Heath on Work and Community Literacies

Shirley Brice Heath writes about the connections (and lack of connection) between work, family and school literacy practices in her ethnography of literacy in two twentieth century mill towns.

Roadville is white working-class community of families who have been a part of mill life for four generations. Many of the older residents remember life in the Appalachian Mountains and the move in the early decades of the twentieth century to a small mill community in the Piedmont. They speak of these days as the time when their children first began going to school instead of working in the mill. Baseball games, summer canning season, church life, and a general sense of security mark their tales of these times. But the Depression uprooted them from this comfortable life, and oldtimers wistfully recount the trek from the small mill community to mills around Alberta, a major metropolitan center in the Piedmont. They remember their discontent with “city life” even then, and their subsequent search for a smaller town and a mill which seemed to have some of the promises of cash, housing, credit, and recreation they had known in their first move from the mountains. They finally settled in Roadville, a neighborhood of mill houses around Laurence mill, formerly owned by the Laurence brothers but run since the 1950s by a northern firm. The town of Laurenceville in which Roadville was located seemed small enough that, even without the help of the mill, they could work out credit arrangements, build their church, and spend their leisure time among people who shared their history of experiences as members of mill communities. The younger generations acknowledge, but do not share, their elders’ gratitude for and sense of belonging to the mills. Resentment over unionism, health hazards, and blacks in the mills runs high among the young. Now most of the young people in Roadville care little about the mill in their future planning. They are looking to be on their way up and out of the mills.

Trackton is a working-class black community whose older generations have been brought up on the land, either farming their own land or working for other landowners. Old and middle-age residents remember the cotton fields, tenant housing, and long hours of work in those seasons of the year when saving the crop drove landowner and hired hand alike. Fresh in their memory is the move less than two decades ago to Gateway, a mill village in the early 1920s but now a town of nearly 50,000 people. There the big northern-owned mills were hiring blacks; the wages were good and the work was out of the hot sun. There was now a real hope of being on the rise, pulling themselves away from a dependency status on the land and on the landholders’ dictation of space, time, and kind of work.

The promise of good living and getting ahead, gaining a new life
 and expanding the world of their past, helps guide the ways members of both communities organize their daily lives, and especially the ways they condition their children to see school in their future. For Roadville, schooling is something most folks have not gotten enough of, but everybody believes will do something toward helping an individual “get on”. In the words of one oldtime resident, “Folks that ain’t got no schooling don’t get to be nobody nowadays.” Trackton adults have had little schooling, but
 they believe it has made a difference for others, and it will make a difference for them. They tell their children: “Go to school, learn
 to talk right, to read and write, and you can get on outta here.” …

Roadville and Trackton residents have few occasions for reading or writing on the job. For those working in the textile mills, in years past, they had to fill in the blanks on the employment application, but in the past decade, potential employees are interviewed, and the personnel officer fills in the application. The employee is asked only to sign the application. Once on the job, occasions for writing and reading vary. Those who operate machines in the weaving or spinning looms, for example, simply record numerals and sometimes abbreviations for technical terms used to refer to aspects of the process. At those times of the year (July 4 and Christmas) when a mill party is planned, employees may be asked to sign up and note times of attendance. In some of the smaller mills, when an employee is ill, someone will put a greeting card on the bulletin board and ask others to sign it. Those who hold more specialized jobs, such as loom fixer, occasionally have to write out orders for parts, brief reports on repairs or defective parts, but this writing is usually prescribed in content, length, and placement on a form. Numerous abbreviations are used to refer to parts, since those receiving the written order know the terminology well. Those who work in the laboratory of the mill label containers, write brief reports or notes, using abbreviations and terms familiar to those in the laboratory, and occasionally fill out order forms for equipment or chemical supplies. For most employees, reading material in the mill, beyond section names and signs marking restrooms, lunchroom, trash cans, soft drink machines, etc., is limited to information on the bulletin boards. There are posted notices of health and safety rulings, opportunities with the credit union, and newspaper clippings featuring the marriage, death, or recent family reunion of an employee of that section of the mill. There is, in short, no need or direct incentive in mill jobs to make Trackton and Roadville adults feel they should read and write more than they already do. …

In their jobs as mill executives, insurance salesmen, real estate salesmen, businessmen, schoolteachers and administrators, the townspeople replay and expand the routines and habits of using oral and written language they and other members of their families practice with their children at home. For a mill executive, a day’s job begins when he checks incoming directives on production quotas, changes in machinery, and shifts in names of fibers or processes. Much of the material which comes to him from the central offices of the mill provides samples of new advertising, and old and new labels for fabrics are prominently displayed in the advertising. He reads the summaries, scans the details of directives, and jots notes on a yellow legal pad as he reads. He marks beside certain items on his yellow pad a large question mark; he gets up often to check files behind his desk, and after an hour or so, he asks his secretary to place a long-distance call to the central office. As he waits for the call to go through, he consults his yellow pad, and when the telephone buzzes, he picks up the phone, identifies himself, his mill location, and refers to the memoranda he has just scanned by a brief summary or abstract of their contents. He then asks several definitional or what-explanation questions, checking off those items on his yellow pad which were marked with large question marks. As he talks, he jots notes on the pad. He collects those bits of information needed to fill out the content of the mailed materials, and just before he ends the conversation, he asks the party in the central office if he knows why certain changes were made and what his view is of the effects they will have on production quotas. The request for reason- and opinion-sharing initiates only a brief exchange. At the end of the conversation, the mill executive turns to a new sheet of the yellow pad, jots down a dozen or so points which incorporate the bits of information he has accumulated on the phone into a sequence of topics; he then dictates the agenda for a meeting with mill supervisory personnel to take place within a few days. In the afternoon, he calls in several top-level managers for a routine weekly meeting, during which he briefs them on the morning’s memoranda from the central office. The managers are not now given the information to read; they are given an oral abstract of the memoranda they will receive later in the day, and asked to be prepared at the next meeting to discuss specific points of action the changes mentioned in the memoranda may make in mill operations. During the meeting, discussion centers on the need for more detailed descriptions of particular jobs, the possible need for a general plant memo on safety rules to be distributed, and the revision of employment interviews.

Though the topics and setting differ, these on-the-job routines of using oral and written language follow patterns used with preschoolers in the homes of the townspeople. The mill executive talks with and from written materials, following habitual ways of taking meaning from written sources and linking and extending it to shared background experiences with conversationalists. In his phone call follow-up to the memoranda, he asks questions about labels, features, reasons, uses, and the affective consequences of the new information. Following the phone call, he reorganizes the information, and in the meeting with supervisors, he extends the knowledge gained from this process into action. He and his managers consider ways to use written descriptions and rules to improve plant operations. As both mill executive and father, he repeatedly moves from labels to discussion of the features of the items labeled, to questions about the reasons for and uses of these. Through preschool, school, and work, these seem natural, “logical” ways of proceeding, and these ways are passed on, in simplified and repetitive patterns, not only to his own children at home, but also in the training and managing of mill workers. When there are breakdowns in production or signs of miscommunication on the job, executives and supervisors plan ways to transmit their “naturally organized” knowledge to the workers in both written and oral form in meetings, workshops, and on-the-job training sessions. Well-meaning and conscientious executives despair that neither white nor black mill workers seem to find these ways of organizing and talking about transferring knowledge into action “natural.”

Townspeople carry with them, as an unconscious part of their self-identity, these numerous subtle and covert norms, habits, and values about reading, writing, and speaking about written materials. As children, the townspeople learned the rules for talking about and responding to books and writing tasks; they came to accept retrieval of the structure and information of written texts as critical to the presentation of form and content in their oral texts. In school, they found continuity of these patterns of using oral and written language, as well as an increasing emphasis on expository talk and writing around events or items not physically present, but referred to in written sources. Once on the job, they met these now thoroughly familiar tasks, and they achieved success in their profession by displaying their skills at performing these tasks. In banks, stores, insurance offices, churches, the tennis and swimming clubs, and the mill’s executive offices, they found these ways institutionalized. Throughout their home, school, and work life, successful interactions depended on individuals being able to talk from and with pieces of writing which were integral to appropriate interpretation of on-going events.

When their own children are born, they begin to play again the same script they have followed since childhood, secure in their own success with the necessary roles and lines. They believe their ways of talking about what is written and responding to the content of written materials will impart to their young the necessary skills for achieving school and job success. For them, these ways of thinking and behaving are natural, and they expect others to share them. For the children of Trackton and Roadville, however, and for the majority of the millworkers and students in Piedmont schools, the townspeople’s ways are far from natural and they seem strange indeed.


Heath, S. B. 1983. Ways With Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.28-29, 232-232, 260-261. || Amazon || WorldCat


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