Talking Writing

Sep 29th, 2012 | By | Category: Archives, Faculty Notes, Fall-Winter 2012

Talking Writing

by Shirley Brice Heath,
Stanford University

Shirley Brice Heath, Professor Emerita at Stanford University, taught at Bread Loaf-Vermont for nine summers, from 1982-2001, working with several of her Bread Loaf students as co-researchers on inquiries about literacy and the arts. Ways with Words:  Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms was published in 1983. Two chapters in particular shaped the principles and practices of BLTN: “Teachers as Learners” and “Learners as Ethnographers,” which portray teachers and students as learning researchers, building bridges between classrooms and communities. Her most recent book, Words at Work and Play: Three decades in family and community life, traces connections between school, family, and community activities and organizations. “Talking Writing” considers the kind of conversational writing that is at the heart of BLTN: “Conversations involve give-and-take, exchange of information and opinions, questions and conjectures, and debates about differences of opinion or grasp of facts. This kind of talk takes time…and lays the foundation of language essential to writing and reading extended texts.”

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  • As teachers and learners, we easily fall into the persuasive trap of thinking that if only we communicate sufficiently and care enough, the young people who walk into our classrooms will gain the same love and passion we have for reading and writing extended texts, such as those of fiction, history, science, politics, and the visual arts. We feel certain that they will engage as we have done with the intricacies of written language.

It takes only a few years of teaching to come to the realization that this conviction carries over into reality relatively rarely. Reasons why this is the case come in the pressures of history and economics–topics that do not usually come up in our language arts and English classes.

The first historical fact that shapes how our students feel today about reading and writing extended texts comes in the radical differences between teachers’ and students’ socialization into oral and written language. Teachers can generally remember carrying out both work and play projects that stretched over several hours, if not days and weeks, when they were young. These projects took place between child and adult(s) and were usually related to the life of the family household: food preparation, yard clean-up and garden planting, and extended tasks of repairing or building something around the house. Board games, such as Monopoly, often stretched on for several days, as did putting up and taking down model trains or complex Lego projects. During these times of work and play, adults and the young talked about what they were doing together, how they felt about it, and what they needed to do to accomplish what they wanted to do. In short, most teachers in today’s classrooms grew up talking in long stretches of conversation, reading directions and recipes, and writing thank-you notes, greeting cards, and birthday letters.

Economics and technology together have altered all these aspects of socialization for today’s young. Within mainstream school-oriented families, young people spend more after-school and weekend hours taking part in organized sports and other community activities led by “intimate strangers,” such as coaches, Scout leaders, and karate or music teachers, than they do with their parents. “Intimate strangers” dedicate their time with young people to instruction and guidance on how to do specific activities. Free-ranging conversations surrounding long-term projects of play and work have to be limited in both length and number throughout the season. Today, young people who enter our classrooms may well have had in any week of their adolescence only a handful of conversations of more than four minutes with an adult. Conversations involve give-and-take, exchange of information and opinions, questions and conjectures, and debates about differences of opinion or grasp of facts. This kind of talk takes time. Moreover, this kind of talk lays the foundation of language essential to writing and reading extended texts.

Some who read the above paragraph may easily reach the conclusion that this change amounts to a diminishing of language experiences for today’s young. Yes and no. No, since our students use their various forms of technology to create, respond to, and read and think about a much wider range of genres than did their teachers as children or teenagers. Aside from the obvious “multiliteracies” that come with Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo, young people today generate and view book and film trailers, “adbusters,” apps, tweets, blogs, and a host of Internet sites devoted to photography, science topics, new art forms, and authors of young adult (YA) fiction. In addition to reading YA fiction, many write their own sequels to YA fictional works and provide critiques and reviews for one another and, occasionally, for librarians who see the value in enlisting YA readers as advisers on acquisitions. In short, today’s young read more genres, media, and modes than most teachers ever imagined possible.

Yes, some kinds of language experiences are diminished for today’s young. My long-term (30-year) study of language in families across three generations shows that genres of multiliteracies reflect specific language features that differ from those that occur in extended academic texts. For example, in today’s genres, young people tend to read and to use simple present or simple past tenses (rarely do any perfect tenses occur). Their specialized or “rare” vocabulary is tied to special-interest topics, such as sports, popular entertainment forms and personalities, and art and science forms, such as photography, film,videogaming, and music. They read and produce very few comparatives or hypotheticals (e.g., if-then statements), and their genres include few substantive questions that draw on material beyond the immediate text or pursuit.

Scholars from the fields of child language and brain sciences increasingly report the push-forward advantages of language input during infancy and toddlerhood. Academic success is more likely to come to those adolescents who have had at least 1,200 words per hour of language input in their earliest years. Such input needs, however, to extend beyond mere labels (e.g., “show me the cat”) or instructions. The young need conversations with adults about what may seem to be “nothing”–peeling a banana, the colors of the leaves on the tree outside the window, or, better yet, the narrative and illustrations of children’s literature. In their joint reading, children and adults talk about characters, actions, possibilities, promises, turns of events, and sequences of action. These topics matter over the long run, for within such talk lie several different tenses, types of sentences, hypothetical proposals, comparatives, and various question types.

Once children who have not had either the quantity or quality of language input noted above reach their first years in classrooms, is it too late? What can teachers do throughout the primary and secondary years? Not surprisingly, the simple answer lies in projects that involve young learners in planning, thinking ahead, and weighing outcomes. Window gardening during the early years leads children to imagine roles and outcomes. So does taking part in readers theater or classroom enactments of literature. Such projects involve language that characterizes extended texts of academic life. Former Bread Loafer Eileen Landay and Brown University colleague Kurt Wootton have just written a book that tells us all this and much more. They show how telling stories, dialoguing, rehearsing and revising text, and performing texts build community and instill habits of reflection among students. Their years of experience in classrooms give us many reasons to know that when we link literacy and oral language (or lots and lots of talking) to the arts (and the sciences) in extended community-building projects, language learning comes through meaningful practice and performance. Moreover, the book gives numerous multi-year examples of how teachers create their own face-to-face and virtual professional communities when they become engaged with their students in talking writing” all the way into performance.


Heath, Shirley Brice (2012).  Words at work and play:  Three decades in family and community life.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.

Landay, Ellen and Wootton, Kurt (2012).  A reason to read:  Linking literacy and the arts.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press.


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