are grammatical speakers of their home language—that is, they use language in consistent and rule-governed ways. While their dialects may be different from standard English, all children speak their home dialects with fluency and accuracy. Some children even bring a second language to the classroom at a level of sophistication and fluency that few of their teachers are able to match.
If all children have linguistic abilities, why does it sometimes seem that certain students are not adept language users? Why does it seem that some students don’t bring much, if any, language from home or aren’t able to speak about academic subjects? Why does it seem that certain students are good at talking about science and others are not?
The primary reason for this is that speakers of all languages have a tendency to perceive differences in the way other people speak and identify these differences as “inadequacies” or “deficits.” For teachers, this tendency can create problems in the classroom. A focus on deficits in students’ language makes it harder for the teacher to connect with students, harder to build on their strengths, and harder to create the conditions for rigorous and productive discussion, reasoning, and presentations in science.
Every child in this society learns culturally appropriate ways of using language and of taking meaning from written texts in the early years at home. Every cultural group in this society has sophisticated ways of integrating the oral and written language around them into daily life. However, ways of using oral and written language are closely tied to culture and the different ways members of a culture have of interacting with others. In some cultures, the use of language in the home is closely related to the ways in which language is typically used in schools, while in other cultures it is not as closely related.
For example, Yup’ik children in Alaska typically learn by observing experienced adults and participating as helpers in adult work and other activities. Verbal interaction is not central to their learning process; observation and participation are considered more important.5 Because of this, a reliance on explicit verbal instruction may be less effective or even disconcerting to children from this cultural background.
As another example, researchers in Hawaii, part of the Kamehameha Early Education Project, have shown that part-Polynesian children perform much better in small-group reading instruction if they are allowed to talk without waiting to be called on. Effective teachers allow these students to “overlap” their talk with one another in much the same way they do when talking or storytelling outside of school.6