Based upon data from a decade long ethnography, Shirley Heath’s classic essay from 1982 powerfully demonstrates that the way homes and families organize themselves to focus on language socialization is foundational to children’s success with literacy.

The sweep of the essay is large, covering how children learn to talk in their social interactions with caregivers, how children are allowed to interrupt, divert attention or even lie if they are talking about books, and how the back and forth conversation about books and stories leads to the development of children who are actually literate before they learn how to read. That is, key attitudes about how children engage with stories, the way they listen, talk, attend to, and even how they are encouraged to ask questions, are all in place before they can actually read.

The bedtime story is highlighted as a major literacy event, which is instrumental in establishing patterns of behavior that recur repeatedly through the life of “mainstream children.”   Heath demonstrates that children from mainstream homes are encouraged to shift their understanding of books into other situational contexts or apply it in their general knowledge of the world around them.  Similarly, adults from mainstream communities “strive to maintain with children a running commentary on any event or object which can be book-related, thus modeling for them the extension of familiar items and events from books to new situational contexts” (p. 15).  This is in effect, Barton’s notion of “the story around the story” extended beyond story time into the daily life experiences of children.

For both children and adults in these families’ books, literacy and creative use of language is part of the moment-to-moment, daily and ordinary ways they make meaning of their world. It is deeply entrenched in their ways of living.  The milieu in which the processes of language learning take place cannot be overlooked or ignored. Heath argues that culture is the key to understanding language habits. The “literacy orientation” of communities’ shapes subsequent success or difficulty in schools by contributing to the degree of familiarity with the communicative habits and preferences of public institutions.



Heath, S. B. (1982). What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school. In D. Brenneis & R. K. S. Macaulay (Eds.) In The matrix of language: Contemporary linguistic anthropology. (pp. 12- 38). 

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