Child's Talk

Nancy Marie Brown
September 01, 1997
african american family on porch

Ricky picks up an old metal drain pipe with twisted strips of metal protruding from its sides. He turns to Dwayne. "Look at this man," he says.

Dwayne is five. He's wearing a cowboy vest with a wireless mike sewn into it. "This ain't no man," he says.

"I know it," says Ricky. He's nine. "But look at this man with a light in his hand. It's a heavy man. That's his, his head. That's his hand and—"

"Where?" asks Dwayne.

"That's his, his hand," Ricky says. "He got a light in his hand. He got a light in his hand. He's a monster with a light in his hand."

"Oh," says Dwayne.

"He got no eyes," Ricky continues.

"He can't see." "Don't tell," says Dwayne, "that's enough—"

They're playing in the dirt out back. In the shadows stands a psychologist taking notes. An orange backpack she carries holds the tape recorder picking up Dwayne's and Ricky's words. She writes, Ricky has begun slowly to modulate his voice rhythmically as he looks piercingly into Dwayne's eyes. Dwayne looks frightened and picks up a rock. Their mother calls from the house, "Don't hit Ricky with that."

Says Dwayne, "I'm going to beat that man up—right there."

"Don't hit him," says Ricky. "Don't hit him."

Dwayne, wearing the mike, was an Abecedarian boy, one of 112 low-income African-American children from the Piedmont area of North Carolina who were involved in a research project (called the Abecedarian Project) designed to improve children's language and cognitive skills before they entered school—and so, it was hoped, their overall school performance. The project ran from 1972 until 1987, centered on the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina. Developmental psychologist Lynne Vernon-Feagans joined the researchers as a research associate in 1975—she was one of those who wore the orange backpack and listened in on children talking. She was then 29.

"I was a very naive researcher," she says now, a 51-year-old professor of human development at Penn State and associate dean for research in the College of Health and Human Development. "I did believe that low-income Black children had language problems and that I was going to save them. I was a good child of the Sixties.

"Now I've grown older. I've had a chance to reflect." Her reflections were published in 1996 in her book, Children's Talk in Communities and Classrooms.

The Abecedarian Project was a response to the observation that low-income Black children generally did not do as well in school as middle-class White children. "In class," says Vernon-Feagans, "the Black children often didn't talk as much as the White children, and when they did, what they said was often not what teachers expected." The researchers saw a solution to this language problem in an intricate "intervention program": a daycare center where talk—and specifically, "informative talk," or talk that shared or elicited information—was stressed. Vernon-Feagans writes, "Consultants gave them [the day-care workers] periodic feedback so that informative talk might reach a level of 75 percent of the total talk. As one who observed the teachers on several occasions," she adds, "I noted the monumental effort it took to achieve a high level of informative/eliciting talk and the even greater patience needed to work with those children who—like most children—were more interested in wrestling with each other than conversing with an adult."

Yet these children, so strenuously talked at,didnobetterinschoolthantheirpeers. The intervention, Vernon-Feagans writes, was at best "a mild buffer against public school experience. Both groups [of Black children,those who had received the intervention and those in the control group] were generally doing more poorly by age 12 than when they entered public school."

The project suffered from mistaken assumptions, she believes now, and from misplaced blame. As she writes, "There was no doubt that there was an unwarranted assumption made by many of the intervention developers and the research staff. The project assumed that these high-risk poor children were not receiving the kind of language input at home that was needed for optimal development." Following the children home (and "through corn fields, backyards, and woods") and taping their conversations—as well as those of the White, middle-class children in the Mainstream comparison group—Vernon-Feagans and her colleagues learned just the opposite was true: "In both dialogues and monologues," she writes, "we found the Abecedarian children producing more sophisticated dramas and fantasies than the Mainstream children. This was especially true for the Abecedarian boys."

Yet when tested in kindergarten on their ability to understand and retell a narrative, the Abecedarian children did much poorer than the Mainstream group. "Interestingly," Vernon-Feagans writes, "the reason for this gap may have been the better story telling ability of the Abecedarian children. When we analyzed the paraphrases of the stories, we found that the Abecedarian children . . . tended to add and embellish the vignettes when asked to paraphrase. By doing so they frequently ended up creating a different, but often more interesting, vignette." Failure to retell the barebones story exactly, however, resulted in the lower score.

boy on bike

At home, Vernon-Feagans says, "these little boys could really talk. Each time one told a story, it was a little different. They elaborated, they competed with each other telling it. In school, if the teacher said, 'Tell us this story,' and the boy elaborated, the teacher would think either the boy didn't understand the story at all—which means, he's dumb—or that he was being defiant." Neither, Vernon-Feagans soon saw, was the case.

"In our enthusiasm to help these children," she writes in Children's Talk in Communities and Classrooms, "we had failed to recognize our own biases brought with us from the larger society."

The term Abecedarian, Vernon-Feagans notes in her book, means learning from the beginning. In hind-sight, it's more apt than the project leader who came up with the name intended. Says Vernon-Feagans, "As the project unfolded it became clear to all of us that we were the Abecedarians and that we probably learned much more from the children and their families than they learned from us."

Vernon-Feagans and her fellow researchers were middle-class Whites. They had Ph.D.s, or were getting them, from developmental psychology or educational psychology programs "that, at that time in the 1970s," she notes, "did not prepare us very well to understand the lives of these families." For instance, developmental psychologists often assumed that the interactions between a mother and her child were the most important ones for shaping the child's development. Next in importance came those within the family, such as eating dinner together or reading story-books. "The assumptions about what are the important contexts are based on middle-class or mainstream culture," Vernon-Feagans notes.For the Abecedarian kids, these assumptions simply did not apply.

First the term "family" needed to be expanded. Instead of the politician's family of five or the statistician's 2 parents and 2.5 children, the families of the Abecedarian children were often headed by the mother, and encompassed extensive networks of kin. One of the researchers calculated that each child saw an average of 37 different relatives each month, 24 from the mother's side of the family and 13 from the father's. Comments Vernon-Feagans, "It would be hard for me to even name 37 different people in my family, much less have them visit me each month."

Second, the researchers' assumptions about the effects of poverty on a child's development needed to be re-examined. The families were indeed poor "by any financial standard," Vernon-Feagans writes. Yet "many were not poor with respect to family and community support." In fact, she continues, "the description of the communities where our children lived paints a quite different picture from the one typical of children living in poverty in large cities." These were poor communities of the rural South: single-story homes lining red clay streets. The parents expressed fear, not of drug dealers, but of stray dogs and snakes. "If you were to walk down the streets," Vernon-Feagans writes, "you would see people of all ages sitting and talking on their front porches while the children played in the yards and streets." When the researchers compared the possibilities for the Abecedarian children and the Mainstream ones to play, "the similarities really outweighed the differences," Vernon-Feagans writes. "Most children had large areas in which to play, whether it was a playground or a backyard. All seemed to have access to basic play materials like balls, bicycles, dolls, and materials for pretend play."

How they played did show some differences. The Abecedarian children played various ring games or role playing, adapting their play to include a wide range of age and skill levels: One game of limbo the researchers watched included children from 1 to 18 years old, with the older children helping the younger ones along. Occasionally they played kickball, but competitive games were fairly rare. They were "playing to play," as psychologists put it, not "playing to win." The Mainstream children, on the other hand, were more likely to play football, baseball, or board games after school, choosing competitive games 20 percent of the time (compared to the Abecedarian children's 8 percent) and noncompetitive games only 11 percent (compared to the Abecedarian children's 24 percent).

How the children talked to each other—and to themselves—while playing these games also differed, although the differences were subtle and hard to spot.

When the researchers analyzed the children's talk for complex grammar, for instance, they were surprised by the "overwhelming similarity between the groups." Both Mainstream and Abecedarian children used short, simple statements (averaging four words long), asked few questions, andissuedfewdirectorders.Eightypercent of the time they talked about concrete objects (like a ball) instead of abstract topics (like the rules of the game), while 90 percent of their talk concerned the present, not the past or future. There was no evidence, Vernon-Feagans writes, "that either group had an advantage in terms of linguistic complexity or in the abstract level of their talk."

But this quantitative analysis, Vernon-Feagans notes, didn't get to the heart of the problem—why the Abecedarian children continued to do poorly in school. Where the "quite striking group differences" did show up, Vernon-Feagans writes, was in the quality of the children's storytelling—in the richness and depth of imagination they drew on when they played "let's pretend."

Writes Vernon-Feagans, "We saw four times as many conversations in the Abecedarian groups which focused on elaborated pretend play or storytelling. This was probably the case because African American culture supports what I like to call the construction of 'joint storytelling.'" Echoing the "apprenticeship" model of education, joint story-telling involves the storyteller and at least one other person, who comments or elaborates on the story as it is being told. One person is usually an expert, another a novice, and their ages and abilities can be quite far apart. An example is the story by nine-year-old Ricky and five-year-old Dwayne about the drainpipe: "Look at this man." "This ain't no man." "I know it. But look at this man with a light in his hand. . . ." The images are rich, the language is lyrical, haunting, and rhythmic. The two boys are engrossed. Pipe Man becomes real—and threatening—to the point that Dwayne finds a rock "to beat that man up—right there."

"The apprenticeship concept is certainly evident in this joint play," Vernon-Feagans writes. "Ricky, as the older child, is helping Dwayne take some small steps in the culturally valued activity of image and story creation. . . .Thiskindof imaginative talk," she continues, "is much less likely to occur in the context of adult/child interaction where adults would not so easily become captivated by the child-like images. In public school, participatory storytelling with another child is almost never encouraged because of the emphasis on individual achievement. It is hard to imagine schools that would encourage the creation of stories through joint effort of older and younger children."

Nor was this kind of play common among the Mainstream children. "There were literally no examples of this level of storymaking in the Mainstream group," Vernon-Feagans writes. The closest parallel she cites was that of two five-year-old girls playing "Barbies." "Unfortunately, the talk was mostly centered on what the dolls were wearing and where they were going without the richness of the descriptions we found in the Abecedarian children's talk."

Summarizing this difference, Vernon-Feagans writes, "For the Abecedarian children, play with each other represents an opportunity to extend their abilities in creating imaginative fantasies that excite the people around them. They are often lyrical in their composition and the narratives seem to be the precursors of oral storytelling and dramatic performance, an activity highly valued in their culture. On the other hand the Mainstream children find pretend play with each other as an opportunity to role-play the many activities in which they will engage as adults. Because the Mainstream children are surrounded by material goods that more often dictate and lead their play activities, such as dolls with wardrobes of clothes, trains, and so on, they may focus their play in a more concrete and directed way rather than using the toys to stimulate their imaginations and storytelling ability."

Where this difference becomes acute is in school. Although the teachers' opinions of the Mainstream students' language skills matched the rating by Vernon-Feagans and the other researchers, the Abecedarian children's ability to use language in highly sophisticated ways was not remarked on by their teachers.

"Since this study involved African American children, some might mistakenly think this means a study of Black Dialect," Vernon-Feagans writes, or what has come into the news as Ebonics. "But we mean much more than the surface features of language divorced from context and culture," she explains. Where the Abecedarian children and their teachers—even the Black teachers—differed was in their "beliefs . . . about language and the cultural traditions and activities that shape the use of language in conversation with others and in storytelling."

The local elementary school teachers were enthusiastic participants in the Abecedarian Project. They allowed their classrooms to be photographed and floorplans to be drawn. They submitted to interviews on their "philosophies of teaching" and agreed to extra tests and projects. One of these, given to the kindergarten and second-grade classes, was a tutorial session: The teacher and a pupil paged through a wordless picture book, the teacher asking a pair of prepared questions about each picture, while a psychologist watched and recorded their talk. The questions were difficult, and teachers were asked to "follow up" if the pupil gave "a less than adequate answer," and not to let pupils "get on the wrong track or it will make the rest of the story more difficult."

"This task in particular," Vernon-Feagans says, "showed that some of these insensitivities to language use are very subtle. It wasn't that you'd go into a classroom and say to yourself, 'This teacher is insensitive.' The teachers in our project were all excellent teachers who had their hearts in the right place. But they didn't know the Black culture. They didn't know the culture of rural Black families in the South. A third of the teachers were Black—and we didn't see any difference in the way they did this book reading task."

The Abecedarian and the Mainstream children both got less than 50 percent of the questions right the first time. "This meant that teachers were forced to follow up on the children's answers to half the questions to help them eventually get the correct answers," Vernon-Feagans writes.

Afterwards, the researchers classified the children's errors into three types: relevant answer, irrelevant answer, and no response. For instance, the kindergarten class used A Boy, A Dog, and a Frog by Mercer Mayer. In one illustration, the boy has dropped his net over the dog, while the frog is falling spraddle-legged into the pond. The boy is grinning—triumphantly, if perhaps a little malevolently—and the question is, Why is the boy smiling? A correct answer would be, "He thinks he caught the frog." A relevant answer error, such as, "He caught the dog," describes the picture, but doesn't answer the question. Writes Vernon-Feagans, "Teachers are quite good at helping children who make this kind of error get the right answer." An irrelevant answer to "Why is the boy smiling?" might be "Tomorrow," or "Over there." Such answers have been called "unteachable," since they imply that the child does not understand what "Why?" means. "Teachers appeared stymied by such responses," Vernon-Feagans notes, "and did not have good strategies for getting the child back on track." The final category, no response errors, was often a simple "I don't know." "This kind of response gave a clear message to the teacher that the child needed some help in understanding how to get the right answer."

In kindergarten, the Abecedarian children made twice as many irrelevant answer errors as the Mainstream children.

The Mainstream children made twice as many no response errors as the Abecedarian children.

Relevant answer errors between the two groups were the same.

"In itself these differences might not really be important," Vernon-Feagans writes, "except for the fact that teachers responded very differently to these two types of errors. Teachers used much more effective strategies to help children when they gave a no response error: In fact, 90 percent of the time they used strategies to help the child get the right answer." Such strategies included prodding the student or restructuring the question. "In addition, teachers almost never complicated the question."

The "unteachable" irrelevant answer errors, by contrast "produced many more ineffective strategies by the teachers. Teachers accepted these irrelevant responses as adequate 20 percent of the time in kindergarten and nearly 50 percent in second grade." Often they merely ignored the answer and turned the page. When they did try prodding or restructuring, in 10 percent of the cases this effort "actually made the question more difficult." They successfully helped the child to reach the correct answer less than half the time.

boy bent over near dead end sign

None of the teachers, White or Black, were aware that they were treating the types of incorrect answers—and therefore, groups of children—so differently. "These group differences in teaching style toward the children seemed all the more astonishing," Vernon-Feagans writes, "because the teachers knew we were watching them and were clearly trying to demonstrate their best practices."

Vernon-Feagans had watched as the daycare workers chattered—informatively—at the Abecedarian infants and toddlers. She had carried that orange backpack through the cornfields and backyards tracking the Abecedarian children on their after-school rounds. She had sat at kitchen tables with their mothers, talking of college plans, and had met some of the 37 relatives that dropped by. She had walked the red clay streets. She had seen the children grow older, had seen them lose interest in school and eventually stop caring about it" in order to make themselves less vulnerable to the future failure they see," she writes. She even over-heard the teenager who stopped to talk to 5-year-old Melvin, wearing the miked cowboy vest while astride a playground rocking horse. "When you begin you'll like that school, but I never liked goin' to school," he said. "See Melvin, you stop likin' to go to school when you get there."

The children from the Abecedarian Project are still being followed—although the researchers have traded surveys for the wireless mike. They range in age from 16 to 24. "A number of them are mothers," Vernon-Feagans says. "Some of them are in jail. Several are ministers."

One she remembers as "a teeny little boy crying big tears" after having done poorly on a test. "A teacher took him under his wing," she reports, "saw he had basketball talent, and got him into a private high school in New England. He made good grades and is now in college."

Reflecting on why the Abecedarian Project didn't help more children, she writes, "Although some of the teachers we encountered saw the strengths that our children brought to school, most saw only the many reasons why the children were not doing as well as others in school.

"It seemed clear to us that the teachers were the ones not ready when our children entered school."

The teachers were unprepared in what Vernon-Feagans calls "micro ways." For instance, analyzing the tutorial over A Boy, A Dog, and a Frog, she writes, "Certainly in this story task that we presented to the teacher, she knew the answers to the questions and she was trying to get the child to give the right answer. Our Mainstream children probably interpreted this task quite correctly and when they did not know the answer to the question they were silent or said they did not know. On the other hand, the Abecedarian children may have seen the task quite differently and tried to engage the adult in dialogue."

When asked why they had so often ignored irrelevant answers, rather than helping the child answer correctly, the teachers' replies "reflected a misattribution about the children's motivation. Some of our teachers said that the children's answers showed that they were not taking the story seriously or had not listened carefully to the question being asked. Yes, the teachers believed that the Abecedarian children more often lacked motivation and were less serious about the task in hand. They did not make these same attributions about the answer 'I don't know' that the Mainstream children made more often."

Yet they were not truly ignoring the child when they ignored the irrelevant answer. "There is a tradition in education," Vernon-Feagans says, "that you don't want to criticize a child. You want to emphasize the good, to shape them toward good and appropriate behavior.

"But we've almost taken it too far. Children who are not doing well in school need to know. We need to let them know in a kind way when they've given the wrong answer."

Just as they received low scores when they embellished and elaborated on stories the teachers told, instead of retelling them verbatim, the Abecedarian children here were being punished for using language in ways their own culture understood and valued. Yet by giving an irrelevant answer, rather than saying "I don't know," they lost the chance to learn the real answer to the question. Worse, they were labelled "defiant" or "lacking motivation," and so less likely to benefit from the teacher's attention. Thus, a basic misunderstanding of the uses of language caused the Abecedarian children to do more and more poorly in school.

"Teachers have to be sensitive," Vernon-Feagans says now. "They need classes and experience as undergraduate students to help them understand language differences that are cultural." Although "multi-culturalism" is a hot topic, teacher education remains generally focused on content, she notes, rather than on strategies for recognizing cultural differences and engaging children in learning.

"I've always been interested in children's language as a window into their lives," Vernon-Feagans says, reflecting on the Abecedarian experience. "The Black children were much more willing to make a mistake. For the middle class White children, saying the wrong thing was the worst thing you could do.

"The Black children just wanted to keep the conversation going."

Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Ph.D., is professor of human development and associate dean for research in the College of Health and Human Development, 201 Henderson Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-2426 ; This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Spencer Foundation, along with the Center for the Study of Child and Adolescent Development at Penn State. Children's Talk in Communities and Classrooms was published in 1996 by Blackwell Publishers.

Last Updated September 01, 1997