Made for Learning: How the Conditions of Learning
Guide Teaching Decisions


 concept   outline  manuscript    revision  copy editing  production  printing  pub date 2020

Debra Crouch

Debra Crouch is a national educational consultant who specializes in K–8 literacy development. She supports teachers, literacy coaches, and administrators in designing meaningful and engaging classroom instruction. She gratefully acknowledges Dr. Brian Cambourne as a significant source of inspiration and extends her appreciation for his collaboration in connection with this work.

Debra can be reached at:


Dr. Brian Cambourne

Brian Cambourne began teaching in 1956 and taught in a range of one-teacher (one-room) and K–6 schools before completing graduate studies and entering the academe as a teacher educator in 1965. Since then he has spent thousands of hours as a participant-observer in home and classroom settings, documenting and analyzing how children learn and how teachers teach.

Dr. Cambourne can be reached at:


 Prepublication Booklet
Made for Learning:
How the Conditions of Learning

Guide Teaching Decisions PDF


Brian's History Conditions of Learning
Visit Debra's Teaching Decisions Website

I first met Dr. Brian Cambourne at an NCTE Conference in November 1984.  Brian is an Australian who had already spent almost 30 years observing children, from infants to school age, seeking insights into how children learn.  What attracted him first was the notion that evaluations of children done in school suggested that some children find it difficult to learn school subjects, but almost every single child who reaches the elementary school has already completed the enormous task of learning to speak. And many of those children are able to speak two languages or more by the time they enter school. 

The work is monumental.  Over those years of observation Brian identified eight conditions that contribute to learning.   Educators who know and understand these conditions are better prepared to organize instructional events that lead to learning.  And children who are surrounded by the evidence of these conditions have more opportunities to learn.

You can read about the development of Brian's work in the article Brian wrote for this page --

In 1988, Scholastic published The Whole Story, Brian’s book on the conditions of learning. The book influenced a generation of teachers worldwide.  For the last ten years Brian and I have maintained contact.  We have tried a couple of times to develop a concise essentials book on conditions of learning that reflects current thinkingWhat we both realized is that we needed a collaborator who has understandings of conditions of learning and who has experience in this brave new world of American schooling. 

We found Debra Crouch in 2017.  She developed her teaching practice in the 1990s and she has used these ideas successfully for more than 20 years.  Debra integrated conditions of learning with her understandings about balanced literacy, and produced a booklet exploring the two constructs.  You can access that booklet on our website.  Download the Booklet PDF.  Click on the cover to download it.  You can also access the booklet, along with other useful information for teachers, on Debra's website, Teaching Decisions. 

We are excited about the collaboration of Brian Cambourne and Debra Crouch.  We hope this new book attracts your attention and interest as well.  Please come visit often.  Tell your colleagues and administrators.  We will update this page periodically over the coming months as the project moves toward publication.  This is real time book development.  We had hoped the book would be in print before the end of 2019, but circumstances slowed progress.  One change that has led to other changes is acknowledgement that implementation of the theory of Conditions of Learning requires a change in the discourse of teachers.  Teachers who believe in the power of the theory will shift their language from a Discourse of Acquisition to a Discourse of Meaning-Making.  That has taken the authors some time to work through in the book.  It will take teachers even longer to embody in their work. But it will lead to better decision making.  

We share a dream that all schools are places where children and teachers are enthusiastic learners, and where the work of educators is the thoughtful, supportive interaction of a more experienced learner with less experienced learners from their infancy to old age. Being literate is a life-long engagement in a world of symbols that include print in books and on screens and walls and signs and everywhere.  This process is marked not by frequent testing, but by the discovery and creation of meaning, allowing for the pace of each learner's development. 

Richard Owen


Brian's History


As a young, inexperienced teacher I was continually surprised by students who couldn’t seem to learn or understand the simplest concepts associated with reading, writing, spelling, or math I tried to teach them, yet somehow, could not only learn, but could apply complex knowledge and skills in the world outside the classroom. Even students who had been classified as ‘learning disabled’ or ‘intellectually handicapped’ would continually surprise me. One twelve year old boy to whom I couldn’t teach even the simplest aspects of arithmetic was almost unbeatable in card games which required keeping count of cards which had been played. He also displayed an intuitive ability for working out the probabilities of cards being held by others and /or still being in the deck. Then there were boys who couldn’t seem to remember how words were spelled, or their ‘times tables’ facts from one day to the next, but who could remember and recount the year by year scores and batting averages of their cricket heroes. As well I encountered many immigrant children who would begin Australian schooling with no English, to whom I could not seem to teach even the simplest rules of grammar, who in the world outside of school could translate across two (sometimes three) languages for their non-English speaking parents when signing rental leases or applying for a driver’s licence, or social security allowances, and so on. 

I was equally surprised by students who displayed conceptual and procedural knowledge which I had not previously taught them or ever mentioned or alluded to in class. Conventionally spelled words which I’d never taught or drawn attention to would just ‘appear’ in their writing. So too would punctuation conventions such as speech marks, capital letters, paragraph indentation, and full stops (that is “periods” in USA).  

Both groups of these students could obviously learn. They consistently demonstrated control of a multitude of complex skills and facts that enabled them to do a range complex things, both inside and outside the typical school setting. Furthermore they seemed to have learned these things without obvious effort or awareness of what they were learning, or even that they were actually learning.  

This wasn’t supposed to happen. It conflicted with what I’d been taught about ‘learning’ and ‘intelligence’ in my pre-service teacher education courses. According to my pre-service mentors ‘poor learners’ were just that - ‘poor learners’. Such ‘poor learning’ should have manifested itself across any and all learning they attempted. If they couldn’t learn the simple things about reading, writing, spelling, maths, etc, that I tried to teach them, they certainly should NOT have been able to learn anything more complex in the outside world.  Nor should they have been able to learn ‘school-type’ skills and knowledge without these being explicitly taught or at least alluded to. 

Because of this theoretical confusion and despair, my professional self-esteem was seriously challenged. The lessons I spent countless hours diligently preparing were based on a theory of learning that was (allegedly) ‘scientifically based’. Hadn’t psychology conclusively proven that both human and animal learning was merely a form of habit formation? (Cambourne , 2010). That it could be scientifically controlled and manipulated if certain principles of stimulus presentation, reinforcement, and punishment were rigidly enforced?


After many years of compliant acceptance of this confusion I decided to study more closely the different types of complex human learning which regularly occurred outside school settings. (Resnick, 1987) Perhaps there were implications for my classroom practice to be gleaned from studying examples of ‘out-of-school’ complex learning? 

Here’s a (very) brief summary of what I learned from this inquiry. 

A (Very) Brief Summary What I Learned About ‘Out-of-School’ Learning.

While I learned a great deal about the complex learning which children and adults are capable of outside the formal school setting, (Cambourne, 2009. ) two facts stood out: 

(i)    Learning one’s native language is a universal example of complex ‘out-of school’ learning.


(ii)  Learning the oral language of the culture into which one has been born is a stunning intellectual achievement, of incredible complexity. It involves fine degrees of perceptual discrimination.  It depends upon abstract levels of transfer and generalization being continually made.  It demands that incredible amounts be stored in memory for instant retrieval.  It necessitates high degrees of automaticity of very complex processes. Despite this complexity, as a learning enterprise, it is almost universally successful, extremely rapid, usually effortless, painless, and furthermore, it's extremely durable. 


I realised that the range of cognitive skills and abilities needed to learn to talk were the same skills and abilities that my students needed in order to learn what I was trying to teach them in reading, writing, and spelling. Didn’t literacy learners need to discriminate fine degrees of similarity and difference between the visual and auditory shapes and sounds associated with reading, writing, and spelling? Didn’t they need to be able to generalise, transfer abstract grammatical, morphological, and phonological rules and exceptions across all the meanings they constructed while reading ,writing, or spelling? Didn’t they have to store this enormous range of semantic, syntactic, grapho-phonic knowledge in their memories? Be able to retrieve and use this knowledge quickly and automatically?


Therefore, since all the (so-called) ‘poor learners’ I’d met in all the classes I’d taught had learned to talk, (some were bi-lingual), shouldn’t they have the full range of cognitive abilities to learn the much simpler literacy skills and knowledge I was trying to teach them?


One conclusion I drew from these realisations was that anyone who had learned to talk the language of the culture into which they’d been born has sufficient cognitive ‘power’, (‘abilities’, ‘skills’ ‘machinery’, ‘know-how’ etc) to learn to read and write. 

How could my students master something as complex as learning to talk so successfully, so easily, and so painlessly when I couldn’t teach them much simpler things?  Could it be that (horror of horrors) the ‘scientifically based’ theory of learning I used as a framework for the lessons I prepared was flawed?  

I decided to do some research which might help me find out. 

Little did I realise I would be engaged is this research for the next five decades. 

A (Very) Condensed Summary of Fifty Years of Inquiry   

Initially I spent almost three years unobtrusively 'bugging' (with a wireless radio transmitter) and generally 'spying' on urban and rural toddlers as they interacted with parents, siblings, peers, neighbours , relatives, teachers, and strangers in the course of their waking days. (Cambourne, 1972)   

The data I collected comprised whole days of audio recordings of the language which these children used and/or overheard as they interacted with the various agents they encountered in natural, experimenter-free environments from when they awoke in the morning till they went to bed at night.  These data were transcribed into thousands of pages of written text. These ‘raw’ language data were complemented by ‘specimen records’ (i.e. rich field notes) which described both the non-linguistic behaviour and the contexts in which the language occurred. (Ref) Ecological psychologists describe this range and type of data as a 'rich archival lode' which can be 'mined' again and again for different purposes. (Heft, 2001) 

In the course of the next two decades I re-mined 'this archival lode' several times. Once was to map and describe the extent, nature and patterns of verbal interaction children engaged in across different settings (Cambourne, 1972) On another occasion I mapped and described the range and types metaphors children used and/or overheard. (ARGC Report, 1980, Australian Government).  

The third (and most significant) ‘re-mining’ venture I undertook was to re-analyse these data to see if I could identify any patterns of possible ecological, social, emotional, cultural,  (or any other) ‘factors’ or ‘conditions’ which MIGHT be associated with, or support the development (i.e. ‘learning’) of language.  

About three years later I’d eventually identified a tentative set of such ‘conditions’. (Cambourne, 1984). During this period some academic colleagues challenged my tentative theories which forced me to revisit and check them. Luke et al  (1989) Cambourne (1989). 

I also continually cross-checked and modified these tentative ‘conditions’ against the ever increasing research and theories of language development that were constantly being published in the scholarly journals of the time.  

I took this tentative set of ‘conditions’ to K-6 teachers in schools near my university and invited them to show me how they might put them into practice in their daily literacy sessions. I requested the privilege of being a participant observer of their efforts.  Fortunately most accorded me this privilege over the next seven years.  

During this period I again used the methods of naturalistic inquiry (Guba and Lincoln 1990) and ethnographic participant observation (Heath , 1983) to observe and document what happened in their classrooms. I accumulated hundreds of more hours of video and audio records of teachers and students in classrooms. I had these transcribed into thousands of more pages of data. I continued to take field notes of the behaviour in these classrooms. I spent hundreds of hours retrospectively interviewing teachers and students about the content in the audio and video records and the field notes I took. I also photocopied all the documents teachers and students produced in the course of the lessons I observed.   

Seven years later I felt secure that I had an understanding of two issues I’d been trying to resolve for many years, namely:

 (i) How cognitively immature human children could be so successful at learning something as complex any one (or more) of the thousands of languages which are currently (or have ever been) spoken on earth.

 (ii) How to use what I learned from (i) above to inform teaching practice.



Cambourne, B.L. (1972) A Naturalistic Study Of The Language

Performance Of Grade 1 Rural And Urban School Children.  Unpublished

Ph.D Thesis, James Cook University, Qld, Australia


Cambourne, B.L. (1984) Language, Learning and Literacy (Ch 2). In Butler, A & Turbill, J.  Toward a Reading Writing Classroom. Rozelle, N.S.W. : Primary English Teaching Association,

Cambourne, B.L. (1989) Look What They've Done to my Song, Ma: A Reply to Luke, Baty & Stehbens.  English in Australia No 90 December

pp 13-22

Cambourne, B. L. (2009) Revisiting the concept of "natural learning". In Changing Literacies for Changing Times; Hoffman, J. V. & Goodman, Y. M., Eds. Routledge: New York, pp 125-145.

Cambourne, B. L. (2010). From learning as habit-formation to learning as meaning-making: how Harry Pope changed my (professional) life. In P. L. Anders (Eds.), Defying Convention, Inventing the Future in Literacy Research and Practice (pp. 116-125). New York: Routledge. (ISBN: 9780805863413)

Heath, S.B. (1983) Ways with Words. New York:

Cambridge University Press. 

Heft, H. (2001) Ecological Psychology in Context . Taylor & Francis Inc  Mahwah, USA 

Luke, A.,Baty, A. & Stehbens , \C. (1989) 'Natural' Conditions for Language Learning: A Critique. English In Australia No 89 Sep 1989


Resnick,L. (1987) LearninginSchool And Out: AERA Presidential Address.  Educational Researcher, Vol.16,No.9.(Dec.,1987)pp.13-20

[Available on-line:] 



The Conditions of Learning

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