During my teaching career at the RI School for the Deaf, I was very fortunate to be granted a Sabbatical for the 1997-98 school year. My topic was “Reading Comprehension Research and Theory with Application to Hearing-Impaired Students.” I made use of studies that focused on the process of learning to read, and the pedagogy of reading instruction for both hearing and hearing-impaired students. I read the works of a number of well-respected scholars who designed exemplary studies to address these issues. One of the most informative was the work of Sarah Michaels and James Collins. Even though this study was published in 1984, I think it illuminates a key reason that children of color tend to perform more poorly on academic tasks than white children. Children bring their oral tradition with them to school. Literacy is based on the oral tradition, but then expands on it, encompassing new cognitive/grammatical processes beyond sound-symbol correspondence.
The oral tradition of communities of white, middle and upper class children tend to pre-adapt those children to the modes of speaking that will transition easily to academic prose. Since many of the teachers come from the white middle class as well, the white children’s oral expressions match the teachers’ expectations. This is not necessarily true for the children of color. That their mode of oral communication in their community is different, does not mean that it is inferior. However, the lack of awareness of many teachers about this difference, that occurs outside of conscious awareness, is the heart of the problem. I’m going to insert the summary I wrote of the Michaels and Collins study, since they articulate this situation much more expertly than I can.
Michaels, Sarah and Collins, James. (1984). Oral Discourse Styles: Classroom Interaction and the Acquisition of Literacy. In Deborah Tannen (Ed.), Coherence in Spoken and Written Discourse (pp. 219-244). NJ: ABLEX Publishing Corporation.
The authors were interested in investigating aspects of teacher/child interactions during early literacy-promoting activities that facilitate or hamper literacy development. They were also concerned with “the relationship between community-based oral discourse style and the acquisition of literacy.” (p. 220)
To these ends they conducted an ethnographic study of home and school communication during the course of one school year with a class of first grade children, half of whom were white and half of whom were black. During their research they identified classroom “sharing time” (more or less the equivalent of “show and tell”) “as an activity that provides oral preparation for literacy.” (p. 220) (It is noteworthy that the teacher herself was unaware that her interactions with the children during these sharing sessions had the effect of providing practice for orally composing decontextualized prose-like narratives: “children were expected to assume a non-face-to-face stance with respect to their audience and incorporate features of discursive prose into their discourse. Hence, nouns were preferred to gestures or deictic pronouns; shifts between topics were to be lexically or syntactically marked; and no background or contextual knowledge was to be assumed on the part of the audience.” (p. 221) (See pp. 223-4 for teacher’s “sharing schema.” )
The researchers’ observations and conversational analyses of many sharing-time interactions revealed that the white children and black children were using two distinct types of discourse style (developed in their respective communities). The style of the white children resembled a literate style, as further elucidated in the follow-up study described below (i.e. signaling of “perspective shifts and logical connections” was done via “a wide range of lexical and syntactic devices such as noun complements, relative clauses, and nominal compounds in signaling agent focus and co-reference relations” (p. 220) ). This style was compatible with the teacher’s expectations, and so these children were able to benefit from the teacher’s comments and questions, which had the effect of facilitating their transition to literacy.
On the other hand, the black children’s oral discourse style depended on prosody (“intonation and rhythm” (p. 220) ), rather than lexical and syntactic markers to signal perspective shifts and logical connections. In addition, their narratives (unlike the white children’s “topic-centered” style) exemplified a “topic-associating” style, typical of their community. (p. 224) The teacher judged their attempts at narrative as rambling and without a point, and would interrupt them, which frustrated them and derailed their train of thought. The black children (in the course of interviews with the authors) expressed their perception of these sharing-time sessions as evidence that their stories and concerns were not valued by the teacher. The mismatching of the teacher’s and black children’s communication during these interactions went on outside of the conscious awareness of the teacher, stemming from differences between the teacher’s and children’s “prosodic signaling system and narrative schemas.” (p. 230) The cumulative effect of these frustrating sessions, according to the authors, was to deny the black children the practice they needed to bridge the gap between their oral discourse style and the literate style of academic text.
The authors also devised a “naturalistic experiment” (p. 230) to enable them to further characterize the differences between the discourse styles of the white and black children, and to explore the relationship between these styles of oral narrative and the subsequent ability to produce unambiguous written prose. In analyzing the data from this experiment, the investigators “focused on how thematic cohesion (Bennett 1978) was achieved by children who used different oral discourse styles.” (p. 220) The experimental task involved having all the first grade children and two fourth-grade children (included so that the researchers could have written narratives to compare to oral ones) view a six-minute film known as “the pear film” that had been “designed to stimulate the production of oral narratives.” (p. 230) After viewing the (non-verbal) film, the children were asked (individually) to tell the story of the film to an interviewer. The fourth-graders were asked to both tell and write their narratives. The oral narratives of four of the first grade children (two black children and two white children) were analyzed, along with the oral and written narratives of the two fourth-graders. The film had been designed so that the narrators would have to handle perspective shifts (from one character to another) and maintenance of identity of reference of the several male characters from one short episode to another.
Results of the analysis showed that the differences found between the black children (who used an “oral” style dependent on prosody) and the white children (who used a more “literate” oral narrative style) corresponded to the differences found during the sharing-time interactions (and described previously). In order to study the effect of discourse style on writing ability, the oral and written narratives of the two fourth-grade students were analyzed and compared. The child who used a more literate discourse style was able to successfully transfer the cohesive devices used orally into the written mode, whereas the child who relied on prosody to signal cohesion (though a high achiever and “fluent reader and writer” (p. 240) ) wrote a narrative “characterized by weakly signaled transitions and ambiguous identity relations. For him, with prosodic options lost, learning to write means learning a new system for signaling thematic cohesion.” (p. 241)
Does anyone who has been paying attention to the travesty of the Common Core ELA standards and the PARCC testing believe that those who drafted these misguided, top-down standards had any inkling of the complexity of the problems of truly engaging all children in the process of achieving mastery of reading and writing? The naïve and self-serving, self-flattering belief that cracking the whip with higher standards, more complex texts, and incessant testing will be successful in shaping up ALL students, and closing the “achievement gap”—is not only a fraud, devoid of appreciation for true scholarship, but a crime, depriving children of their birthright to value themselves as unique human beings, belonging to valued communities.