Helplessness and the Psychology of Failure in Literacy Acquisition

Andrew Spano 

An illiterate person in a “modern” society can be considered helpless in some fundamental ways. Most obvious is his inability to gain information from written sources. True, he may have those sources read or explained, or there may be alternatives to the acquisition of the same information (television, symbols, icons, or pictures). The fact remains he is at a tremendous disadvantage compared with someone of the same socioeconomic stratum who can read and presumably write.

An illiterate person, unless she has some other collateral dysfunction such as mental retardation or is critically dyslexic, will be considered “a failure.” Someone who didn’t go to college or perhaps even finish high school would never experience this stigma despite the perceived disadvantage, as long as she was literate. The result is that the illiterate in a culture where literacy prevails often develops feelings of helplessness interrupting further development in other areas, such as higher education, economic security, and social standing. Below we will explore the effect of helplessness in the context of the competing epistemological paradigms of Empiricism and Rationalism. But first, we will create a real-world context for literacy acquisition problems.

Literacy acquisition complexity across cultures

The rate of literacy varies enormously from culture to culture, for any number of reasons. When I lived in China, where I taught English at a teachers’ college, I was learning Chinese while my students were improving their English in preparation to be middle school English teachers. I was impressed with their ability to speak, read, and write English, since most of them had never once met a person who was a native speaker of the language until they met me. Furthermore, as I learned when I went to evaluate their practicum at local schools, they learned this foreign language in classrooms what typically had seventy (that’s 70) students per class with one teacher. Their “textbooks” were basically locally-made materials printed on newsprint and stapled or glued together. To learn writing they used fountain pens they dipped into ink wells. At night they slept with their ink wells so that the ink wouldn’t freeze in their unheated dormitory rooms (where they slept six to a small room).

I learned also that there was a high degree of L1 illiteracy in China. One of the reasons is that ideogram-based languages are notoriously difficult to learn. To read the Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily) newspaper, you must have memorized 800 characters. That is not like learning 800 words. It is like learning 800 letters of the alphabet, since the characters are combined to create one word. For instance, to form the word “exit” the character for “leaving” [chu] is combined with the one for “mouth” [kou], to form “chu kou” [leaving mouth, or 出口]. (It doesn’t help that the semantics of Chinese words is often metaphoric, rather than indicative, with lexemes such as “mouth” for door in the compound.) Making matters worse, ideograms are not phonetic markers like Roman letters are, where the letter O represents a sound (without meaning) not an idea, such as “oval,” which it happens to be but nevertheless does not represent. Therefore, you cannot “sound out” a word as you can in English if you’ve learned listening and speaking well and understand the sounds of the alphabet. This route to literacy is not an option in Chinese. That’s why characters such as we find in Chinese or Japanese are called “ideograms” and not lexemes or graphemes which map to phonemes.

One day my Chinese tutor asked me what my goal was. I answered, “To listen and speak as well as an illiterate Chinese person.” This was a level of proficiency I strove for despite my quick acquisition and strong desire to learn the language. I now have tremendous respect for people who come to the US knowing no English and who struggle without the benefit of schools or teachers to acquire L2 English listening/speaking (l/s) and reading/writing (r/w), often in their adult years or even advanced age.

My greatest moment learning Chinese was when I stopped at a traffic light on my bicycle in Taian, and a man pulled up along side me and asked where I was from. I answered. It wasn’t until the light had changed that I realized the entire conversation was in Mandarin! I am still illiterate in Chinese, and so must translate the English or Pinyin (Romanized transliteration) on a menu into Mandarin to order in that language, which is what I have been calling “a workaround.” I am literate in the United States, but in China I am an illiterate. Workarounds are the sign of a “failed” education, along with behavior problems, though I haven’t thrown any tantrums in a Chinese restaurant – yet.

How literate is “literate”?

My grandparents on my father’s side were both Italian. Their parents came from Italy, and my grandmother spoke both languages when she was a little girl because she was brought back to the old country for a few years until she was five or so. They died not long ago. Throughout their lives they were proud of their ability to read and write. My grandmother liked the newspapers and religious tracts. My grandfather had an old-fashioned typewriter. He loved to write letters to us kids that were beautifully spelled and full of adoration for us and the funny things he said. In addition, my grandpa had magnificent handwriting which he was also proud of – surely a lost art. (I can only use block capitals that I learned how to do in mechanical drawing class, or upper and lower case letters in imitation of print, and I am not proud of this.) Their entire life they owned a successful Italian restaurant. Their two children both attained master’s degrees. The fact is, both grandparents left public school after sixth grade to work, which was the norm in their day — especially because my grandmother had to help my great grandmother, a widow, take care of ten children. My grandmother was also seamstress in the Manhattan garment district (at 14!), and my grandfather at 16 delivered ice on his back to walk-up apartments throughout the Bronx.

Were they literate in the way that state benchmarks, frameworks, boards of regents and the like mandate? I can tell you that the answer is no. Today they would be considered “failed” students who only learned the rudiments of literacy. In the absolute sense, yes, they were literate since they could read and write. Therefore, for the purpose of this discussion we must define for ourselves what literacy is, since the word is thrown around as if everyone agreed on what it means for everyone everywhere, which is simply not true. To give us a sense of how confused the definition can be, consider the following overview of the problem:

A brief narrative description of the journal article, document, or resource.What does it mean to be literate in the 21st century? Fifty years ago a high school graduate with some basic reading and writing ability could get a well-paying blue-collar job. Today a person at the same level might have trouble finding good work and may be considered illiterate in some circles. [This describes my grandparents.] The past half-century has brought us not only astonishing technological transformations but expanded definitions of the term literacy. While there is general agreement in 2004 that adult literacy is more than just a measure of basic reading skills, there is still no consensus on an exact definition. The American Library Association Committee on Literacy has drafted a document that offers 13 different definitions (available on Minimalists define literacy as the basic set of skills required to function on a job–skills that include math and writing as well as reading [italics added]. (Paul, 2004.)

I don’t need to explain what you’ve just read. The problem of definition is obvious. Consider this: How can parents, educators, and the state affect the “literacy” rate when they cannot even agree on what it is! At this point it becomes more of a question of sanity than literacy, though the definition of mental wellness, too, is another source of confusion in the allied domain. Part of the problem of definition lies in the perennial debate between the competing epistemological paradigms of Empiricism and Rationalism. Before we explore that debate in the context of literacy failure and psycho-emotional helplessness, it would be useful to establish a definition for the purpose of this discussion.

“Literacy” here will be defined as:

1) restricted to the reading and writing of text

2) dependent upon a functional lexicon of 5,000 to 10,000 common words

3) including knowledge of functional syntax of subject-predicate-adjunct sentences

4) dependent upon fluent encoding/decoding of graphemes and lexemes

5) knowledgeable in the use of basic punctuation for the purpose of sense

6) demonstrating reading comprehension of most nonspecialized text

The definition above may not, in the end, be adequate, but it is better than what we would otherwise have to work with if we include correlated “literacies” such as math, media, and information literacy. We will also add to our definition degrees of literacy, so that there is partial and total literacy (or illiteracy). Also, I believe this definition falls well within reasonably attainable parameters that will, if attained, fit most public and general definitions and purposes.

Helplessness as a collateral effect of partial and total illiteracy

Everyone feels “helpless” at one time or another, and everyone was helpless at one time in life: infancy. Human infants are uniquely helpless among the world’s animals, even primates. Among the almost total lack of autonomous survivability in infants, the inability to encode/decode symbolic communication is particularly evident. Psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, in Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death (1975), describes the pathologically dependent state of a newborn: “Human infants begin life more helpless than infants of any other species. In the course of the next decade or two, some acquire a sense of mastery over their surroundings; others acquire a profound sense of helplessness. Induction from past experience determines how strong this sense of helplessness or mastery is” (p. 137).

Seligman goes on to show that control over environment is not a skill an infant is born with, despite the acknowledgment that the Language Faculty is there, innate, in a state of natal incipience, waiting for the environmental stimulus to initialize it as a longitudinal process. “When a baby is deposited, naked and screaming, into the waiting hands of his mother’s obstetrician, he can exert almost no control over outcomes. Most of the responses of the neonate seem to be reflexive; he exhibits a very limited range of voluntary responses – actions that can be instrumentally shaped” (pp. 137-8).

We won’t expect an infant to succeed or fail at being literate. However, we can see the seeds of the future possibility of success and failure in the values present at birth. They are, using Seligman’s description, 1) “No control over outcomes,” 2) Reflexive responses, 3) “Limited range of voluntary responses,” and 4) “Actions that can be instrumentally shaped.”

Not long after birth, by the age of five, this child has almost reached the middle of the Critical Period. The Language Faculty has initialized through internal neuronal and cognitive development, and external supportive stimulus, mostly from the parents. In addition, the child is at a critical Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) threshold (Vygotsky, 1978): entry into the social position (“Real” or I2 stage) of the Lacanian Mirror Stage, where the sense of “I” (“Ideal,” or I1 stage) now maps to “we” through identification as the child enters the world of formal schooling, most often without the presence of the parent (Spano, 2009). Therefore, we expect that before we put our beloved child on the school bus on the first day of kindergarten (I understand there may be preschool, but must generalize here), our child now has 1) control over outcomes, 2) has developed from reflexive to intentional responses to stimulus, 3) has a range of voluntary responses compatible with her peer cohort, and 4) has received enough external “shaping” from the parents to be prepared for the curriculum of the school in the hands of the expert.



Expert failure and helplessness

We will now call the teacher the “expert,” and the school “the expert environment.” We will presume that student is at, or will soon be at, the ZPD threshold where his own expertise, entirely appropriate at home, will fail him and he will require the help of the expert to make the transition across the threshold to the next zone of development, using the previous stage (parental “shaping”) as scaffolding.

It would be impossible for me to enumerate all of the ingenious ways that the expert and the expert environment can fail to facilitate the child’s ZPD transition to intentional control over her voluntary responses. As stated earlier, however, I will remain focused on the epistemological paradigms informing the methodology of the expert environment. Like it or not, for hundreds of years the prevailing paradigms have been “nature” and “nurture” in language and other behavioral domains. In Western philosophy, the work of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume represent Empiricism (nurture). On the side of Rationalism there are Descartes and Kant (Lust, 2006, p. 50). Rationalism is the idea that “knowledge is derived from the structure of the human mind,” and Empiricism is the idea that “knowledge is derived from the experience of the ‘outside world’” (Lust, p. 50).

Both models have their strengths and weaknesses when translated into the actual classroom experience. For our purpose here, though, we may look at the models as overlapping in influence at the ZPD threshold that children typically reach at around the age of five when they enter formal schooling in reading and writing. The dominant process before the end of the first half of the CP seems to originate with the Rationalists’ innate Language Faculty (LF), and affects listening and speaking (l/s), which are modeled and “shaped” by the parents and their associates. Once the child enters the expert environment, however, the environment itself and its attendant, the teacher/expert, assumes the responsibility for the pre-initialized processes of the LF.

This modification does not mean that the LF is no longer in play. In fact, it is even more important because it is no longer the focus of the developing l/s scaffold, as it was between the child and the parents, and therefore must inform development without the influence of the parents. The Kantian Rationalist paradigm of a “natural” process gradually yields to the Empiricists’ artificial “nurture” structure enforced by the expert environment. It is at this critical ZPD threshold that the most invasive disruptions of language acquisition may occur (particularly in r/w acquisition), affecting not only the “control over outcomes” and the range of “voluntary responses” (Seligman, 1975), but also the content of what is acquired. It is here that a child’s incipient subjective identity can be abducted by a social identity lying at the most eccentric position of the mirror stage (Ix) beyond the primary I2 social stage (Spano, 2009) (cf. Erika Mann, School for Barbarians [2007], describing the Nazi education system and its effects). This is only one of the many “ingenious” ways the expert environment fails to facilitate the best interests of the child’s natural development.


The “dance” between child and expert environment

While these stages overlap in the Language Acquisition (LA) chain (l/s à r/w) at the intermediary position of speaking and reading (s/r), Seligman, using the prevailing epistemology of Chomsky (1977) and Piaget (1954), asserts the continued dominance and then later persistent sublimation of the Language Faculty: “From many sides […] environmentalism [is] under attack – deep sustained, scholarly attack [….] On the contrary, the child’s cognitive abilities are seen to grow and interact with the world” (p. 135). Seligman sees the ZPD transition from the I1 (individual/subjective) to the I2 (collective/social) positions of the Mirror Stage to be the critical moment of determination for the child’s sense of control or helplessness in the cognitive domain of r/w acquisition after the s/r intermediary position in the chain.

Controllability and helplessness play a major role in the child’s encounters with our educational system. School is a trying experience for almost every child, and along with reading, writing, and arithmetic, I believe that the schoolchild is learning just how helpless or how effective he is. (p. 153)

Seligman then goes on to quote from Jonathan Kozol’s book Death at an Early Age (1967) on the failure of the expert environment to provide the facilitation needed for the child to transition from the ZPD associated with l/s acquisition from parental “shaping,” to r/w acquisition from environmental molding. After being passed by “social promotion” from kindergarten to fourth grade, one student began to exhibit the characteristics of frustrated development: behavior problems and workarounds. His teachers considered him to be “not teachable within a normal crowded [social] room,” assigning him to a kind of academic null position where he was present but was not engaged in process, creating de facto fossilization of process. Kozol describes the symptoms of this expert failure:

He cried in reading because he could not learn to read. He cried in writing because he could not be taught to write. He cried because he couldn’t pronounce words of many syllables [….] And the truth, of course, in this case, is that the teacher didn’t teach him; nor had he really been taught since the day he came into this school. (qtd. in Seligman, pp. 153-4.)

Both Seligman and Kozol, however, are not indicting a specific teacher who was somehow unfit for his or her job. Unfit professionals can be found in all professions. Rather, it is the prevailing Empiricist paradigm that failed the child because it did not facilitate the dialectical process Vygotsky describes as follows:

Each of these transformations provides the conditions for the next stage and is itself conditioned by the preceding one; thus transformations are linked like stages of a single process, and are historical in nature. In this respect, the higher psychological functions are no exception to the general rule that applies to elementary processes [….] and appear in the general course of the child’s psychological development as the outcome of the same dialectical process, not as something introduced from without or within [italics added]. (p. 48)

Vygotsky does not condemn Empiricism, and he does not advance Rationalism, but rather shows that the two processes are “linked like stages of a single process,” and therefore he will not assert that the dialectical process is either innate or environmental but both and neither. Instead it is a process in and of itself without locus in the subject-object domain. We could describe it otherwise as a kind of relationship between the expert and the child where the zone threshold is facilitated by an emotional bond fundamentally human in character and correlated to the special “helpless” mode of the human infant. After all, if we look at animals other than humans, all of which develop far more rapidly to natal autonomy, much of their complex behavior could only be innate, whereas almost any animal, even flatworms, can be trained through environmental pressures and constraints (SSF). What is unique in humans is their helplessness in the natal stage coupled with their need for control (autonomy) in later stages, mapped to an emotional mode that makes it possible for the developmental dialectic to continue — provided premature fossilization does not degenerate into a post-natal mode of helplessness. The child described by Kozol could be considered the genotype of premature fossilization. Using a metaphor that is the antithesis of fossilization, Seligman describes the “dance,” as he calls it, between the child and the environment, that allows the dialectic to proceed.

I am convinced that certain arrangements of environmental contingencies will produce a child who believes he is helpless – that he cannot succeed – and that other contingencies will produce a child who believes that his responses matter – that he can control his little world. If a child believes he is helpless he will perform stupidly, regardless of his IQ [….] On the other hand, if he believes that he has control and mastery, he may outperform more talented peers who lack such a belief. (pp. 136-7)

The “dance of development” Seligman describes requires the space and freedom implied by the metaphor. The dance floor must be clean, broad, flat, without obstruction. The room must be bright with sunlight. The music must be stimulating, captivating. The teacher must be a true expert, an artist, an expressive performer. The lessons much be presented in stages – never more than the child can assimilate or else frustration sets in; never less than what the child already knows or else boredom, dullness, and laziness ensue. There must be a purpose to the dance, to express something, to develop a special move, to achieve something the child has never done before.

The only way this dance can happen is through what Vygotsky calls “dialectic,” the dialectic between nature and nurture, between the innate and the environmental, between the Rational and the Empirical, between the child and the teacher, and between the achieved scaffold and the ZPD dawning before the child as a new realm of expertise and exploration. It doesn’t take a special teacher for this dance to happen, because, as Vygotsky explains, it is universal play of the principle of dialectical materialism in all life which, by definition, is a process entirely objective in relation to the subjectivity of the student or the teacher/expert. It is no longer “life” when it is no longer process. It then becomes fossil. Cultures that worship fossils will always struggle with complex achievements such as literacy, equality, sanity, and peace.

Within a general process of development, two qualitatively different lines of development […] can be distinguished: the elementary processes, which are of biological origin […] and the higher psychological functions, of sociocultural origin [….] The history of child behavior is born from the interweaving of these two lines. (p. 46)




Chomsky, Noam. (1977.) On Language. New York: The New Press.

Lust, Barbara. (2006.) Child Language: Acquisition and Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Piaget, Jean. (1954.) The Construction of Reality in the Child. New York: Basic Books.

Paul, Deane. (2005.) Literacy, Redefined. Education Resources Information Center (ERIC). Accessed on February 16, 2009, from

Sea Slug Forum (SSF). “Using SCI to Illuminate Scotophobin.” Accessed on February 17, 2009, from

Seligman, Martin E.P. (1975.) Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Spano, Andrew. (2009.) Children at the ZPD Threshold: The Role of Experts in Literacy Acquisition. Journal of the International Association of Transdisciplinary Psychology. (To be published 2009.)

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978.) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


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