Anne Haas Dyson
Michigan State University
I'm sorry I've been slow to respond to your request for information about research that has an impact. From where I sit, it's hard right now to figure out how exactly to position oneself in relationship to these questions about impact. For example, on the one hand, I can think of numerous projects that have had an impact in terms of stimulating a rethinking of concepts and practice among researchers, teacher educators, and teachers involved in varied avenues for inquiry and learning. On the other hand, if I think about the current state of guidelines for language and literacy education among young children stimulated by the political climate, then it seems as if the last 40 years of language-based research has been thrown out the window. So, I find myself at a loss for words. I'll mention a project that I think had an impact on the academy and had a complex impact on practice, another that didn't have such an impact on the academy but did on practice, and then I'll comment on how quickly research is thrown out the window in times when doing "something" about children not well served by our schools seems to be deemed urgent. Finally, I'll see what I think about all this.
So...on the academy. One clear example is Heath's study Ways with Words. There already had been important papers written on bringing the ethnography of communication to bear on written language and to figuring out the ways in which literacy was a cultural tool differently interwoven into the communicative repertoire of American communities. But Heath did a theoretically informed study that problematized basic assumptions (about oral/written relationships, about literacy itself) AND showed how they played themselves out in educational settings AND, moreover, offered some idea of what a re-imagined language and literacy curriculum might look like. The curriculum changes did not survive her leaving her project site...and that hints at the troubles of having a lasting impact on practice, but there is no doubt that, in academia and in teacher education classes, the work had an enormous impact. Moreover, as theory evolved, and as research projects developed and moved beyond this study, it still was echoing Ways with Words.
So...now one on practice. One clear example here is Graves' case study work from the 80s which was supposed to be, but wasn't really, on children's writing development in New Hampshire communities. The work had no theoretical base--it tried to use Piaget and a stage theory for children's writing through the elementary grades, even as Heath and others were changing the definition of literacy itself and making problematic any such stage theory (as though writing was a singular skill or process, not a repertoire of practices). Moreover, it had nothing to say about the differences in linguistic and discursive resources children were bringing to school. STILL, as Marcia Farr discussed at the time, it became, not really a study of children, but an effort to change classroom practice so that children wrote and conceptions of journalism and college English were brought to the elementary classroom. And most certainly, the idea that children should be writing everyday and that a "workshop" approach was useful took off and is now a permanent part of elementary school discourse. However, people did not study how these teaching practices might evolve in different situations, how children might differentially respond, what the underlying definitions were of literacy and of development. Perhaps because of this, the work had limited life in the academy. One can read literacy theory books now and see no mention at all of the work, even as its place in the classroom continues. Moreover, because the work was not theoretically nuanced or examined in different situations, there was a backlash, first led by Delpit--who didn't write a research study herself but just spoke from experience about the assumptions about children and their resources taken for granted by the "workshop" approach.
Finally, I've been thinking of all the work from the 70s especially on language variation, including the beautiful study done by Ann Piestrup, then at Berkeley, about Black dialect and learning to read. I've been thinking too about the work beginning in the 60s at Harvard, about how children learn language and the excitement everybody felt then at the enormous intellectual capacities evident in how children figured out language patterns, and how it was not a matter of behaviorism. I think these ideas--of how any one language is stratified into a variety of vernaculars, linked to culture and power, of how language itself is learned by children in the course of everyday life and becomes linked to patterns of living--are fundamental to just about everything. And yet, when I left California, the state guidelines told teachers that children learned language through repetition, beginning with short statements. Here in Michigan, the guidelines visited especially on Reading First schools, show limited understanding of how language is learned nor of the diverse resources of our children. These, of course, are taken-for-granted in most academic work on language and literacy (but not all). But we have guidelines that say that kindergarteners to meet basic objectives should, for example, not regularize irregular verbs (I'd like to meet such a kindergartner), should have noun verb agreement (with no professional nod to the fact that "agreement" will vary for children from different backgrounds), etc. There's no notion of helping kids become flexible language users, even as the theoretical literature is leaping into discussions of global Englishes and multiplying hybrid textual forms, calling for enormous social, political, rhetorical, and communicative flexibility. The children most in need of a solid education are getting an education reduced to simplistic ideas that have ruled in the schools forever and never had any discernible impact (although perhaps they help children fill in the right bubble on the grammar portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills).
So I think, to have an impact that we can all be happy with, research has to be theoretically upfront. It's not OK not to define basic concepts--like what's literacy, what's learning, what's the conception of what it means to teach. It has to be contextualized, given the diversity of our population. It's hard to untangle what's "universal" and what's "particular" without comparative research. And it has to provide some bridges to practice, some ways in which it links to the kind of decision-making teachers make in the moment-to-moment encounters of their work.
Anyway, that’s what I think right now.