Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Meaning Makers

I never met Gordon Wells in person, but as a long-standing admirer of his scholarship I was deeply moved to read about his tragic death. It was one of those unfortunate coincidences - I heard the sad news just as I was agreeing changes on the draft of a piece I’d written. Mine was a piece that underscored the enduring influence of his work. As is often the case with writing, I needed to go through the process to clarify my own thinking, and that led to a fuller appreciation of his influence. Wells had a lasting effect on me as a teacher and researcher. Writing about The Meaning Makers, first published in 1986, it was necessary to return to the work, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it as fresh, engaging and relevant today as it was thirty-four years ago when I first encountered it. Subtitled ‘children learning language and using language to learn’, The Meaning Makers is nothing short of a landmark text. It is based on fifteen years of longitudinal research, all rather diminutively referred to as the Bristol Study. Fifteen years is almost unthinkable under current funding regimes, but it certainly helps in getting some depth. And the work of Wells and his team certainly had depth. The research was rigorous and carefully theorized, providing detailed evidence of how children’s language and early literacy developed at home and at school. It also strongly suggested how such development might be effectively supported. In his work Wells referred to a wide range of child language research, building on the insights of Britton, Rosen and Barnes in seeing language and learning from a Vygotskian perspective. Alongside this he repeatedly turned to the work of Bruner, developing a social constructivist view of meaning which was vividly illustrated through carefully selected extracts from his extensive fieldwork. Transcripts are chosen with care and subjected to close analysis in Wells’ writing and this provides an important model for all who follow in his footsteps. For me the simple message that children are active meaning makers remains a powerful guiding principle. That principle, and the convincing evidence used to illustrate it underscores Wells’ significant contribution to language and literacy studies.