Becoming Literate in the City: The Baltimore Early Childhood Project

Becoming Literate in the City: The Baltimore Early Childhood Project

by Robert Serpell, Linda Baker, Susan Sonnenschein

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This book reports the results of a five-year longitudinal study of children's early literacy development. The children attended pre-kindergarten in Baltimore public schools at the study's inception and completed third grade at its end. Tracing these children's developing literacy competencies over the years, the study makes an important contribution to understanding


This book reports the results of a five-year longitudinal study of children's early literacy development. The children attended pre-kindergarten in Baltimore public schools at the study's inception and completed third grade at its end. Tracing these children's developing literacy competencies over the years, the study makes an important contribution to understanding how best to facilitate literacy attainment for children of diverse backgrounds.

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'The book is accessible to anyone with an interest in literacy development; the authors avoid complicated terminology and use quotes from participating families to illustrate some of the more complex ideas. … for many readers the book provides an informative consideration of many factors related to literacy development, and is an equally good place to start for many others.' Psychologist

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Cambridge University Press
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Becoming Literate in the City
Cambridge University Press
0521772028 - Becoming Literate in the City - The Baltimore Early Childhood Project - by Robert Serpell, Linda Baker and Susan Sonnenschein


Early Appropriation of Literacy in Sociocultural Context

Becoming literate involves the gradual assumption of ownership of a system of meanings that enables people to communicate through written texts. Human societies have generated a number of such systems over the course of history. These include not only languages and scripts, such as those in which the present text is printed, but also a wide range of structured activities, such as reading for entertainment, studying at a university, publishing a newspaper, sending E-mail, and so on. The social functions of these various activities collectively define the cultural practice of literacy, and the appropriation of the system of meanings informing that practice is a prerequisite for full membership in a literate society.

The importance that industrialized societies place on children becoming literate is reflected in the hours that children are expected to spend in school. Becoming literate is regarded as an essential part of growing up. Nevertheless, many children in literate societies such as the United States struggle to learn to read, and a sizable percentage fail to master all but the most basic skills (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). The demographic profile of the group of children who fail to become literate includes an over-representation of children growing up in low-income families and children of African or Hispanic heritage.

Adults in industrialized societies who do not achieve individual literacy are seriously marginalized in many ways. However, this was not always the case in America, nor is it true of a number of contemporary communities around the world. Human societies have often organized themselves without the practice of literacy. This fact, sometimes overlooked in the modern, industrialized world, has implications for understanding both the cultural practice of literacy and the social and psychological processes through which individuals are inducted into it. It means, for instance, that a person, whether child or adult, may be intelligent without being literate. It also means that the processes of literacy learning and socialization are not part of humankind's biological heritage, but a product of cultural, social, and historical factors.

The longitudinal study of early literacy socialization that we present in this book took place in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, on the eastern seaboard of the United States. We followed the lives of a cohort of children enrolled in the city's public schools for the 5 years from 1992 to 1997, from the age of 4 when they entered prekindergarten through the end of third grade at the age of 9. When we started our study, the Baltimore City Public School System, like school systems in other large urban areas, was struggling with limited success to provide its students with a good education. For example, 63% of students who should have graduated with the class of 1994 reportedly failed or dropped out prior to graduation (Baltimore City Public Schools System, 1999, section 8.2).

The children in our study came from low- and middle-income families of European American and African American heritage. Much of our focus was on the home environments in which these children were raised. We examined the intimate culture of each child's home, defined by a confluence of parental beliefs, recurrent activities, and interactive processes. We explored the relation between that intimate culture and the child's literacy development during the 5 years of our study. Because we did not want to place parents with low levels of individual literacy on the defensive, we deliberately cast a wide net and gave our study a general name, the Early Childhood Project. Our account of the children's literacy development also includes an analysis of the important cultural institution of school, one of whose explicit functions is to cultivate individual literacy.

The concept of literacy has three complementary facets. It is a dimension of personal development, an educational goal of the school curriculum, and a cultural resource of contemporary American society. We discuss the relations among these three facets, portraying education as a developmental opportunity, schooling as a social institution, and socialization and teaching as cultural practices. In the life of a child growing up in the city of Baltimore, becoming literate involves acquiring cognitive skills, participating in the social activities of both the family and the institution of school, and appropriating a set of cultural resources that are widely used across many settings.

The theoretical framework of the Early Childhood Project was designed to integrate several strands of theory that emerged in the early 1990s from somewhat separate intellectual traditions: (1) a systems view of the context of human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1989); (2) the eco-cultural niche of child development (Gallimore, Weisner, Kaufman, & Berheimer, 1989; Super & Harkness, 1986); (3) cultural beliefs regarding the nature of caregiver responsibility and effectiveness (Goodnow & Collins, 1990; Miller, 1988; Sigel, 1986); (4) literacy as a cultural practice requiring skills (Heath, 1983; Scribner & Cole, 1981; Street, 1984); (5) participatory appropriation as an account of children's cognitive socialization (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 1990; Serpell, 1993a, 1993b; Vygotsky, 1978); and (6) emergent literacy (Sulzby & Teale, 1991). We discuss each tradition in the sections that follow. Next, we turn to an analysis of the cultural institution of school and how, over the course of history, it has assumed such a critical function in the promotion of individual literacy. We then propose an integrative synthesis of these various strands of theory in terms of children's developmental journeys at the interface between the cultures of home and school. The chapter ends with an overview of the plan of the book.


The early theoretical notion that context served simply as external stimulation has given way to the more complex perspective of a system of social activity, informed by a system of cultural meanings (Serpell, 1993b, 1999). This theoretical shift has methodological implications. Such discussion acknowledges the common humanity of researchers, parents, and teachers and their responsibility to co-construct or negotiate a shared understanding of possibilities for the enhancement of children's developmental opportunities (Serpell, 1994).

Systems-oriented views of human development highlight the interdependency of human actors and focus on dyads and groups as self-sustaining units over and above what each individual brings to social interaction (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Sameroff, 1983). Development, according to a systems perspective, consists of changes in the way that a child participates in social activities. An important dimension of that change is from a peripheral role to a more central one (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The developmentally more advanced person's participation earns him or her greater legitimacy, and he becomes more fully integrated into the social system that hosts the activity. For example, the less developmentally advanced child might quietly listen to his mother read a story, whereas the more advanced child might interject comments on elements of the story. As the child comes to participate more actively in reading interactions, he increasingly becomes acknowledged as a member of the community of literate practice, one whose opinions about the storybook count, because he has shown that an understanding of the medium in ways that are intelligible to other members of the literate culture. In later phases of development, the child will graduate to the status of a full-fledged reader, who can extract meaning from print without assistance and can participate more equally in discussions of the content of the text with other members of the literate community.

Another theme of the systems view is that social behavior is embedded in a set of relationships that are interdependent. For example, included within Bronfenbrenner's (1979) ecological systems theory are microsystems, such as the child's family or school class; the mesosystem, representing interactions among different microsystems; and the macrosystem, representing societal norms and cultural values or mores. The behavior of an adult sharing a storybook with a child is informed not only by the immediate context, the structure of the text, and the child's reading skills, but also by her enduring relationship with the child as parent, school teacher, or family friend. That dyadic relationship in turn is informed by a set of enveloping constraints, such as the family of which they are members, the neighborhood in which they reside, and the society of which the neighborhood is a constituent part. The dyadic relationship between the child and his school teacher is similarly informed by a set of enveloping, nested systems.

Thus, human development is deeply embedded within a system of social activities and cultural meanings. The development of a child between the ages of 4 and 9 involves growing complexity as a person, increasing competence in many different domains, and progressive incorporation into a particular society and its culture. The process of becoming literate involves not only growth of individual competence, but also, by the same token, induction into new forms of participation in society and a new range of understandings of the culture. From this induction flows a growing authority to interpret actions and events within the society's system of cultural meanings.

For instance, as a child becomes more literate, she is not only able to decode the words printed on a greeting card and to sign her name on it, but she also comes to understand what it means to send such a card to a friend to invite him to a birthday party or to console him when he falls sick. This understanding enables the child to express her feelings about the occasion through a purposeful choice among various cards with different inscriptions on display in the store. A parent or teacher who acknowledges this child's emerging competence to use the resources of literacy for authentic communication will respect her choices as legitimate. In this way, literate adults welcome the child into the community of literate practices.

At the outermost, macrosystemic level of American society, the pervasive significance of literacy for the American way of life is represented in many ways. The nation's written constitution, laws, and regulations are a recurrent frame of reference in civic affairs. Governmental and commercial activities alike are administered through bureaucratic organizations that rely heavily on written documentation. Citizens are expected to articulate their relations with those organizations in writing, often by completing forms that require entry of information in specified spaces. In the nation's most prominent religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), religious texts serve to define the principles of moral conduct and are sometimes cited in public gatherings to buttress moral arguments. The power and prestige attached to science and technology are closely tied to the information systems in which they are documented, with heavy emphasis on the authority of publication in print. Despite the ascendancy of radio and television, the print media retain an enduring preeminence for the dissemination of political and economic news. Thus, whether in commerce, economics, law, politics, religion, science, or technology, that which is written is often definitive in contemporary America. The importance of literacy in the world into which American children of the 1990s will grow was acknowledged in various ways by each of the families we studied in the Baltimore Early Childhood Project.

Formal education is conceptualized at the level of the American macrosystem, as in most other contemporary societies, as a means of transmitting the accumulated wisdom of the culture to the next generation and as a strategic societal mechanism for the preparation of a workforce to participate productively in the national economy. The individual process of becoming literate is generally construed in American culture as the foundation of formal education. Indeed, the terms educated and literate have become virtually synonymous in contemporary usage as descriptors for an adult person. Thus, becoming literate is imbued with social significance because it represents the beginning of a journey along a pathway toward effective incorporation into the larger social system. The process is also imbued with cultural significance because it provides a major form of access to the system of meanings that informs social activities. Ideally, through participating in the cultural practices of literacy, the developing child gradually appropriates a distinctive system of meanings (D'Andrade, 1984), not only coming to understand how those meanings inform the practices of literacy, but also eventually deploying the system as an interpretive resource to explain to herself and others why one course of action is more appropriate than another.

Embedded within the macrosystem, and responsible for the concrete instantiation of its principles, are various institutions, some of which are specialized for the maintenance, transmission, and cultivation of literacy, such as schools and libraries. Opportunities for the developmental appropriation of literacy also arise in other contexts of life in an American city. The demand for individual literacy is a feature of everyday transactions in stores, clinics, and family homes. Although these contexts are less explicitly specialized than schools for the structural support of literacy development, their implicit orientation may also be a powerful influence on how children approach the demands of that developmental task.


The concept of the developmental niche focuses on the structure of the context within which a child is raised. Super and Harkness (1986, 1997) advanced the concept as a way of articulating "the interface between child and culture" and identified three components of the niche: (1) "the physical and social settings in which the child lives," (2) "customs of child care and child rearing" (which we refer to as cultural practices), and (3) "the psychology of the caretakers" (which we refer to as ethnotheories of caregiving).

Gallimore et al. (1989) described the notion of activity settings as another means of conceptualizing the cultural context of children's development. A cultural practice such as literacy is made up of recurrent activities, including shared storybook reading, making a shopping list, or searching a newspaper for advertisements of commercial products. Each activity is culturally defined in terms of its participants; the nature, timing, organization, and location of the tasks; and the meaning the tasks have for the participants (see also Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). Technological artifacts, such as paper and pencils, books, or computers, also often serve as defining features of a cultural activity.

FIGURE 1.1. The appropriation of cultural practices through participation in activities with guidance by experts in light of their ethnotheories.

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Figure 1.1 illustrates in schematic form the relations among the cultural practice of literacy, the various activities that instantiate that practice, and the process of guided participation through which a parent facilitates the child's appropriation of culture. Every cultural practice provides a guiding framework of rules that the novice must assimilate. In the case of the literate activity of shared storybook reading, key constructs include the story and its elements, such as the protagonists, the setting and the plot, the text and pictures in the book, the pages, and the cover. Key rules include how to hold the book so the pictures are the right way up, how to turn the pages one at a time, and how to take turns reading or commenting on the book (Ninio & Bruner, 1978). Literate adults know these constructs and rules and share an implicit theory of how they fit together. As these adults follow the rules, they demonstrate a script for the participating child to follow; as the child participates in the activity, he gradually appropriates the rules, using them as a framework for interpreting the unique contents of different stories in various books.

Once a practice is acknowledged by a community as an identifiable element of its cultural repertoire, it acquires certain properties that facilitate communication. Parents and teachers familiar with shared storybook reading as a "packaged" cultural routine can draw on it as part of their stock of higher-order categories for exchanging views and experiences (e.g., "You should read more often to Johnny," "Try including some more advanced books in your bedtime story sessions," "Have you thought of getting his father to read him stories sometimes?"; Serpell, 2001).

Children's Everyday Experiences Within the Niche as Facilitators of Literacy Development

Researchers have long been interested in the effects of the home environment on literacy development. Early research documented relations between social address variables, such as socioeconomic status or parent education level, and children's literacy, but did not explicate the source of such relations. A second wave of research, recognizing the limitations of status variables as indices of the environment, focused more on characteristics of the environment itself, such as availability of print materials in the home and frequency of reading. More recent still is direct observation of the literate activities within the home. Rather than relying on quantifications of material resources or on parental reports of literacy-related behaviors, researchers have begun to document the variety and scope of literacy events within the home through detailed ethnographic descriptions and microanalysis of parent-child interactions during such events. This changing emphasis is leading to a better understanding of the role of the family in literacy development and how this role varies across different sociocultural communities. The shift of attention from status variables, such as parental occupation, to process variables, such as the nature of shared reading activities, also provides a clearer indication of how intervention should be designed to induce change.

When the Early Childhood Project was conceived, researchers had identified a number of print-related home experiences associated with positive literacy outcomes, such as frequent reading with children and exposure to a wide range of print materials (e.g., Guthrie & Greaney, 1991; Morrow, 1988; Scott-Jones, 1991; Sulzby & Teale, 1991). A growing number of researchers were also beginning to document that other sorts of opportunities within the niche could be helpful, such as parent-child conversation and oral storytelling (e.g., Heath, 1983; Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman, & Hemphill, 1991). The Early Childhood Project sought to extend our understanding of the literacy-promoting resources available at home, even to those children whose families lacked the financial means to purchase a wide array of cultural artifacts.

Demonstrations that certain home experiences correlate with literacy development are informative, but they leave unanswered important questions about the nature of the experiences in which children are immersed during the course of their daily lives. Qualitative research methods are better suited to addressing such questions, and indeed several ethnographic studies completed in the 1980s revealed the variety and scope of the literacy activities in homes of families from diverse sociocultural backgrounds (e.g., Anderson & Stokes, 1984; Heath, 1983; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988; Teale, 1986). However, none of these studies examined in detail many of the psychological variables that are critical to the appropriation of literacy, including the beliefs and values of responsible adults in the child's environment and the processes of adult-child interaction during experiences affording opportunities for literacy learning. Moreover, they neglected the motivational and affective dimensions of shared reading and learning to read. Our study sought to overcome these limitations with the design of a detailed inventory of home resources and activities and a series of in-depth interviews probing parental ethnotheories, as well as analysis of directly observed representative interactions in the setting of children's homes. We describe our various methodological tools in Chapter 2.


The study of cultural beliefs or ethnotheories has its roots in anthropology, and the literature is rich with hypotheses about how culture informs this aspect of the developmental niche. A limitation of anthropological research, however, is a failure "to make clear exactly what individual natives really believe, since these studies focus primarily on collective representations of various kinds, such as myth and ritual" (D'Andrade, 1990, p. 108; see also Jahoda, 1982). Within psychology, in contrast, research conducted prior to the 1990s on parental beliefs was often guided by little or no theory, giving rise to isolated investigations of unrelated beliefs rather than more programmatic research (Miller, 1988). As a consequence, the origins of the beliefs and the processes controlling the relationship between beliefs and behavior remained poorly understood.

In designing the Early Childhood Project, we were sensitive to such concerns. We drew on the suggestions of Miller (1988), who called for future research in this area to pay special attention to studying parents' actual beliefs, as opposed to the beliefs that psychologists think they should have, to studying beliefs comparatively, to conducting longitudinal studies of how beliefs develop and change, and to conducting more cultural comparisons but "measuring differences in experience directly rather than inferring differences from group membership" (p. 281). We also drew on Goodnow and Collins (1990), who stressed the need for further research on the processes involved in the change of an individual parent's ideas over time. They noted the value of focusing such research on major developmental transitions, where "the changes in children are highly visible, and the implications of the change are likely to be significant to both parents and children and to the relationship between them" (p. 97). One such transition is marked by the entry of children into formal schooling. In the Early Childhood Project, we documented parents' changing ideas as their children made the transition from prekindergarten to elementary school.

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Robert Serpell is Professor of Psychology at the University of Zambia. In addition to many scholarly journal articles and chapters, he has published several books including Culture's Influence on Behaviour (1976), Mobilizing Local Resources in Africa for Persons with Learning Difficulties or Mental Handicap (1984) and The Significance of Schooling: Life-Journeys in an African Society (1993). His main research interests are cultural aspects of human development, intelligence, multilingualism, literacy, assessment and intervention services for children with disabilities and their families, and educational curriculum development. He is an elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, a Member of the International Executive Committee of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development (ISSBD), and a Member of the Editorial Board for the APA journal, International Perspectives in Psychology.

Linda Baker is Professor of Psychology and Director of the doctoral program in Applied Developmental Psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She received her Ph.D. from Rutgers University in cognitive psychology in 1977. Her research interests include early literacy development, motivation for reading, parental influences on cognitive development

Susan Sonnenschein is an associate professor in the Applied Developmental Psychology program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In addition to her doctorate in developmental psychology, she received a master's degree in education psychology and is certified as a school psychologist.

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