Revolution Lullabye

February 18, 2008

Heath, Shirley Brice. Ways with Words

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Heath, Shirley Brice. Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Commuities and Classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.


Heath, an anthropologist and linguist, wanted to understand how children’s language development is affected by the cultural communities they grow up in. This research was important because of the push for better educational methods to increase the success of minority and working-class students in schools. She conducted an ethnographic study from 1969 to 1978 of two communities in the Piedmont Carolinas only a few miles away from each other: Roadville (a white working-class community whose members work in the textile mills) and Trackton (a black working-class community who used to farm but now also work in the mills.) She recorded and intepreted the langauge learning habits of the children in these two communities, specifically looking at the effects of the preschool home and community environment on the children. She found that the language expectations of the schools and the mills were different from the values and expectations of the home communities. She argues that the “place of langauge in the cultural life of each social group is interdependent with the habits and values of behaving shared among members of that group,” values formed by family structures, religious groups, and concepts of childhood. (11). Heath also explains her ethnographic methodology.

Chapter 1: “The Piedmont: Textile Mills and Times of Change”

Heath explains the history of the Piedmont region of the Carolinas and describes the antagonistic relationship between the mill worker communities and the townspeople. She introduces the communities of Roadville and Trackton.

Chapter 2: “‘Gettin’ on’ in Two Communities”

Heath describes in detail the layout and members of the communities of Roadville and Trackton and explains each communities’ norms and beliefs about the roles of men and women, the place of schooling, and their expectations for their children.

Chapter 3: “Learning how to Talk in Trackton”

Heath describes the life of a Trackton child from birth, noting that boys are favored over girls and that the child is immediately a part of the community, not just one family. She illustrates with transcripts the three stages in which Trackton children learn to carry on conversations between the ages of 1 and 2: repetition, repetition with variation, and participation. Boys learn how to use language by being challenged by older members (usually men) of the community; girls learn through “fussing” and playsongs with the older girls. “Flexibility and adaptability are the most important characteristics of learning to be and to talk in Trackton” (111).

Chapter 4: Teaching How to Talk in Roadville

Heath explains how Roadville women prepare for the birth of their children and how they interact with their babies, toddlers and preschoolers. They use babytalk with infants but increasingly correct their children’s language as they grow older. Roadville mothers consider it their duty to train their young children so to prepare them for school, so there is a lot of focus on learning to talk “right.” Children are sex-segregated from two until junior high. Play is an important opportunity to emphasize language through educational toys. Memorization and repitition is key in church and home activities, during which children are expected to answer and perform for adults.

Chapter 5: Oral Traditions

In Roadville, story-telling emphasizes correctness, details and chronology, which are “reinforced in many of the community’s church-related practices and on other occasions when adults tell stories on themselves or each other.” The children’s own stories imitate what the adults do. The community’s expectation for true accounts is in contradiction with the fairytales and imaginative stories told in the preschools. In Trackton, fictionalization in stories (“talking junk”) is allowed and even encouraged, as good storytellers are valued in the community. Children are talked to in Trackton, not read to, and they are taught to be creative storytellers who can relate what they are saying to the ongoing conversation. Verbal play (“yo momma” and other insults, playsongs, one-liners, challenges) is a regular feature in Trackton language.

Chapter 6: Literate Traditions

Trackton and Roadville have different expectations for literacy: in Roadville, writing is seldom done but reading is actively encouraged and praised; in Trackton, writing also is not emphasized and reading is not done silently but only “read aloud.” Roadville children are surrounded by books and specific child-directed reading materials, while in Trackton, children aren’t given books but rather use reading as a competition, a game, and a way to figure out the bigger world around them. Roadville residents see the written word as an authority; Trackton residents see written language as something to be negotiated and manipulated. Women write and read more than the men in both communities.

Chapter 7: The Townspeople

Heath describes the townspeople, those people who are not Trackton or Roadville community members whose children attend school with Trackton and Roadville children. They are the managers of the Trackton and Roadville residents who work at the mills. The townspeople have a different attitude toward children: they treat them as potential conversationalists from birth and mothers are the primary caregivers. They use baby-talk and question-answer routines to talk with their babies. The townspeople’s uses for reading and writing more directly mirror the expectations of the schools, such as using written sources to find information to use in oral or written material of their own. Reading and writing are activities that all members of the community participate in for work and for leisure.

Chapter 8: Teachers as Learners

This chapter describes “how the ethnographies of communication in Roadville and Trackton became instrumental for teachers and students bringing language and culture differences and discovering how to recognize and use language as power” (266). Heath worked with townspeople in her graduate classes and teachers in the community. She helped teachers come up with new expectations and understandings of the relevance of teaching reading and writing to Trackton and Roadville students who would not be going to college, who were instead on the vocational track. The teachers didn’t need to lower their standards of correctness, but instead view the students as bringing a history and a background to the classroom that was to be built on and respected, not shunned and called dumb.

Chapter 9: Learners as Ethnographers

Heath discusses a classroom assignment where the students become ethnographers of their own communities.

Quotable Quotes

“These ethnographies of communication focus on each of the communities in which the children are socialized as talkers, readers, and writers to describe: the boundaries of the physical and social community in which communication to or by them is possible; the limits and features of the situations in which such communication occurs; the what, how, and why of patterns of choice children can exercise in their uses of language, whether in talking, reading, or writing; the values or significance these choices of language have for the children’s physical and social activities.” (6)

“For [Trackton residents], a ‘true story’ calls for ‘talkin’ junk'” (189)

“In short, for Roadville, Trackton’s stories would be lies; for Trackton, Roadville’s stories would not even count as stoires.” (189).

“For Roadville, the written word limits alternatives of expression; in Trackton, it opens alternatives. Neither community’s ways with the written word prepares it for the school’s ways” (235)

“As the children of the townspeople learn the distinctions between contextualized first-hand experiences and decontextualized representations of experience, they come to act like literates before they can read. They acquire the habits of talk associated with written materials, and they use appropriate behaviors for either cooperative negotiation of meaning in book-reading episodes or story-creation before they are themselves readers” (256).

“Thus it is the kind of talk, not the quantity of talk that sets townspeople children on their way in school. They come wiht the skills of labeling, naming features, and providing narratives on items out of their contexts.” (352) The importance of CONTEXT!

The townspeople “bring with them to school linguistic and cultural capital accumulated through hundreds of thousands of occasions for practicing the skills and  espousing the values the schools transmit.” (368)

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