The Influence of a Kindergarten Student’s Primary Discourse on Expressive Oral Language

By Darcy Anne Fiano, Ph.D.


This seven-month ethnographic case study elucidated a kindergarten student’s navigation through her first formal schooling experience with relation to expressive oral language. Gee’s theory of Discourses and methodology of discourse analysis were used to examine expressive oral language in use. Two discursive context germane to expressive oral language were observed. Discourse of home and Discourse of school. This study demonstrated the complexity of expressive oral language when a primary Discourse converged with the secondary Discourse of school. Primary data sources included participant observation, audiotaped observations, and field notes, resulting in transcripts and an individual participant dictionary. Critical incidents of oral language samples were analyzed through language in use discourse analysis focuses on the seven building tasks, significance, practices (activities), identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge, and six tools of inquiry, social languages, Discourses, Conversations, intertextuality, situated meanings, and figured worlds. Secondary data sources included interviews, document/artifact collection, and a researcher journal, providing detail for rich, descriptive narratives of contexts of her language in use and detailed descriptions of the home and school contexts and the participant in these settings. Data suggest that a kindergarten student’s primary Discourse as it pertains to expressive oral language manifests itself in varying ways at the point of juncture with the secondary Discourse of school. Alignment, dominance, discord, and hybridity existed as her primary Discourse and school Discourse converged through expressive oral language. The point of juncture for expressive oral language expanded and limited her discursive abilities in both Discourses.


The academic language employed in the social institution known as school is counterintuitive to the primary language spoken by many children prior to their formal school experience, particularly for children of low socio-economic status (SES) (Gee, 2008; Genishi & Dyson, 2009). Numerous studies reveal the disparity in vocabulary growth among young, low SES children and their more affluent peers (Farkas & Beron, 2004; Gottfried, 1984; Hart & Risley, 1995; Sinatra, 2008). Furthermore, researched conducted in the realm of vocabulary knowledge has demonstrated the relationship between word knowledge and reading competence (Beck & McKeown, 2007; Bradely & Caldwell, 1981; McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Perfetti, 1983; McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & & Perfetti, 1983; McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Pople,1985; Nagy & Scott, 2000; Ricketts, Nation, & Bishop, 2007). This juxtaposition of a child’s primary Discourse to the secondary Discourse of school can interfere with his or her success in the area of schooled literacy (Cazden, 1979; Purcell-Gates, 1996; Purcell-Gates & Dahl, 1991; Rivalland, 2004; Rogers, 2002).

Each year in the United States roughly four million four-year-old and five-year-old children enter into their formal school careers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2008, approximately 50 percent of these children were enrolled in preschool programs; of these preschool programs, as high as nearly 60 percent of children from low-income families attended inferior programs deemed insufficiently able to provide an adequate level of readiness skills. The National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) 2010 The State of Preschool reported that nationally 26.7 percent of children age 4 attended federally, state-funded preschool programs. According to NIEER many states did not provide enough funding to ensure its programs met the minimum benchmarks of quality preschool standards. Twenty-three out of forty states failed to fully meet NIEER benchmarks for teacher qualifications (B.A. specializing in pre- K) and twenty-six failed to meet the benchmark for assistant teacher qualifications [Child Development Associate credential (CDA) or equivalent]. Whereas preschool for some three-year-old and four-year-old children can be ascribed to a portion of their emergent knowledge, learning from birth to the age of three is attributable to parents. Children experience their introduction to the world of language through the discourse of their parents, setting the stage for expressive oral language acquisition, the foundation of their initial vocabulary development (Harris, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2011). There is increasing evidence that the amount of parent speech is related to children’s vocabulary development and growth (Hoff, 2003; Huttenlocher, Haight, Bryk, Seltzer, & Lyons, 1991). Similarly, Hart and Risley (2003) noted that between 86 percent and 98 percent of each child’s vocabulary consisted of words also recorded in their parents’ vocabularies. Farkas and Beron (2004) found the highest rate of oral vocabulary growth occurring between the ages of zero through five noting significant vocabulary differences across social classes produced by the children’s linguistic interactions attributable to their parents or caregiver. Children have had varied experiences with oral language prior to the start of their formal schooling. With such diversity in children’s foundational oral language upon entering school, it is important for educators to acknowledge these differences and use them as the basis for instruction in expressive oral language growth and development. This study presents detailed descriptions of a Kindergarten student’s expressive oral language as she navigated her way through her first formal schooling experience. The descriptions include her use of expressive oral language in her primary Discourse of home and in the secondary Discourse of school, examining the point of juncture at which the two Discourses converge. Points of juncture encompass instances of overlap between Discourses. Points of juncture in this study comprise incidents of language transfer using home-based expressive oral language in school as well as school-oriented language in the home.

Research Questions

Guiding this present study were the following research questions:

  1. What expressive oral language is the child bringing from the primary Discourse of the home using in the secondary Discourse of school?
  2. What new expressive oral language from the secondary Discourse of school does the child bring back into the home environment?
  3. What is the nature of transfer of expressive oral language between one Discourse to another; is one of the Discourses dominant over the other?


Related Literature Theoretical Framework: Discourses

A theory of Discourses was used to frame this study, specifically the work of Gee (1989, 2008). Gee elucidates Discourse through delineating the difference between the nature of language as social practice and the nature of language as solely linguistic knowledge:

At any moment we are using language we must say or write the right thing in the right way while playing the right social role and (appearing) to hold the right values, beliefs, and attitudes. Thus, what is important is not language, and surely not grammar, but saying (writing)- doing-being-valuing-believing combination. These combinations I call “Discourses” with a capital “D” (1989, p. 6).

Within the social nature of a classroom, discourses with a little “d,” connected units of meaningful language, are part of the larger Discourses, which have a profound impact on student learning. To fully grasp how children acquire and develop expressive oral language and academic word knowledge, both primary and secondary Discourses must be examined. Gee presents a theory that demonstrates the importance of acknowledging these Discourses, which, at times, can be in direct opposition to one another. Primary Discourse, as described by Gee (1989), is acquired, “…through our primary socialization early in life in the home and peer group…This initial Discourse, which I call our primary Discourse, is the one we first use to make sense of the world and interact with others” (p. 7).

Non-home-based Discourses are those that are entered into through community and public sphere social institutions such as businesses, organizations, and schools, and are referred to by Gee as secondary Discourses. Secondary Discourses present specific structures of being and protocols that require compliance in order to gain access to them; speaking, acting, and doing.

Over the course of time, interesting dynamics can occur between primary and secondary Discourses. Primary Discourses may come into alignment with various secondary Discourses and diverge from others. Acknowledging both the positive (alignment) and negative (divergent) interactions between primary/secondary Discourses will allow teachers a greater understanding of how a child’s primary Discourse affects word knowledge and expressive oral language usage in the classroom setting.

Home Literacy Environment

A contributing factor salient to children’s cognitive growth is their initial home life experience. Studies conducted on the effects of pre-school literacy development in the home are clear in their implications. Numerous studies relate the effects of parental level of literacy on children’s language development and vocabulary growth (Gottfried, 1984; Hart & Risley, 1992; Heath, 1982; Hoff, 2003; Huttenlocher, Haight, Bryk, Seltzer, & Lyons, 1991; Wells, 1986). Hoff (2003) found that children of high-SES, college educated mothers developed more productive, expressive vocabularies than children whose mothers were of mid-SES status with high-school education.

Seminal, longitudinal studies conducted by Hart and Risley (1992, 1995, 2003) demonstrated the effects of experience and interaction with language in the first three years of life. Findings evidenced direct word for word correspondence between a child’s vocabulary and his parents’ vocabularies. Additional findings in Hart and Risley’s studies demonstrated relationships between children’s vocabularies and their family’s SES. Overall, low SES children had smaller vocabularies than children in professional families (Hoff, 2003; Huttenlocher, Vasilyeva, Waterfall, Vevea, & Hedges, 2007; Murray, Fees, Crowe, Murphy, & Henriksen, 2006; Pungello, Iruka, Dotterer, Mills- Koonce, & Reznick, 2009; Sinatra, 2008). Hart and Risley’s work (1995) produced a developmental trajectory of cumulative word experience by the age of four. They calculated that children from welfare families (families with incomes below the U.S. federal poverty level) would have 13 million fewer words of cumulative experience than a child from a working-class family and 32 million fewer words of cumulative experience than children from professional families.

Heath (1982) in a comparative, ethnographic study of three Southeastern communities within the United States observed narrative skills and language use at home and school. Heath concluded that early socialization experiences influence learning style and stated that, “…much of the literature on learning styles suggests a preference for one or the other is learned in the social group in which the child is reared and in connection with other ways of behaving found in that culture” (Heath, 1982, p. 55). Similar findings by Sénéchal, Thomas, and Monker (1995) and Sénéchal, LeFevre, Thomas, and Daley (1998) supported the importance of the bedtime story, being read to, asserting that children with smaller vocabularies were read to less frequently than children with larger vocabularies.

Wells and his colleagues’ Bristol study (1986) investigated the language development and disparity between children’s home language and the language of school. Two important findings from the Bristol study were that children’s experiences at school were more similar than their experiences at home; and, although oral language ability was predictive of school rank prior to formal school entry, it ceased to be an important predictor after the age of five.

Similar to Wells (1986), Genishi and Dyson (2009) noted a reductionist view of schools narrowly defining literacy learning to reading and writing skills. From their view, schools tended to “…suppress the inherent variability of language by authorizing uniformity” (p. 13). They believe that children’s socialized family language should be used by teachers as a foundation for helping children construct meaning and negotiate communicative situations. In investigations of language in the school context Genishi (2001) pointed out that effective teachers need to have a working knowledge of children’s contexts outside the school.

Dyson and Smitherman (2009) noted, “… children’s voices are their major pedagogical resource for learning to write and are also potentially construed as a major pedagogical problem” (p. 975-976). A popular instructional cue that teachers use to help students record their voice through writing is to prompt children to put down what “sounds” right. Dyson and Smitherman (2009) argued that developmental, situational, and sociocultural aspects of language will dictate what sounds right for individual students creating variance rather than standardization. Just as the initial development of oral language is a socially situated activity learned through interaction with others in their community, composing needs to be relevant to children’s lives (Vygotsky, 1978; Wells, 1986).

Hybrid Discourses

School discourse has been described as authoritative, homogenous, monologic, and middle-class oriented (Gebhard, 2005; Kamberelis, 2001; Santos & Cavalcanti, 2008). Marginalized groups not reflected in the typically Eurocentric structured curricula of the school fail to benefit fully from their formal education (Gee, 2008; Wells, 1986). In situations where a child’s primary Discourse misaligns with the secondary Discourse of school, a heterogeneous discourse or hybrid discourse may be created by the student and/or teacher in which the student can function more productively linking school to his/her everyday life. “In classrooms, hybrid discourse practice involves teachers and children juxtaposing forms of talk, social interaction, and material practices from many different social and cultural worlds to constitute interactional spaces that are intertextually complex, interactionally dynamic, locally situated accomplishments” (Kamberelis, 2001, p. 86). Third spaces are hybrid learning contexts in which students’ linguistic and cultural forms, styles, artifacts, goals, or ways of relating coalesce and transform the official linguistic and cultural forms of the school, teacher, or classroom (Gutiérrez, Baquedano-López, & Tejada, 1999). Santos and Cavalcanti (2008) noted that although many students were able to “homogenize” themselves within the socially discursive contexts of the classroom, difficulty arose during the academic application of reading and writing.

Vocabulary Acquisition

Research suggests that early vocabulary acquisition is established during infancy, developing from the foundations of speech-sound categories and auditory word forms. Origins of children’s vocabulary development begin with auditory learning occurring within the first 12 months of life (Nazzi & Bertoncini, 2003; Swingley, 2008) to lexical processes focused in an infant’s native language (Jusczyk, 1997). Socio-linguistically, Kuhl et al. noted, “To acquire a language, infants have to discover which phonetic distinctions will be utilized in the language of their culture” (2008, p. 980).

As children enter school, it is estimated that in the primary grades they will learn between 2000 and 3000 new words a year (Beck & McKeown, 1991). Due to the complexity of the acquisition process, research on the most effective vocabulary instruction practices remains somewhat inconclusive. Studies of vocabulary learning in schools indicate that presentation of new words occurs primarily in three ways: through direct, explicit instruction in word meanings; through incidental learning from verbal contexts; and through a combination of direct instruction and incidental word learning (Biemiller, 2003; Goerss, Beck, & McKeown, 1999; Penno, Wilkinson, & Moore, 2002). Delpit (2003) in discussing how to assist children of low-socioeconomic backgrounds who do not have the same access to the culture of power as their more affluent counterparts asserted that vocabulary must be developed “in the context of real experiences” with the connection of “new information to the cultural frameworks that children bring to school” (p.17). These issues coupled with studies reporting a lack of curricular focus on vocabulary particularly in the elementary grades (Beck & McKeown, 2007; Biemiller, 2003) contribute to the challenging task of how best to deliver vocabulary instruction.

Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis (Gee, 2005, 2011a, 2011b) is utilized on segments of oral language from transcriptions to analyze independent oral language and oral language exchanges. The approach to discourse analysis at the macro level focused on the analysis of language-in-use which, “…seeks to balance talk about the mind, talk about social interaction and activities, and talk about society and institution” (Gee, 2005, p. 6) at the situated meaning level (Gee, 2008, 2011a, 2011b). Discourse analysis allows for the study of discourse in Discourse and is a useful framework as it takes into consideration the cultural models present in both people and their settings. Words not only have different meanings in different contexts of use, they also vary across different social and cultural groups. Gee (2005, 2011a) describes an ideal discourse analysis as one that involves asking questions about the seven building tasks using the tools of inquiry and thinking about other relevant language detail in specific instances of language-in-use. The term language-in-use refers to how people build identities and activities and recognize the identities and activities others build.

The seven building tasks as the seven components of discourse situations are: significance, practices (activities), identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge. These building tasks allow for analysis of the discourse situations—the situations in which language is put to use. Gee (2011a) defines the seven building tasks in the following way: Significance—How the speaker or writer is trying to give significance to things; Practices (Activities)—The practice (activity) or practices (activities) that are relevant in a context and how are they being enacted; Identities—The identity or identities relevant in a context; Relationships—Relationships that are relevant in a context and how are they being enacted, recruited, and used; Politics—The social goods that are relevant and at stake in a context and how they are being distributed or how their distribution is being viewed; Connections—The relevant connections and disconnections between things and people in a context and how these connections or disconnections are being made or implied; Sign Systems and Knowledge—The relevant sign systems (e.g., languages or social languages) and forms of knowledge (ways of knowing) that are relevant in a context and how they are used and privileged or disprivileged (p. 17-20, 102). Gee notes that while not all seven building tasks will be readily apparent in a discourse data sample, the discourse analysis questions (see Appendix A) should be applied to the sample in order to gain evidence about the language-in-use.

Tools of inquiry are used to analyze the seven building tasks relevant to language-in-use: social languages, Discourses, Conversations, intertextuality, form-function correlations, situated meanings, and figured worlds. Social languages are socially situated, people use different styles of language dependent upon the different identities they enact and the different settings they enter into. Discourses are the identities and activities people build through their language, actions, values, and beliefs to get recognized as a particular social identity. Conversation with a capital “C,” refers to the themes, debates, and issues in society at large or within certain social groups. People take sides in these such debates and are therefore socially defined by the side taken. Gee defines the fourth tool of inquiry as intertextuality, the words we speak or write that allude to or quote words that others have said or written (Gee, 2011a, p. 29-30). Form-function correlations are the general meanings that grammatical units of speech or writing can have e.g., the subject of a sentence is functionally associated with being the topic of a sentence and is not necessarily situated in social contexts. Situated meanings, however, refer to the meanings words and phrases take on in specific social contexts. Finally, figured worlds are the unconscious socially and culturally constructed theories we have about the world and the way it works. These tools of inquiry guide us to ask certain questions about a piece of language. There are six tools of inquiry (social languages, Discourses, Conversations, intertextuality, situated meanings, and figured worlds) within which to ask questions about the seven building tasks (See Appendix A).

Within each of the tools of inquiry Gee suggests sub-questions to further explore the language-in-use samples. In all there are 42 possible questions that can be asked of any one piece of data (See Appendix A). An ideal discourse analysis would probe all 42 questions, however, most analysts apply only some of the questions. Different samples of discourse require a concentration of some building tasks and tools of inquiry over others and overlap will occur within language samples. The nature of the inquiry into the situated language-in-use will determine which tasks and tools are most relevant.

Methodology Context of the Study

The School

Northeast Elementary is in an historically agricultural, suburban community close to a major urban center in the northeastern part of the United States.

Participant Selection Criteria and Participant

The unit of analysis for this research study was a case study of one child’s sphere of Discourses around expressive oral language. A criterion-based selection procedure focusing on an extreme case selection was used to determine the sample. The participant for this study was an incoming kindergarten student during the 2010- 2011 school year who was not identified as English Language Learner (ELL), speech and language impaired, special education, or a retention. Participation in the study was not restricted by factors such as gender, socioeconomic status (SES), ethnicity, or race. To accomplish participant identification the researcher examined the school administered Kindergarten screenings prior to the start of the school year. The participant selection process included the district Kindergarten screenings of: Kindergarten Screener— 2010-2011; Preschool Boehm; and The Bracken: Basic Concept Scale subtest seven “Self-/Social Awareness” as well as the standard district Kindergarten assessments of Clay’s An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement subtest “Letter Identification” and modified letter/sound association; Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS); and The Phonological Awareness Test (Robertson and Salter). Using this data, five to six students were selected as possible candidates for the study. Classroom teacher and specialist input was utilized to choose families they felt would be willing participants in the study given their knowledge of and familiarity with the families. The building principal contacted the target families to explain the study and determine interest in participating; one family expressed immediate interest in having the student participate. The participant, Janie, was an African American five-year-old girl of low SES who met the above criteria.

Data Collection Methods

This study triangulated both multiple data sources and data collection methods. The data sources were both primary and secondary in nature. Primary data sources included participant observation, audio taped observations, and field notes. These sources resulted in transcripts and an individual participant dictionary. Secondary sources of information for this study included interviews, document/artifact collection, and a researcher journal which provided detail for the rich descriptive narratives. Methods triangulation was achieved by integrating and comparing the qualitative data sources with relevant quantitative data analysis of the participant dictionary.

Participant Observation

Participant observations with audio taping and field notes occurred in the home and school. Observations were typically scheduled on Wednesdays.

The length of time during home and school visits was kept consistent, approximately 60 minutes in each setting.

School-based observations and data collection took place in the classroom during the class’s literacy block for approximately 60 minutes for each observation. Literacy activities during this timeframe included whole group and small group instruction by the teacher, dyads, and independent work stations. Common whole group activities were the Star of the Day activity; songs including the Animal Alphabet Cheer and The Vowel Samba; Reader’s Workshop; and occasionally sharing time. Small group instruction by the teacher consisted of guided reading. Independent work stations, as the teacher referred to them, including listening , 1-2-3 (math), writing, free choice (computers, books), A-B-C, and a special activity that the classroom paraprofessional ran. Researcher affect on data collection in the school setting occurred during independent work stations. The researcher would often defer the participant to peers in her group for assistance or would assist the participant if others in the group were unable to help. The researcher worked to limit such interactions to keep researcher affect on the data to a minimum.

Home-based observations were conducted after school on the same day as school-based observations in order to fully observe congruous interaction of the expressive oral language between primary and secondary Discourses. The context for home data collection included observing the participant during various forms of play and exchanges with her grandmother and her siblings for a correlating amount of time as the day’s school observation, approximately 60 minutes. A marginal degree of researcher affect on data collection resulted during home observations while helping the participant complete homework assignments. Homework help did not occur during every visit with the duration of time spent on homework lasting approximately 10-15 minutes of the 60 minute observation. The researcher worked to keep her affect on the data to a minimum by limiting engagement as much as possible in a one to one setting and through the use of general, non-specific language and non-leading response and questioning with the participant.

Audio Taping

As Discourse and discourse are the focus of this study, all observations in all settings were audio taped during the sessions. A small digital voice recorder was used to record the participant’s discourse for later transcription; the participant did not wear the recording device. Audiotapes of the observations were transcribed by the researcher. As the focus of this study was on the expressive oral language of the participant, transcription of the 40 plus hours of recorded audio allowed for acute attention to the participant’s expressive oral language in use.

Field Notes

All observations in all settings were recorded in field notes with attention to describing in detail the participant, setting, activities, behaviors, and interactions of the participant with others and her surroundings. After the observations, extended field notes were written and audiotapes transcribed with conceptual memos (Heath & Street, 2008) or integrative memos (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995) of the field notes written weekly.

Individual Participant Dictionary

Transcriptions from the audiotapes and field notes were used to create the individual participant dictionary. The dictionary for this study consisted of all spoken words used by the participant recorded in both the school and home settings. Only words from her natural language were entered into the dictionary. Words she read directly from text or orally copied verbatim from others and never used on her own during observational visits were not included in the document. The participant dictionary provided both qualitative and quantitative data.

Qualitatively the participant dictionary triangulated with the observations and field notes to create a holistic view of the participant’s expressive oral language use within and between the two discursive settings. The dictionary was initially compiled for the student divided into home and school sections. This enabled the researcher to make note of instances of words used between the two settings and to begin to delineate the juncture of the home and school Discourses. Entries of words used on each date at school and at home were reviewed for convergence of expressive oral language between the two settings. Quantitative data from the participant dictionary provided means and frequencies of word use and variation of word use within and between the two separate Discourses. Calculations included totals of all words from the entire study in both the home and school as well as examination of frequencies and variations by date.


Although interviewing can be one of, if not the primary source of data collection in qualitative research, it served as a secondary data source for this study. Due to the participant’s age and preliminary probing into her ability to articulate her perspective, it was apparent that interviewing her would not yield sufficient data for analysis. Therefore, informal interviews and conversations were held with secondary informants including the participant’s grandmother and classroom teacher. The focus of the interviews was to provide background information about the participant for this study. All interviews and informal conversations were digitally recorded and later transcribed.

Document/Artifact Collection

Document/artifact collection served as another secondary source of data for this study. Documents and artifacts relevant to the participant’s language-in-use from the home and school were collected.

Documents and artifacts collected from the school with guardian permission encompassed items reflective of the participant’s language-in-use including progress reports, report cards, homework, literacy activities, work samples, district-wide and individualized assessments, and letters home. These provided descriptive background information about the participant.

From the home, document and artifact collection included samples of activities the participant engaged in that reflected language use such as homework assignments, written stories, letters, and informal writings completed by the participant. Documents gathered from the home were sparse as expressive oral language activities and conversation were the primary activities that occurred in the home during weekly visits.

Researcher Journal

A researcher journal was kept during the research project as part of the reflective process of the study and for the purpose of an audit trail. Included in the researcher journal were initial thoughts on data analysis; notes and questions about the process; response and query to literature relevant to the study; and general reflections on the undertaking of the study itself pertaining to methods, methodology, literature, ethnographic data analysis, discourse analysis, and new research questions evolving out of this study.

Data Analysis Techniques

The use of complementary methodological approaches of ethnographic case study and discourse analysis (Gee, 2005, 2011a, 2011b; Merriam, 2009) were used in this research study to examine the expressive oral language-in-use within and between the two contexts of the participant’s primary Discourse of home and secondary Discourse of school.

Discourse Analysis and Coding

All data including field notes, transcripts of audiotapes from home and school observations, interview data, and collected documents were examined and coded into emerging analytic categories. As Gee’s method of language-in-use discourse analysis was used to analyze the data, coding focused on the seven building tasks, significance, practices (activities), identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge, and six tools of inquiry, social languages, Discourses, Conversations, intertextuality, situated meanings, and figured worlds (2005, 2011a, 2011b). Discourse analysis was applied to critical incidents of oral language samples from audio taped transcriptions of home and school observations to further describe language-in-use within and between the two contexts of the home and the school. As the seven building tasks are inherently linked to one another, they are often reflected in the same words and phrases. Oral language samples were chosen from the transcripts that clearly reflected language-in-use that was representative of a particular building task and tool of inquiry. Complementary to the culturally responsive nature of an ethnographic approach and case study design, discourse analysis is sensitive to situated meaning. The main focus of the discourse analysis was on discourse related to expressive oral language in the academic setting and in the home as it pertained to the research questions. Discourse analysis allowed for the exploration of the participant’s expressive oral language use in her primary Discourse, the home, and the secondary Discourse of school.

Gee’s (2011a) suggested steps toward discourse analysis were followed. First, all of the audio taped data from observations were transcribed by the researcher. This allowed for greater attention to the expressive oral language used by the participant in both the home and school settings. Notational devices of speech features were used on the relevant oral language samples from transcripts. Features such as pauses, overlaps, stress, and intonation were coded using notational devices (see Appendix B).

Next, during this recursive and ongoing process multiple readings of the transcript data began to reveal several recurring categories relating to the seven building tasks illuminating how the participant attempted to negotiate oral language between her primary Discourse of home and the secondary Discourse of the school. Key words and phrases began to emerge from the data that reflected situated meanings which were chosen to exemplify themes of the building tasks in the data given the overall context. These key words and phrases were categorized by building tasks and color coded to reflect the most representative building task. Subsequently, Discourses, intertextuality, and social languages emerged that were relevant to the language-in-use data within the building tasks. Discourses, intertextuality, and social languages represented social activities and socially situated identities that were being enacted and/or recognized in the data. Probing further into the data linguistic details for how Discourses, situated meanings, social activities, social languages, socially situated identities, and figured worlds were being “designed,” or enacted by the participant and recognized by the researcher in the data were analyzed in both the home and school transcript data sets.

Reflecting on this information the participant’s oral language samples were recorded as “idea units” or “lines,” then grouped together as “stanzas.” For each stanza, the 42 questions and sub-questions (six tools of inquiry questions about the seven building tasks) were asked (see Appendix A). Corresponding discourse analysis questions pertaining to the expressive oral language samples contained in the audio taped transcriptions of the observations were used to analyze language-in-use.

During this process answers to the 42 questions had some overlap and converged resulting in emerging themes relevant to the research questions. The samples of oral language were categorized based on the identified, relevant building tasks and the relevant tools of inquiry. Discourse analysis data were compared across the two domains of the home and the school for comparisons between the two social contexts that revealed places of both overlap and dissonance. From the discourse sample data, coding related themes emerging from the set were documented and analyzed to answer the research questions.

Individual Participant Dictionary

Analysis of the individual participant dictionary included counts and cross comparisons of words used within and between the two contexts home and school. The words in the dictionary were analyzed within and between each Discourse for frequency, variety, and situated meaning as revealed through discourse analysis with samples of text that contained words in the dictionary. The participant dictionary provided both qualitative and quantitative data.

For qualitative analysis the participant dictionary was initially divided into home and school sections. This enabled the researcher to make note of instances of words used between the two settings and to begin to delineate the influences of the home and school Discourses on one another. Entries of words used on each date at school and at home were reviewed for convergence of language between the two settings.

The quantitative analysis was conducted by calculating means and frequencies of word use and variation of word use within and between home and school. The total number of the participant’s words spoken during each visit in the separate settings were tallied and averaged to report the mean number of total words spoken at school and at home. The total number of variant words spoken during each visit in the separate settings were also tallied and averaged to report the mean number of total variant words spoken at school and at home. Frequency of individual words were also tallied for each setting. Words uttered by observation date at home and school were also calculated to compare word use and word variation chronologically over the course of the study.

Results of the Study Discourse Analysis

Janie’s expressive oral language from the transcripts of audio taped observations was analyzed through Gee’s approach to discourse analysis using situated meaning focused on the building tasks of language-in-use (significance, practices/activities, identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge) and the theoretical tools of inquiry (social languages, Discourses, Conversations, intertextuality, situated meanings, and figured worlds) resulting in 366 pieces of coded data.

The percentage of the coded data of each building task of language-in-use follows:

Practices (Activities)
Sign Systems and Knowledge

Coding of the data by the seven building tasks revealed practices (activities) and connections figured most prominently in the data followed by significance, identities, relationships, and sign systems and knowledge. Instances of the building task politics was minimally represented in the data set. Intertextuality, Discourses, and social languages were the most frequently identified tools of inquiry used to analyze the building tasks. Data for these three tools of inquiry were documented in the transcriptions from the audio taped observations. Intertextuality, specifically the borrowing of language both oral and written from sources including written text (books), peers, siblings, and adults, occurred frequently in Janie’s expressive oral language and was documented in both the audiotaped transcriptions and the field notes. Subvocalizing during read-alouds was also a frequent occurrence. Data supporting observed behaviors in Discourses and intertextuality were recorded in the field notes.

The results of the discourse analysis are presented through the individual examination of each analytic category of the building tasks [practices (activities), connections, significance, identities, relationships, sign systems and knowledge, and politics]. Each building task is further divided into the subcategories of the relevant, reflected tools of inquiry that were present in the participant’s discourse (Discourses, intertextuality, and social languages). The subcategories of the tools of inquiry are further divided into the two settings of the home and school. The samples of oral language used to evidence the building tasks and tools of inquiry contain overlap. Language samples were chosen that were considered to be the most representative of particular building tasks and tools of inquiry, however, these were not absolutes, utterances often perform more than one building task and provide answers to multiple tools of inquiry.

The Discourse From Home to School

What I first noticed about Janie when I met her in the apartment with Nanny and her sisters for the first time was that she had a warm and inquisitive nature. The next time I saw her was at school a week later. Janie immediately recognized me, acknowledging me with a big smile and a “Hi.” She was engaging from the start, and this quality prevailed over the entire course of the study. During the first home visit, Janie produced the second-most words uttered (1,512) and variation of words uttered (275) of any observation. Having been identified by the school as a student with low expressive oral language, I was surprised by how verbal she was; she was quite orally expressive at home. Residing in a relatively small area, the family was close-knit and engaged in verbal exchanges with one another frequently. During the first four months of observations, the television was rarely on. The girls engaged in play with various toys, read books, and drew. Nanny spent her time during the observations helping Mae with her homework, cooking dinner, bathing Janie’s sisters before dinner, reading the Bible, and periodically engaging with Janie and me. The activity in the home fostered oral language exchanges among the family members; Janie’s primary Discourse, her home environment, appeared to encourage oral language use.

Quantitative Data

Quantitatively (see Table 1), Janie uttered more total words in the home setting (19,850) than in the school setting (5,553). She uttered 1,095 different words during the home observations, and of those words, 479 were the same words spoken at school. Accordingly, there were 616 different words uttered by Janie at home that were not spoken at school during classroom observations. The majority of these words (97%) were Tier 1 words, such as box, buy, and can’t; 3% would be categorized as Tier 2 words, such as detail, pointy, and magnifying; and no words met the criteria for classification as Tier 3. Hence, saliency of quality versus quantity is consequential. Analysis of the quality of Janie’s oral expressive language at home was reflected in the building tasks and tools of inquiry.

Building Tasks and Tools of Inquiry

Building tasks emblematic of Janie’s use of primary Discourse home language in school were significance, practices (activities), identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge.

Table 1. Total words uttered in both observation settings

Home (21 observations)
School (20 observations)
Total # Words Uttered
Total # of Different Words Uttered
1095 (6%)
621 (11%)
Total # of Same Words Uttered
(2%) 479 (9%)
Average # of Words Uttered Daily
Average # of Different Words Uttered Daily
52 (6%)
31 (11%)



Janie built significance using Discourses and social languages at school through home-oriented language and beliefs “Janie: Jehovah said don’ do ‘ha-ha.’ You know Jehovah? You know Jehovah?” (School transcript, 3/30/11, p. 14). Religious beliefs instilled at home by Nanny made an impression on Janie. She made these values significant by transferring them into the school setting to address a peer’s unkind behavior.

Practices (Activities)

Janie built practices at school through home-oriented language with Discourses, intertextuality, and social languages underpinnings. This was evident when she transferred language used at home while practicing her writing in school “Janie: Hey, that floating” (School transcript, 3/23/11, p. 9), for letters that were not sitting on the lines.


Identity building at school included home-based language incorporating Discourses, intertextuality, and social languages. For example when Mrs. Williams asked her to talk about her favorite book during an assessment she chose a text from home “Janie: Happy Monkey Mrs. Darling gave me that” (School transcript, 2/9/11, p. 12). Rather than choosing a more recent book from school, she mentioned a book I had given her three weeks prior during a home visit.


Janie used language from home to build relationships in school through social languages as reflected in this excerpt “Janie: The member [remember] you, the member you chose, the member you just didn’t need the right one” (School transcript, 4/6/11, p. 8) she uttered while working with a partner in the computer station.


Language from Janie’s primary Discourse was used within the politics building task (the distribution of various social goods) in school carried out by Discourses, intertextuality, and social languages. Janie struggled with reconciling a ubiquitous rewards system, eventually coming to realize that what worked at home did not necessarily produce similar results in school. Whereas social goods were more readily attainable at home, rules had to be followed to procure them at school “Janie: Tha’s a tha’s a funny. Jorge do this way. Mrs. Vine: Janie, you’re not in charge of him honey, you need to sit down” (School transcript, 3/23/11, p. 8). Where helping her sisters at home was rewarded, this was not the case at school during instructional lessons.


During observations Janie built very few connections using language from home in school. In this rare example “Janie: I’m not in Dr. Seuss Birthday” (School transcript, 3/9/11, p. 10) Discourse and social languages were used to express a religious value at home that Janie must adhere to, willingly or not.

Sign Systems and Knowledge

With this final building task, Janie was often times unsuccessful using language from her primary Discourse to build sign systems and knowledge at school. She was frequently disadvantaged at school when she communicated with her primary social language. Although the quantity of the oral language she produced at home was greater than that at school, the quality of her utterances was not necessarily superior. As reflected in her share during Field Day, she often times resorted to one word or two word phrases to express herself.

Teacher: Janie, you want to tell us how you’re feeling now, what’s what are you thinking? [7 s] What do you think about field day?

Janie: ….water balloons

Teacher: What’s that?

Gia: water balloon

Janie: water balloon

Teacher: What about the water balloons?

Janie: I like…. [6 s]

Teacher: I can’t hear you

Janie: I like them…

Teacher: You like what?

Janie: throwing 

Mrs. Vine: Throwing them

Teacher: Throwing them, yah, okay. Jakai, what are you thinking about today?

(p. 6-7) (School transcript, 6/8/11, p. 1-2, 6-7)

In a contextualized sense she assumed the listeners would construct the meaning for themselves, whereas in the school setting teachers work to develop oral language with children in a decontextualized manner, expecting the students to do the work of creating a context for their oral expressions.

An abundance of expressive oral language was brought from Janie’s primary Discourse of the home and used within the secondary Discourse of school. Janie’s home language-in-use at school was used to enact a number of the building tasks carried out by various tools of inquiry. Unfortunately, the quality of many of her home words did not meet academic standards and would not be categorized as the type of tier 2 words research suggests (Beck & McKeown, 2007; Coyne, McCoach, Loftus, Zipoli, & Kapp, 2009; Hoff, 2003) enhances the level of a child’s achievement in school.

The Discourse From School to Home

Quantitative Data

Looking from a quantitative perspective (see Table 1), Janie uttered 621 different words while at school over the duration of the study. Of those 621 words 479 were the same words spoken at home. Hence, there were only 143 different words uttered by Janie in school that were not spoken at home during observational visits. Most of these words, 90%, would be classified as tier 1 words such as ball, hit, and hurry; 1% would be classified as tier 3 words including Jehovah and “tearasaurus” [Tyrannosaurus]; and 9% would be categorized as tier 2 words such as stencils, burst, and design.

Building Tasks and Tools of Inquiry

The building tasks reflective of the presence of secondary Discourse school language in use at home were practices (activities), identities, connections, and sign systems and knowledge.

Practices (Activities)

Janie built practices using Discourses and social languages at home through school language and behaviors in academically-based practices including reading and writing, for example “Janie: But is says check the picture, think about it” (Home transcript, 5/4/11, p. 5). While doing her homework at home she used the language her teacher taught her about the word recognition strategies of checking the picture and thinking about it. These are practices that students in school participate in.


School language and behaviors were also used by Janie to build identities with Discourses, intertextuality, and social languages. School identities enacted at home were that of a teacher, competent student, reader, and writer. Acting in the identity of a student she uttered “Janie: Ya hada make a pattern of cereal of pattern” (Home transcript, 3/16/11, p. 14). In her classroom at school the students had been working on making patterns during the math block and in the 1-2-3 station.


Through Discourses, intertextuality, and social languages Janie built connections between the school and home Discourses. Often times at home Janie would recognize words as her Kindergarten words from school “Janie: Becuz that is in my name. I have tha’ Kindergarten word at my…school” (Home transcript, 3/30/11, p. 15). Interestingly she contextualized the words, it was not only a Kindergarten word, but it was specifically found at her school.

Sign Systems and Knowledge

Finally, with the sign systems and knowledge building task, Janie was privileged at times by language introduced from the secondary Discourse of school into the home through intertextuality and social languages. Janie had gone on a nature field trip to a park and was telling me, Nanny, and Mae about it later on that day at home “Janie: Um, I wen’ on a field trip with my friens’ an I had um mikein [magnifying] glass ta, ta look at something that’s bi’. An I saw a snake” (Home transcript, 4/27/11, p. 1).

Another notable aspect of this language sample was that Janie seldom spoke about her day at school or school in general at home; this discourse ensued without any prompting.

What was occurring at home that could be limiting the inclusion of new expressive oral language from the school? Literally, in a tangible sense, language from the school environment was brought back into the home by Janie almost daily in the form of homework and classroom, school, and district notices including field trip permission slips, Extra K parent information sheets, report cards, and district newsletters. Linguistically, however, Janie’s integration of school-oriented language into her discourse at home was inconsistent and sparse. It was rare during an observation for Janie to independently share anything about school or what happened at school that day in the home setting.

Nanny was supportive of Janie’s education, however, struggled with getting Janie to complete school tasks. Often times during my visits she would ask if I could work on Janie’s homework with her because she had been unsuccessful in getting Janie to complete the assignment “Nanny: This is the one I been tryin’ to get her to do ‘for but she has been writin’ all over the paper, I had to keep e-rasin’ it an she made marks all over don’ do what she tol’ do wit it” (Home transcript, 3/2/11, p. 4). I wanted to limit the effect I had on the study and its outcomes by engaging with and helping Janie too much, however, I wanted to be a model for Nanny on how to go about working with Janie.

Although I did not observe Nanny reading to the girls, Janie acknowledged this as a practice that occurred at home. When asked by the teacher during an assessment who read to her at home Janie replied “granma.” The number of books in the home and the recognition of story elements by Janie in many of the books suggested this to be true.

The home environment was also a busy place. Nanny cared for the three young girls on a daily basis by herself for the most part. As an older woman with several health issues, the task of caring for the girls was overwhelming at times. Nanny did the best she could to meet the needs of all the girls both collectively and individually. Children at these ages thrive on individual attention and as her time was a coveted commodity she did her best to divide her time amongst the three girls. Basic needs were met first including fixing meals and the personal health and hygiene of each of the girls, academic support including homework assistance and read-alouds followed.

The support for specific oral language or vocabulary that originated in the school and was integrated into the home setting by Janie was both direct and incidental. Evidence of direct support of specific words could be seen in Nanny’s work with Janie on her reading recognition of Kindergarten word lists which were high frequency words such as am, can, this, and me, all tier 1 words. Support for other school-based vocabulary words transpired incidentally when Nanny listened to Janie practice her weekly guided reading take home book or read her weekly story sentence task around a word of the week which included words such as jelly, ducks, and earrings, again a tendency toward more tier 1 classified words.

Limited new expressive oral language was brought from the secondary Discourse of school into the primary Discourse of the home environment by Janie. Her school language-in-use in the home was used to enact several of the building tasks carried out by various tools of inquiry. As with her home language, the quality of many of her school-based words did not meet the criteria for tier 2 words that research suggests (Beck & McKeown, 2007; Coyne, McCoach, Loftus, Zipoli, & Kapp, 2009; Hoff, 2003) supports academic achievement in school. Support for integration of these words into the home environment by the parents, in this case Janie’s grandmother, was evident. Wells (1986) notes, however, that after the age of two when children begin to learn that everything is named most parents do not continue to teach vocabulary to their children.

Therefore, it was not necessarily that Janie’s home inadequately supported more academically-based expressive oral language, rather, there was a lack on the school’s part of supplementing these lower-level word selections (e.g., Kindergarten high frequency word lists, word of the week words) with more tier 2 words in the home environment.

Transfer of Discourses

Transfer of learning between contexts is a vital goal in learning. True understanding of a concept allows for application within and across many diverse settings. Transfer of expressive oral language between one context and another, in this study the Discourses of school and the home, elucidated the point of juncture between the two Discourses. Transfer of expressive oral language for Janie varied depending on the setting. Overall only 479 words were shared between the two settings. In the home, shared words only accounted for 2% of the words uttered, while at school it was slightly higher accounting for 9% of the words uttered. Janie more readily transferred language from home to school than from school to home or within different learning contexts in the classroom. Janie also did not readily transfer language from one context to another independently. In most instances these connections needed to be explicitly drawn for her. These findings substantiate work by Genishi and Dyson (2009) “Ultimately, the educational goal is to help children adapt to, participate in, and negotiate a range of communicative situations in our sociolinguistically complex world” (p. 21). Preceding discussion of home to school and school to home language-in-use cited specific data samples that examined the relationship of expressive oral language transfer between the home and school Discourses as it related to the building tasks and tools of inquiry.

Janie’s home expressive oral language Discourse was more prevalent in the building tasks and more evident throughout the school day. This could be in part due to the fact that Janie was more verbal in the home environment hence more comfortable with the language she used in her primary Discourse. Janie commented about her talking during a home visit “Janie: I talk a lot” (Home transcript, 1/10/11, p. 12). This finding supports conclusions by Wells and his colleagues (1986) reported in the Bristol study that children spoke more at home than at school. Quantitatively over the course of the study Janie uttered 19,850 words at home compared to 5,553 at school. The length of the observations was nearly identical with home and school visits occurring on the same day. There was one more home observation than school observation, however, impact from the difference of having one more home visit would be negligible. The quality of the words Janie uttered in both settings were predominantly common everyday, tier 1 words. Although the school setting contained more tier 2 and tier 3 words in its environment, it was not observed during this study that Janie independently acquired and integrated them into her own expressive oral language-in-use repertoire.

The nature of transfer of expressive oral language between one Discourse to another was dissimilar. Janie’s enculturation into the language of her primary Discourse was an organic process that had been nurtured over the course of the first five years of her life. The inherent use of language in her home environment had been practiced by her and cultivated by those she encountered on a daily basis. This is the language she entered the public domain with and incorporated into the secondary Discourses she participated in. Enculturation into the institute of school was a process divergent from the home for Janie. Although the classroom provided a language-rich environment, oral language development and acquisition was not nurtured in a similar way as it was at home. The pace at school was quick and the variation within academic language was great and ever changing. The academic language of the school curriculum contrasted at times to the language spoken in her home. This in part could account for some of why language from Janie’s primary Discourse was dominant over the academic language of school. Her primary Discourse provided the language base from which she built practices (activities), identities, connections, significance, relationships, sign systems and knowledge, and politics (what counted as social goods) upon entering school. As Janie became enculturated into the secondary Discourse of school, language from her primary Discourse allowed her to function in the classroom environment and have her basic needs met. The classroom at times served as a third space for Janie. The environment enabled her primary Discourse to further extend her expressive oral language as well as inhibited her from acquiring new oral language vocabulary at other times. Mrs. Williams cultivated hybridity of language creating a third space environment for children in her class to explore their expressive oral language choices. Although she served as a model for English syntax while engaged in book reading during guided reading and whole group interactive reading, prompting children to conform to proper English syntax, she lessened the emphasis on proper English syntax during less structured times of the day such as snack time.

Language from home reflected in the seven building tasks was more pervasive than language from school, however, it contained a predominance of basic everyday or tier 1 words. Being grounded in her home-based language, Janie did not readily acquire new words as her own and transfer them from one context to another. Inclusion of expressive oral language into home Discourse was limited.

The data from this study suggest that a child’s primary Discourse as it pertains to expressive oral language manifests itself in a variety of ways at the point of juncture with the secondary Discourse of school. Alignment, dominance, hybridity, and discord exist as a student’s primary Discourse of home and secondary Discourse of the school converge through expressive oral language. This point of juncture for expressive oral language-in-use served to both expand and limit Janie’s discursive abilities in both her home and school Discourses.

Discussion, Conclusions, Implications

The purpose of this ethnographic case study was to explore through the lens of Gee’s theory of Discourses (1989, 2008) a Kindergarten student’s expressive oral language at the point of juncture between the primary Discourse of the home and the secondary Discourse of school.

Significant to this study is the use of Gee’s theory of Discourses and applying Gee’s methodology of discourse analysis focused on situated meaning (2008, 2011a) to the participant’s language-in-use. Previous studies have quantified words uttered by children (Hart & Risley, 1992, 1995, 2003; Hoff, 2003; Farkas & Beron, 2004) and explored methods of instruction for effective word learning (Biemiller, 2003; Coyne, McCoach, & Kapp, 2007; Delpit, 2003; Goerss, Beck, & McKeown, 1999), this research observed a child’s language-in-use within and between the home and school settings. The importance of what the child was doing with her language and building with her language in the social contexts of both the home and school found in this study supports the previous work characterized by others such as Genishi and Dyson (2009) who view language learning as a socially mediated process. The present study extends the importance of oral language, moving it beyond the words in and of themselves and to the application of language for specific reasons—to get recognized as engaging in certain practices; to render things connected; to make things significant; to get recognized as taking on certain identities; to build social relationships; to privilege or disprivilege various sign systems and knowledge; and to enact politics by building what counts as social goods.

Language is socially situated, at times integrating multiple Discourses creating hybrid Discourses (Gee, 2008). Kamberelis (2001) discussed the importance of cultivating hybrid discourse practices within the classroom allowing children the space, third space, to experiment with new language through the support of their foundational language. The participant in this study engaged in hybrid discourses in both her home environment and at school. Similar to findings by Santos and Cavalcanti (2008) hybridity was valued by Janie’s teacher in socially discursive contexts such as snack time but to a lesser degree, however, during academic applications such as guided reading instruction.

Similar to previous studies, this study included a quantitative component to the research that calculated the number of words uttered during the observations, typically and hour, as well as the variation in the words uttered. Hart and Risley’s research (1992, 1995, 2003) demonstrated quantitatively the effects of early home experiences with language on children’s later vocabulary development. Their focus was on words produced per hour, variations in words produced per hour, as well as correspondence between the children’s vocabulary and their parents’ vocabulary. Extending the findings of Hart and Risley’s research, this study compared the number of words uttered not only within the home, but within the school and between the contexts of home and school. The findings revealed that Janie used more words and a greater variety of words at home than at school. This conclusion substantiates findings by Wells and colleagues (1986) that children spoke more at home than at school and that schools were not providing an environment that fostered language development equal to the children’s homes.

From the observations in the classroom, there were two distinct factors that appeared to contribute to the decreased number of words uttered at school as compared to the home, lack of authentic discourse and discourse opportunities in the classroom and lack of connecting concepts across the curricular contexts.

Fostering Discursive Opportunities

First, there appeared to be a lack of fostering instructional discourse within the classroom. During whole group instruction most students were not actively engaged orally. Participation in whole group either consisted of the Star of the Day, one child, providing a sentence to share and write with the class or those who raised their hands and were actually called upon. Discursive strategies such as turn-and-talk and whole group share were each only observed twice during classroom visits. During station rotations talking was discouraged. Children were reminded that stations were not a time for talking and they were to be working quietly. Prohibitions such as not being allowed to talk have been shown to negatively impact expressive oral language development (Hart & Risley, 1995; Murray, Fees, Crowe, Murphy, & Henriksen, 2006). Discouragement from talking was not noted during any of the home observations. According to Wells (1986) all children benefit from exploratory talk in order to make knowledge their own. When children are actively involved discussing an activity or task collaboratively, they are making meaning and gaining confidence and fluency in the skill.

Another practice that may have contributed to the decreased number of words uttered in the classroom setting was the nature of a number of the stations themselves which promoted silence rather than discourse. At the computer station students were engaged in software with headphones on. Although two children were allowed to sit at one computer station together, the software in the classroom did not encourage discourse; the headphones also deterred conversation. Another station that did not promote discourse was the listening station. Children sat a table in a small group, each child had a copy of the book on the CD, and the text was read on the CD player as the children followed along with the text. Again, this activity did not encourage discourse among the children as they were to sit and listen to the story. After listening to the story there was usually an independent task to complete that went along with the book, at times a written or drawn response to the text. During a number of observation visits two of the stations Janie would be assigned to were the computer station and the listening station. This accounted for thirty of the forty-five minute literacy station time in which discourse was not promoted.

Connecting Contexts

A second factor the study elucidates is the importance of making connections between contexts through language which is essential in developing expressive oral language in children. In order to transfer language from one Discourse to another children have to understand how to apply language across contexts. Children with low expressive oral language do not readily make these connections on their own. As a socially mediated process, educators need to emphasize these connections for students. Within the Discourse of school, teachers need to connect the language and vocabularies from one content area to others. Polysemy, the multiplicity of a word’s meaning, and dispersion, the degree to which a word occurs across texts with different content emphasis, present challenges to many students with lower expressive oral language. The word table during the literacy block in a story about the three bears sitting down to eat conveys a much different meaning when encountered in a numeracy lesson where the child needs to create a table to show the prices of tickets for rides at a carnival, and different still in a science lesson about how the water table varies with surface topography.

In scaffolding oral language connections across school-based contexts, educators also need to foster linguistic connections between the Discourses of school and home. Teachers cannot assume that children will transfer expressive oral language presented during the school day into their home environments. Nor can it be assumed how school-oriented language will be supported within the home. Educators need to be linguistically aware of their students’ home-based language by interacting outside of the institutional setting with parents and the community (Genishi & Dyson, 2009). Enculturation into the oral language of the secondary Discourse of school should reflect the authentic cultivation of oral language development in the primary Discourse of the home.

Implications for Instructional Practice

There are several implications for instructional practice from this research study that can be adopted by school districts and educators to enhance the expressive oral language development and use of their youngest learners. A number of the implications are inherently school-based while others focus on the building of school to home connections.

School-based Implications

Oral Discourse in Work Stations

All students and in particular students with low expressive oral language would benefit from more oral discourse related work station tasks. Research supports the merits of oral discourse in the development and acquisition of words/vocabulary and reading ability (Lawrence & Snow, 2011; Paratore, Cassano, & Schickedanz, 2011). Teachers need to be more tolerant of student talk in the classroom. Consistent modeling and multiple opportunities for practicing oral discourse in student-led stations will alleviate off-task behavior by students. As well, there needs to be time built in for teachers to observe the language that students are using during independent station use. Overloaded curriculums require teachers to be meeting daily with guided reading groups during which time they are unable to observe what is taking place in the independent work stations. The Common Core State Standards adopted by nearly every state in the U.S. do not stress the importance of merging the authentic expressive oral language children enter school with and that of school’s more academically focused vocabulary. Its College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language outline tightly woven and extremely structured academically-based standards for vocabulary acquisition and use. The document presents specifically for Kindergarten, “Use words and phrases acquired through conversations, reading and being read to, and responding to texts” (p. 27). Although the anchor standard for language appears to place importance on language it does not foster expressive oral language development in Kindergarten children. The standard is more concerned with the institutional academic agenda of vocabulary acquisition rather than centering on the student and honoring the cultural complexity in expressive oral language that each student brings to school with him. An emphasis needs to be put back on more authentic student-centered oral discourse tasks in stations. For instance, an oral language or vocabulary work station might be a kitchen area where students learn and use vocabulary and phrases related to the everyday workings within the kitchen environment including whisk, temperature, barbecue, and cabinet. As well as incorporating synonyms for words associated with this environment such as plates/dishes, silverware/utensils, market/grocery store. A veterinarian work station could include chart, stethoscope, artery, and dorsal for students to take care of injured animals and a numeracy station might emphasize collaborative student tasks and discussion analyzing and comparing two- and three-dimensional shapes using language to describe similarities, differences, parts e.g., number of sides and vertices/“corners” and other attributes e.g., having sides of equal length. As these stations are introduced the teacher would emphasize the content-specific language that children need to practice in the station. If we want students to be using and learning vocabulary and expressive oral language, time and opportunity need to be provided for them to apply it in authentic tasks.

Opportunities for Oral Discourse

In addition to work stations, ample opportunity for student discourse needs to be provided throughout the instructional school day. Practices such as turn-and-talk/think-pair-share during whole group mini-lessons, student-led literature circles and book clubs, student-led debates, small group work, share time, and peer conferencing allow students the opportunity to express their thinking to their peers. Many teachers undervalue these practices and view them as too time consuming, taking away from their instructional time with students. Studies have shown teacher-talk taking up to in excess of 55% of class time with high-achieving students and as much as 80% of the time in classes with ELL, low SES, and low-achieving students (Flanders, 1970; Guan Eng Ho, 2005; Lingard, Hayes, & Mills, 2003). Students who need to be engaged in discourse the most are experiencing a disproportionate amount of opportunity to utilize their expressive oral abilities.

Explicit Instruction

Educators could provide systematic, explicit instruction in word learning/vocabulary development, this is particularly essential for students with low expressive oral language. Nagy and Hiebert (2011) assert, “For the students whose exposure to academic language occurs almost exclusively in the school context, the instructional choices that are made from the tens of thousands of words in English will determine the extent to which these students acquire the vocabulary of academic texts” (p. 388). It is important for children from varying levels of oral expressive language to develop word consciousness. Word consciousness moves vocabulary instruction beyond learning the definitions of a set number of words toward becoming word aware. It is teaching children how to learn and apply a variety of words in their own personal repertoires. Teachers need to create a word-rich classroom environment that fosters an interest and awareness of words in their students.

Connecting Contexts

Along with explicit instruction and authentic opportunities for practice, educators should be providing explicit, scaffolded connections for words and their use across multiple contexts. Thought needs to be given to how words can be incorporated into multiple contexts throughout the school day, it should not be assumed that students will draw these seemingly natural connections independently. Students with low oral expressive language do not automatically independently make generalizations with words from one context to another.

Grouping Practices

Teachers need to be thoughtful and intentional in their grouping practices. Consideration to the make-up of groups weighing both the positive and negative aspects for each individual member must be attended to. Groupings could have profound effects on student’s expressive oral language and overall academic achievement resulting in adverse outcomes. Studies suggest that marginalized populations placed in lower performing groups are negatively impacted by ability grouping in the earliest years of school (Lleras & Rangel, 2009; Tach & Farkas, 2006). The findings from these empirical studies illustrate the negative effects ability grouping practices can have on students such as the participant from this current study.

School-to-Home Implications


As educators need to scaffold connections for students of word usage between different contexts within the classroom, so to connections need to be made between school and the home. Most Kindergarten students see the school and home as two completely separate Discourses. These two environments may be dissimilar and even conflicting for some children.

Educators could relate oral language being taught during the school day with the home environments. They could make explicit connections for children of how expressive oral language can be shared between the two settings creating hybrid environments where children can feel safe experimenting with integrating home and school Discourses. Similarly, Moll, Amanti, Neff, and Gonzalez (1992) present the notion of using “funds of knowledge” to connect teaching in the classroom to the already existing cultural and cognitive resources from student’s homes. They define “funds of knowledge” as the historically and culturally developed skills and knowledge used in home environments to accomplish everyday life functions. This promising course of research capitalizes on using home visits by teachers to develop an understanding of families and how the home culture can positively contribute to the academic context of the classroom.


In this same ve in educators could form lines of communication with the parents of their students with regard to the academic vocabulary being taught in the classroom. Weekly newsletters would be an efficient means of communicating to parents focus words for the week or month that are being explored and suggestions for how to support the usage of these words in the home. Scheduled home visits could also be conducted to strengthen the relationship between the home and school.

Limitations of the Study

This study presents a number of limitations that should be acknowledged. Due to the qualitative design of this study as an ethnographic case study, issues of dependability/ reliability, credibility/validity, and transferability/generalizability come into question. The researcher has given careful consideration to each of these issues taking steps to lessen their impact on the study. Through the rigor of such techniques as multiple levels of triangulation, audit trails, and reflexivity (Merriam, 2002), dependability and credibility of the data collected has been preserved.

As this study is focused on the lived experiences of one participant it is arguable that findings are not replicable or generalizable. Flyvbjerg (2006), however, presents five misunderstandings about case study research, one of which discusses generalizability—one can’t generalize a single case so single case doesn’t add to scientific development. He cites numerous single case studies that have advanced fields in the human and natural sciences e.g., studies by Einstein, Marx, and Freud. According to Merriam (2002), “If one thinks of what can be learned from an in-depth analysis of a particular situation or incident and how that knowledge can be transferred to another situation, generalizability in qualitative research becomes possible” (p. 28). By researching the expressive oral language a child brings to school with her as enculturated through her primary Discourse of the home, observable interactions with her expressive oral language from the secondary Discourse of school were documented during this study. This information will be germane to the school and the district in order to assist its teachers in better educating the changing demographic of students attending its schools. Limiting may be the extent to which these interpretations may be transferable to other children within the same or similar population. Each individual case would involve a unique history of enculturation into a primary Discourse affecting interactions with secondary Discourses, in this case, the school. Further research of various cultural models within schools examining discursive interactions would provide greater insight into the dynamics of Discourses in these academic institutions possibly allowing for greater transferability.

Data collection for this study in the school setting focused solely on the academic block of literacy instruction, limiting the curricular scope. Observations did not occur during the numeracy block or content area instruction including science and social studies. The literacy block was, however, integrated with numeracy, social studies, and science tasks for the station rotations.

A final limitation of this study is the role the researcher played as a participant observer particularly in the school setting. It could be argued that the participant associated the researcher with school and academically-based Discourses. This association might have, in turn, influenced the participant’s readily adopting and identifying with school Discourses at home in her completion of homework activities. This may also partially explain why the participant was more willing to complete homework assignments with the researcher rather than with her grandmother.


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Gee’s seven building tasks discourse analysis questions:

Discourse Analysis Question: How is this piece of language being used to make certain things significant or not and in what ways?

Practices (Activities):
Discourse Analysis Question: What practice (activity) or practices (activities) is this piece of language being used to enact (i.e., get others to recognize as going on)?

Discourse Analysis Question: What identity or identities is this piece of language being used to enact (i.e., get others to recognize as operative)?

Discourse Analysis Question: What sort of relationship or relationships is this piece of language seeking to enact with others (present or not)?

Discourse Analysis Question: What perspective on social goods is this piece of language communicating (i.e., what is being communicated as “normal,” “right,” “good,” “correct,” “appropriate,” “valuable,” “the ways things are,” “the way things ought to be,” “high status or low status,” “like me or not like me,” and so forth)?

Discourse Analysis Question: How does this piece of language connect or disconnect things; how does it make one thing relevant or irrelevant another?

Sign Systems and Knowledge:
Discourse Analysis Question: How does this piece of language privilege or disprivilege specific sign systems (e.g., Spanish vs. English, technical language vs. everyday language, words vs. images, words vs. equations, etc.) or different ways of knowing and believing or claims to knowledge and belief (e.g., science vs. the Humanities, science vs. “common sense,” biology vs. “creation science”)? (p. 17-20, 102).

Gee’s six tools of inquiry questions about the seven building tasks:

Building Task 1: Significance: How are situated meanings, social languages, figured worlds, intertextuality, Discourses, and Conversations being used to build relevance or significance for things and people in context?

Building Task 2: Practices (Activities): How are situated meanings, social languages, figured worlds, intertextuality, Discourses, and Conversations being used to enact a practice (activity) or practices (activities) in context?

Building Task 3: Identities: How are situated meanings, social languages, figured worlds, intertextuality, Discourses, and Conversations being used to enact and depict identities (socially significant kinds of people)?

Building Task 4: Relationships: How are situated meanings, social languages, figured worlds, intertextuality, Discourses, and Conversations being used to build and sustain (or change or destroy) social relationships?

Building Task 5: Politics: How are situated meanings, social languages, figured worlds, inertextuality, Discourses, and Conversations being used to create, distribute, or withhold social goods or to construe particular distributions of social goods as “good” or “acceptable” or not?

Building Task 6: Connections: How are situated meanings, social languages, figured worlds, intertextuality, Discourses, and Conversations being used to make things and people connected or relevant to each other or irrelevant to or disconnected from each other?

Building Task 7: Sign Systems and Knowledge: How are situated meanings, social languages, figured worlds, intertextuality, Discourses, and Conversations being used to privilege or disprivilege different sign systems (language, social languages, other sorts of symbol systems) and ways of knowing? (Gee, 2011a, p. 121-122).

Sub-questions related to social languages, Conversations, intertextuality, and Discourse include:

What social language(s) are involved? What sorts of grammatical patterns indicate this? Are different social languages mixed? How so?

What socially situated identities and activities do these social languages enact?

What Discourse or Discourses are involved? How is “stuff” other than language (“mind stuff” and “emotional stuff” and “word stuff” and “interactional stuff” and non-language symbol systems, etc.) relevant in indicating socially situated identities and activities?

In considering this language, what sorts of relationships among different Discourses are involved (institutionally, in society, or historically)? How are different Discourses aligned or in contention here?

What Conversations (public debates over issues or themes) are relevant to understanding this language and to what Conversations does it contribute (institutionally, in society, or historically), if any?

How does intertextuality work in the text, that is, in what ways does the text quote, allude to, or otherwise borrow words from other oral or written sources? What function does this serve in the text? (Gee, 2011a, p. 60).

Sub-questions for situated meaning include:

What situated meaning or meanings for a given word or phrase is it reasonable to attribute to their “author,” considering the point of view of the Discourse in which words were used (e.g., the Discourse of biology or the very different Discourse of fundamentalist creationism)?

What situated meaning or meanings for a given word or phrase is it reasonable to attribute to those who are listening to or reading these words or phrases, again considering the Discourse in which these words are used?

What situated meaning or meanings for a given word or phrase is it reasonable to attribute to those who are listening to or reading these words or phrases, from the point of view of other Discourses than the one in which the words were uttered or written? These other Discourses might be ones that bring different values, norms, perspectives, and assumptions to the situation. For example, what sorts of situated meanings might a fundamentalist creationist give to a text in biology or a Native American to an American history text if they chose to interpret the text from the point of view of their own Discourse and not the one from which the text had originally been produced?

What situated meaning or meanings is it reasonable, from the point of view of the Discourse in which these words were used or of other Discourses, to assume are potentially attributable to these words by interpreters, whether or not we have evidence anyone actually activated that potential in the current case? (Gee, 2011a, p. 73).

Figured worlds as a tool of inquiry sub-questions include:

What figured worlds are relevant here? What must I, as an analyst, assume people feel, value, and believe, consciously or not, in order to talk (write), act, and/or interact this way?

Are there differences here between the figured worlds that are affecting espoused beliefs and those that are affecting actual actions and practices? What sorts of figured worlds, if any, are being used here to make value judgments about oneself or others?

How consistent are the relevant figured worlds here? Are there competing or conflicting figured worlds at play? Whose interests are the figured worlds representing?

What other figured worlds are related to the ones most active here? Are there “master figured worlds” at work?

What sorts of texts, media, experiences, interactions, and/or institutions could have given rise to these figured worlds?

How are the relevant figured worlds here helping to reproduce, transform, or create social, cultural, institutional, and/or political relationships? What Discourses and Conversations are these figured worlds helping to reproduce, transform, or create? (Gee, 2011a, p. 95-95).


Coded Notational Devices

In order to convey pace and tone of the conversational excerpts, the following conventions were applied:

  • Reading of text: Where text is being read from a print source, such as a book, word wall, or chart, it is presented in italicized type.
  • Emphasis: Where a word, syllable, or phoneme is spoken with extra emphasis, it is presented in boldfaced type.
  • Tone: Where a phrase, word, syllable, or phoneme is spoken in a loud tone, such as shouting, it is presented in capital letters.
  • Simultaneous speech: Where two people speak at once, the overlapping segments of their utterances are underlined.
  • Incompleteness: Where an utterance is interrupted or left incomplete, it is indicated by a hyphen. The incompleteness could occur within phonemes of a word or at the end of the fully spoken word.
  • Pausing: Pausing occurs between and within utterances. These pauses are indicated with a dot or series of dots, with each dot representing approximately one second of silence. Where a pause lasts for five seconds or longer, the information is stated in brackets (e.g., “[16 s]” would be a 16- second pause).