see and listen to the young girl, Genie, and to see and hear the various research scientists who worked with her. The documentary takes students step-by-step through Genie's life after she was found, and also compares and contrasts the modern-day case of Genie with the 19th century case of Victor, the "Wild Boy of Aveyron," a feral child, who was discovered in the woods and trained by Jean Itard. In spite of Itard's intensive training, Victor, like Genie, never acquired normal language skills. In addition, a discussion follows later which makes critical distinctions among specific film genres, the documentary, the narrative/fiction film, and the "bio/pic," the biography film which often blends fact and fiction. This is necessary because edited and extended sequences from the films Forrest Gump and The Miracle Worker are often viewed to provide a textual counterpoint to the analysis of the essays and the film Nell, which is viewed in its entirety.
After students watch this NOVA documentary, the class discusses it within the framework of the two written texts, "Language: Its Acquisition and Use" and "The Civilizing of Genie." The students then write an essay in which they formulate and test their own hypotheses about language acquisition. They compose an intertextual analysis in which they consider Genie's language development within the framework of the theories of Chomsky and Skinner. Students must include information presented in the two written texts and in the film documentary in their essays. These assignments are usually read aloud for further class discussion.
Next, students read "The Miracle of Resiliency" by David Gelman, which describes the effects of life stresses on children--classifying children as "glass, plastic, or steel" dolls--based on how effectively they are able to withstand life stresses. Students discuss, orally and in writing, the case of Genie, relating it to the theories presented in the Gelman essay. Students decide how effectively Genie was able to deal with her life stresses, both during her confinement and after her release, as they respond to the essay prompt, "How does Genie fit into the theory proposed by the text, 'The Miracle of Resiliency?' Provide examples of situations in which Genie's resiliency helped her to survive." All of this information must be processed in relationship to what has preceeded it and what will follow it.
Students take the process of intertextual connections one step further through an in-class screening of the popular film, Nell (1994), directed by Michael Apted. Nell tells the story of a lost young woman, Nell, who is often referred to as a "pet," an "animal," and a "wild-woman," and who has lived her entire life isolated in the North Carolina woods. Although a work of fiction, Nell's character is credible and evokes sympathy from our students because of her sense of physical displacement, her appreciation of life's sensualities, and her language/learning handicaps, which generate abuse from the immediate, uncontrolled environment. Nell is capable of sight and hearing, and, although never a menacing figure, she is unaware of her sexuality and the response it arouses in the townspeople.
Nell is unlike the frightening and occasionally violent young Helen Keller in the film based on her life and education, The Miracle Worker, (1962), directed by Arthur Penn. Patty Duke's portrayal of the blind and deaf Helen in this bio/pic is most compelling; Helen is represented as a lost, child-monster. "She's a monkey," Helen's brother declares to her teacher, Ms. Sullivan. Certain key film sequences, such as the dining room exchange between the enraged, hungry Helen and the ever-teaching Ms. Sullivan, visualize for the audience the sense of Helen's hopelessness and innocence; she will never learn how to communicate and therefore cannot be civilized, even with the benefit of a loving and indulgent family. This bio/pic represents the facts and details of her turn-of-the century education/ civilizing.
Late in the film narrative, Helen appears to respond to Ms. Sullivan's lessons. This becomes a dramatic "in point" for our students, and a student is selected to read the corresponding chapeter in the Helen Keller autobiography to discuss the film's interpretation of this moment with the class. Helen is on the verge of displaying the rudiments of language skills acquisition. She recognizes that her fingers can be made to represent things, and that each thing has a name. Helen is then made visibly prettier, less wild in demeanor, and her principle lighting is softer and more complimentary. Thus, a correlation is made between learning, language, and civilized humanity. This technical/physical change in Helen has been noted by our students, and its covert appeal to the idea that we are more socially acceptable (prettier) when we are capable of communication has been interpreted as a mixed-message. Essays selected from women's studies texts that explore the culture of beauty and its relationship to gender discrimination introduce in our classroom analysis a critical foundation for the issues raised by this sequence in The Miracle Worker. In particular, the essay, "Beauty and the Best" (Berscheid and Walster), is assigned to students for additional interpretive analysis. The issue of personal attractiveness also involves the lead character in the film Nell.
Nell, vividly portrayed by Jodie Foster, is slowly discovered by society after her mother dies. At first, Nell, like Helen, can be strong-willed, intimidating, and prone to paroxysm. The first on-camera shot of Nell finds her tucked in a corner of the attic, moaning, frightened, and crouched in a ready-to-pounce position. This image is effectively contrasted in class with another immensely popular and fictional film character, the young Forrest Gump, in the film Forrest Gump (1994), directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Young Forrest, like Helen Keller, has a loving and supportive mother, who exclaims to him "you are no different from anybody else," in complete disregard of the facts. He is, like Nell, different from others, especially in his command of language and literacy skills. Forrest is barely literate and commands a limited "homespun" discourse, with the depth of a greeting card, throughout his life. However, young Forrest's education (like our students') is overtly politicized. On the surface, he appears to be a physically handicapped boy (although he later proves this to be a passing phase as he sheds his leg braces while running), but it is an intellectual handicap which most clearly affects his life.
Early in the film narrative, in the principal's office, Forrest's mother is told that "his IQ is 75," and a chart is used to illustrate for her, and the audience, that "officially" he is below standards, a pre-destined outcast. In this sequence, the camera dollies from a wide-shot to a medium close up of a young, impassive Forrest as he sits next to the open door of the office; he is foreground on the left of the split-screen frame. On the right side, this discussion, which he (and the audience) can overhear, continues, in the slightly out-of-focus background. His personal humiliation becomes a public (and familiar) act.
In what must be described as a form of sexual blackmail, the principal inquires "is there a Mr. Gump?" The message is clear. Alabama's educational policy is compromised, and the principal has sex with Forrest's mother so that she can get Forrest mainstreamed into a regular class in a regular school. After the act is performed, and the principal leaves, he tells Forrest, "your mama cares about your schooling," for which there is no adequate response. The young Forrest is victimized by people throughout the narrative because he lacks a voice: his ability to respond, analytically and critically, is limited by his conditional illiteracy. Only once do we see the young Forrest engaged in active learning; as the camera dollies into his bedroom, his mother reads to him. In a medium close-up, the camera frames a moment of intimacy, in which the world is cut off from mother and son. Learning and the act of becoming literate is personalized. A visual correlation is made between personal attention, caring, and student performance.
In Forrest Gump, there is no classroom or teacher sequence. In contrast to this, after Nell's discovery, two researchers, a male doctor, portrayed by Liam Neeson, and a female academic, portrayed by Natasha Richardson, teach, work, and learn with her. Together, the three form an extended family, full of the necessary romantic and dramatic conflicts which personalize film's traditional and fictional exploration of language acquisition and literacy. In fact, Mr. Holland's Opus, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, and Stand and Deliver are contemporary films which also feature traditional narrative strategies with a personalized and positive closure. Film narrative conforms to the general and optimistic notion (perhaps, correctly) that love and a form of more personal attention, more than modern equipment and smaller class size is all that students need. Ironically, this contradicts the message delivered to Helen's parents in The Miracle Worker when Ms. Sullivan accuses Helen's parents of catering to Helen's worst impulses. Sullivan states that pity and love are greater handicaps--more debilitating--than Helen's physical handicaps, and she even suggests that their interference was the greatest impediment to Helen's belated language acquisition and, inferentially, civilizing. This film strategy of personalizing performance/progress has been at the core of several illuminating student discussions concerning who and what really influences how an individual learns.
The concerned professionals who work with Nell learn that Nell has her own language, which appears to be a derivative of English. Technology, in the form of tape recorders and video cameras, along with some hard work and patience, provide the entry into the private workings of Nell's interior world. Nell begins to appear like a student, and communication is achieved with her by providing individual attention and exacting/developing a more humanized science. We are tempted to consider the metaphorical implications of Nell as a reading of the contemporary classroom experience of the semi-literate student. Except for the feel-good ending, Nell demonstrates some of the problems our student population experiences: a fear/mistrust of authority; feeling ignored/abused by the general public; alienated because of a limited ability to speak/read "proper" English; placed with his or her "own kind"; and unaware of the whole process. The experiential in-points raised by Nell for our students are vast and powerful.
In one especially emotional sequence in Nell, the doctor (Neeson) begins to tell Nell a story from his past; he is animated and full of expressive sounds. Nell responds to this by approaching him and making physical contact. The frame is composed of a medium close-up of two involved faces. The more he acts like her, spontaneous and feeling, the greater his chance of entry into her world. He bridges the void with language as a glossary of "Nell-talk" quickly follows, along with the Bible as the print/text resource of choice. When the doctor (Neeson) gradually acquires Nell's language, he is able to communicate with her, thereby bridging the "cultural" gap between Nell's world and the outside world.
Language is a cultural medium, and the "outsider" (Neeson) gains Nell's trust and entry into her world only after sharing a linguistic experience. These visual and emotionally charged sequences dramatize effectively for students the acquisition of language skills and literacy, but they also focus on the idea that a personalized approach to literacy, one in which traditional academic roles (student-teacher) are less rigid or even abandoned, is more likely to facilitate learning. Several students, in both ESL and non-ESL sections, concluded that the idea was "Hollywood," and out of touch with practical reality, yet, these students were still moved by the message. This suggests to us that our students are far more aware of film's capacity to manipulate its audience that we initially suspected.
When the doctor becomes literate in Nell's language, he is able to teach her equivalent words in standard English. Her new-found literacy affords Nell access into mainstream society. This literacy also gives her the power in court to defend her right to choose where and how she will live. Had Nell remained illiterate in standard English, she would likely have had her rights usurped by the professional medical community and the courts. Literacy gave her the tools she needed to claim her rightful place in society. For our academically challenged students, many of whom are immigrants and working nearly full-time while they attend college, Nell's acceptance by her immediate society--however idealized--is simultaneously a socioeconomic dream/illusion for our students, but one, nevertheless, which still appeals to them for its positive and personalized resolution.
Nell is the primary film text which illustrates the intertextual strategies we are trying to achieve in our reading/writing classroom. Although powered by its star's box-office appeal and performance, Nell is enormously powerful in its visualization of the anxieties involved with the process of learning/language acquisition because it displaces--just enough--the viewer from the subject while maintaining an emotional attachment. Our students feel for her and see themselves in the issues she confronts, beyond individual gender and race, yet they know they have little in common with this poor girl from the backwoods. In contrast to this, Forrest Gump is too clearly a work of film fiction, and the suffering of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker is almost too much to bear. Nell thematically wavers between the romance of learning, with its dramatic moments of "progress" which engage the viewer, and the real practice of becoming literate, a process that is frustrating, yet achievable.
There are obvious similarities, with some outstanding differences, between the language development of the fictional Nell and the real Genie. Discussions of these similarities and differences provide fertile ground for further extension of intertextual connections between the written and the film texts. Therefore, after students view Nell, they are asked to relate Nell's story with that of Genie, and to integrate information derived from each of the texts used in the lesson, students write an essay in which they compare and contrast the young women, Nell and Genie, on various aspects of their lives. These aspects include language acquisition, resiliency, and socialization. This writing assignment requires students to recall related texts they have previously examined and to elaborate on them. Students begin to define their knowledge base, leading to increased overall text comprehension and enhanced English language literacy.
A Final Analysis
Each of the educational strategies used in the lessons described here is directed at helping students to construct meaning from written and visual texts. Meaning construction is critical to text comprehension and can be facilitated by incorporating and emphasizing activities that require the learner to engage in, to interact with, and to synthesize information from course texts (Zamel 463). Both meaning construction and text comprehension appear to depend upon the degree of active reader-response to text (Leki 22). Reading research indicates that a written response to text, particularly a formal, analytical response, provides students with a powerful tool to enhance text comprehension by encouraging students "to view the text as a source of knowledge, as something truly relevant to their lives" (Kasper "Writing to Read" 30). Analysis of text through writing enhances students' comprehension by allowing them to articulate their understanding of and connection to a text.
For instructional activities to increase comprehension, they must encourage students to relate the text to their own experience, knowledge, ideas, and reflections (Kasper "Writing to Read" 26). The pedagogical activities described in this paper ask students to produce analytical written responses to a variety of text types. We have demonstrated how several films which contextualize related issues of literacy can be utilized as principle and strategic assets to engage student discourse and a more complete examination of content-based issues, themes, and ideas, from a number of different perspectives. This helps to build critical thinking skills, such as analysis, interpretation, inference, and synthesis of knowledge. Each of these has been identified as a major component of meaning construction (Gajdusek and vanDommelen 200), and thus, necessary for the attainment of literacy.
By engaging students in active inquiry into the acquisition of language and literacy through exposure to a variety of print and film texts, we encourage them to develop an understanding of interrelationships among those texts, as well as to confront their own systems of belief. Students develop linguistically and intellectually, thereby attaining increased levels of literacy. By establishing strong connections between visual and verbal media, we help to give our students the tools they need to construct meaning, thus turning reading and writing into discourses of power and inclusion.
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