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Review of  A Critical Discourse Analysis of Family Literacy Practices

Reviewer: Elaine B. Richardson
Book Title: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Family Literacy Practices
Book Author: Rebecca Rogers
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Ling & Literature
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 15.2200

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Date: Tue, 27 Jul 2004 12:24:13 -0400 (EDT)
From: Elaine Richardson
Subject: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Family Literacy

AUTHOR: Rogers, Rebecca
TITLE: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Family Literacy Practices
SUBTITLE: Power In and Out of Print
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2003

Elaine Richardson, Pennsylvania State University

Rogers' text is an ethnographic investigation of the
literacy practices of one working class African American
family. The book, particularly, highlights the literacy
practices of the mother and daughter. Through a critical
discourse analysis approach, the author demonstrates how
one working class family internalizes dominant literacy
ideologies even when these ideologies are not in their
best interest and do not yield them social rewards for
their compliance. It will be of interest to educators,
literacy theorists, sociolinguists, discourse analysts,
applied linguists, social cultural theorists, and those
with an interest in educational and social policy. The book
consists of eight chapters, a bibliography, appendixes, and
an index.

In the introductory chapter (chapter one), Rogers
introduces the participants in her study, the Treader
family. Here she explains how, through the course of the
mother's participation in adult basic education classes, she
became the mother's tutor and subsequently tutored the
preadolescent daughter, as well as a group of youngsters
from the Treaders' neighborhood. This frequent and
sustained contact over 2 years provided Rogers with
opportunities for close participant observation of the
interaction between personal and public literacies and
discourses, and intergenerational literacy practices.
Rogers also lays out her theoretical orientation here. Her
work is informed by literacy studies scholarship (i.e.
Heath, 1983; Dorsey-Gaines, 1988; Delpit, 1996; Barton,
Hamilton, & Ivanic, 2000), theories of discourse (i.e. Gee,
1991 & 1996; Chouliaraki & Fairclough, 1999), social
reproduction theory (Althusser, 1971; Foucault, 1970;
Bourdieu, 1991), and theories of cultural models, members'
resources, and subjectivities (i.e. Fairclough 1992;
Davies, 1993; Gee, 1999). She draws out of literacy
theories the cultural and discursive mismatch hypothesis
that is so often called upon to explain underachievement of
working class students. Rogers connects this hypothesis to
theories of discourse and social reproduction theory.
Following Althusser, Rogers ''locates schools at the center
of a critique of the reproduction of capitalist society.''
(5) Later in the text, she describes and analyzes a
meeting that shows how school officials effectively label
and place June Treader's daughter, Vicky, into special
education. The meeting also functions to make June consent
to her place in the social hierarchy. As Rogers states in
this chapter, ''One promise of this book ... is an illustration
of the ways in which people learn to see themselves through
the eyes of an institution.'' (4) Rogers' use of Critical
Discourse Analysis (CDA) illuminates the micro and macro
linguistic aspects of language in use as it relates to
social context and the language users' subject position.

Chapter two describes the location of the research--the
home, the neighborhood, as well as the city. This chapter
also gives the rationale and procedures for the
ethnographic method used in the study. Here, Rogers also
explains the constructs that she uses to inform her
analysis -- literacy events/practices; discourse/Discourse;
and orders of discourse. Rogers is careful to point out
that she is a reflective practitioner, meaning that she is
implicated as a White woman studying oppressed people as
well as herself throughout the study.

In chapter three Rogers describes June and her experiences
in the adult basic classroom, June's ideas on what reading
and literacy are and how they are evaluated. An important
refrain in this text that comes through in this chapter is
that June measured her literacy the way that the schools
did, through tests based on biased constructs of intellect.
Rogers will identify this as an intergenerational
stronghold. Against this backdrop, Rogers shows how June
wrote a community petition and took action to have signs
posted for pedestrian safety in her community. Rogers also
shows how June is able to negotiate documents concerning
her child's schooling and healthcare. Whereas some research
on working class families finds parents uninvolved in their
children's education, this work shows that the mother of
this family was deeply involved. In this chapter, Rogers
reveals that June's daughter, Vicky, is recommended for
special education, an evaluation that June detests.

In chapter four ''Family Literacy as Apprenticeship,'' Rogers
strives to demonstrate that ''intergenerational literacy
learning is a delicate balance of textual encounters,
institutional arrangements, and subjectivities.'' (65) In
this chapter, Rogers discusses her relationship with Vicky
and the reading club that developed with other children
from the neighborhood. Rogers' work with Vicky shows her
to be a capable reader and student. Vicky and the other
African American children in the reading group preferred
historical biographies or books where there were
consequences attached to the characters. They liked non-
fiction and historical fiction with strong African American
characters. Rogers' work with Vicky included letting her
and the other children choose appropriate books that they
liked, books and reading experiences that allowed them to
somehow live the text, for example, demonstrating empathy
toward the slaves as Vicky did when the author discusses
the historical fictions of slavery with her. Furthermore,
Vicky read the newspaper of her sister's pepper spray
incident authoritatively; she explained how to get social
services. By using these examples, Rogers demonstrates
that children can be set up to succeed in literacy. It is
against this backdrop that Rogers presents the school's
view of Vicky as a special needs student with language and
literacy deficits. A general trend noted in African
American literacy scholarship is that literacy is not
taught according to the context of lives of the students
from Black and working class backgrounds (Richardson,
2003). Rogers found this to be true in the education of
both Vicky and June, both of whom were taught to read texts
out of the contexts of their lives.

The section '''You Fill Out These Papers'': Acquiring Social
Relations' may trouble some readers. Rogers' questioning
of Vicky and Taz about the Women Infants and Children's
social services program [called WIC] could be interpreted
as illuminating the family's dependence on government
programs since at a bare minimum need would be a
requirement for eligibility. Although we may presume that
Rogers' questions are authentic: ''Who do you call to get
it?'' (77) and ''So can I get WIC?''; this pattern of
questioning has a problematic history in White/Black
relations, where Whites ask questions that Black core
culture members perceive as off limits or simply
unnecessary. Perhaps this is why Vicky signified on the
researcher with the statement: ''She's gonna have a baby to
get WIC.'' Similarly, some readers may find the following
statement problematic: ''First, the relationship between the
need to have children and the ability to receive support is
clear to Vicky.'' (77 ) The researcher is making this
statement to underscore the daughter's ability to learn,
make connections in the real world. However, the
discussion of WIC could also be taken to exemplify the
family's legacy of dependence literacy or recipient
literacy when the author writes that ''Vicky learned that
June [Vicky's mother] attended to these things [such as
applying for WIC] and that eventually, so would she.'' ( 77)

The Free-and Reduced-Lunch Forms section presents similar
concerns. Rogers points out that June is very proficient
in the welfare/government program vocabulary: ''income
level,'' ''house income,'' ''eligible to receive a free meal.''
The point that the author is making is that the school,
which represents the interests of the state, teaches
certain people certain types of literacy, beginning with
learning how to read and fill out worksheets out of context
in elementary school to filling in welfare and reduced
lunch forms.

A valuable aspect of Rogers' text is her application of
theoretical constructs to complex discourse analyses.
Throughout the text she appropriately shows readers what
the orders of discourse are in her particular study, for
example, when specific utterances from her subjects
represent certain orders of discourse such as ''the
Discourse of schooling'' ''The Discourse of disability'' or
her explanation of how style of speech implicates social

Chapters five and six describe the special education
referral process in more detail. Though June protested and
declared that she would not let them put her daughter in
special education, the administrators with their official
evidence of Vicky's test scores label June's daughter as ''a
multiply disabled student'' almost forcing the woman into a
position of powerlessness. Rogers' analysis of June's
language shows a passage from empowered to powerless, from
active to passive across different contexts. Rogers shows
that June's acceptance of herself as a failed literacy
student influenced her ''decision'' to let the school have
their way with her child. The researcher's reflexivity also
comes into play here as she contemplates her own part in
not being able to stop the school from constructing Vicky
as a deficient student, despite the fact that she and the
adolescent's mother had evidence to the contrary. Chapter
six provides a detailed illustration of critical discourse
analysis of the Committee on Special Education Meeting and
how institutional discourses operate. The researcher takes
note of turn taking strategies of the officials and those
of the mother, the mother's and the officials ''I''
statements to demonstrate how language functions to create,
uphold, and disrupt social arrangements.

In Chapter seven, ''Through the Eyes of the Institution,''
Rogers presents a second Committee on Special Education
(CSE) Meeting to compare the structure and logic between
the year one and year two meetings. Rogers is able to
highlight several contradictions in the discourses and
ideologies invoked in the meeting on behalf of the
officials and the mother. In the year one CSE meeting, the
officials used standardized test achievement scores, rule-
governed turn taking, and other official discourse
practices to effectively label and classify Vicky. In this
year two meeting, the officials used informal anecdotes and
memories of Vicky's performance to manufacture the consent
of the mother to another year of special education (but
with the intent of gradually integrating her into regular
classes). The same domains that were used to classify
Vicky as multiply disabled were used to identify her as a
star student. In doing this, the officials gain the
confidence of the mother and build the confidence of the
student who have both internalized their own schooled and
dominant literacy deficits. Rogers shows that the
officials set up the parameters of the options available to
the Treader family (go into a regular classroom with no
support or continue to be a star student in special
education). Although the mother and the daughter had more
voice in this meeting, the process was still unequal with
predictable outcomes. Rogers argues that ''what keeps the
Treaders in their place is their quite complete acquisition
of the ideology behind ''schooled literacy.'' (145) Rogers
also argues that Critical Discourse Analysis helps to
illuminate this situation but ''does not do a good job of
showing us how individuals learn to see themselves through
the eyes of the institution.'' (145) Though Rogers
acknowledges that there is some truth to the structure
versus agency argument, she holds that critical discourse
theory holds out the potential for both structure and

Overall, Rogers summarization of and reflection on her
theoretical approach and methodological struggles presented
in using CDA are extremely valuable for discourse analysts.
Similarly, Rogers policy recommendations for teacher
education programs and school systems underscore the need
for institutions to recognize and incorporate the local
literacies of families into official curriculum to stem the
trend of counterproductive literacy identities perpetuated
through current practices. One issue which this raises and
that Rogers herself identifies is that production,
transmission, and learning of counterproductive identities
is not the sole province of schools and is not usually
adequately handled in literacy research applying CDA. These
ideologies are manufactured and circulated throughout media
and most segments of society. Critical Discourse Analysts
must find ways to employ ethnographic methods across a wide
array of contexts over a significant time period. Another
major issue that this text raises is that we need to deal
squarely with race, class and gender in literacy studies.
The profession must incorporate and make widely known the
work of African American and Black language and literacy
scholars in order to halt the reification and reproduction
of Eurocentrically biased views. (Makoni, Smitherman, Ball,
and Spears, 2003) What counts as literacy is dependent on
who or what one wants to become. People of color are asked
to adopt dominant Eurocentric values, which may or may not
produce social rewards, while this is not necessarily a
problem for most whites. Rebecca Rogers is to be commended
for taking on this much researched though still troubled
area of life in today's world.

Gates, H. L., Jr. (1988). The Signifying Monkey: A Theory
of Afro American Literary Criticism. New York: Harvard
University Press.

Makoni, S., Smitherman, G., Ball, A & Spears, A. (2003).
Black Linguistics: Language, Society and Politics in Africa
and the Americas. London & New York: Routledge.

Mitchell-Kernan, C. (1974). Language Behavior In A Black
Urban Community. Reprinted with revisions, Nov. 1874.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Berkeley, Language
Behavior Research Laboratory [1971].

Morgan, M. (2002). Language, Discourse and Power in
African American Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Richardson, E. (2003). African American Literacies.
London & New York: Routledge.

Smitherman, G. (1977/1986). Talkin and Testifyin: The
Language of Black America. Detroit, MI: Wayne State
University Press.

----. (2000). Talkin' That Talk: Language, Culture, and
Education in African America. New York: Routledge.
Elaine Richardson is Associate Professor of English and
Applied Linguistics at Pennsylvania State University,
University Park. Her areas of research are discourse
analysis, literacy studies, and African American oral folk

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