Dr Todd Risley and Betty Hart researched differences in the spoken language experienced by young children over a period of forty years or so. Dr Risley's account of his work (click on the picture above), is an excellent summary of their findings, which are very litte known inthe UK. I found them through a reference in Sir James Rose's report, cited in Ros Wilson's Big Writing, which I will review shortly. Well worth listening to. Copies are not held in either of two major university libraries which I've just checked, and this seems an attempt at academic censorship - if books are not in the library, students have no way of knowing about them, and in some cases this is not an accident. Dr Risley died in 2008.
A summary of the research in their first book, Meaningful Differences, is here.
A left-leaning progressive critique is here . It criticises Risley and Hart for their evaluative analysis of the quality of interaction, but does not address the key question of whether or not this analysis is accurate. It certainly is accurate. If the main use of speaking is controlling behaviour and getting through the business of the day, there is no room for language to operate to develop thinking and understanding. There are three UK sources of corroborative evidence. Tizard's Young Children Learning found that less educated mothers tended to take a more negative attitude to children's questions than more educated ones, the Bristol Child Development Study found that the least successful child in school had had no recorded experience of stories before starting school, and Ward and Ward, in Manchester, found that children in a council estate were being assessed as deaf because they had not learned to respond to the human voice.
The final paragraph of this critique contains two key points:
But, in our view, the language differences Hart and Risley reported are just that—differences. All children come to school with extraordinary linguistic, cultural, and intellectual resources, just not the same resources. It is the responsibility of teachers to draw on these resources in support of
school learning, including teaching the language practices valued in school. If there are crucial language experiences needed for school success, then teachers must provide them. The remedy
for disproportionate levels of failure among children living in poverty is a school curriculum that
respects their background knowledge and experience and builds on students’ linguistic, cultural
and cognitive “funds of knowledge” (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) to teach them what they
need to achieve success. As Gloria Ladson-Billings’s (1994) research reminds us, respect is
the key to successful teaching. Ultimately, this is about respect for students’ knowledge, who they
are, and where they come from.
The first is an error. International evidence shows clearly that these children are not receiving from home the intellectual element that educated parents give their children. Tizard's evidence on questions is a key point here, and more important than whether a request or instruction is given directly or indirectly. The second is true, and the foundation of the stronger elements in Reading Recovery, and of the Big Talk in Ros Wilson's work.
Finally, the first author of this critique, Professor Curt Dudley-Marling, could find food for thought in his own CV, which contains frequent references to "learning disability". Most of the people he describes as disabled are not disabled at all - their problem is that they have not been taught effectively, and putting the term disability on top of this makes the situation permanent.