New Educator
college of education | spring 2000


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Faculty Profiles | Profile 1 |
Victoria Purcell-Gates Explores the World of Low Literacy

Victoria Purcell-Gates had always been committed to working with children. A former grade school teacher, Purcell-Gates had directed literacy centers for children needing help with reading and writing at both the University of Cincinnati and Harvard University.

But over the years, Purcell-Gates had tended to keep her service and research separate. That all changed the day in 1989 when 7-year-old Donny and his mother Jenny walked into her office. That meeting and her subsequent efforts to teach the boy to read would evolve into a story of hope and despair that she chronicles in her highly regarded book, Other People's Words.

The book is an ethnographic study, chronicling the cycle of low literacy of one urban Appalachian family in Cincinnati. It was a story that Purcell-Gates at first found hard to believe. That Donny couldn't read at 7 was plausible enough. But was it possible that an entire family could function without knowing how to read or write anything?

"This case presented such an obvious link to what I had been doing," said Purcell-Gates, now a professor in the Department of Teacher Education. "Donny's mother had told me up front that she and the boy's father didn't read, and that half the people they knew didn't know how to read. I had just been studying about what the relationship was between what children learned about reading and writing before they started school and how well they did in school.

"In the work I'd done, all the children I studied knew something about reading and writing. Here was an instance where no one in the family knew how to read."

Purcell-Gates' goal was to get Donny on the proper developmental track that would lead him to read and write. Through a series of assessments, she quickly determined that he was reading at a level that amounted to, roughly, a 3-year-old in a high literacy-use family.

Although far behind his classmates, he wasn't a blank slate. He had some understanding of what reading was. He would, for instance, run his finger through a whole line of print and refer to it as one word.

It was this knowledge that made Donny low literate, rather than illiterate. Donny had some knowledge of the process of reading and writing even though he had not mastered it.

Purcell-Gates said Donny was bright and sensitive, and the task of getting him on the path to literacy was not too difficult. The tougher task was dealing with those issues surrounding the literacy instruction.

It was clear that there wasn't much print use outside of his class. So she was constantly pointing out print all around him and emphasizing its constant presence. She would, for instance, always make it a point of telling him she was writing herself a note to reminder her of their next meeting.

And then there were times when Donny seemed to resist learning to read. Both his parents were open about their illiteracy, especially Jenny who would often say how hard it was to learn. Donny's father, meanwhile, had no interest in learning to read.

"I had to deal with all these issues Donny was dealing with because once these children start to see that they can read that opens up worlds to them that they may not want to enter, that they may be afraid of for different reasons," Purcell Gates said.

Those reasons could range from fear of becoming different in some way from his parents by having the ability read to uncertainty about his own abilities. But Purcell-Gates and Donny kept at it, and he began to progress. Yet there was an issue that wouldn't go away, and would become a key aspect of the story Purcell-Gates would tell.

As she got to know Donny and Jenny, the issue of class became central. Donny and his family were poor, white urban Appalachians-a highly discriminated-against and negatively stereotyped cultural group, and it became apparent to Purcell-Gates that she had to understand that aspect of their lives.

"It wouldn't go away," she said. "Everywhere I turned as to why this didn't happen or that didn't happen I bumped against the issues of power and class. I had young children at the time and the qualitative difference between the way school personnel would respond to me-and not as a professional, but simply as a parent-and the way they didn't respond to Jenny just kept hitting me in the face. So while I was trying to focus on the emergent literacy issues, I kept running into that and I had to deal with that in my research and my analysis.

Victoria Purcell-Gates

Victoria Purcell-Gates
Department of Teacher Education


"There is a clear sense of this wall, of being in a different world and being kept out. It covered the language issues and literacy issues, but it also covered cultural issues and access and power. I first thought of titling the book Other People's Words, Other People's Worlds. That's how I saw this when I finished the book."

What she found was stark. In the book, she describes the experiences of urban Appalachians, a group that migrated from the countryside in Kentucky and elsewhere to the cities in the 1950s to find work. While many have moved into the middle class, many remain in poverty and plagued by such things as illiteracy and high dropout rates.

In the book, she is particularly critical of the educational system. She said she was constantly astounded by the reaction of Donny's school. Jenny, for example, had told the elementary school that she and her husband couldn't read, and yet the school only sent home written notices.

"How does this make sense?" she asks. "My only conclusion was that they didn't even recognize her as a person who could claim she couldn't read."

Such behavior took her aback. That such negative stereotypes could still be so pervasive and unchallenged was a revelation.

As a way to improve the situation, Purcell-Gates calls for better-trained teachers and more of them in inner city schools. She is convinced a teacher with appropriate training could have done much the same things she did for Donny.

"You get too many teachers who will say 'This child doesn't know what a second-grader should know and I don't know what to do.' So the child loses. He flunks. Whose fault is it? Well, it must be the parents, according to many in the school system."

Today, Donny is in high school and a reader, Purcell-Gates said. To wonder what may have been the result if Jenny had not sought out Purcell-Gates, she points to a sobering statistic: a 78 percent drop out rate among urban Appalachians in many cities.

To this day, Purcell-Gates is surprised by how well the book was received. In 1996, she was awarded the $150,000 Grawemeyer Award, which annually recognizes powerful ideas in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Purcell-Gates is now studying adult literacy programs and their impact on home literacy practices in an effort to understand the continuum of low literacy from preschool through adulthood. She has also completed a study of low-income children in their homes to see what kinds of things they experience in terms of reading and writing and the relationship between this and their emergent literacy knowledge.

For Purcell-Gates, the story she tells stands in contrast to the belief that given the prevalence of written material in America, children who don't or can't read are lazy or worse. She believes the book can provide teachers and others insights into the literacy development of children, of what they may or may not understand about reading and the role of culture and cultural practices in that process.

"One of the main conclusions in the book is that it is not just the presence of print for the child, it's the actual use of print that allows the learning to take place," she said. "Young children are paying attention to the people in their close circle or environment. They don't know in those very young ages that other people are reading and writing. To them, their world is what they experience where they live. And where the kids like Donny were living, no one read or wrote. So to them, reading and writing was not even something to reject. It didn't exist until they went to school.

"That is why it is so important to understand the worlds these children come from, so that you know what they are operating on."

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