Shirley Brice Heath: Theories, Methodology, and Research in Linguistics
by Chase Young

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Shirley Brice Heath is a linguistic anthropologist. She is a professor at Brown and Stanford Universities. Her scholarly interests have evolved over time, but linguistic socialization is a staple in her research. Heath sees language is power. She claims there is an inequity of power among students entering school based on their language socialization (Heath, 1996; 1983).

Language socialization illustrates a way in which children are socialized. Children, or novices, acquire knowledge necessary to participate socially in a given community. The acquisition is done by constructing, resisting, or reorganizing knowledge acquired through interaction with others in the community (Garrett & Baquedano-Lopez, 2002). Additionally, children are socialized in how to use language in a community. As children learn language, their social knowledge is also constructed (Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986).

Along with Cohen (1968), Heath rejected claims that class and race alone caused difficulty in school. She believed that certain language socializations were more compatible with school environments. Being aware of the implications of conceptual styles acquired from a community is valuable information for educators dealing with individual students. Her ethnographic studies aim to demystify language socialization’s effect on school readiness. Essentially, a deeper look into the existing language development of the student better equips educators to continue their growth and teach to specific needs of the students.

Heath has conducted research for decades. Her most notable work, Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms (1996; 1983), was a long-term comparative informational analysis of the three different communities within the Piedmont area of the Carolinas.: Trackton, Roadville, and Maintown, each with “strikingly” different language socialization (Heath, 1982).  She studied children’s language development in each community during nonschool hours to better understand their particular language socialization.

Roadville is a community of white, working-class people. The people of Roadville have a long history of earning a living from the textile mill. The families in the community share a similar culture. Children are taught to respect authority, specifically teachers, work hard, and attend church. The perspective shared by Roadville residents is simple—it is the teacher’s job to educate the student. As long as the parents get the student to class daily, the rest is up to the school. Assistance is rarely given, and grade expectations are minimal (Heath, 1996; 1983).
Trackton is an African American working-class community. Trackon’s people grew up farming. More recently, however, they work in the mills. It is a small community, and reflects a basic premise that everyone is involved in child-rearing.  Trackton’s children roam knowing they have overcome their oppressed past, and rejoice in their promising present (Heath, 1996; 1983).

There is a suburban, middle-class population called Maintown. It best represents the school culture.  The school teachers are residents of Maintown. It is important to realize the teachers’ language socialization differs greatly from the students instructed (Heath, 1996; 1983). A disconnect already exists before the school bell rings. The children of Maintown, both white and African American, have similar cultures. Their culture, also, is similar to the school culture. The people of Roadville and Trackton’s cultures differ from Maintown, and from each other. How does a teacher best accommodate students with such variance in language socialization? Heath seeks the answer to this question.

The commonalities and differences of the three towns demonstrate the need to reject race’s impact on school performance. Truly, after her observations and subsequent analyses, language socialization has a far greater impact on assimilating to the school culture (Heath, 1996; 1983). 

Heath filled two roles during her research in the Piedmonts. As an ethnographer, Heath observed communication and linguistic socialization among children. She recorded details to be analyzed later. As a teacher-trainer, her second role, she used the information to help the area teachers implement the knowledge of specific language differences in classrooms (Heath, 1996; 1983). Integrating her roles of ethnographer and educator, she analyzed the language socialization’s impact on literacy and ways of displaying knowledge in a classroom setting (Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986).

Heath’s research methodologies are typically, comparative, longitudinal, qualitative, and include long-term fieldwork. She engages in information analysis to infer and compare based on her objective, and extensive, qualitative datasets. In Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms (1996; 1983), Heath used audio recordings and field notes based on objective observation to compile her data. She spent over a decade observing the people of Trackton and Roadville in the Piedmont Carolinas. According to Heath’s web site (, she is adding a longitudinal aspect to her long-term study by following up with the erstwhile children of Trackton and Roadville 35 years later.
The research is not only presented, but also interpreted for practical use. Her data from the Carolinas was used in various studies (Heath, 1982; Heath, 1989). The results of her studies have impacted education and classroom teachers, especially in socioeconomically diverse schools. Heath’s results were used to help teacher’s define their role in language-diverse classrooms (Heath & Mangiola, 1991). Student voice in classroom discourse is imperative. Although students’ primary discourse was learned it home, it was acquired through interaction and immersion. The secondary discourse required for school has to be mastered similarly (Gee, 2008). Therefore, classrooms should be language rich, and Heath goes on to recommend creative ways to improve school-based literacy learning for every student (Heath & Mangiola, 1991).

Around the time of her first publication of Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms (1996; 1983) researchers noticed that psychologists, linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, and other fields were coming together to investigate and further child development (Bruner, 1983). Shirley Brice Heath bridged the gap. Her anthropological roots spread into education. It was inevitable, as language socialization is described as “Vygotskian” because of languages central role in socialization, that linguistic anthropology would meet education (Schieffelin, 2008).

The research described builds empathy in teachers. Walking into a classroom filled with diverse students is daunting. Even worse, however, to know a student’s spirit and linguistic diversity might be crushed by unknowingly dismissing contributions as unintelligible. In actuality, student contributions are more rhythmic, alliterative, or aesthetic in nature. These contributions are often rejected because they do not match the school’s “cultural model” of “being literate”, discussion participation. Taking time to understand the prior socialization of students will instill the empathy necessary to perpetuate the child’s development in school based literacy (Heath, 1982; Heath, 1989; Heath & Mangiola, 1991; Heath, 1996; 1983).

Cultural models play an important role in analyzing observations of different social groups. A cultural model is a tacit theory that is based on previous experience, assumptions, and learned values. Cultural models change our view of the world. These tacit theories underlie how we understand a concept. For example, “school” has a different cultural model in every community. Even if the model is somewhat similar, there will be some variance (Gee, 2008).

The Roadville parents see “school” is a place that is completely responsible for educating children. The parents of Maintown, however, place themselves as an important component to a child’s education. More specifically, the cultural model for literacy is extremely different. Imagine sitting down with twenty kindergarteners for a literacy lesson all with different understandings of literacy. Not only the word is different, but its purpose, value, or applicability to an individual. Growing up with a similar cultural model for literacy as the teacher is advantageous when entering the classroom. However, the children of Trackton and Roadville were not exposed to the same language socialization, therefore lacked power in the classroom. Their ways were the incorrect ways, or so they were viewed (Heath, 1996; 1983).  Although Heath did not specifically reference cultural models in Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms (1996; 1983), her assumption that language changes our reality similarly reflects Gee’s (2008) work.

Shirley Brice Heath’s work is versatile. It aligns itself with other researchers. The research is easily cited when discussing diverse classroom settings or language acquisition. Her work spans anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and education. Her methodologies, interests, and dedication have paved the way for further research in language socialization. As a result of her dedication, she helped teachers balance the power among students in diverse classrooms.


Bruner, J. (1983). Play, thought, and language. Peabody Journal of Education, 60, 3, 60-69.

Garrett, P. B., & Baquedano-Lopez, P. (2002). LANGUAGE SOCIALIZATION: Reproduction and continuity, transformation and change. Annual Review of Anthropology, 31, 339-361.

Heath, S. B. (1982). What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school. Language in Society, 11, 49-76.

Heath, S. B. (1989). Oral and literate traditions among black americans living in poverty. American Psychologist, 44, 367-73.

Heath, S. B. (1996; 1983). Ways with words :Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Heath, S. B., & Mangiola, L. (1991). Children of promise: Literate activity in linguistically and culturally diverse classrooms. West Haven, CT: National Education Association.

Schieffelin, B. B. (2008). Speaking only your own mind: Reflections on talk, gossip and intentionality in bosavi (PNG). Anthropological Quarterly, 81, 431-441.

Schieffelin, B. B., & Ochs, E. (1986). Language socialization. Annual Review of Anthropology, 15, 163-191.

© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.