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Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Literacy as Value Commitments

Carolyn P. Panofsky

      My topic in this discussion is the activity of parents and preschool children engaged in reading books together. For a long time, reading experts have been commenting on the activity of parents’ reading to children. In 1908 in The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, Edmund B. Huey wrote of children who seem to learn to read without any direct or explicit instruction. “The secret of it all,” wrote Huey, “lies in parents’ reading aloud to and with the child” (Huey, 1908, p. 332). A similar conviction can be found in contemporary documents such as Becoming a Nation of Readers (1985) which asserts, “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children” (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985, p. 23).

      Interestingly, the concept of parent’s reading to children and teaching their children to read can actually be traced back at least to the Reformation. Harvey Graff writes that, “The encouragement of reading among the population and a campaign to increase the literacy levels of the whole populations [sic] were central goals of the Reformation” (1987, p. 141). Moreover, families were enlisted in this campaign, and parents were encouraged to take responsibility for children’s literacy through home instruction, particularly “among the urban and rural well-to-do” (p. 140) in northern countries, where literacy rates were already significant.

      The activity of parents reading to children itself has been held as a value but until about twenty years ago was little studied and, arguably, even less understood. For example, some experts claimed that, analogous to language learning, learning to read was “natural”--yet if so, how to explain the universality of learning to speak with the fact that so many do not succeed at reading?1 Other experts pointed out that children who were read to seemed to be learning to read in the absence of any instruction, a claim which seems to assume a very narrow definition of instruction. Instead, it can now be argued that the lenses of traditional research methodology impeded the recognition of significant activity and that different methodology was needed: the apparent “naturalness” of the learning and the invisibility of instruction reflected the anthropological phenomenon of the that which is “seen but unnoticed” by cultural insiders.

      As is well known, researchers began to study early literacy activities in new ways in the early 1980s. A conference was held at the University of Victoria in 1982, which resulted in the volume Awakening to Literacy, edited by Hillel Goelman, Antoinette Oberg and Frank Smith (Goelman, Oberg & Smith, 1984). In that volume and during that period, works by Shirley Brice Heath (1982, 1983), Catherine Snow (1983), William Teale (1982, 1984) and Elizabeth Sulzby (1985) focused considerable attention on the activity of parents’ reading with children and led to the popularization of the term “emergent literacy,” first introduced by Sulzby and Teale (see Sulzby and Teale, 1991).

      In that early work, and subsequently, researchers have used a variety of research methodologies and theoretical frameworks. Many studies referenced the work of Lev S. Vygotsky and others of the tradition referred to variously as sociohistorical, sociocultural and cultural-historical. Some of the studies used the theory extensively, while others referenced it in a less thoroughgoing way. In my research into parents’ reading with children, I have tried to combine an ethnographic approach with cultural-historical theory and to develop a methodological framework consistent with the assumptions of both those approaches. In this discussion, I want to present elements of the cultural-historical theoretical framework and their combination with ethnographic methodology. Following presentation of the framework, I will present some data from the study of parents’ reading with children and explore that activity as cultural practice, to identify some important dimensions of what children seem to be “learning.”

Elements of a sociocultural or cultural-historical perspective

      In order to present a discussion of manageable length, I will limit my discussion of the theoretical framework to consider only six elements:

      1.   Development as a cultural process

      2.   Human activity as cultural practices

      3.   Context as included in research

      4.   Social unit of analysis

      5.   “Wholism” and integration

      6.   Interpretive method

      Development as a cultural process. Vygotsky described developing children as “grow[ing] into the intellectual life of those around them” (1978, p. 88). Vygotsky proposed a “law” of development, the General Genetic Law of Cultural Development, as follows:

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals.... The transformation of an interpersonal process into an intrapersonal one is the result of a long series of developmental events. (1978, p. 57)

      Notably, development is viewed as a process which is embedded in culture and which is not a direct transmission from adult to child but, rather, is a transformational process. Further, the typically assumed directionality of learning and development is reversed. It is not that the individual’s learning or development is preparation for participation in group or collaborative activity, but the reverse. Social activity is primary: one participates in joint or group activity, before one is able to perform an activity alone.

      Human activity is comprised of cultural practices. The activity of human beings is organized by and in cultural practices which are situated historically and socially, as well as culturally. Practices are situated historically in the sense that they are not timeless, but emerge in time. They are situated culturally in that they are not universal, but enmeshed in a particular web of cultural meanings. Practices are situated socially in that they relate to the specificity of both social organization (such as dyadic or triadic interaction of adult care-givers and children) and ways that roles and statuses may be allocated or assigned, such as more egalitarian or “democratic” vs. more authoritarian power relations between adult care-givers and children.

      There are a number of important implications for research entailed by these assumptions, as suggested in the following points.

      Context as included in research. Because all human activity is understood as culturally embedded practices, such activity can best be studied in the meaningful contexts of everyday life, rather than in an artificial setting such as a laboratory. Instead of the traditional experimental view that context must be “stripped away” or somehow controlled in order to conduct valid and reliable research, the view here is that the context of routine activity must be incorporated into study. This approach to activity includes its dynamic presence and must account for the cultural meanings of the activity for the participants.

      Social unit of analysis. Notice that Vygotsky’s notion of development implies that the “unit” of analysis will be social, rather than individual. From the cultural-historical viewpoint, the dominant tradition of studying the child apart from the social relations in which development takes place is unable to examine development as a process; it is, rather, to examine the child’s activity alone, without the support of an adult or more capable peer. By contrast, to study development as a process requires observing the child’s functioning in the “zone of proximal development,” where the child’s activity is assisted by an adult or more capable peer, acting in an apprenticeship-like relation.

      “Wholism” and integration. Wholism, then, is an important quality of this view. Wholism means both seeing human activity in context and in social interaction and also taking a wholistic view of the growing person engaged in activity. This places the emphasis on integration rather than separation of functions and processes: meaningful activity does not separate thought and action; rather, as thinking, knowing and feeling are integrated in activity and in development, and the individual is integrated with the social unit, so research must study and theorize in terms of an integrated whole.

      Interpretive method. As a result, the cultural-historical approach to explanation is not a “cause-effect analysis,” but an interpretive analysis. It will look to explain specific cases in fine-grained detail, rather than to aim for prediction and control of cause and effect. It will seek meaning of the activity for the participants in the context of their activity. Thus, ethnographic observation becomes a significant research modality, with various tools such as the analysis of discourse and “thick description” (see Geertz, 1973).

      The research growing out of these theoretical and methodological assumptions has been quite fruitful (see recent overview by Cole, 1996), leading researchers to look in a far more fine-grained way at what may be taking place in activities of adult-child interaction. The work of James Wertsch, Barbara Rogoff and others has revealed previously unnoticed and effectively invisible dimensions of adults’ and parents’ activity in children’s development. Rogoff’s uncovering of the apprentice-like participation of children in activity with parents and other adults, for example, seriously challenges claims about learning in the absence of any instruction. In one example of Rogoff’s field research, she worked in a Mayan village in Yucatan, where children learned weaving with no or little apparent instruction (Rogoff, 1986; see also 1990). Through her careful and long-term observations, Rogoff found that adults subtly and skillfully guided children’s participation in the activity. The adult might first let the child hold a thread; later the child might be allowed to do a next step, with the adult pointing to certain features of the pattern; gradually over time the adult allows the child to take over increasing responsibility for separate sub-tasks. In this way, the child learns largely through observation and other non-verbal means (such as pointing or guiding and holding of the hands), to attend to significant details and to perform in certain ways. Such learning provides a specific example of the social development of voluntary attention, which Vygotsky refers to in the quote presented earlier. The larger pattern of learning in which guided participation takes place Rogoff views as “apprenticeship” to capture the social relations of such learning and the absence of planned, explicit, abstract (in the sense of “out of context”) instruction.

      The work of James Wertsch has also contributed significantly to ways of observing and understanding development in the sociocultural framework. Wertsch has conducted many studies which examine in a very fine-grained way the “microgenesis” of an activity (see for example, Wertsch 1979, 1990). Microgenesis refers to the learning and development which may take place in a brief period, such as transformation of a toddler’s participation in a puzzle-solving task during a single session of parent-child interaction. Wertsch’s studies of dyadic activity have demonstrated ways in which the adult’s speech may regulate the child’s actions, and that over time the external social process becomes increasingly internalized by the child, revealed by “the child’s emerging control of external sign forms” (Wertsch & Stone, 1985, p. 177).

      As both Rogoff and Wertsch stress in various ways, a key notion of development in cultural-historical theory is that development is a process of enculturation. However, a key element omitted from many discussions is that all young members of a social group will be enculturated in the culture as a whole, but all members will not learn to participate in all activities so that, instead, forms of “specialization” will take place. Even in traditional cultures where there is a great deal of homogeneity, individuals pursue differing lines of development in aspects of the culture where there is variation in role assignment by gender or subgroup, such as family or clan.

      More importantly for the present discussion, the possibility may also exist for individual choice to be a factor. If this is the case, one asks how the process of choice or selection takes place. Why does a child participate willingly in one ongoing activity but not another? For example, not all Mayan children, girls or boys, learn to weave. Anthropological research suggests that processes of “recruitment” and “maintenance” may be involved: generally, adults act in ways that maintain their culture and that recruit new members to it, so that an elder who is a practitioner of weaving is likely to recruit a learner to that activity. Following this line of thinking, one might speculate that in Rogoff’s studies, for example, the children who learn weaving appear to be voluntary participants who would have been recruited in some more or less subtle way. An integrated understanding of the learner in context needs to be able to account for voluntary participation. After all, as teachers we want children to participate in the activities of learning voluntarily, without being coerced. What I’m suggesting is that more attention needs to be given to how voluntary participation is fostered. While the term “voluntary” may suggest a process of individual choice, the framework here suggests, rather, that social and cultural forces are what need to be the focus if educators are to better understand children’s enthusiastic participation in learning activities.

Cultural-Historical Study of a Literacy Practice

      The question of how children come to be enthusiastic participants is one I have been considering in a study of parents and children engaged in book reading activity. I turn now to an examination of data from that study. Before proceeding, a few details are needed about the study:

    six families participated in a year-long study of parent-child book reading as it was enacted in those families;

    observations were conducted in each home during routinely occurring activity when children and parents engaged in book reading before the child went to bed;

    for each field visit, ethnographic field notes were taken and audio-tape recordings were made (and were later transcribed), and about a third of the sessions were videotaped as well;

    all parents were interviewed several times;

    the focal preschoolers were of three ages at the beginning of the study--2 years, 3.5 years and 5 years--so that data were collected for two children during their year from 2 to 3, two from 3.5 to 4.5, and two from 5 to 6

      Thus, the data were gathered in the context of culturally routine activity for a small group of children who spanned the preschool period from the early speech period around two to school entry around age six. In addition, for each of the three same-age pairs, there was a boy and girl of each age.

      When I reflected on the cultural activity of bedtime reading and to ask why parents read to children and why the children participated--and so enthusiastically, I was able to identify various observations which seemed to contribute to an answer. As suggested earlier, I am approaching the questions of “why?” in a sociological and anthropological sense, not a philosophical or individual one. The question is not, in effect, theoretical but practical, in the sense of practice. To fully understand a practice, one must understand why participants participate. The overarching answer that I developed can be put simply: at the heart of parent-child book reading activity is a parental value commitment that gets enacted and communicated in myriad ways and that children benefit from and participate in, in the very dynamic yet routine activity in which participation is constituted. Support for the claim comes from both field notes and analysis of the transcripts:

      1. Field notes suggested that book reading activity was a highly privileged activity. For example, the activity was protected from outside interruptions such as phone calls or visits from neighbors. The practice was adhered to as if an almost sacred ritual, practiced on a nightly basis without fail and sometimes at other times as well. The activity was often the only time in the day when the child could count on the undivided attention of the parent and one-on-one interaction for an extended period of time, typically thirty to 45 minutes. The children all issued requests to be read to, to parents and other adults. Adults, even non-parents such as family visitors, reportedly never declined a child’s request to read. Especially significant, book reading activity appeared to be an activity in which the child had a high degree of control: children had extensive “rights” which could be examined more closely in the transcripts.

      2. Transcript data yielded four different kinds of rights and showed children to have considerable power when conflicts arose in relation to any of the rights, as detailed below. In addition, field notes suggested that similar power was not wielded by children in other domains of activity, nor did these children appear to be misbehaved or over-indulged in ways that might be associated with general “power” over adults. But during the cultural practice of parent-child book reading activity, the parents displayed a kind of indulgence: children were allowed to make all book choices, parents frequently agreed to “just read one more,” books were read in ways the child wanted, parents gave in to many conflicts rather than asserting authority, in contrast to other activities observed during the home visits or reported by parents during interviews (such as children’s requests for purchases during shopping activity).

Four Rights in the Cultural Practice of Book Reading Activity

      To illustrate the four kinds of rights identified in the transcripts, I will present four examples. The examples are taken from instances when conflicts or struggles took place and thus revealed the child’s “right” or “power” in the activity. I label the four rights as follows:

      Speaking rights

      Choosing rights

      Management rights

      Interpretive rights

      Speaking rights. The most pervasive of the rights revealed during book reading activity was the right to speak. There are countless examples in the transcripts of children interrupting the adult while reading or commenting--but not a single instance when a child’s interruption was disapproved or even noted. Children could interrupt the activity at any time to comment on a text or picture, to ask a question, to seek a clarification or even to correct a parent during reading when the child recognized that text had been skipped or misread. The particular privilege of unlimited interruption was enjoyed by all the children during book reading and while it varied across the different families and children during other activities, none of the children enjoyed unlimited interuption during other activities, such as when a parent conversed with another adult or sibling or talked on the phone.

      Following are examples of the other three kinds of rights. Along the way, we see some subtle but real power dynamics, especially that children hold considerable power in this activity context. In particular, I would note the importance to the child of two elements--agency and identity: what the child wants to happen and who the child perceives her/himself to be. Parents are very attentive and responsive to those two elements and the children stay in the activity--although they sometimes subtly threaten to quit and the result is always that they get their way. The “bottom line,” the children seem to “know,” is staying in the activity--which reveals the parents’ value commitment, one that the children, too, understand.

      Choosing rights. Example #1 shows a girl, Sara[1], age 4;7, reading a book with her mother. Prior to the introduction of this particular book, the pair had read a book which the child had colored in as they read. The previous book was illustrated with line drawings that had only partial coloration; the mother let the child “color in” with markers while they read--this is the activity referred to by the mother in turn 409 in the first several lines. The book in question in the example is, then, the antithesis of the previous one, since it is an especially artful book and the mother wants the child to treat it with special care.[2] 

      Example #1



Here's a new book you haven't seen before.



It's one of those special ones.



In those kind of books, I'd like you to see the image without it being written on.



Why, wha, wha, well, what does it have in it?



Well, it has some very, very interesting



special pictures that remind me of Japan. Okay?



Well, I like to write in it. Well, I like to color.



If it doesn't have the, um, colors in it, I'll like to color it.



Okay, well maybe we can make a deal.



[c gets up and goes to another room, searching for something]



[calling from another room--]



Hey, my Snoopy book's in here. In your room.



Which Snoopy book?



My, my painting and facts book.



Your painting and facts book?



Well, let's read this one in the meantime, [child returns] 'cause this is a lovely book. Okay?



What's this one about?



Dichos?. . . . Dichos?









This is a dicho?






Dicho-o-o. Dicho-o.



I don't like this picture.



Which one?









Cause, it doesn't look good. I don't like that one.



I like these pictures.



They look like manuscript illuminations.



I only like that one, and that--



Which one do you like?



[pointing] This one!



Which one?



I only like these two.



Well, what's that girl like? Look at her hair.



Um, she's pretty. I like this one. Ya know what that is flying? Ya know what that is?






That's like a rug. Like a flying carpet. Like a magic



 carpet. Aahh. Look at this one. I like these. Huh? Aren't they interesting. Ya know what the girl's name who drew these pictures?






Let's see. Uh, it's a man.



A girl wrote the story and her name's Jane Yoland, and the man's name is Ed, Ed Young. Look at this picture.



No. Ed's picture.



Oh, that's really nice. Look at this, see.



Ya know what that's called? That's a caravan, and this is a special kind a chair. That's a special kind a chair that they carry important people around in. And we all [laughing] wish we had one of those. Ready?



Shall we read this?






"The girl who loves the wind."



"The girl who loves [whispering] wind"



Look at that. And you wanna see how



pretty that's written? Ya know what they call that? That writing?



No. The writing.



It's a special kind of writing.



Ya know what, when they . . .



It's kind of fancy. How many stars?



[whispering] one, two, three . . .



Careful. Careful now Sara.



 This is a book you should be more careful with.



[turning pages]



Well, I can't see if you turn the pages too fast.



Let's not read that. Let's not read that.



You don't want to read "The girl who loved the wind"?



I don't want to.



<<Once many years ago-->>



No, let's stop! I don't wanna, I don't wanna read that.



Which one do you want?



I'm never gonna listen to that. You could read it, for you, you and Carolyn, but not me. Ya know--



It's kind of like for grownups, isn't it?



Gimme my Barbie doll-lolly.



Wanna have your poochie? What doll would



you like, I mean what book would you like to read? Huh?



You read that for your own self.



For my own self?



There's a Mother Goose book down there, that small one. Would you like to read that one?





      Right from the start, in turn 410, the child resists reading this book by using the verbal but indirect strategy of asking to be convinced: “well, what does it have in it?” suggesting that she does not want to discontinue the drawing activity in which she engaged while reading the previous book. In 412 she again uses an indirect verbal move, but then as the mother is speaking in turn 413 the child resists by getting up and going into another room to search for a different book. She returns with another book, but the mother is still looking at the “special book.” At the end of turn 417 the mother asks about the book the child has brought and the next six turns are about that, but the mother continues looking at the “special book.” In 424 the child announces directly her resistance: “I don’t like this picture.” And from that point there are 35 more turns (to turn 459) before the mother stops trying to entice her acceptance and gives in to reading something else.

      But the struggle seems to be about more than book choice as a mere preference. For after the mother capitulates, the child makes a declaration of identity: “I’m never gonna listen to that. You could read it... for you, you and Carolyn, but not me” and later she adds, “You read that for your own self.” Giving voice to identity in this way seems integral to her struggle and the process of resistance. And perhaps such an act reveals a dynamic tension, the dialectic between the processes of enculturation and individuation: with enculturation enacted by the mother as she tries to get the child to participate in this text, but finally sacrifices this text while keeping the activity itself still going; and individuation enacted by the child’s expression of preferences which are marked by the child as statements of identity, not merely what the child is willing or able to do, but also who she is willing to be as she participates in one text or another. In this example, there is an overt struggle over the terms of engagement in participation which results in a negotiated agreement: the struggle begins in a tension between participants who want to interact together, with each having a set of deep interests to work at maintaining the interaction, rather than letting it breakdown; the child is in possession of a set of interests and identity commitments that come into conflict with the parent’s interest and to which the adult finally acquiesces. Participation entails both doing and being, “what I do” and “who I am.”

      Management rights. In the second example, a mother and child are reading a different special kind of book, one that can be ordered with the child’s name printed in the text. Thus, in turn 118 the mother reads the child’s name, Jason, in the text. The taperecorder referred to in this transcript segment (beginning at turn 141) refers to the small taperecorder which was used to record their interaction. Jason is age 5;2; he has chosen to read this book, though it had not been read for a long time.


Example #2




<<There they are, said Florence Flamingo.



Hurray here comes Hillary Hippo they all shout.

You can ride on me says Hillary Hippo, but be careful when I go under the tree.

 I love this ride, said Little Lion.



Be careful now says Hillary Hippo. Here is the tree. Watch Sidney Snake.

Why, Sidney Snake shouted at the Baby Elephant.

I don't know, said Little Lion.



Look at Georgie Giraffe, said Sidney Snake.      I did tell him to be careful, said Hillary Hippo. I will go back to get him, says Hillary Hippo.



and Jason can help you learn more words.>>



Uh oh.



<<Sidney Snake has the word can.>>



I know [groaning noises]



Can you find another “can”?






Can you find it?



(groaning noise)



Well good for you.



You're going to miss this word.



I'm going to show you.



I don't like words.



You don't?






This is the word "“will”.



I know.



Can you find the word can again?



This one.



Two times.



This one.



This is the word “goes”.



I know that's the word “goes”.



Where's the word “will”?



Right there.



You can do it with your eyes closed.(laughter)



<<Sidney Snake has the word can.>>



[child gets up from seat, starts to walk away]



Let's finish the story.



[motioning to tape recorder]



How do you turn this thing up?



How do you turn it off?



I turned it that way but it didn't.



D'you think you might make a loud noise if



you did that?



[nods ‘yes’, grinning]



Well, why don't we let it play a little bit longer, okay?






Nope? Then I 'll show you how to turn it up.



[sits down in original place]



<<Thank you Jason for your help.



I need your help to find the words.



Now, let us look at Hillary Hippo’s new picture.>>






What picture does she have?



Do you remember?



Uh Oh.



<<Do you like the picture says Hillary Hippo?>>






<<No, they all cried. The picture is wrong.



What is wrong with my picture?>>



I know.



His head is funny.






A giraffe






and him has his face



Uh huh



and he has his body.



Strange, that's right Jason.



<<Hillary Hippo has put the wrong heads on all of us and I am not there at all says Florence Flamingo.>>



The end. [closes book; laughs; gets up]



Isn't there another one?



[walking toward taperecorder]

[How do you (?)] Turn it off.



Um hmm.






We haven't read that one in a long time, Jason.


      Jason signals his initial resistance to participating in the word search game of this book in turn 119 paralinguis-tically, with a sighing falling tone: “uh oh,” as if to say ‘I don’t want to be tested.’ At first, his resistance is nonverbal, communicated paralinguistically, but then in turn 127 he states: “I don’t like words.” He goes along with the game, getting everything right, which prompts his mother to say in turn 138, “You can do it with your eyes closed” as if to suggest, ‘so what are you complaining about?’ But he continues to resist and in turn 139 gets up and starts to walk out of the room. The mother motions him back, and he returns but at the same time attempts to derail the activity --meaning the quizzing--by talking about the taperecorder which he misunderstands as a “player” which would play a “book on tape” and so wants to “turn it up.” Additional negotiations take place, he goes back to participating but continues to resist both verbally and nonverbally. Finally, in 163 he announces “The end”, closes the book and laughs. This, however, is not the end of the book reading activity, but only the premature end of this book; during this session, three more books were read, all chosen by the child and at his urging.

      In this example, the struggle can be seen as resulting in a re-negotiation of the terms of engagement which the child demands for continued co-participation: he will continue to participate, but not to read this book. As in the previous example, the child’s identity seems bound up with his preference: he says “I don’t like words.” He resists being quizzed about words, though enjoys answering questions about pictures, and he ends that text before more word quizzing begins.

      Interpretive rights. As mentioned earlier, these first two example illustrate struggles which I am calling “activity-related” since the conflict is over how the activity of book-reading shall be conducted. The remaining examples are of “text-related” struggles in which the parent and child interpret or view the meaning of the text in differing ways. The third example is between a mother and her son Robert, age 3;4. It is from the book Green eggs and ham by Dr. Seuss.

      Example #3



Do you think he is going to like them?






You do?



<<Say, I like green eggs and ham



I do, I like them



Sam I am



So I will eat them in a box



and I will eat them with a fox



I will eat them in a house



I will eat them with a mouse



and I will eat them here and there



Say! I will eat them anywhere



I do like green eggs and ham



Thank you thank you



Sam I am.>>



And that's//



Mom, read this [turning to illustration on inside of back cover]



That doesn't say anything.



Who's that a picture of?



Sam I am.



That's Sam I am.



What's he got?



He gots eggs [points] egg [points] toast [points].



That's not toast.



What's that? [points].



Egg, toast [points].






That's not toast [laughing].






What's that? [points]



Egg, egg, toast [points].



No, That’s not toast, that's ham.



No, its not.



It’s toast? Cinnamon toast?






I say it's ham. The end.



How, watch, watch this.






I, That's toast. [altered intonation-flattened, lowered pitch]



That's toast?



He said it [points to Sam character]



He said it, oh, he was saying that, I see. So if



he says its toast.... But he ate it all up. Didn't he?



But there's some more. [touching page]



There's more?



Oops, I messed up the page. [gesturing with page]



What's on that page? Be careful with the pages, Robert.



Ooh, I know I can see it. [holds page up to face]



You can see through it?



There's toast



That's not toast.



Yeah. Yes it is!



It's not toast



Yes, it is.



No it isn't. It is ham to me.



I'm gonna [take it?] off [motions to page with hand]



No, don't take it off.





      In this example, parent and child argue over how to interpret part of the text, in this case an illustration. While there is much laughter and the struggle is in a sense a playful one, there appears to be an important interpretive difference involved as well. I read the data as revealing that the child is not simply “being silly,” or just “playing around.” He is very persistent in asserting his point of view, upholding it for four rounds of turns (36-42) until the mother begins to capitulate. When in turn 48 he exhorts her to “watch” it is as if he is saying, ‘Watch how I’m going to convince you,’ and then he shifts his tone of voice and demeanor to assume the persona--and with it the authority--of the character “Sam-I-am” to convince her. A possible explanation of his misunderstanding, hence his struggle, is that in his experience “eggs” go together, not with “ham,” but with “toast,” and that, lacking an experiential base for interpreting the picture of ham, it looks sufficiently toast-like to him to fit his repeated claim.[3] My point is that the child’s tenacity and persistence in asserting an alternative interpretation would seem to reflect more than just a superficial playfulness, and that something meaningful is at stake for him. Ultimately in this example the conflict remains unresolved, although the interaction does not breakdown. This, then, is a struggle which could be characterized as overt contested participation.

      The fourth example, a second struggle over textual interpretation, is also one with important meanings at stake for the child, but in this case the conflict is relatively less visible, concealed beneath an apparently harmonious surface of intergenerational discourse practice. The hidden struggle that I mean to identify here is that both the mother and child give a unique meaning to a specific scene in the text, and then each voices that same meaning at successive points during the activity in a way that repeatedly seems to resist or oppose the meaning voiced by the other.

      The child in this example, Maria, is 3;3, and she and her mother have never seen this text before. The child is evidently quite engaged by the book, for as soon as they reach the end of the text the child requests that it be read again. Maria’s comments about “Marcos” refer to her thirteen month old brother. The text being read by mother and child is Bill and Pete by Tomie DePaola.

      Example #4



<<and get you a toothbrush before you start school tomorrow.>>






he's got teeth



so he's got to brush his teeth like you do.



Have big teeth, huh?






He's has a big mouth, huh?



He has a big mouth.



He's got a lot of teeth, huh?



Yeh, like me, huh?



You have a lot of teeth?



Yeah, you sure do.



Marcos no have other teeth.



Marcos only have a little bit.



Oh, he only has a little bit, yeah.





Look. [turning page]

      In this first segment, the mother is the first to introduce a comparison between the child and the crocodile. Her comparison supports a parental agenda: “he’s got to brush his teeth like you do.” The child ignores the implied moralistic imperative of this comparison and initiates two different and inter-related comparisons: first, she and the crocodile have a lot of teeth and, second, the having of teeth contrasts to her little brother who has only a few. The mother’s restatement of the child’s claim is in a non-committal tone, followed by an apparent attempt to move on and to downplay this appearance of sibling rivalry. They continue reading through the book, with many stops for dialogue along the way, finally finishing the story at turn 550, and the child responds, “Yeah, now, now read it again, let’s read it again. [She grasps the book and turns it over.] See. Read it again.” At the same point in the story during a second reading, the following exchange takes place.

      Example #4 (continued)



<<One day, the mama says,

 William Everett, now that



you have nice crocodile teeth we must go to

Mr. Hippo's store and get you a toothbrush before you start school tomorrow.>>



They're big huh.



Like his mom, huh?



Yes. <<William Everett liked Mr. Hippo's store>>






<<Because it was full of things.>>



What did he go buy at the store Maria?



um, toothbrush



He went to buy a toothbrush,






Because he washed his teeth tomorrow and had to go to school, huh?






Good girl.



He's going to school so he had to brush his teeth like you do.



Do you go to school?






And do you brush your teeth?






Good girl.



<<Hi said a toothbrush. What's your name? My name's William Everett, what's yours? Pete, said the toothbrush.>>



[inaudible; getting up ]



I thought you wanted to read it. Sit down.



<<I found a toothbrush I want Mama said William Everett. His name is Pete>>

      In the second segment, the child has again commented on the “bigness” of the boy crocodile’s teeth and identifies them as comparable to the mother crocodile’s teeth. The mother-reader again brings up the parental toothbrushing agenda (turn 570) and initiates a recitation sequence which has the same general theme as her statement in turn 325 in the previous reading--“So he’s got to brush his teeth like you do”--which the child did not respond to. In turn 571, the child shows that she understands the mother’s point and her recitation responses “Yep” in turns 573 and 575 are unambiguous in tone, if indirect, expressing impatience, followed at 577 by her movement to quit the scene (turn 577). Finally, still later, after roughly fifty more turns:

      Example #4 (continued)



<<Oh Bill, Mama beamed>>



Oh, she was so proud because he got a new name.



See here take him [pointing].



Who's this, the bad guy [pointing]. The crocodile



<<Bill and Pete were sitting on the River>>



Take him [pointing].



Yeah, the bad man got some more of the



crocodiles and he was going to take them,



he was going to kill them and make suitcases.



Uh oh.



His Mom . . . a baby, and that's a daddy one, huh? [pointing]






No, but don't sit on the book.



See and



<<One day Pete and Bill were by the river>>



See, that's a big, have a big [pointing]



[points] Him have a little bit like Marcos,



[points] and him have a lot like me.



A lot of teeth yeah,



Come here. [M wipes C's nose]



Lot of teeth.






Look what happened. What happened?



He caught Bill.





      In the last segment, the child is discussing a picture of two crocodiles: one is the “Bill” character who she has compared herself with before, and the other, which she compares to her year-old brother, has many fewer teeth. In fact, the crocodile she takes for a baby is actually supposed to be “an old crocodile swimming by”--wrinkled and with few teach--but her mistake is irrelevant. The point is that she has once again asserted the same identity claims in which she identifies herself with the protagonist in the story, identifies the protagonist with a form of prowess or maturity and distinguishes this shared superiority from the relative inferiority of her brother. The mother acknowledges almost none of these meanings, and when she does, it is a relatively minor connection in the service of a different and distinctly parental agenda. The mother’s failure or refusal to acknowledge the child’s re-initiation of textual meaning in her theme of identity-as-superiority-over-sibling leaves this interpretive struggle unresolved. While the child does not threaten to withdraw from participation as overtly as in other examples, her movement at turn 577, following her annoyed recitation (turns 573 and 575), shows that she too, though much younger, can use resistance when a parent’s interpretation conflicts with her own.

      Thus, children across the age range of participants in this study engaged in various forms of struggle and resistance when some aspect of a parent’s reading practice conflicted with some significant commitment of the child. At the same time, the responses of all the parents reflected a commitment to the activity itself: keeping the activity going was the ultimate value for which other values were lesser and might be negotiated away. This value commitment was revealed in actions, not words, and--not surprisingly for a deeply held cultural meaning--interview probes suggested that both the value and the ways it was enacted were out-of-awareness for the parent participants. It is through the operations of such values or ideological commitments, in and through cultural practices, that children are recruited to those cultural practices and the values and practices of the culture are, thus, maintained.

Implications for book reading in classrooms

      Just as cultural-historical theory asks us to examine home contexts as culturally organized, so the application of findings from that cultural context requires thinking about schools as culturally organized sites. In introducing the examples, it was mentioned that children occasionally threaten in subtle ways to quit the activity and this works to get what they want (and reveals to researchers the ideological limits of the practice). But children in classrooms can’t threaten to leave--compared to the home, children in classrooms are significantly more limited in the expression of preferences and the exercise of power.

      However, there are ways that classroom culture can be organized more like that of some homes in order to promote children’s participation and engagement. Anne Barry, the teacher in Making Room for Students: Sharing Teacher Authority in Room 104, written by Celia Oyler (1996), has transformed her classroom to be more like the homes I observed--where children were, without exception, voluntary participants in reading and enthusiastically so. There are several conclusions which can be drawn from the study of home book reading activity, and which an adaptation such as Barry’s seems implicitly to take account of.

      First, children’s participation in book reading activity is negotiated. Children are not simply “guided participants” (cf. Rogoff, 1986) in the activity but have certain interests and preferences which must be addressed if they are to become engaged and to remain engaged. In part this is a matter of children needing to learn to take pleasure in reading--which adults need to foster. But it is more than that, because, as the examples have shown, when the issue of personal identity is at stake no amount of parental persuasion can engage a child’s participation. Thus, negotiated participation may be a more apt model than one of guided participation (Rogoff, 1986, 1990).

      Second, given that negotiation is a key factor in the ongoing interaction between adults and children during book reading activity, it is important to recognize that conflict plays an integral role. The appearance of conflict is not a sign of failure in the activity--though it could become so if ignored or responded to uncompromisingly. Moreover, conflict of the kind we have seen in the examples is not an aberrant event during book reading, but routine. Arguably it is the stuff of all significant human interaction. I suspect, however, that conflict tends to be viewed as a sign of relational failure and that, as such, it may be ignored or avoided in many studies of adult-child and especially parent-child interaction. For teachers, the willingness to recognize conflict and to negotiate children’s participation in activity is likely to be key in their--and children’s--success or failure.

      Third, children are being recruited to the activity and more broadly to a community of practice. In the anthropological sense, elders of any cultural group must recruit new members as an essential dimension of maintaining a way of life. In the process of recruitment, the appropriate dispositions, or habitus in Pierre Bourdieu’s framework (e.g., Bourdieu, 1977), are formed and this is part of becoming a member and feeling a sense of belonging in the community. When Anne Barry opens up her classroom--letting children leave their seats and assemble around her, when she lets them choose and she reads several books in a session, and when she allows them to speak up whenever they want or to get up to retrieve props or other books relevant to their book talk--she is negotiating their participation in ways which confer on her students the kinds of speaking rights, choosing, management and interpretive rights that I found in homes where children voluntarily participated with such energy and enthusiasm--and where they internalized a commitment to literacy.

      In summary, then, Mrs. Barry’s new way of interacting with her students recruits them to the cultural practice of book reading activity, contributes to the formation of dispositions in ways that are similar to the future successful readers I observed, and enrolls them, so to speak, as members of a community of practice. These children are taking up a value commitment to literacy. One of the parents interviewed during the study of Mrs. Barry’s classroom expresses in moving words the difference the new way of teaching makes. This parent had an older child who had been in Mrs. Barry’s classroom before the teacher developed her new approach:

I always like to say that Melinda is a chain reader. We’ll be coming to and from school, and she’ll be reading one book, and she’ll have two or three others on her lap. She can forget everything else, but she makes sure that when we leave the house she has books. Everyone makes fun of her bookbag, they go, “What do you have in there--rocks?” She has a little boy holding up the bookbag because it’s that heavy. She found a new way to carry her bookbag--through the front. My main thing I’ve noticed is that to her, reading is fun, it’s not a chore. That’s the difference I see having one daughter in this class the way it is now. (Turning to Anne) I didn’t see you were too much into that then, I didn’t really hear from Claudia about books. Melinda’s confidence is so high. She wasn’t as outspoken before. She was more to herself. Now, you ask her, “What do you think of this?” and she’ll give you an honest opinion. It’s helped me at home on a personal level because she reaches out to me more. Now it’s in her mind that it’s okay to say what she’s thinking, it’s not going to get her into trouble. (Oyler, 1996, p. 48; emphasis added)

      Melinda is clearly a child who has taken up the identity of a reader and has successfully been recruited to a community of practice by her classroom experiences--and her teacher. Recruiting children to the community of readers is not always taken to be the work of teachers. More typically recruitment is seen to be the work of parents, as implied by the oft repeated claim, addressed at the beginning of this discussion, that parents should read to their children. The suggestion here is that recruitment is the sine qua non for reading instruction to truly succeed. Therefore, teachers must organize classrooms and instructional experiences to create a community of practice into which the recruitment of new members is a primary goal.



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[1] All of the children’s names have been changed and fictitious names have been inserted into the transcripts. Other “real” names remain unchanged, such as the name of the researcher (since, as a participant-observer in the setting, I was occasionally referred to) or names of authors or illustrators of books.

[2] If the mother’s interest in this book and the discussion about “manuscript illuminations” (turn 429) seem unusual, it is important to know that the mother was an artist, that mother and child often looked at art books, that they often engaged in drawing and painting activity in a shared space, and that aesthetic matters were frequently discussed.

[3] This was a child who was especially attentive to the correspondence between pictorial representations and his expectations. On several occasions, he engaged in repeated questioning about pictures in two other books which were evidently problematic for him and for which the answers he received apparently did not resolve the problem. See Panofsky (in prep) for detailed discussion of these examples.