In the vast critical dialogue surrounding her classic text, Ways with Words, Shirley Brice Heath is presented as a teacher, an anthropologist, and a linguist, and indeed she is all of these. The book presents Heath’s ethnography of language acquisition, use, and education in three communities, one rural and black, one rural and white, and a racially mixed community in town, in the piedmont of North Carolina’s sliver of Appalachia in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
When I first started reading this book — something I insisted should be on the syllabus for this study because I’ve intended to read it, on the advice of well-meaning friends and colleagues, for years — I was disappointed. Not much for ethnographies (I’m more of a word nerd than a sociolinguist), the tedium of long descriptions of furniture and kinships and brand names, and especially the liberal use of sight dialects, initially put me off. I worried that the content of this rich social study had nothing to do with my central research question of historical literacy pedagogies. I considered on several occasions ditching the book altogether: hadn’t I already got enough to read and write without adding Heath into the mix?
I am not fond enough of personal interest stories to have engaged deeply with the real-life characters who populate Heath’s living laboratory, though their tales are not uninteresting. I’m not sure what exactly kept me reading, more than a sense of obligation, through the entire book. But I did keep reading, and it was very much worth my while.
As an instructor and teacher trainer in town, Heath has the opportunity to work with the town-based teachers whose classrooms had been forever changed by school desegregation. Faced with culturally and linguistically mixed classrooms as well as racially integrated ones, teachers had to learn to be conscious of the ways in which their own backgrounds differed from their students’ and how that informed their teachers.
It was in the teachers’ explicit self-study and the purposeful changes they made in their instruction that I found my purpose in reading the book as part of my current research. That purpose is the evidence that teachers can be trained to observe scientific processes in the development of both their theory and practice. Heath was successful in teaching teachers to be ethnographers, in teaching them to apply scientific principles of observation and analysis to inform their teaching. Under her guidance, teachers learned to gather data about their students, and to shift their teaching practices to accommodate differences in language and culture. They learned to change their teacher talk, their instructional terminology and the ways in which they gave instructions to their students.
Given my affirmed commitment to bridging the gap between linguistic science and teaching practice, I was impressed and inspired by the teachers’ efforts and by Heath’s. I’m encouraged, but not surprised, to see another example of how science can and does inform literacy instruction, something that has long been a thrust in reading education. In my estimation, though, that ‘science’ should include other areas of linguistics besides the sociocultural: if we’re teaching children to read and spell, how about we consider scientifically the structure of the very writing system we seek to impart to them?