Social Impact on Reading

This semester, students in READ 6308 explored various theories of how people learn and learn to read. As part of this assignment, they wrote a post for our blog. 

By Leal and Munoz

Does socioeconomic class determine our reading proficiency?  According to the Sociolinguistic Theory developed by Besil Bernstein in 1971, reading development and acquisition is affected by our society and the dialect we speak. 

Bernstein found that children from working class families tend to have difficulty with reading.  This is because working parents tend to not read to their children, which hinders their vocabulary development.  They also tend to have more of an oral tradition which does not translate well into the classroom.  Students from the upper and middle classes tend to have parents who read to them and so they are more familiar with written text.  They are also inclined to pick up much more vocabulary than children from working class families. 

Bernstein believed that it was the teacher’s job to provide the language needed to acquire the necessary reading skills. Furthermore, he theorized that working class families speak to each other in restricted codes, which is the type of language people use within their close circle of family and friends.  This code is filled with information that is common knowledge only to the participants in that selected group; it is identified as an informal type of communication.  Upper and middle class families not only use restricted codes, but also elaborated codes.  Elaborated codes are much more detailed and formal.  It is the type of language one would use to explain something that is not familiar to all the parties involved.  No prior knowledge is necessary to understand or contribute in this group of conversation.

Mikheil Bakhtin studied the relationships between students and language interactions in the classrooms.  He argued that language evolves dynamically rather than being static.  It affects and is affected by the society which produces and uses the language, thus the creation of Ebonics by African Americans, and Spanglish by Hispanics.  Children using these dialects may have a lower reading proficiency because of the use of these unconventional forms of English which are not found in a more formal setting, such as a classroom.

More recently, James Paul Gee has introduced the idea of Discourses which are socially accepted ways of using language.  He believes that it integrates language along with reading and writing and the values and feelings of the society using them.  Recently he has been promoting the use of videogames and gaming sites to increase literacy development.

Sociolinguistics takes into account the language that we speak is affected by our culture to determine the way we develop as speakers and readers.  It is influenced by our social groups, peers, geographic location, and affects the vocabulary development.  This theory suggests individuals using limited vocabularies tend to be poor readers.  It does not take into account intelligence or student’s motivation to succeed.