James Gee’s Discourse theory has shaped many of my views on language, literacy, agency, and identity. I was recently looking at some of his work that I hadn’t read before in order to respond to a review on an article draft that I am working on. Gee has had a few periods in his scholarship, with the last several years focusing on language, learning, and gaming. One thing I’ve always admired about Gee’s work is his ability to present his thinking for non-academic audiences, and his book Situated Language and Learning (Routledge, 2004) falls into this category, as it is primarily geared for elementary school teachers. Gee critiques literacy pedagogy practices prevalent in American schools, especially the phonics-heavy teaching practices found in schools that service largely marginalized populations. I was especially interested in Gee’s argument that literacy learning must be conceptualized as part of an embodied practice, thus pedagogues that over-emphasize symbolic decoding or phonics learning, fall short for students. Learning academic language cannot be a disembodied practice. Cultural learning must entail actions, experiences, and contextualized decisions (39). Too often, young children are taught to learn language without the kind of embodied practices necessary to fully understand language beyond a literal level. Gee argues for the importance of simulation and embodied experience in cultivating a richer school-based learning.
Key to Gee’s work in this book is the argument that being able to relate to a text is an embodied process. Gee writes, “humans understand content, whether in a comic book or a physics text, much better when their understanding is embodied: that is, when they can relate that content to possible activities, decisions, talk, and dialogue. When people learn as a cultural process, whether this be cooking, hunting, or how to play video games, they learn through action and talk with others, not by memorizing words outside their contexts of application” (39). The argument for experiential learning is not new (see Dewey, for instance). However, what I find interesting about Gee’s formulation here is the emphasis placed on embodiment and potentiality. Gee illustrates this principle of language learning and embodied experience through a discussion of word meanings and connotations.
Drawing a bit on card-based game genres, Gee suggests that we think of each word as being like a card in strategy games such as “Pokémon” or “Magic: The Gathering.” In these types of games, each card enables a player to make certain moves. Likewise, each word enables a user (i.e., speaker/writer) to make certain moves. Words contain action potentials in situated discourse. By living the potential actions tied to specific words, one learns the word’s multiple/alternative meanings. For instance, Gee points out how the word potential meanings of coffee shift in each of the following situations: the coffee spilled, get a mop; the coffee spilled, get a broom; the coffee spilled, re-stack it on the shelf. This idea relates to the story told by Victor Villanueva in Bootstraps where a student reading Fahrenheit 451 cannot understand the word “living room” (or alternative terms for this cultural space) because he had grown up in a migrant farm working family, which means he (and his family) followed the harvest from farm to farm, often living in communal worker cabins with other farm workers. These structures typically do not have living rooms. While the student could look up the word in the dictionary, its literal meaning carries no weight without the rich world of embodied experience to flesh out its connotations. In this way, literacy learning hinges on embodiment, and our capacity to construct multi-modal simulations of lived socio-cultural/embodied experiences in the processes of literacy praxis.