Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Of Deficits and Differences: Building from All Students' Strengths

Whenever I do a workshop on reading with a group of teachers, I first ask them to think about, list and discuss their students’ strengths as readers. I do this because I believe that students learn based on their strengths, so an initial focus on strengths can go a long way to understanding what we might need to do to help them with any learning challenges they might have as readers. So, if teachers say that students are excited about reading, but struggle in comprehending what they read, I can begin to make suggestions on how we can use that excitement to propel instruction in thinking about text. If students comprehend well when listening to text, but struggle with decoding, we can talk about how to use good listening skills to help with decoding strategies.

I bring this up now because I am afraid I may have forgotten that basic principle in my last post on vocabulary development. In that post I cited the work of Hart and Risley, the widely disseminated research that purports to find a thirty million word gap between the words that affluent children are exposed to as opposed to those that children from low socio-economic status are exposed to. Fellow blogger, Paul Thomas, pointed out to me that there are many flaws in the Hart and Risley study, not the least of which is that they take a “deficit” approach to the language of children living in poverty. One thing that reading Paul Thomas always does for me is make me feel smarter. So after doing some reading from Paul's work and other studies he directed me to, I want to amend and extend my thinking on the issue. You can read some of Paul’s thoughts on the issue here and here.

The most important amendment to my thinking is the understanding that the varieties of  language that all children, rich and poor, bring to school are language differences not language deficits. I know this instinctively and, I hope, in practice, but by framing my last post around Hart and Risley, I am giving their work a power it does not deserve. Paul directed me to a critique of Hart and Risley by Dudley-Maring and Lucas, entitled Patholigizing the Language and Culture ofPoor Children. As the title suggests, the authors argue that by taking a language deficit approach, Hart and Risley perpetuate the stereotype that the children from poor households are somehow sick, lacking a basic requirement for learning. 

You can see the problem, I hope. If the children are sick, we think we must treat them. And how do we treat them? By attacking the disease of language deficits. By extension, we communicate to these children that the language and linguistic talents they bring to school are not useful. In the process we rob them of the greatest ally they have in coming to be literate – their own language and their own ways of navigating the world linguistically. 

Some important insight into what I am getting at here comes from Larry Sipe, late of the University of Pennsylvania, and a person who closely studied children’s responses to read-alouds. Sipe observed children in inner city Philadelphia interacting with a story being read aloud in interesting ways. Culture seemed to be one influence on how children interacted with the text. For example, Carribean and African American children would talk back to the text, spontaneously rise up and act out a part of the text, insert their own ideas in the text or take over the text entirely and tell an alternate story. 

Obviously, children who respond in this way are very engaged with the text, but what if this type of engagement is not valued by the teacher? What if the expectation is that children will sit and listen to the text until invited by the teacher to speak? It is clear that a mere difference could be turned into a lasting deficit through teacher disapproval. Children who do sit and listen and raise their hands will be advantaged over those who do not. Ultimately, a great learning tool that a child brings to school is extinguished because that tool is not valued in the school setting.

But what if the classroom teacher were open to these culturally appropriate responses to story? Sipe suggests that a more culturally sensitive classroom might accept the free expression of these types of responses and use them to promote a richer literary experience and deeper literary understanding. By extension, I would suggest that a richer literary understanding would lead to a richer word level understanding, hence allowing children to use their strengths in interacting and engaging in a story to build greater word level understanding as well.

Dudley-Maring and Lucas say that “teachers need to recognize the linguistic, social, and cognitive resources all children bring with them to school.” When a teacher values all students’ linguistic and cultural experiences, all children can draw from their strengths and apply them to becoming literate. We need to value every child's language and cultural norms as allies in coming to deeper understanding. When we do this, we celebrate difference, instead of seeing deficits and all children benefit. Ultimately, children’s everyday language and way of understanding the world can become the background knowledge for the learning of more formal school language.