What is lacking

Jane Miller

  • Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms by Shirley Brice Heath
    Cambridge, 448 pp, £25.00, July 1983, ISBN 0 521 25334 9

Working-class children do less well at school than middle-class children, and exceptions must not be allowed to interfere with that truth. Notions of linguistic or cultural ‘deprivation’ imply lacks or absences in relation to other people and to what schools are and offer, and, by squeamishly skirting the connections between social class and children’s experiences, chances and expectations, schools have turned to forms of ‘topping-up’ and remediation, which derive from rudimentary and distorting views of the realities of culture and language in people’s lives. For years, studies of school failure looked at what certain children and their families lacked which made them impervious to schooling, unwilling or unable to profit from it. Then, during what can now seem like a golden age, between 1966 and 1976, teachers, researchers and even, occasionally, educational policymakers started to ask different questions. These were about the difference between school knowledge and everyday knowledge, about learning as well as pedagogy, and about forms of assessment and the curriculum. Teachers would need to become as sophisticated and sensitive about the culture of their pupils as they were about the culture represented by the school. People who have good jobs, money and power often attribute these things to the success of their education; they are able to persuade their children that the strange rituals of schooling, that material and activities dull or meaningless in themselves, pay off in the end. It takes more imagination for the black daughter of an unmarried hospital cleaner to believe in the advantages of learning the chemistry needed to get an O level than it does for the white son of a doctor.

Those questions were not utopian. Teachers knew then, as they know now, that schools cannot end or compensate for all the inequities of society. What did seem gloriously possible in those days, though, was that schools and teachers could change, get better. And many did. Teachers, of course, wanted all their pupils to do well in public examinations: but they knew that success there is regulated according to a fixed ‘curve’, which dictates that less than a quarter of the population may achieve useful amounts of O-level passes and less than a tenth do well enough to proceed to higher education. It seemed essential, therefore, that neither the curriculum nor assessment should be allowed to trap the majority, or their schools and teachers, into complacency and failure.

Changes in those years were linked to two kinds of understanding. The first came out of theoretical studies and case-studies by anthropologists, sociologists and linguists, who were moving from a concentration on universal features of cultures and languages to the crucial effects on individual development and socialisation of diversity and difference. The second emerged from work by psychologists and psycholinguists, who questioned Piaget’s structuralist account of child development and turned to the researches of the Russians, Vygotsky and Luria. This shift obliged teachers to go beyond debates about their own practice and the curriculum, and directed them towards a consideration of the learning strategies children already used when they came to school – strategies learned at home, which teachers would need to reinforce and extend, rather than subvert.

Shirley Brice Heath’s new book comes out of the Seventies, when for ten years she worked as an anthropologist and a teacher trainer in North Carolina. It is heart-breaking to read in 1983 – for its insights and its innocence alike. Unusually, she was able to combine what she calls ‘ethnographies of communication’ in three geographically close but very different communities with courses she ran for teachers, black and white, from the same region. Her teacher students had, she says, ‘an endless store of anecdotes about children learning to use language across and within groups of the region, and they asked why researchers did not describe children learning language as they grew up in their own community cultures.’ While her students described their own children learning and using language before school (and their findings provide evidence for what she calls ‘mainstream’ children, who in this case come from a medium-sized town she calls Gateway), she did the same thing, more formally and in greater depth, for two small communities in the same Piedmont region of North Carolina, one black and one white.

The strength of the book lies in the data’s specificity, and specificity is central to its argument. It begins with a history of the region and of those factors which the author believes have led to the townspeople, black and white, having more in common with each other than with the inhabitants of either Trackton or Roadville (the fictitious names given to, respectively, the small black and white communities). An English reader might want to see a more extensive differentiation by class and race and income. If it is true that the fine distinctions the author is after might be blurred by invoking broader categories, there is also a distinctively American kind of disingenuousness in her refusal to do so, since so much of the detail revealed by her discoveries must, inevitably, be considered in the light of the relations between classes, races and sexes in the three communities.

Professor Brice Heath’s case is that the ways in which children learn to use language reflect and depend upon particular and minutely differentiated community values. These have to do, for instance, with the roles of families and individuals in communities, with attitudes to childhood, how children should be brought up and by whom, actual and desirable life chances within communities and outside them, and (of special interest in this part of North Carolina) with the relation of oral and written language to different forms of religious activity. Parents in all three communities believe that school and literacy are important for their children, and they all value and encourage the learning of language, though in each community learning is differently supported and the range of skills which is admired is different too. So that if it is not possible to attribute unequal school performance to anything as simple as unequal parental support or proximity to or distance from Standard English speech, what is it that makes the first months of school so emphatically reinforcing for some children and so undermining for others?

Trackton is an all-black neighbourhood of eight two-family wooden houses circling a piazza off a railway track a mile or so from Gateway. Trackton people are not technically poor, though even the better-off amongst them do seasonal work, which is well-paid but irregular. We meet the ‘respectables’, the ‘transients’, the ‘no-counts’, in their homes and on the piazza, and we meet the children. From birth, babies are always with adults, dandled, cuddled, awake or asleep, in laps, on hips; they hear adults talk and they watch them. They are played with and discussed, but adults never use baby-talk or ask them questions or talk to them when they are babies. Babies are rarely alone and are not regarded as having special ‘baby’ needs. Their parents expect them to learn to talk from hearing adults talk. So they are not taught to talk or to notice or name or practise talking. Children are recognised as talkers when they utter something intelligible as a whole phrase, and they are treated as conversationalists once they have made interventions in adult discourse. They learn to do this very early. They repeat words and phrases they hear, play with them, rehearse and practise variations, until what they are doing is responded to by adults as real talking.

There appear to be interesting differences between boys and girls. Little boys are encouraged by men in the community to stand up for themselves verbally when they are teased and to develop a self-protective repartee of jokes and playful insults. Little girls, who are often described as less bright by adults (though not, significantly, by their teachers), are more likely to learn to talk with older girls and as part of games and play, organised collaboratively by the children themselves. They take longer, consequently, to enter the cut and thrust and the storytelling of adult conversation. What is most valued in children as in adults is the ability to perform, to entertain and amuse, to answer back, account for yourself, argue and illustrate, tell stories, improvise on the rituals of boasting and insult and jokes and mockery. Examples of very early speech of this kind show the boys, particularly, to be precocious talkers.

Families in Trackton own few books and rarely read aloud to their children. Professor Brice Heath is insistent, however, that crude distinctions between community cultures as oral or literate are misleading. Trackton children are as surrounded by printed language as any other children growing up in America, and the elaborate traditions of storytelling, and of inspired and impromptu performances in church, draw quite consciously on forms of written language. So Trackton children go off to school in Gateway backed by their parents’ conviction that schooling and learning to read and write are essential for ‘getting on’ and for ‘getting out’ of Trackton. They arrive with highly developed language skills, as performers and interpreters. They use language imaginatively and persuasively, and can move from reality to fantasy and back with ease. They are sensitive to the protean sounds and meanings of words and to the capacity of language to carry and disguise their own personalities as well as other people’s. They use language playfully and creatively, and with a sense of the difficulties of communication and of the necessity for it. So why, given adult faith in their children’s willingness and ability to learn, and their encouragement of dramatic and poetic uses of language, do these children so often seem to their teachers to have language problems?

Roadville is about the same size as Trackton and at roughly the same distance from Gateway. Most of the adults of the white community work in the nearby textile mills. What is minimised in the book, though it is alluded to, is that the community’s values are not just different from Trackton’s, but formed to some extent in opposition to Trackton’s. Roadville parents teach their children to talk. They believe that talking, like other kinds of social behaviour, must be taught. Children do not learn naturally, so parents start early with baby-talk and they teach children what things are called and then what words mean. This is in line, of course, with teaching children that there is a time and a place for nearly everything, just as there is a right and a wrong, a true and an untrue. It is ‘wrong’, for instance, for Roadville children to tell ‘made-up’ stories, because they are untrue.

It is hard to do justice to the scope and richness of the examples the author gives of talk in both these communities, or to the subtlety of her analysis of the assumptions and values expressed. What becomes clear, however, is that children from both commnities arrive in school with skills and expectations which are swiftly and effectively undermined. For Roadville children, for instance, ideas of ‘rightness’, exact meanings and definitions, make unfamiliar usage or requests for alternative ways of saying things very difficult. They are confused by choice and they often misconstrue teachers’ questions and the tasks they set. Their pre-school reading of alphabet books and simple readers with their parents may accord with their first attempts to read so long as their teachers view the process as no more than ‘decoding’. They are unprepared, though, for figurative language, for fantasy or for stories written outside their experience, and they are stumped by invitations to speculate, predict, or identify with characters in books.

Trackton children have been encouraged to listen and to learn, but they are not used to being taught, to having their attention directed, to interpreting and answering questions which do not solicit personal opinion, experience or elaboration, but right or wrong answers. They are skilled conversationalists and performers on an adult stage, but their ability to upstage adults is unlikely to be appreciated in the classroom. They have not been taught to focus on the rules or exact meanings of language.

Setting these accounts against those of the student teachers investigating how their own ‘mainstream’ children learn to use language highlights the nature of the mismatch which exists for some children between pre-school experience and what schools often regard as so natural and necessary to learning that its absence produces despair. The differences are not to do with dialect forms or pronunciation, nor with kinds of vocabulary or structure, or ‘abstract’ language and concepts. What is crucial; it seems, are the purposes and intentions which adults infer from children’s earliest efforts to speak. The observations here are in line with the findings of Gordon Wells and his team in Bristol. ‘Mainstream’ children in this study have every sound and gesture from birth onwards interpreted by adults as intentional and representational. They are talked to and about as potential conversationalists, separate, knowledgeable individuals, who have questions to ask and answers to offer. They are told stories and have stories read to them and they are encouraged to make up their own. They are expected to have opinions and preferences about books, to hypothesise and argue. It is not that they go to school with significantly more, better or even different language items in their repertoire: rather it is that the school recognises and shares the uses of language valued and encouraged by mainstream families and communities.

I said earlier that the book is full of innocence as well as insight. It almost has a happy ending. By the end of the Seventies some of the same teachers were developing, out of the discoveries they had made, new ways of working with children, community projects, new approaches to Geography and History, to local research and planning, which built on the strengths and the knowledge and the needs of their pupils. Success was real and heartening. Yet a postscript admits that enthusiasm has waned, innovation withered. The recession, unemployment, cuts in funding and the new conservatism have forced teachers in America, as in Britain, to return to the teaching of ‘basic skills’: one hundred years of reductive and ineffectual education quite forgotten. The innocence here is a political innocence, and it makes studies such as this vulnerable. Until studies as well argued and documented as the present one are conceived as inevitably political, to be understood within a theory of how power and failure are maintained, and why, they will remain open to attack by a frivolous pragmatism which brushes them aside as costly or diversionary.

Discussions of language in education, it is worth adding, have not always benefited from the concerns of structuralist linguistics, which has emphasised the systematic and shared features of languages and ignored how languages are used and what they are used for. Studies like this remind us that language is for living with.