The road to literacy is paved with words, not tests

Sam Smith, 2007

Among the many myths of No Child Left Behind is that schools are in charge of literacy. I got an early inkling of the fallacy of this as I listened to black teenagers conversing in our DC neighborhood in the 1960s. As a writer, I was struck by their use of metaphor – trading insults while “doin’ the dozens” – and by their clear acceptance of language as a weapon of survival in life. Yet these were the same kids who had already been largely assigned to failure by the schools and others.

Why the disconnect? I mentioned this the other day to an educator friend, David Craig, who soon returned with two academic articles that shed fascinating light on the topic.

The first, from the American Psychologist in 1989 by Shirley Brice Heath, dealt with shifts in the oral and literate traditions among black Americans living in poverty.

Heath pointed out that both cold stats and warm culture had changed dramatically among the black poor since the 1960s. This was a period of migration from the rural south to the urban north. Even the ghettos in the north changed. Instead of primarily two family dwellings or small apartment houses “with the 1960s came high rise, high-density projects, where people took residence not through individual and free choice of neighbor and community, but through bureaucratic placement.” By the 1980s, not only did nearly half of all black children live in poverty, but “the proportion of young black families with fathers fell drastically.”

Among the impacts: a loss of adult contact. Describing the earlier culture, Heath wrote, “Male and female adults of several ages are often available in the neighborhood to watch over children who play outside and to supplement the parenting role of young mothers.” In the later urban inner city this was no longer the case.

And, of course, the more adults that are around, the more language is used in both quantity and variety:

“Children take adults’ roles, issue commands and counter-statements, and win arguments by negotiating nuances of meaning verbally and nonverbally. Adults goad children into taking several roles and learning to respond quickly to shifts in mood, expectations and degrees of jest.”

Further, in these earlier communities families were far more likely to be involved in other organizations, not the least of which was the church:

“For those who participate in the many organizations surrounding the church there are many occasions for both writing long texts (such as public prayers) and reading Biblical and Sunday School materials, as well as legal records of property and church management matters. Through all of these activities based on written materials, oral negotiations in groups makes the writing matter. . . The community values access to written sources and acknowledges the need to produce written materials of a variety of types for their own purposes, as well as for successful interaction with mainstream institutions.”

Now jump to the 1980s:

“Young mothers, isolated in small apartments with their children, and often separated by the expense and trouble of cross-town transportation from family members, watch television, talk on the phone, or carry out household and caregiving chores with few opportunities to tease or challenge their youngsters verbally. No caring, familiar, and ready audience of young and old is there to appreciate the negotiated performances.”

Heath got one mother to agree “to tape record her interactions with her children over a two-year period and to write notes about her activities with them.” During “500 hours of tape and over 1,000 lines of notes, she initiated talk to one of the three preschool children (other than to give them a brief directive or query their actions or intentions) in only 18 instances. . . In the 14 exchanges that contained more than four turns between mother and child, 12 took place when someone else was in the room.”

I have just been pouring over this years’ dismal NCLB results for DC public and charter schools. As I did so, I wondered whether the experts with whom we have entrusted America’s children’s literacy are aware the sort of factors that Heath noted:

“In a comparative study of black dropouts and high school graduates in Chicago, those who graduated had found support in school and community associations, as well as church attendance; 72% of the graduates reported regular church attendance whereas only 14% of the dropouts did. Alienation from family and community, and subsequently school, seems to play a more critical role in determining whether a student finishes high school than the socioeconomic markers of family income or education level.”

Heath wasn’t too optimistic: “For the majority of students that score poorly on standardized tests, the school offers little practice and reward in open-ended, wide-ranging uses of oral and written language. . . Yet such occasions lie at the very heart of being literate: sharing knowledge and skills from multiple sources, building collaborative activities from and with written materials, and switching roles and trading expertise and skill in reading, writing and speaking.”

Of course, the danger in all of this is that such occasions also encourage critical thinking, little valued by NCLB or by the establishment that created it, an establishment far more interested in compliant drones than in independent minds.

Once, talking to a large group of DC public high school students, I was struck by the fact that, concerned as they were about drugs and violence, they were unable even to phrase the questions they wanted to ask. I mentioned this to a friend with long experience in the DC public schools and she replied with sadness, “But they are not meant to ask questions; they are only meant to answer them” – perhaps the best summation of NCLB I’ve heard.

The second article came from a 2001 edition of Reading Research Quarterly, written by Susan B Neuman and Donna Celano, who had gone out and examined four Philadelphia neighborhoods of different ethnicities and economics to discover how much written material was easily available. The poverty rates ran from 0% to 85% and the percent of black residents ranged from 5% 82%.

It was a highly detailed and academic study but over and over again – examining different factors – the mere access to words seemed to play an important role. They considered signage, public spaces for reading and books in child care centers, libraries and drug stores.

The poorest neighborhoods, for example, had 4 stores selling children’s reading material while the better off neighborhoods had 11 and 12. More dramatic was the number of titles visible in these stores: 55 in the poorest neighborhood (most in pharmacy and Dollar Store) vs. 16,000 in the wealthiest [including Borders) and 1597 in the second wealthiest. Signage was far more equal: 76 business signs in the poor neighborhood vs. 77 in the richest. But the content was different. In the better off neighborhoods “children could conceivably read their environment though these signs, with pictures, shapes, and colors denoting the library, the bank, and the public telephone.” In the poor neighborhoods, signs “were often graffiti covered and difficult to decipher.”

None of this really surprises me. After all, I learned to read and write – despite my parents’ prohibitions – with no small help from a massive number of comic books. It seems perfectly obvious to me that the easiest way to learn the word “deviation” is to read it in a balloon above the head of a mean looking Nazi officer shouting to his frightened mignons, “I will stand no DEVIATION from my orders!!!” The story-telling and the silent translation of the art combine to make one of the best reading aids of all times.

And at least one academic study found that:

“There was no difference in frequency of comic book reading between a middle class and a less affluent sample of seventh grade boys. For both groups, those who read more comic books did more pleasure reading, liked to read more, and tended to read more books. These results show that comic book reading certainly does not inhibit other kinds of reading, and is consistent with the hypothesis that comic book reading facilitates heavier reading.”

But comic book sales have diminished and with them another door to literacy is harder to open. Now instead of Captain Marvel, we have No Child Left Behind, a program that gets reading off to a bad start by even lying in its title.

Among my other untested contact with matters of literacy:

– I was blessed to have been a parents’ association president of an elementary school that understood the importance of quantity in teaching words. The school realized that the shortest route to good writing was to do it. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. There was also an emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music, which among their other virtues offer the opportunity to sing or say words over and over until they become a part of your soul.

– Starting out in journalism, I had to write nine radio newscasts a day for a while. You won’t find that suggested in any writing manual or school curriculum but I still recall trying to come up with new ways of saying the same thing just to keep from being bored.

– As an editor, I have often offered a standard cure for writers’ block: just write crap and don’t worry about it. Then go to bed and retrieve the good parts the next day.

– My own list of unauthorized literary aids would include memorizing Burma Shave signs, devouring Ogden Nash poems, reading under duress from the Book of Common Prayer at Holy Communion, learning jokes, listening to Edward R. Murrow, following instructions on how to build an HO gauge model freight car and absorbing the lyrics to endless popular songs.

Make a list from your own life and the virtues of constant exposure to words in sound and print without regardless of their purported quality will become clear.

Above all is the need to enjoy what you’re reading or writing. The greatest sin of NCLB is to make what should be a lifelong joy into a tedious, bureaucratic exercise – making words far harder to learn and infinitely harder to love.

Kids need more words in their lives – and fewer tests.

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