Dec 15

What children bring to school

Children in the United States are negotiating the transition from home to school at younger ages than was true even a decade ago. Most children’s initial exposure to a school-like setting used to occur when they entered kindergarten or first grade; today, preschool environments are the first exposure. As of 1990, 55 percent of low-income children aged three to five were enrolled in a school, child care center, or Head Start program (Brayfield, Deich, and Hofferth, 1993); 40 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds were in some form of group care or preschool program as of 1991 (O’Connell, 1994). From a child’s perspective, this requires learning rules of two environments–home and school–at a very early age.

For children whose home language or culture differs substantially from the norm in early childhood classrooms, this transition may expose them to conflicting expectations about how to behave and other potential sources of home-school incompatibility. A child who has been taught that it is disrespectful to ask questions of adults or who is unaccustomed to playing in mixed-sex peer groups, for example, will likely feel some initial discomfort and confusion in classrooms that embody different rules and norms for behavior.

Following the discussion of culturally linked facets of the home environment that affect learning, the workshop participants turned to questions regarding the implications of those facets for what children bring to school and for children’s perceptions of school as a familiar or foreign setting. What do children bring with them when they first enter school in the way of culturally shaped expectations, attitudes, skills, and knowledge? What does research suggest as important sources of compatibility and incompatibility between children’s home cultures and those of the early childhood settings that constitute their first exposure to a school-like environment?

Researchers have examined two broad sources of home-school inconsistency that could undermine the ease with which children make the adjustment to early childhood settings. First, children may lack exposure (or sufficient exposure) to the types of preliteracy and prenumeracy experiences that their early childhood teachers expect of them, including exposure to written and spoken English. Second, children may have experienced different social rules that, in turn, affect their expectations about how learning will occur, how their teachers and peers will treat them, and how they should behave in the classroom.



Young children’s exposure to the types of learning experiences and materials that schools often expect of them has been repeatedly shown to affect their adjustment to early childhood settings. For example, children who have not acquired some intuitive understanding of the alphabet or of numbers–information that many teachers assume they have–have a higher probability of being left behind when formal instruction begins than do their classmates who have this knowledge. Much of the research discussed in this part of the workshop focused on kindergarten- and early elementary-age students. Although its generalizability to preschool-age children cannot be assumed, some participants speculated that problems associated with children’s differing exposure to early learning experiences may actually be exacerbated as formal instruction moves into the preschool years. As noted by one participant, “It simply means that children will get behind even earlier in their educational careers.”


Preliteracy and Prenumeracy Experiences

Evidence that supports the importance of early exposure to particular learning opportunities derives from studies that compare the achievement levels of children who have and have not been exposed to the beneficial early experiences at home or in preschool that were discussed in the previous chapter–conversations about numbers, interactive reading, and decontextualized conversation, for example. Additional evidence, discussed below, derives from intervention studies that provide these experiences and examine subsequent effects on achievement.

The work of Sharon Griffin and her colleagues (Case and Griffin, 1990; Griffin, Case, and Siegler, 1992), for example, has documented striking differences in the mathematical understandings that low- and middle-income children bring to school. A significant number of low-income children, for example, were unable to tell which of two numbers is bigger or smaller (e.g., 6 or 8) or which number (e.g., 6 or 2) is closer to 5. This is precisely the knowledge on which the solving of first-grade addition and subtraction problems is directly dependent.

What most distinguished the low-income children who could perform these tasks from those who could not was the child’s engagement at home (or in preschool) with activities and interactions that associate number with quantity and teach children to think in terms of a mental number line, as described by Resnick (1983). An intervention designed by Griffin and her colleagues to expose kindergartners to these premath experiences at school and thus put them on a par with their more arithmetically sophisticated peers significantly enhanced the children’s ability to profit a year later from a standard first-grade arithmetic curriculum.

Home-based efforts to enhance children’s exposure to early literacy experiences that predict the successful acquisition of school literacy skills are more common than math-oriented interventions. Two such projects, focused on low-income Latino families, were described at the workshop. Claude Goldenberg and his colleagues designed an intervention aimed at improving the early native-language (i.e., Spanish) literacy attainment of Spanish-speaking children, beginning in kindergarten (Goldenberg, in press). Timothy Shanahan and his colleagues designed Project FLAME (Family Literacy–Aprendiendo, Mejorando, Educando [Learning, Bettering, Educating]) to enable parents with limited English proficiency to use both Spanish and English to enhance their 3- to 6-year-olds’ literacy achievements (Shanahan and Rodriguez-Brown, 1993; Owen and Shanahan, 1993).

Both projects sought to improve children’s achievements indirectly through interventions targeted for their parents. In both instances, parents were provided or assisted with choosing age-appropriate books and encouraged to engage in the kinds of reading and other literacy activities that have been found to have a positive influence on children’s achievements. Evaluations of both projects have documented significant positive effects on children’s literacy development. However, Goldenberg reported that a control group of children who had received very structured, academic instruction in letters, sounds, and how they combine to form words, phrases, and sentences significantly outperformed the children who had received his more informal intervention.

These interventions, whether focused on early math or literacy skills, are based on the assumption that what most distinguishes children who do well from those who do poorly when they enter school is the extent of their exposure to the types of early learning experiences that provide the departure point for formal instruction. Yet, although certain early experiences appear to be especially advantageous for children’s early academic success, Kenji Hakuta noted that “the field lacks a true theory of exposure.” There is no basis to suggest specific thresholds regarding, for example, the number of board games or the amount of assisted reading that makes a difference. Existing evidence, as noted by Claude Goldenberg, simply indicates that “the opportunity to learn is related to learning.”


Home Language

Degree of exposure to English language at home is a particularly controversial component of this area of inquiry. Research has not produced a clear set of findings regarding the efficacy of various instructional approaches for language-minority children. It has also only begun to specify the conditions at home, in school, and in the community that influence variation in children’s native-language retention and second-language acquisition (Hakuta and D’Andrea, 1992; Pease-Alvarez, Garcia, and Espinosa, 1991; Pease-Alvarez and Hakuta, 1992). The literature that is specific to preschool-age children is particularly thin and inconclusive. Because children younger than 5 years old are still acquiring the basic grammatical and phonological aspects of their first language, generalizing from studies of school-age children to this younger age group must be done with great caution. Snow’s research suggesting that students can more readily become literate in a second language once literacy has been established in the home language reinforces the importance of adopting a developmental perspective when interpreting bilingual research (Snow, 1992).

The workshop participants raised several additional cautions about the literature on bilingualism as it pertains to preschoolers. First, although bilingualism is easily attainable in young children, Kenji Hakuta and others noted the substantial influence that a child’s home and community language environments, as well as the timing and quality of school-based language instruction, play in the success with which a child’s native language is retained and the English language is acquired. Lucinda Pease-Alvarez’s work suggests, for example, that retention of Spanish among kindergarten-age children is not disrupted when English is introduced at school, in part because the children she studied are immersed in Spanish at home and in their community. She also observed that these children are adept at figuring out when to use one language rather than the other and at making appropriate adjustments when talking with parents, with various sets of peers, or with teachers.

Second, assessing language proficiency is, itself, a complex undertaking. Some investigators have asked parents to report on their children’s native language use (see Fillmore, 1991); others have relied on tests of language proficiency (Pease-Alvarez and Hakuta, 1992). These two outcome measures assess different aspects of language development. Parents’ reports reflect the child’s use of language at home: they provide particularly valuable information about parents’ perceived ability to communicate with their children and the degree to which children participate in the ethnic language community. In contrast, language assessments are designed to test actual language proficiency, independent of language use in particular settings. It is also important to distinguish between “social” verbal proficiency with friends from proficiency in the more formal school language tasks of writing, reading, or understanding decontextualized texts.

Third, the participants speculated about the influence that the low status sometimes accorded to languages spoken by low-income populations, notably Spanish, might have on children’s perceptions and use of their home language. It would not be surprising to find an effect from having one’s language ignored or denigrated on children’s language use and retention (Moll and Diaz, 1985).

Most of the research discussed at the workshop focused on the maintenance of children’s native language, rather than the acquisition of English, as the outcome of primary concern. This focus on language maintenance derived, in part, from the judgment of some participants that concerns about the capacity of non-English-speaking children to acquire English are perhaps less warranted than are concerns about their ability to retain the language spoken by their parents at home (Pease-Alvarez and Hakuta, 1992). This is of special concern during the preschool years when, according to research on the developmental course of language development, a child’s native language may be particularly fragile to interference. Most evaluations of bilingual education programs, in contrast, focus on student’s performance on tests of basic skills and English as the marker of achievement, and neglect measurement of children’s native language retention (National Research Council, 1992). As a result, these evaluations are singularly uninformative about the effects of different models of bilingual education on language skills other than the acquisition of English.



The learning opportunities that children encounter during their preschool years transmit not only knowledge and skills, but also more subtle information about how knowledge is acquired and communicated. These processes of learning, which affect children’s accustomed ways of receiving and absorbing new information, transpire in a distinctly social context. The workshop participants discussed the available evidence regarding cultural influences on the social conventions and assumptions that guide learning.

Research on the social dimensions of learning support the proposition that the degree of congruence between the interactions that guide learning interactions at home and those that guide instruction at school can affect young children’s adjustment and comfort in early childhood settings. Children who are unaware of conventions about whether and when students should participate in the classroom, for example, appear more likely to retreat from active involvement or to become disruptive in the face of confusion. However, whether children’s learning is directly affected by these types of incompatibility has not been adequately addressed by research. The empirical literature that addresses these issues is, again, largely restricted to elementary-age children; its generalizability to younger children is unknown. The workshop participants focused their discussion on three aspects of this literature that have received the bulk of empirical attention: approaches to learning, the social organization of classrooms, and conventions of conversation and participation.


Approaches to Learning

The pioneering work of Heath (1983) and Tharp (1989) was credited with identifying the powerful role that culturally shaped patterns of transmitting knowledge have on the ways in which children learn to learn. Tharp’s work with Native Americans, for example, has revealed a preference for nonlinear ways of transmitting information, in which a central theme is first described and then elaborated using circular-patterned visual displays (Vogt, Jordan, and Tharp, 1987). This approach contrasts with methods of teaching that move in a linear progression from derivative pieces of information to a central theme or conclusion.

Barbara Rogoff and Patricia Greenfield, both of whom have worked with a mix of cultural groups within and outside the United States, noted the varying degree to which observational learning, as opposed to explicit teaching through verbal instructions, is relied on in different cultural contexts. Greenfield emphasized the different goals that guide learning in different cultural contexts. Learning to drive or to weave, for example, appears to be most appropriately learned through observational processes in which a student repeatedly witnesses the complete task and then gradually participates in stepwise fashion. In these cases, precision is important, and conservative means of learning are valued. Alternatively, tasks for which experimentation is adaptive and generalization to different versions of the task is sought (such as painting, reading, and writing), may be better taught through more experimental, trial-and-error methods. Rogoff added that preferences for interdependent patterns of learning in which cooperation is highly valued versus independent approaches that stress individual accomplishment are also more or less adaptive in different cultural contexts.

To the extent that children grow accustomed to certain ways of acquiring information at home and in their communities that differ from the approaches used at school, they may be relatively unprepared to learn new information easily and readily from their teachers. This is not to say that some children learn less well or in less-advanced or less-organized ways. Indeed, although some cultures may value certain modes of learning over others, the workshop participants stressed that there is no evidence to suggest that children are constrained by culture in their ability to adjust to a wide range of instructional styles.


Social Organization

Social organization refers to the structures in which teaching, learning, and performance occur. This includes the size and composition of the groups in which children are clustered for various activities, the ways in which children demonstrate what they have learned, and the degree of independent or assisted learning that is expected of them. Research with Hawaiian families, for example, in which children are often cared for by their siblings has shown that the children are accustomed to learning in the context of frequent peer interaction (Gallimore, Boggs, and Jordan, 1974). Classrooms that emphasized independent learning and teacher-student exchanges were found to constitute alien environments for these children. When classrooms were restructured to be more compatible with these children’s familiar peer-group dynamics (e.g., children working in small, mixed-sex groups in learning centers, with indirect teacher supervision), disruptive and inattentive behaviors were substantially reduced (Gallimore, Boggs, and Jordan, 1974; Vogt, Jordan, and Tharp, 1987; Weisner, Gallimore and Jordan, 1989).

An interesting extension of this research involved an attempt to adopt the lessons learned with Hawaiian children to classrooms of Navajo children (Vogt, Jordan, and Tharp, 1987). In Navajo culture, peer groups are less prevalent and tend to be sex specific: In order to create an effective classroom organization for these children, the small groups were reduced to 2-3 children of all the same sex, and a greater emphasis was placed on individual assignments. These Navajo children functioned best when they were allowed to work independently–observing, listening, and practicing skills on their own as they do in their communities. Philips’ (1972) ethnographic work with another Native American community pointed to the role of social rules governing classroom performance. Her sample of children performed best when they were allowed to practice in private and determine when they were ready to show an audience what they had learned. This stands in contrast to the more common practice of teacher-determined patterns of student performance.


Conventions of Conversation and Participation

Children bring to school expectations about appropriate language use based on their experiences at home. Culturally shaped conventions of conversation that have been studied include wait time, the pace and call-response patterns that characterize conversations, and participation structures (Heath, 1983). The use of pauses in between questions and responses, for example, appears to be somewhat culture specific. Pueblo Indian children have been observed to provide more elaborated responses and to participate spontaneously to a greater extent when wait-time is extended (Winterton, 1977). Native Hawaiian students, in contrast, are accustomed to overlapping speech, which is interpreted as demonstrating interest and involvement; long wait-times tend to inhibit their participation in instructional activities (White and Tharp, 1988). Hale-Benson’s research on culturally based speech rhythms has identified a “contest” style of speech–named call-and-response speech after the patterns found in black music–in which black mothers and children volley comments rhythmically back and forth (Hale-Benson, 1990).

Children also acquire accustomed ways of entering into conversations and participating in group activities (Heath, 1983). Claude Goldenberg described his experience with Latino children, whose mothers tend to use highly directive patterns of communication. As a result, these children might expect to be cued to participate in classroom discussions. Goldenberg observed that extending wait-time, absent cuing, had no effect on some of these children’s participation; explicit cuing, on the other hand, enhanced both cued and spontaneous participation.

The context in which children are most comfortable talking in groups also appears somewhat culture bound. The convention called “talk-story”–in which adults co-narrate a story, with frequent overlapping speech and references to shared experiences–is common among Hawaiian adults. Classroom practices with young Hawaiian students that were explicitly designed to mimic this narrative pattern led to more spontaneous and animated classroom participation (Au, 1980; Au and Mason, 1981). Among Navajo children, in contrast, a discussion pattern that allowed each student to speak for longer periods in a discursive manner that circles around the main point, with other students waiting their turn, was most effective.



Research that examines these socially based sources of home-school incompatibility is often premised on the assumption that children will be adversely affected when school is not like home. Indeed, some attribute the lack of school success experienced by many low-income and minority students to their preference for forms of interaction, language, and thought that conflict with those that are promoted by and perhaps needed for success in school. Others, however, caution that a strong emphasis on promoting cultural compatibility between school and home may do a disservice to children who need to learn the mainstream patterns of discourse they will encounter as they advance through school (Delpit, 1988). There are scant data to inform these critically important questions. To the extent that a research base exists, it has focused on children’s classroom participation rather than on assessments of learning (see Goldenberg and Gallimore, 1989).

The available evidence indicates that children’s dispositions to participate in classroom activities are affected by the degree of compatibility that they experience between their home and school cultures. Adjusting pause time, cuing children to participate, organizing small groups to match children’s home experiences, and other practices aimed at increasing home-school compatibility appear to facilitate children’s engagement in learning. However, the effects of cultural accommodations on student learning and achievement have yet to be demonstrated. As noted by Goldenberg: “With the exception of some studies of cooperative learning and of bilingual education, the experimental evidence linking culturally compatible instruction and scholastic outcomes is very tenuous.” Certainly, high levels of comfort and engagement may be very desirable goals in their own right. Few would argue that children need to feel accepted by their teachers and classmates and that cultural factors are pertinent to assuring that this occurs. Nevertheless, the link to improved academic achievement, while plausible, has not been shown. This lack of evidence is due, in part, to concerns about the validity of prevailing achievement tests for children from diverse cultural backgrounds. In addition, many of the scientists who study these children believe in the value of expanding conceptions of achievement beyond performance on achievement tests.



Available evidence indicates that children who come to school without exposure to the types of learning opportunities that many teachers take for granted may be at a disadvantage in comparison with children whose preschool experiences accord with teachers’ assumptions. Efforts to “catch children up” through various prenumeracy and preliteracy interventions appear to have positive effects on subsequent achievement. Efforts to address more qualitative aspects of home-school incompatibility that arise from differences in the social rules, expectations, and conventions of conversations that characterize a child’s home and school environments may also be warranted for purposes of encouraging children’s engagement in the classroom. The jury is still out, however, with respect to the effects of these cultural accommodations on short- or long-term learning.

It is evident, moreover, that notions of “incompatibility” require substantial refinement. Under some circumstances, consistency across home and school environments may not be desirable. Some degree of complementarity may be desirable and may even be sought deliberately by parents. Some parents, for example, seek out preschool settings that will expose their children to educational experiences, including English instruction, that they know they cannot provide at home. From children’s standpoints, the process of adjusting to different practices at home and at school may even be beneficial, particularly in a multicultural society such as ours. As Stipek noted: “The goal is not necessarily to either get parents to do what is happening in schools or to get schools to adapt to what is happening in the home, but to look at how these two contexts in which children learn can complement and reinforce each other. It does not necessarily mean they have to be the same; sometimes there is value in different approaches.”

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