Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Culture and its impact on early literacy.

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As a public school leader I have often thought about how great it would be to have all students come to school ready to learn.  If all students entering kindergarten were exposed to literacy at an early age and all parents enforced this on a daily basis our education system would be phenomenal.  In reality in a public school setting we will always have students at different levels of understanding and skills.  I believe one of the major issues we have in our system is the lack of understanding why some students are unprepared.  Understanding the various cultures and the clientele that attend the school could allow us to have more success. 

In What No Bedtime Story Means, Shirly Brice Heath provides an excellent portrayal of three communities that attend the same school system.  Maintown, Roadville and Trackton are the communities that attend the school.  All three have very different cultures and have differing levels of success in the school system.  Heath reminds us, “that the culture children learn as they grow up is, in fact, “ways of taking” meaning from the environment around them.” (Levinson, 2000, p. 169) Most educators and successful people have grown up in literacy rich environments and I believe we take it for granted that all family environments are like this.  Our “ways of taking” meaning from the environment around us differs when compared to other cultures, and this also impacts how early literacy operates within a home.  We need to first look at the cultures that create the school community before we can begin to understand why students from ethnic minority groups or students living in poverty struggle in schools.  The focus of this writing will be centered on how ones culture impacts the perception of early literacy within the home. 

In Maintown, children are expected to join the literate society.  This neighborhood is well off and consists mostly of middle class professional people.  At a very early age typically around six months children become indoctrinated with literacy.  Every night they are read several bed time stories, there is early questioning for comprehension and adults attempt to connect stories to real life situations.  Preschool children accept book related activities as entertainment.  Until they are school aged, children are prepared for school.  They will come into school fully prepared to learn and will allow for a smooth transition into school.  These children are trained into submission on how to listen and understand the appropriate cue when to respond to questioning.  More than likely all children that come from this background will be successful and good at school.  (Levinson, 2000, pp. 171-174)

Roadville has some similarities and some differences.  Children are exposed to literacy at an early age but in a different way.  Their way of taking from the environment will differ from a Maintown child.  Reading books will occur at similar times before nap and at bedtime.  However, parents are less strict in terms of forcing children into the literate society.  There is quite a bit more freedom, children are allowed to talk more and participate more during long readings.  “If the content of the story plot seems too complicated for the child, the adult tells the story in short, simple sentences.”  (Levinson, 2000, p. 177) This is very different from how Maintown parents approach literacy.  This approach would be viewed as less rigorous and will have a negative impact on the child’s preparation for school activities.  Roadville parents use less vocabulary and use more directives rather than telling them how and why.  In the early years of school Roadville children are successful, but as they move to higher grades and as the readings become more intense their success in school decreases.  (Levinson, 2000, pp. 175-179)

In contrast with both Maintown and Roadville, Trackton has a different culture that includes very little importance placed on early literacy.   They place more of an emphasis on the “oral tradition” rather than the “literate tradition.” (Levinson, 2000, p. 170) There is no attempt to interpret infant sounds into words or even later as a toddler.  It is just considered “noise.” There are no reading materials in the home other than a newspaper or a magazine.  Older siblings from time to time may read to the child but very little guidance is given from the parent.  There is very little “parent talk” to the child until they are old enough to communicate effectively with the parent.  Heath explains Trackton’s view on parenting as, “they are “comers,” coming into their learning by experiencing what knowing about things means.” (Levinson, 2000, p. 182) Another difference within Trackton’s culture is that parents don’t believe it is their job to prepare their child’s learning, they provide experiences and allow the child to make sense of it.  Storytelling is a very important part of their culture, and is highly competitive and the most aggressive children are able to get their story out.  As you probably assumed, Trackton children score in the lowest percentile on the Language Arts Assessment and are high risk dropouts. (Levinson, 2000, pp. 180-184)

Maintown, Roadville and Trackton could exist in any public school across the country.  How often do schools actually dig this deep to understand their clientele?  I think it is important to understand the why before we jump to conclusions.  Educators often blame parents for their children’s lack of preparation and often can’t see that it is a cultural issue.  Most educators come from Maintown and cannot comprehend Trackton.  There are so many factors that go into play that will ultimately decide whether children succeed or fail in schooling.  We must as educators understand how one’s culture impacts them as a learner.  Then how do we differentiate to allow for success?  Culture is a difficult thing to understand, and how do we get other cultures to understand the importance of early literacy?  

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