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Developmental Aspects of Reading and Literacy:

Envisioning Literacy Education as a Developmental Science


George G. Hruby

Utah State University


Mona W. Matthews

Georgia State University











In this paper, the authors argue for the potential of an interdisciplinary bridge between the study of reading and literacy processes and the developmental sciences. They first present a rationale for such interdisciplinary scholarship. Then they illustrate the potential of such work and examine how the construct of development, as currently informed by the developmental sciences, can be articulated with both precision and fruitfulness for reading and literacy research. They end by offering a pair of graphic organizers illustrating a common heuristic for identifying theoretical frames employed in the developmental sciences.



Developmental Aspects of Reading and Literacy:

Envisioning Literacy Education as a Developmental Science


Theorists have conceptualized reading and literacy processes over decades (Ruddell & Unrau, 2004). The resulting constructs have expanded beyond earlier behaviorist objectives-based formula, through models of cognitive process, and on to include the impact of social, cultural, and economic contexts as well as affective and identitive self- and social regulation (Alexander & Fox, 2004). A similar conceptual evolution can be observed in theories of human development as articulated over the past forty years in the developmental sciences (e.g., Damon, 1998; Damon & Lerner, 2006). Notions of developmental process, in particular, have grown from psychodynamic, behavioral, and cognitive mechanisms, and the effects of interpersonal and sociocultural contexts, to include models of complex developmental dynamics grounded in bio-ecological and organicist theoretical frames (Fischer & Bidell, 1998; Gotlieb, Wahlsten, & Lickliter, 2006; Overton, 2006; Thelan & Smith, 2006). These more recent developmental perspectives have not yet been brought to bear on questions of reading process, acquisition, facilitation, and assessment.


We propose in this paper the potential of employing these more recent developmental motifs in research and scholarship on reading and literacy development, particularly as a means to frame novel research designs. Such designs would draw attention to the multiple factors that in reading and literacy education scholarship have more often been studied discretely and within distinct and often conflicting theoretical frames. With this expansion would come a complexity that requires interdisciplinary collaboration and an attendance to the theoretical challenges of such collaboration.


In this paper, we will argue for the potential of such an interdisciplinary bridge between the study of literacy processes and frameworks in the developmental sciences. In making this argument, we begin with a rationale for such interdisciplinary scholarship. Then, we illustrate the potential of such work and examine how the construct of development, as currently informed by the developmental sciences, can be articulated with potentially greater precision and fruitfulness in reading and literacy research. We set forth two charts illustrating a widely employed heuristic from the developmental sciences as a possible starting point for such an interdisciplinary articulation.


A Rationale for Connecting Disciplines


Theoretical coherence is arguably the foundation for scholarly research (Kuhn, 1969; Pepper, 1948; Popper, 1980; Reese & Overton, 1970). Theories act as heuristics, that is, as conceptual structures that provide categorical guidance, delimit what is thought to count as phenomena, frame questions for scholarly examination, and inform interpretation of data. Theories are then modified by the results of the research and interpretation they foster, generally on behalf of more fruitful and satisfying constructs (Rorty, 1989). Crossing disciplinary boundaries poses challenges to the need for such theoretical coherence in research, as different disciplines and fields often prefer particular theoretical frames of reference (Lerner, 1998). When theoretical lenses conflict, coherent understanding of a phenomenon is often stymied.  New, adapted, or hybrid theoretical frames are then required (Overton, 2006). This is precisely the requirement we shall address in this paper in hopes of fostering an expanded articulation of the multidimensional nature of reading and literacy development. 


We suggest that collaborations between reading/literacy education and the developmental sciences have the potential to provide theoretical coherence by way of integrative theoretical constructs (i.e., theoretical frameworks that incorporate assumptions and grounding metaphors from two or more fields of inquiry). Such collaborations could demonstrate how education scholarship on reading and literacy development could be better informed by the broader study of human development, particularly at the level of working theory and investigative methodology. Likewise, insights from studies of reading and literacy development could inform research on growth and adaptation processes by scholars in the developmental sciences. Hence, theoretical foundations and methodologies provide areas in which cross-disciplinary collaborations might first bear fruit.


Questions prime for such collaboration can be drawn from cognitive, social, affective, and phenomenological aspects of literacy development. The importance of theoretical foundations for grounding research questions, designs, and methodologies, and the potential dangers of a possible disjunction between literacy development research and the developmental sciences on theoretical grounds further warrant cross-disciplinary conversations. The benefits may include both an expanded understanding of core reading and literacy processes as well as of the development of more comprehensive and coherent programs of developmental research.


Consider the case of reading comprehension. Research on reading comprehension over the past few decades has generally been framed by theories of cognitive processes or sociocultural formulation, and sometimes both (Gaffney & Anderson, 2000; Pearson & Stephens, 1994). The active role of the reader using skills germane to both oral and written language before, during and after the reading process is understood to encompass affective as well as cognitive processes.  However, extending these insights further with a developmental perspective, we can conceptualize comprehension as a dynamically recursive process involving the re-adaptation of multiple scales of systemic co-regulation to new (actual, virtual, or potential) contextual surrounds that leaves a series of structured traces conceivable as the legacy of development. This developmental trace at any given point in time facilitates and constrains behavior and future development, as a child can only grow forward from where the child is at that point in time, but over time such traces demonstrate on-going modification toward functional response to immediate and distal contextual factors (Fischer & Bidell, 1998; Tomasello, 2003). Theory in the developmental sciences has been particularly useful when seeking theoretical explanations for such system dynamics, whether at a neurobiological, behavioral, symbolic, socio-cognitive, or cultural scale of operation.


Similar potential could be suggested when comprehension is examined in emergent literacy learners. Examination of comprehension in emergent literacy research has occurred through a focus on storybook reading (e.g., Sulzby, 1985), on children’s development of strategies known to be used by effective readers, such as inference (e.g., Bartsch & Wellman, 1995), and on the role of background knowledge (e.g., Chi & Koeske, 1983). Although this research has provided insightful and foundational information about emergent literacy development, incorporating theories and research from the developmental sciences would open avenues of investigation equally as insightful and foundational. To illustrate, for decades researchers in the developmental sciences have examined the nature, the quality, and the influence of young children’s relationships with others and how these relationships bear on their overall development. Only a few literacy researchers have incorporated a focus on relationship quality in investigations of emergent literacy (e.g., Bus & IJzendoorn, 1995; Pelligrini & Galda, 1998).  Emergent literacy researchers, particularly those interested in children from birth to age five, would be richly rewarded if they extended their investigative reach to include theories and research in the developmental sciences. We would argue that most relevant are theories and research related to the role of attachment in learning (e.g., Bowlby, 1982), how children come to share and understand others’ intentions (Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne, & Moll, 2005), and children’s symbolic development (Namy, 2005; Tomasello, 2003).


An example from Matthews and Cobb (2005) demonstrates the potential to invigorate conceptions of children’s behavior in a familiar literacy context: collaborative literacy events (CLEs, literacy events in which children collaborate with classmates without the teacher immediately present). Building on the research of Matthews and Kesner (2000; 2003), they created a CLE model informed by sociocultural theory (e.g., Rogoff, 1995), Expectations States Theory, (Berger & Wagner, 1966), and theories and research from developmental psychology related to attachment (e.g., Bowlby, 1982) social cognition (e.g., Damon & Hart, 1988), and young children’s cognitive development (e.g., Piaget, 1970). Three components constitute the model: child, classroom, and CLE event. Interdisciplinary influences are most evident in the child component. To understand a specific child’s behavior during a CLE, users of this model consider the provisions (i.e., supports) children possess in three domains: literacy knowledge, social behavior, and cultural affordance. Crossing disciplinary boundaries enriched the authors’ conceptualization of the model, which in turn, broadened the interpretive lens of the users of the model.


As the CLE model demonstrated, expanding research in reading and literacy development into the arena of developmental science addresses the challenge of envisioning comprehensive theoretical framing that can enhance the study of cognitive, social, cultural, and physiological correlates to literacy ability.  Such cross-disciplinary excursions could potentially generate avenues of exploration heretofore only alluded to in current multi-dimensional conceptions of reading/literacy processes.  Furthermore, addressing these and related issues could have profound implications for future developmental research on efficacious instructional interventions for improving reading and literacy in and out of schools.


In short, cross-informing disciplines in the developmental sciences and reading/literacy education has the potential to fill the gap between conceptual assumptions of development employed by reading/literacy education researchers with those employed in the developmental sciences. Although widely used by reading and literacy scholars, the construct of development as typically employed lacks the conceptual clarity found in the developmental sciences, as we will argue in the following section. 


Conceptual Clarity: A Benefit of Cross-Disciplinary Excursions


The term development has been used by reading/literacy education scholars over the years to indicate a diverse array of scholarly foci. Emergent reading, early reading, clinical reading intervention, remedial high school reading, college reading, and adult reading have all been the locus for claims of reading/literacy development or developmental literacy/reading scholarship. Certain scholars have specialized in studying the development of decoding ability, fluency, vocabulary, or comprehension. More recently, scholars have called attention to the development of literate identities and efficacious literacy practices within community settings. Reading disabilities researchers have often employed the adjective developmental to indicate innate tendencies, a usage ill supported by current developmental science. Throughout it all, the vernacular use of development as an atheoretical synonym for apparent change in subject populations has been vexingly commonplace. In many cases, reading development seems to be a simple synonym for reading ability acquisition.


This overly loose use of the term development makes formal theory construction regarding developmental process in literacy difficult. Unfortunately, in addition to this seemingly unconstrained breadth of application, the theoretical assumptions about development employed in reading/literacy scholarship have arguably been obscure, inconsistent across foci, or possibly even anachronistic in relation to the broader domain of the developmental sciences. Even across reading and literacy research constrained by particular grade level, theoretical assumptions about change in learners and readers have often proven paradigmatically incommensurate.


To illustrate, it was once popular for reading scholars to propose programmatic instructional approaches that assumed steady, linear ability progression based on normative population averages (e.g., Witty, Freeland, & Grotberg, 1966). Subsequently, scholars began to emulate the early work of Piaget (1970) with stage models of reading development (Chall, 1996), even as others resuscitated Vygotsky’s (1978) emphasis on the impact of socio-historical context (Cole, Engeström, & Vasquez, 1997). Other scholars of literate development have variously presumed computational models of recursive elaboration (e.g., Kintsch, 1998).  Variously related to idioms in developmental research spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, all of these perspectives, among others, are current in reading/literacy education research today.


Perhaps the most dismaying consequence about the unfettered use of the construct of development is that these diverse reading/literacy perspectives often do not seem to relate to current mainstream theoretical motifs within the broader developmental sciences, at least as such motifs are indicated in the handbooks and major reference texts of that domain (e.g., Handbook of Child Psychology; Damon & Lerner, 2006). Many of the mainstream theoretical idioms from current developmental psychology on the study of children’s learning, as evidenced in that field’s mainstream journals, are absent from the reading/literacy development literature. Unlike in the developmental sciences, where such theoretical rifts as nature vs. nurture or structure vs. function have largely been superceded, researchers within the reading/literacy education field continue to parse whether reading is an unnatural activity or not, or whether research conducted within the theoretical framing of organic co-regulation of structure and function is inadequately “scientific” due to fallacious, specifically teleological, reasoning.


Development in the developmental sciences, by contrast, is articulated with much greater precision than vague assertions of change over time. Unfortunately, these theoretical perspectives are numerous, and reviewing them in detail would be beyond the scope and intent of this paper. (However, consider the cursory review in Figure 2.) But we will here define what we mean by developmental science, as many reading and literacy educators may not be familiar with the use of that term as an alternative to developmental psychology.


Developmental science is a broad domain taking together fields within the natural and social sciences focused on the nature of systemic change in humans and other organisms. It encompasses such other disciplines as genetics, epigenetics, developmental cytology, developmental neuroscience and neuroendocrinology, ethology, evolutionary psychology, neuropsychiatry, social neuroscience, social psychology, developmental linguistics, clinical psychiatry, and developmental psychology, including psychobiology, ecological or bio-ecological psychology, situated cognition, virtual life systems research, and dynamical systems development theory, along with philosophy of biology and of mind (Damon & Lerner, 2006). Developmental psychology itself has been much transformed as a result of this interdisciplinary association over the past four decades. , Today’s developmental psychology is very different compared with   developmental psychology of past decades. However, many of the advances in developmental psychology have not yet appeared in the reading and literacy research literature.

In the broader domain of the developmental sciences, development is articulated through precisely formulated theoretical constructs. Notorious historical debates about nature vs. nurture, the social vs. the natural, the cognitive vs. the emotional, or structure vs. function already have been largely finessed in that domain as a coherent, multivocal conversation.  The cohesive interrelationship of theoretical constructs in the developmental sciences is arguably the consequence of meta-theoretical analysis (Lerner, 1998; Overton, 2006). This has led to the identification of appropriate methodologies and theoretical justifications for scale-specific constructs of development (see description in the following section), and has made possible research conducted on the nature of child predisposition and plasticity and the influence of proximal and distal systemic factors. We are inspired by these developments to suggest that there may not be a position within reading/literacy development research – from the study of cognitive processing of symbolic signifiers, to the observation of the socio-affective dynamics of classrooms, to post-positivist critiques of “developmentalism” – that could not be invigorated by clearer association with the current interdisciplinary domain of developmental study.


We take a topic, cultural symbols, of interest to researchers in both disciplines, to demonstrate this potential. For emergent literacy investigators, Western children’s understanding of the alphabetic principle consolidates most of the investigative attention related to symbols. To become a successful reader of English print, a young child must intellectually discern how oral, aural, and graphic symbols interlace to represent a meaningful unit of printed text. Many reading scholars view this process as the lynchpin of reading acquisition, hence explaining the attention it garners from researchers.  In contrast, developmental scientists focus their investigative attention on the social, cultural origins of symbolic development (Rakoczy, Tomasello, & Striano, 2005). Essentially, current research in symbolic development situates that development within young children’s basic need to affiliate with the important others in their lives (Rochat & Callaghan, 2005). This need motivates the young to mimic and ultimately appropriate the meanings the significant others in their lives ascribe to the symbols in their environment.  They strive to be like those about whom they care and on whom they rely. Although the two domains share an interest in children’s understanding of symbols, research informed by the respective disciplines has occurred along parallel paths. Consider the potential if these lines were to merge. Emergent literacy researchers might garner significant insight into how to use children’s symbol knowledge gained via their early personal relationships to support their understanding of the alphabetic principle. Researchers in the developmental sciences might advance understanding of symbolic development by examining its development within practical contexts, such as preschools, kindergarten and early elementary classrooms.


 Theories are often described as lenses for focusing the object of a researcher’s inquiry. Scholars expect conceptual clarity from theories.  By their nature, formal theory restricts and thus limits a scholar’s attention during investigative pursuits. When such restriction is acknowledged and set forth in a study’s literature review and methodological rationale, readers of these reports can interpret researchers’ work within the proper limitations of the theoretical frame fully aware that additional avenues or perspectives are possible. Absence of such acknowledgement may lead less informed readers to inappropriately reify a theoretical construct as a comprehensive description of reality.  For trained interpreters, an absence of theoretical caveat can lead to warranted concern about a scholar’s claims and the quality of thought behind them.   


Charting Novel Developmental Vocabularies


            The developmental sciences have a strong tradition of parsing theoretical debates by the light of higher-order theoretical frames. Drawing inspiration from Pepper’s model of world hypotheses (Pepper, 1942), Reese & Overton (1970) posited three world hypotheses that pertained in developmental psychology: mechanism, organicism, and contextualism. This tripartite categorical system for grouping theories into families of analogical assumption continues to be widely employed in mainstream developmental science handbooks and textbooks (e.g., Bornstein & Lamb, 2005; Damon & Lerner, 2006; Lerner, 2002; Shaffer, 2002). We suggest that acknowledging this orienting system within the developmental sciences and considering its application to developmental stances in literacy research could be a useful first move in constructing an interdisciplinary bridge.

            As Figure 1 indicates, these three world hypotheses (Pepper, 1942), or worldviews (Hermans & Kempen, 1993; Shaffer, 2002), rest on a central assumption of a root metaphor or analogical assumption about the nature of a phenomenon that then guides question formation, choice of methodology, and interpretation of research results generated by research on that phenomenon. In mechanism, the root assumption is that the phenomenon in question operates like a simple machine where the structure of the machine can be taken to account for its function. In organicism, the root assumption is that the phenomenon operates like some sort of living system, where multiple levels of structure and function co-regulate and develop across time in response to environmental influences on behalf of functionality. Finally, in contextualism the root assumption is that the phenomenon operates as it does due to its unique and non-replicable relationship to its situation-in-context and related temporal contingencies. Were each of these positions to be personified by a major Western thinker, the respective line-up might be Newton, Hegel, and Foucault.

            Hybrid formulations across any two of these three worldviews are also possible, and from an instrumentalist perspective (Caccioppo, Semin, Bernston, 2004), worldviews might be deliberately selected for particular research targets. Thus, mechanism would be the preferable worldview for researching the structural organization of a phenomenon at any given scale of spatio-temporal organization. Organicism would allow for the study of complex system dynamics over time and the coordination of structure and process across spatio-temporal scales. Contextualism would reinforce the unpredictable persistence of variability in individual cases and caution constraint on assumption of predictive precision. However, Pepper (1942) warned against mixed metaphors in worldviews because of the conflicting assumptions about causation each presume and the confusions this may generate.

            Extending this coordinating system of worldviews to reading or literacy development research, we would suggest several immediate observations. First, it might be argued that some light can be shed on the current distinction between reading research and literacy research. Most reading development research seems to have been conducted within an unacknowledged mechanistic worldview (as reviewed, say, in the National Reading Panel report, NICHD, 2000). Most literacy development research, by contrast, (as well as post-positivist arguments against developmentalism, see Lesko, 2004), may have been conducted within an unacknowledged contextualist worldview. (For an example of acknowledged use of contextualist framing by postmodernist developmental psychologists, see Hermans & Kempen, 1993.)

On the other hand, there does not seem to have been much reading or literacy work conducted within a precisely articulated organicist worldview. This could be problematic for interdisciplinary conversation, because most developmental science theory today resides in an organicist or organicist-contexualist framework (Overton, 2006). But, instead of such work, there has been a good deal of literacy scholarship related to motivation, engagement, as well as scholarship involving critical analyses of the stances at work in policy debates. This scholarship is arguably situated in a worldview unknown in the developmental sciences, which we here call intentionalism, predicated on the root metaphor of willful agency. From the standpoint of literacy education theory and scholarship, it may be reasonable to assume that individual agency is a factor driving learning and development in the classroom. But it is likely scholars and theorists from the developmental sciences would shy away from this framework, because the development of willful agency would be precisely the sort of phenomenon many would identify as being in need of explanation. A bio-ecological or organicist framework is the more probable approach on this topic one would expect in the developmental sciences (Damon & Lerner, 2006). Nonetheless, historical appreciation for humanist psychology (Rogers, 1992), and more recent proposals for a positive psychology (e.g., Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005) may warrant inclusion of the framework of intentionalism into the developmental canon.

            Drawing on and extending a graphic organizer by Schaffer (2002), we apply these categorical worldviews to a sample of perspectives on human development from the developmental sciences, including the newer perspectives alluded to above (see Figure 2). We admit, however, that the value of these categorical distinctions for bridging between the developmental sciences and reading and literacy development study is highly conjectural.


Concluding Thoughts


A  coordination of perspectives within the reading/literacy community might be one benefit of an interdisciplinary conversation with the developmental sciences. Beyond the traditional cognitive/sociocultural divide and its many ancillary branchings described above, humanistic theories of reading comprehension have described the transaction between reader and text in fundamentally phenomenological, psycholinguistic, or pragmatist terms (Rosenblatt, 1978, 1994; Goodman, 1994). Also, ideological accounts have emerged that attempt to broaden scholars thinking about the cultural dynamics of meaning-making involved in both traditional print and newer media text forms (Kress, 2004; Street, 1995). These aforementioned perspectives offer valuable insights and rightfully remain strong as research foci and theoretical orientation. Broadening our investigative resources to also include research and theories in the developmental sciences may, as an example, deepen our understanding of the importance of emotional cueing, or affect, in the readers’ relationship to reading acts and texts, enriching a grain of analysis often overlooked in the mainstream sociocultural literacy literature. Although the structures, processes, and immediate functions of development at any particular temporal or spatial scale of organization are unique and specific to that scale, and there is no hard argument to be convincingly made on behalf of privileging a prime cause or condition at any one level, the dynamics of development reiterate across and coordinate scales. In this way, cohesion of scales, processes, functions, and theoretical constructs across previously fractionated literacy domains can help us envision reading, language, and sociality in complex and dynamic ways (e.g., Hruby, in press; Jordan, Schallert, Cheng, Park, Lee, et al., 2007; Lieberman, 2006).


Researchers in reading/literacy and the developmental sciences share an interest in human development. This shared interest, as we have argued in this paper, could provide a strong foundation for building integrated research agendas as well as fostering fruitful cross-disciplinary conversations. The potential benefits could be many, not the least of which might be the cohesion of the theoretical lenses applied to examining reading/literacy processes. A rich theoretical and investigative history exists in the developmental sciences as well as in reading and literacy education research. Researchers who thoughtfully bring together these histories stand to gain an investigative stronghold on understanding the complexity of developmental processes behind the emergence of readers and communities of literacy practice. 










Central Analogy


Change & Chance

Bio-ecological Systems


Scholarly Object

Structural Mechanics

Circumstantial Situatedness

Generative Dynamics

Intentions & Values

Causative Assumption

S -> F

Causatively Indeterminate

(S<->F) <-> (Dev<->Evo)

F -> S

Preferred Method




Critical Analysis

Best Application

Operative Mechanisms

Novel & Historical  Perspectives

Complexity & Emergence

Human Goals & Determinations

Result of Mis-application

Reductionism & Over- simplification

Relativism & Egocentrism

Vitalism & the Naturalistic Fallacy

Anthropomorphism & Teleology

Typical Example

“Minds are information processors”

“School administration is like sailing on a tempest-tossed sea”

“Learning is systemic growth”

“School policy is an act of social and political will”

Problematic Example

“Brains are wet computers running mind- software”

“Predictive claims of research are pointless for practice given the unpredictable variability of life”

“School success is ‘survival of the fittest’”

“Functional structure in nature is evidence of Intelligent design”


Figure 1. Categorical distinctions between three traditional theoretical frameworks and an additional potential framework for developmental scholarship. F = function; S = structure; Dev = developmental process; Evo = evolutionary process. Note that problematic examples apply a category’s central analogy to an unlikely phenomenal match.







Romantic Humanism










Piaget’s Cognitive Development





Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Development





Psychoanalytic Perspective





Information Processing Perspective





Sociobiological Perspective





Ethological Perspective




Nature, or Both

Postmodernist Perspective










Positive Psychology



Both (depends on time scale)


Dynamical Systems Development


Both (causative aspects often at work above and below the level of the agent)

Both (depends on whether measuring individuals or populations)


Bio-ecological Perspective





Developmental Neuroscientific



Both (depends on which aspects are being measured)



Linguistic Development

Organicist-Contextualist, Intentionalist-Contextualist




Figure 2. Common and current developmental theories and select characteristics of each. (Adapted from Shaffer, 2002, p. 64.)


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