Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 1995 Issue »

    The Languages of Learning

    How Children Talk, Write, Dance, Draw, and Sing Their Understanding of the World

    By Karen Gallas
    New York: Teachers College Press, 1994. 192 pp. $37.00, $16.95 (paper).

    A poem is a little short, and it tells you some things in a funny way. But a science book, it tells you things like on the news. . . . But in a poem, it's more . . . the poem teaches you, but not just with words [my emphasis]. (p. 136)

    In The Languages of Learning, teacher-researcher Karen Gallas uses a year in her combined first- and second-grade classroom to explore how young children learn and how she might better facilitate their learning. Using rich detail drawn from daily classroom life, Gallas argues that what interests children and the ways they communicate their growing understanding of the world — what she calls children's "languages of learning" — are devalued in school settings where written and spoken forms of expression are the rule. Gallas maintains, furthermore, that this emphasis limits children's expressive capacity and, consequently, severely narrows their learning. Instead, she sees all forms of expression as discourse and forms of "narrative," and she urges their acceptance in formal learning settings. She writes:

    Children's narratives are not naturally confined to the spoken and or written word. From early childhood on they tell stories in dramatic play, in their drawings and paintings, in movement and spontaneous song. As they move further into the adult world of signifying, spoken language does begin to take precedence, but in essence children do not naturally [her emphasis] limit the forms that their expressions take. (p. xv)

    Although the title of the book implies a singular focus on children's "languages of learning," Gallas also interweaves her own personal narrative of teacher as researcher. She discovers that there are aspects of doing research that complement aspects of being a teacher; these include data collection (observing and note-taking), analysis (reflection), and responding to children and their learning. At the heart of her research is the serious consideration of children's ways of meaning-making. Thus it raises questions that, at their core, challenge traditional notions of learning. She asks early on:

    Who is to determine what is true and what is not, what has been learned or taught and what has not, and who has learned or not learned it? (p. xvii)

    She wrestles with these difficult epistemological issues throughout the book.

    Gallas has organized her book into nine chapters. In the first chapter, she provides a rationale for doing teacher research. She then divides the remaining eight chapters into three sections. In the first section, she describes ways she engaged with and advanced the learning of children whose cultural and linguistic backgrounds differed from their classmates; included here is a discussion and description of the changes in her thinking and practice in relation to troublesome and disruptive boys labeled "bad" by any of their classroom teachers. In the second section, Gallas develops a science curriculum that starts with what she sees as children's "personal conversations" with the world around them. In the third and last section of the book, Gallas gives examples of the arts as languages of learning.

    Cultural and Linguistic Backgrounds in Learning

    In the first part of her book, "Epiphanies of the Ordinary," Gallas explores the talk of children whose cultural and linguistic backgrounds are different from those which are predominant in the school. Among these children is Jiana, an African American girl who enters first grade unfamiliar with the school practice known as "show and tell." Gallas reports that one day Jiana tells a "fake" story using a genre more familiar to her, and, as both her sentences and story lengthen, the complexity and manner of her presentation greatly improve. Gallas attributes this change, in part, to her own decision to minimize her verbal and physical interventions and instead to sit at the back of the classroom and really let her students take the lead during this activity.

    While Jiana is at ease with her new genre, some Caucasian, highly verbal boys are severely bored during her telling and Gallas "labor[s] to understand their actions" (p. 34). As a consequence, Gallas encourages all the children in her class to learn to tell "fake" stories. With the inclusion of this new genre, she provides an opportunity for those students whose experience has been constrained by traditional school discourse to experiment with forms new to them. In this way, Gallas gives legitimacy to all forms of talk in her classroom. Affirming and honoring diversity among speakers is, of course, timely, given the increasing number of different racial and cultural groups represented in our public school classrooms, in both suburban and urban locations.

    Gallas also describes the struggles and challenges faced by an African immigrant child, Imani, who entered Gallas's mainstream classroom speaking little English. When frustrated, Imani would become silent; Gallas "wondered how to help her" (p. 38). They could not understand each other. Gallas then responded by keeping "notes of what she could and could not do" (p. 39). She began looking for opportunities that would offer children like Imani who are "less facile with dominant language forms a chance to communicate about themselves and their most important concerns" (p. 50). For Imani, the drawings she made in her science journal became the medium for exchanging ideas with her teacher. Gallas, in turn, used these talks about the drawings to expand Imani's interests and learning.

    Gallas's descriptions of her work with this second-language learner confirm some well-known theories; for example, that "production usually lags behind comprehension."1 In The Languages of Learning, Gallas supports the call for media that capture diverse modes of learning, as well as for tools that appropriately assess learning. Her descriptions of students like Imani contribute to our understanding of the realities second-language learners encounter in the classroom. The book provides an account of learning that develops from day to day and describes how one teacher responded to this student's needs in order to advance her learning. There are times in the book (often when she is apparently unfamiliar with a child's language and culture) that Gallas reverts to the use of what philosopher Israel Scheffler calls the "metaphors of schooling."2 For example, she describes Jiana as having "to catch up, [since] she was already so far behind" (p. 20). In another example, she tells Imani that being in class is "like a race" and she had to "catch up" (p. 44). My sense is that in these instances Gallas gets caught in a transition between the traditional and the more progressive ways of viewing children's learning; here her use of language implicitly portrays some students as deficient and runs counter to the view she espouses that every child's "language of learning" is truly valued and supported.

    "Bad Boys"

    Gallas devotes the last chapter of this first section entitled "Epiphanies of the Ordinary" to a focus on the classroom talk and behavior of children who came to her already labelled as "bad boys." She notes that, for many of these children,

    depending on the personality of the teacher and the style of the school, they are never pulled into the classroom orbit, choosing instead to bounce from side to side, wobbling and crashing into the other orbits, always resisting the pull of gravity into the center of the classroom community. (pp. 55–56)

    In such an environment, these children distract others from learning, and the teacher from teaching. They become a source of frustration for the teacher. In addition, she is motivated to understand these children better because of her own son's behavior as a "bad boy":

    [He] rejected most of what school had to offer him, did not follow rules, disrupted classes, and resented any limits put on his time that were school related. (p. 52)

    Starting from a personal interest, she begins to look systematically for the causes of boys' "bad" behaviors in her classroom. Gallas observed that when activities were strictly under the teacher's control, the "bad boys" attempted to manipulate and take control of the classroom in ways that challenged the teacher's authority and led to disruptions. She discovers that these children seem to thrive in environments that engage them in both rich content and activities that offer variety rather than routine.

    Gallas concludes that "bad" behaviors are a product of what children see and experience in their environment; in the case of the "bad boys," these behaviors are related to power, control, and gender. Gallas writes of seeking ways to change the learning context so that these boys and "all children are encouraged to find comfort in that way of being" (p. 70) — that is, a way of being that helps them see the classroom not as a battleground in which they have to "assert their superiority and control" (p. 70), but one that helps them become part of a dynamic learning community.

    Despite Gallas's efforts to understand these children, I find it disturbing that in the majority of the examples she uses in this section, and in other parts of her book, there is an inconsistency between the way she describes White children and children from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds. In her analysis of "bad boys," Gallas maintains that the behaviors these children display in the classroom mirror the problems of discrimination, misunderstanding, and violence that our society harbors (p. 69). Her theory looks at society at large and makes no association with the individual child's family background. What follows are two examples showing this descriptive contrast:

    Alex is a child who is pegged as a bad boy before his mouth even opens. Usually dressed in a black turtleneck and jeans with cowboy boots on his feet, his unsmiling face and closely cropped hair give him the air of someone to be reckoned with. (p. 56)

    John, a very bright African American child, encountered this struggle [defining science journal] early in his first grade year. He was new to our school and, because of the dangers of his former neighborhood, had not attended kindergarten regularly. (p. 90)

    The children described in the examples of "bad boys" are raceless; they are simply "boys." On the other hand, elsewhere in the book, she distinguishes children who are African American, African, or from other racial or national groups by their ethnicity, race, or socioeconomic status. For example, when Gallas describes John or Jiana or Mami ("a frail and petite Japanese girl," p. 153), she includes family background and socioeconomic status. In so doing, she implies that these are essential aspects of the child's learning that is to be explored. Because children's backgrounds are an important part of the learning environment, it might be more useful to the reader if all children's faces were equally drawn. The faces and ethnic backgrounds are explicitly revealed in other sections of the book, leaving the reader to conjure up images of mainstream children for those faces that remain unrevealed. For example, Gallas explains that in this section on "bad boys," she "swings from the domain of children such as Imani, who begin their educational career from a point of disadvantage, to consider the worldview of the most privileged children in our society" (p. 51). Yet she never discusses the backgrounds of these boys. Are readers to assume that background in the case of "bad boys" contributes little to the behavior and learning styles of these children? Because of these and other questions that may arise, glossing over the characterization of some children could generate for the reader interpretations that are counter to the book's essential intentions.

    Stories about Science

    In the second section of her book, entitled "Stories about Science," Gallas explores children's stories about science through science talk and science journals. Gallas coined these terms, rather than "scientific" talk, for the discourse because through them children can use "poetic, visual, analogic, [and] kinetic" (p. 72) language forms to wonder, explore, and express their understanding of the world — which is what science is about. Drawing on the work of Lemke and other researchers whose work focuses on classroom talk, she argues that children need to be given the opportunity to relate their personal stories to the subject they study and its curriculum. Gallas encourages first and second graders to ask questions about topics often reserved for older children, which they are then encouraged to explore. She avoids ways of teaching that do not tap into children's personal questions about the world. Instead, she uses science journals, in which children draw and write and hold "personal conversations" with the world around them; or, as Gallas puts it, journals become the critical place for children to develop "thinking and reasoning rich in association, personification, metaphor and analogy" (p. 79).

    As she did with "show and tell," Gallas seeks to enlarge children's opportunities for learning by minimizing her authoritative role as dispenser of knowledge. In her descriptions of classroom practice, she provides examples of how teachers can help children learn to think for themselves and to recognize themselves as capable "thinkers and knowers" (p. 77). Gallas notes that the questions asked by her first and second graders ranged from empirical scientific questions to ontological and epistemological ones. Underneath them all, Gallas saw their common purpose as being

    to explore and clarify their thinking in ways that are inclusive of different ways of knowing, ways that include wonder, imagination, and awe. (p. 78)

    However, within the framework of a common purpose, Gallas reports, children understand differently what science is. She illustrates this by comparing how two children talk about what science means to them: John viewed science as "exciting," while Al saw science as something that "really happened" (p. 91). Gallas also comments that there are some children who, although exposed to books and other science-related experiences outside of school, have not yet made a connection between their personal experiences and the study of science.

    Gallas maintains that children develop these individual meanings of what science is when they have the opportunity to talk and write about what they think and about those things that puzzle and intrigue them personally. Children's writings express their wonder and imagination in metaphoric and analogical language, which is in sharp contrast to the language commonly used in science textbooks. Gallas argues that it is not learning technical terminology that will help the child "do" and engage in science for understanding and personal pursuit, but, rather that the inculcation of a quest to "observe, experiment, talk, and write about the world" will excite them. Therefore, Gallas maintains that schools at all levels need to allow children to use forms of expression that encourage them to develop personal connections with the aspect of science they want to study, rather than to distance themselves from it.

    The Arts

    In the third and last part of her book, entitled "Art as Story," Gallas maintains that art in school is generally treated as a frill, and therefore does not receive the attention it deserves. In contrast, she argues forcefully that the arts —

    drawing, painting, movement and dance, drama, poetry, music, and creative thinking — enable children to think about new knowledge in more complex and meaningful ways by transforming their understanding of difficult concepts into metaphoric language and acts. (pp. 111–112)

    Gallas contends that understanding goes beyond mere acquisition of facts because it encompasses a "transformation and change" (p. 138). Using experiences from her classroom, Gallas illustrates how children transform and extend their understanding when the arts are placed at the heart of the curriculum — and not relegated to the periphery — where they serve the following roles:

    (1) the arts as representing a methodology for acquiring knowledge; (2) the arts as subject matter for study, in and of themselves; and (3) the arts as an array of expressive opportunity for communicating with others, or art as story. (p. 116)

    In addition to using children's drawings as a means through which knowledge about a particular subject of interest may be explored and expanded, Gallas provides examples that illustrate ways a teacher may help children to transform what is difficult into something that can be readily understood. These examples include children singing about an idea that they have just thought about, drawing what they imagine or have seen, creating a poem about what they have learned in science, and deciding to write and tell a story about the life cycle of a particular insect.

    With the current focus on children's understanding, educators will be interested in Gallas's book, which shows how children are supported in their reflections on the content and process of their own learning. They start from their own interests, are given time to allow their ideas to evolve, and are helped to experiment with and refine their artistic expressions. One implicit message from this research is that schools may need to restructure both their curriculum and their organization to create new ways to accommodate children's understanding.

    In arguing for using creative practices in teaching that consider the arts and other varied ways children can learn, Gallas implicitly advocates that schools provide the opportunity for all languages of learning to carry equal weight in assessment. The idea is revolutionary, in that it forces both teachers and administrators to reconsider what counts as assessment in all modes of communication and subject areas of learning. Unfortunately, Gallas does not explain either her current means for assessing different languages of learning or her vision of assessment in the schools of the future.

    Teacher as Researcher

    An underlying, but ever-present, theme in this book is an acknowledgement of the opportunity offered by teacher research to glean insights into children's meaning-making. Gallas characterizes the teacher-research process as one in which the teacher learns to look at confusion and "not knowing" as part of his/her own learning and growth. Gallas summarizes her teacher research process in this revealing passage:

    I move from being sure of what I am doing and therefore doing it unselfconsciously, to being unsure and self-conscious. I move from probability to possibility. (p. 10)

    She also speaks to the need to become aware of her own theories about learning and teaching. She continues:

    For the purposes of seeing, hearing, and perceiving children's meaning, I seek to expose my limitations as an interpreter of the world, rather than conceal them. (p. 10)

    She concludes with her belief that by making sense of children's many languages of learning, she will comprehend their understanding and help them pursue what is "still to be explored." She writes:

    In this process of viewing children's texts, teacher and child are mutually engaged in looking imaginally at the world. As I am increasingly more able to make sense of the vast languages of learning that children can so ably employ, then with the children I can identify in an ever-broadening sense what is being understood or misunderstood, what is known and unknown, and those questions still to be explored. (p. 10)


    Gallas's book illuminates with numerous examples and rich description the range and complexity of discourse in the teaching-learning process. She offers teachers insights into the variety of ways children learn, and shows how teacher research promotes reflective practice. For administrators and parents, this book provides an inside view of the daily challenges classroom teachers face, and is a source of information for them about the kinds of choices teachers make about relevant curriculum.

    The experiences of children and teacher recounted by Gallas will resonate not only with those of others in U.S. schools, but also with teachers everywhere who are trying to build on children's "languages of knowing," as Gallas puts it, in order to meet their academic needs. In addition, the book's contribution is timely, as schools and teachers must welcome and accommodate an increasingly diverse student body. The number of marginalized and minority children in a changing school population demands a change in the language by which they are described, understood, and assessed. For anyone interested in teaching and learning, this is a valuable book about classroom realities that makes for compelling reading.

    Old Dominion University
    Darden College of Education
    Norfolk, Virginia


    1 Barry McLaughlin, Second-Language Acquisition in Childhood: Vol. 1. Preschool Children (Hillsdale, NY: LEA, 1984), p. 23.

    2 Israel Scheffler, In Praise of the Cognitive Emotions and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Education (New York: Routledge, 1991).
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    Spring 1995 Issue


    Change without Difference
    School Restructuring in Historical Perspective
    By Jesse Goodman
    Reading the World of School Literacy
    Contextualizing the Experience of a Young African American Male
    By Arlette Ingram Willis
    Why the "Monkeys Passage" Bombed
    Tests, Genres, and Teaching
    By Bonny Norton Peirce and Pippa Stein
    The Reading Campaign Experience within Palestinian Society
    Innovative Strategies for Learning and Building Community
    By Munir Jamil Fasheh
    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.