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Title:The Task Variable in Children's Language Use: Cultural and Situational Differences
Author(s):Guthrie, Larry Frank
Department / Program:Education
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Education, Bilingual and Multicultural
Abstract:A mismatch between the language used at home and that required for success in school is often cited as a possible explanation for the widespread educational failure of lower-class minority children. The belief is that the way language is used in the home systematically places minority children at a disadvantage at school. This study represents an attempt to test this hypothesis.
The aims of the study then were, first, to begin to devise a way to compare language use rather than form across different contexts. Second, the study sought answers to questions concerning situational differences in children's use of language. Comparisons were based on the notion of task as defined in regard to social interaction. It was argued that what actors understand their task to be when engaged in conversation is reflected in their discourse, and a method for specifying a speaker's task in a given situation was developed.
Natural language of children of different ethnic and social-class groups constituted the data for the study. Subjects were 20 preschool children: five middle-class white, five middle-class black, five lower-class white, and five lower-class black. All children were 4 to 5 years old and attending preschool in New York City. Subjects and their interactants were recorded in two comparable situations, one at home and one at school. These were "dinner" and "directed activity," respectively. Time of recording in each was approximately 20 minutes.
Language samples were collected through the use of stereo tape recorders and wireless microphones worn by both the target child and a field worker. Written transcripts were made of the recordings and then coded using the system of conversational acts. Conversational acts (C-acts) represent a taxonomy of speech act types which code utterances according to the structure of the utterance, its illocutionary properties, and its general semantic content. Frequencies and proportions of these acts within a stretch of discourse served as an index to the tasks of speakers in that situation. Labels for tasks were developed in the course of the analysis.
Analyses were both quantitative and qualitative. First, frequencies and proportions of C-acts were compared across home and school data in terms of ethnic/social-class groups and speakers. Then, based on the frequencies, representative samples of discourse were subjected to a more interpretive analysis.
It was found that lower-class black mothers produced a much smaller proportion of C-acts in their conversations with children than did the other mothers. Teachers and mothers of this group also used a much higher proportion of control acts.
The major differences lay between the tasks of lower-class black mothers and teachers and those of the caretakers of the other groups. It was found that middle-class black and lower-class white teachers and children were engaged in "examination" tasks. The task of the middle-class white group was, in general, one of "direction" for the adults and "following directions" for children. The lower-class black teachers and mothers, however, both seemed to see their task as one of "control."
Results did not support the mismatch hypothesis as originally conceived, however. While language use of the lower-class black group was very different from that of the others, the tasks of the mothers and teachers of that group were quite similar. This finding was interpreted in terms of a "collaboration" version of the mismatch hypothesis. The thrust of this argument was that lower-class black children are trained both at home and at school to use language in ways that ensure their eventual failure in school and the larger society. How this comes about was discussed.
Issue Date:1981
Description:214 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1981.
Other Identifier(s):(UMI)AAI8203475
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-12-12
Date Deposited:1981

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