Roz Stooke is a doctoral student in the J. G. Althouse Faculty of Education, University of Western Ontario, 1137 Western Road, London, ON, N6G 1G7, Canada. She is interested in young childrens literacy and social policies in support of early childhood education and care.
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The proposition&endash;-that nurturing childrens literacy is a responsibility shared by all those who educate and care for young children&endash;-is compelling. School teachers, and such other groups as nursery and day-care teachers, childrens librarians, health visitors, and community workers, all subscribe to the view that supporting young childrens literacy is a joint enterprise. Moreover, those who educate and care for young children are becoming more aware of research evidence that the content of early literacy lessons, and the social contexts in which early literacy lessons take place, differentially prepare children for the literacy lessons they encounter at school. Consequently, educators work hard to engage parents. Parents, the authors of a recently published international review of early childhood education and care suggest, are the first and primary educators of children, and despite some decline in both nuclear and extended family forms, their formative influence on young childrens . . . development remains central.
(Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2001: 117).
Parenting education has, of course, become the focus of close attention within and outside the education community. For example, shortly after the release of a report from the US National Reading Panel (2000), the American Library Association (2003) joined with the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to develop a public-library-based preschool literacy initiative with the two-fold purpose of informing parents and caretakers about the meaning and importance of emergent literacy, and training parents in ways to help their children to get ready to read. The proliferation of similar programmes across the USA and Canada suggests that informing and training parents has now become everybodys business, although many parents independently seek out information and advice on educational topics, often by consulting the parenting magazines and books available at news stands, grocery stores, bookstores, and libraries. As the following excerpt from a popular parenting book (Franck and Brownstone 1996: 500) demonstrates, the information and advice contained in parent-advice literature can offer concerned parents reassurance as well as information:
Learning to read begins when you talk with and listen to your children, especially when you read with them, and let them see you reading for your own enjoyment. In doing just those few things, you teach your children the most important lessons about reading.
Despite this emphasis on engaging parents of young children, parental involvement in schooling has been described as one of the toughest issues facing todays schools (Edwards et al. 1999: xv), and evidence suggests that when children begin formal schooling, literacy goes to school (Weinberger 1996) with them, which is to say that parents and teachers begin to believe that the most important lessons about reading usually take place at school. My own study (Stooke 1999) of the information practices of mothers with school-age children corroborates Weinbergers (1996) observation that formerly confident and involved parents report feeling bemused and in need of frequent and explicit directions from their childrens teachers once their children start school. I find this phenomenon perplexing, and yet, as a parent of school-age children and a former elementary school teacher and childrens librarian, I do not point the finger of blame either at parents or at professionals. I suspect, rather, that the processes by which people come to be seen as literacy teachers (or not) are discursive; that is to say, they are embedded in ways of talking about and doing literacy.
My purpose here is to identify, and critique, ways of talking about literacy that work to represent literacy teaching as a job for experts. I draw on Potters (1996) notion of category entitlement to analyse examples of advice for parents contained in 15 parenting books I found at a local bookstore, but I also refer to some representations of literacy teaching contained in professional literature for teachers and childrens librarians. I contend that talking about literacy in ways that depict literacy teaching as a job for experts works to position parents as the unskilled support workers of the enterprise, and potentially undermines professionals efforts to involve parents in their childrens literacy education.
Representing literacy teaching: discursive strategies
Whereas advice to parents of preschoolers conveys the message that parents are their childrens first teachers, advice to parents of school-age children often suggests to parents that You were your childs first teacher. Now step aside and let the real teachers take over. It is hard to be both mother and teacher, and your child needs her parent first (Poretta and Borden 1997: 76). By reconfiguring parents involvement in their childrens learning as passive support for school-initiated literacy activities, such advice displays a spectacular opportunism: it conveys the message that many hands used to make light work, but now, too many cooks spoil the broth.
What strategies do authors deploy in order to represent literacy teaching as a job for experts? My survey of parent advice literature suggests that authors of texts for parents, like the authors of professional texts for teachers and librarians, appear to carve up (Edwards 1997: 51) literacy teaching into separate domains of practice, and then assign to a specific professional group the exclusive right to speak with authority about one domain (McKenzie and Stooke 2001). For example, authors assign to teachers the authority to speak about a childs progress on grade-level expectations, whereas they assign to librarians the authority to recommend particular books to children. Many authors of advice texts for parents also hold professional or academic credentials in education or such related fields as childrens librarianship, child psychology, and paediatrics. In their texts for parents, the writer/professionals sometimes share with readers insider knowledge about their respective professions, but in doing so they often emphasize their own professional practices rather than the practices of other groups. More importantly, the writer/professionals represent parental and professional expertise and authority in ways that subordinate parents knowledge to that of professionals, and circumscribe parents involvement in their childrens literacy learning.
The discursive strategies used by authors of professional and parent advice texts to represent literacy as a job for experts are referred to by Potter (1996: 132) as the deployment of category entitlement. According to Potter, deploying category entitlement allows speakers and writers to claim the right to speak with authority on certain topics by virtue of their membership in a specific group. Potter notes that claiming category entitlement obviates the need for speakers or writers to explain how they know what they claim to know. For example, a persons membership in the category employed teacher obviates the need to ask the person how and what they know about literacy.
Kropps (2000) How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life offers two illustrations of category entitlement in action. The promotional blurb on the books back cover highlights Kropps status as a former classroom teacher, thus pointing out to readers the authors right to speak to parents as an expert on the topic of literacy. The foreword to the book, which was contributed by the popular Canadian childrens author, Robert Munsch (2000: vii), provides a more complex example of category entitlement at work:
Paul Kropp called me up and asked me to do a foreword to his book on reading. This sounded like the kiss of death to me; I mean, why read a book on reading when I could be really reading a good book instead of reading a book about how my kid isnt reading good books?
Note that Munsch begins by deploying category entitlement in a negative way to undermine playfully the books potential appeal. As a popular childrens author, he is well-positioned to comment on the entertainment value of any book, and his recommendation, belatedly bestowed and embedded in a disclaimer, is thus enhanced.
Three characteristics of category entitlement are particularly relevant to my argument. First, by obviating the need for speakers and writers to justify what they say, the deployment of category entitlement not only saves time for conversational partners but also eschews critique. Herein lies its discursive power, for category entitlement can serve as a mechanism by which speakers and writers inscribe and reinscribe unequal power relations. In the parent advice texts I examined, category entitlement is deployed to position professionals as experts and parents as non-experts. Second, category entitlement is never owned in an absolute sense but is always situationally contingent and temporarily bestowed. In parent advice texts, parents are depicted as their childrens first and most important teachers, but only until their children encounter real teachers whose entitlement is based on a professional credential. Finally, and predictably, the right to speak with authority on a given topic or issue depends very much on who is talking to whom, as the following examples from professional and parent advice texts demonstrate.
Assigning domains of expertise in literacy teaching
Professional texts construe teachers as professionals who make decisions about curriculum and instruction in their classrooms (Gambell 1998: ix). In parent advice literature, however, an important marker of a teachers professional status is the ability to judge student progress and achievement by using authorized or norm-referenced standards. Teachers are expected to explain in a parent-friendly way exactly where the child is academically (Babcock and Backlund 2000: 34). Teachers can give you ideas for improving your childs test scores (Clark et al. 1999: 31). Teachers are also responsible for accommodating individual differences in achievement: If your child is in the lowest reading group in his class, . . . you want to know what steps are being taken to improve his reading skills (Poretta and Borden 1997: 76).
In professional journal articles for librarians, authors highlight librarians extensive knowledge of childrens literature, their appreciation of the importance of reading aloud to children, and their ability to create child-friendly reading environments:
Librarians know about the importance of reading to children, and they know about books. They know which ones work with children of different ages. They know how to present them to children; how to read and share them; how to talk about them afterward. (Peterman and Kimmel 1990: 317)
In parent advice literature, however, libraries and their book collections rather than librarians are identified as sources of support for childrens literacy learning. Libraries are depicted as bastions of literacy and sources of protection against the potentially harmful effects of popular culture:
If [your child] knows the Blockbuster [i.e. a video rental store] aisles better than the [library] bookshelves consider a change of scenery for your next outing together. . . . The local library can be one of your best teaching tools. . . . It offers the ability to offer your child an economical diet of wonderful stories, adventures, pictures, ideas, and answers to questions, all by simply walking through the doors. (Bennett et al. 1999: 50)
How do authors of professional and parent advice texts describe parents expertise? References to parents in the professional literature for teachers and librarians support the view that parents are teachers by virtue of their privileged access to and specific interest in their own children:
Concerned, even anxious parents are powerful allies. They care about their children; they care about their success in school; they care about books and reading. They may not know it yet, but they already have all they need to insure their childrens reading success. (Peterman and Kimmel 1990: 314)
Even in the special-education literature, where accounts of highly prescriptive approaches to instruction are common, parents interest in and access to their own children are acknowledged as important reasons for entrusting the teaching of literacy to them. Crain-Thoreson and Dale (1999: 30), for example, trained parents as tutors in a storybook-reading programme. They write: In many ways parents are the ideal language facilitators for their children. They are motivated to help their children, interact with them in many settings, and spend much more time with them than a clinician could.
From a professional point of view, however, parents privileged access to their own children is a mixed blessing, and there is a strong desire on the part of some professionals to guide and control parents practices:
Because literacy learning begins in infancy, parents should be taught to read to babies as soon as they are born and to provide a continuing, stimulating language environment. . . . [T]hey should be taught to fill a home with much talk, many books, and eventually writing materials. . . . [They] should be taught to be free to help their children develop reading and writing skills. . . . [They] should be taught to model high-quality literacy behaviour. . . . There are certain activities that all parents should know. (Goldberg 1997: 43, 49)
These comments raise an important question: What are the activities that all parents should know? In the texts I examined, many of the recommended activities resemble activities associated with Euro-American, middle-class parenting, but others more closely resemble activities routinely carried out in institutions such as schools and public libraries. For example, Clark et al. (1999: 23) exhort parents to adopt peculiarly school-like organizational strategies: To stay organized at home, buy a different folder for each child. . . . Purchase or make a family calendar.
In contrast to advice texts that cast parenting practices in the shape of professional practices, one genre of parent advice texts resembles consumer reports (Poretta and Borden 1997: 77, Goldstein and Mather 1998: 171). The authors who write in this genre adopt a collegial tone. They appear to empower parents by positioning them in opposition to school professionals, some by devaluing school literacy practices, others by aiming to dispel the notion that teachers possess specialized expertise. Murray (1999: 18), for example, writes: Although . . . teaching methods are often shrouded in jargon, they are all basically simple and straightforward, and once you have grasped the essentials you will be able to make use of them at home. Other authors encourage parents to take a proactive stance toward their childrens schooling. For example, Bennett et al. (1999: 169&endash;170) suggest that If you want to gamble with your childs academic career . . . let his school alone shoulder the teaching of English. . . . Maybe hell learn to read and write well. More likely, he wont. Still others work to discredit public education and at the same time create markets for their own educational products.
If you are serious about teaching your child at home, you will need to work with the exercises in chapter 9 and/or get one of the programs or sets of materials described in the Appendix to that chapter. Reading Reflex is the only complete parent program that teaches all elements of reading correctly. Also, purchase a good audiotape of English phonemes. (McGuinness 1997: 332)
Not coincidentally, the Reading Reflex programme is written by McGuinness, but the level of detail McGuinness provides in her instructions is daunting enough to send the most diligent parent running to the local tutoring service. Advice texts of the consumer-report variety bring into view a paradoxical form of parent involvement that amounts to contracting out. They appear to empower parents but in practice empower only those parents whose access to financial resources allows them to buy professional services or products.
Protecting claims: patrolling the boundaries
In written texts as well as in face-to-face conversations, deploying category entitlement requires the use of offensive and defensive communicative strategies. Anyone who wants to claim exclusive rights to a territory needs to patrol its boundaries. The following passage, taken from a parent advice text on the topic of reading, clearly places parents and librarians as insiders and teachers as outsiders:
Driven by curriculum guidelines and new state mandates, . . . teachers dont see any way of nurturing a love and habit of reading in their schools. . . . And so, for now, keeping kids reading is still up to parents and the very brave individual teachers who are willing to push back all of the increasing curriculum mandates. Keeping kids reading is also up to librarians, who, in many of the places where I traveled, seemed to be the only professional adults even interested in nurturing a love of reading. Hence I have gained an incredible respect for librarians. (Leonhardt 1996: 1&endash;2)
In other words, Leonhardt (1996) highlights teachers responsibilities for the curriculum in order to suggest that teachers are not well placed to nurture a love of reading. Her strategy echoes Munschs (2000) playful deployment of category entitlement, except that Leonhardt is not playing. Her use of category entitlement is a reminder that groups who ostensibly share the same goals often move to protect their respective professional territories. Wenger (1998: 252) contends that the development of particular domains of expertise and the creation of boundaries between domains of expertise result largely from the important learning that arises out of mutual engagement in a specific enterprise. Classroom teaching, parenting, and library work are all such enterprises, and sustained mutual engagement in any one of them creates significant differences between insiders and outsiders. Those differences exacerbate, and are exacerbated by, pre-existing power inequities among groups, with the result that collaborating groups are often distracted from mutually agreed-upon goals by territorial conflicts. How, then, should the diverse groups who support childrens literacy learning avoid undermining each other and undermining what should be a joint enterprise? Wenger (1998: 256) maintains that homogenization is not the answer. Agreeing upon one set of best practices may appear to be efficient, but, according to Wenger, the strategy is not as productive as common sense might suggest: Who wants blending, anyway? And for what purpose? Blending, somehow always ends up privileging the perspective of the blade. Wenger recommends that members of different professional communities should manage their boundaries not as political borders, but as learning assets: boundaries between domains of expertise can become sites where the negotiation of new meaning can be encouraged; they should be used to shape learning and to give rise to new communities of practice rather than to express power relations among existing ones.
Unfortunately, any effort to treat borders as learning assets for the support of childrens literacy learning must overcome or accommodate a longstanding and largely unrequited desire on the part of those who educate and care for young children to enhance their professional status. It is understandable that members of an undervalued profession should seek to improve their status, but professionalism is undoubtedly a double-edged sword (Cannella 1997: 137). Attempts to associate librarianship with high-status, male-dominated professions such as law have only succeeded in devaluing the work of childrens librarians within the profession of librarianship (Harris 1992: 1). Similar attempts by teachers of young children to assert their status within the teaching profession have resulted only in the increased domination of early childhood education by a patriarchal structure that privileges scientific judgement and hierarchical relationships (Cannella 1997: 138). Potentially most damaging to the enterprise of supporting childrens literacy learning, however, is the positioning of parents as unskilled workers whose services can be dispensed with on a whim. Assigning to parents the most time-consuming and menial tasks associated with childrens literacy learning is unlikely to promote their sustained engagement in the enterprise. If parents are told often enough that many hands make light work but too many cooks spoil the broth, educators should not be surprised if good help is hard to find.
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