Courtney B. Cazden is an educational sociolinguist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Since the 1970s, she has been a key figure in the ethnography of schooling, focusing on children’s linguistic development (both oral and written) and the functions of language in formal education, primarily but not exclusively in the United States. Combining her experiences as a former primary schoolteacher with the insight and methodological rigor of a trained ethnographer and linguist, Cazden helped to establish ethnography and discourse analysis as central methodologies for analyzing classroom interaction. Her work displays sensitivity and insight to the communicative demands made on both teachers and students in classroom settings, especially those involving ethnic minority students.
Formal schooling involves the mastery not only of academic content but also of the particular forms of discourse that are considered legitimate for classroom use. These forms are seldom explicitly taught; rather, they form part of the “hidden curriculum” of schooling. While they differ significantly from the forms of discourse that children customarily use in their homes and communities, the differences tend to be greater for ethnic minority children. Children who are U.S.-born, White, middle-class, native speakers of English are more likely to arrive at school already familiar with the parameters of classroom discourse, since these overlap considerably with the epistemological traditions, linguistic standards, and interactive patterns of White, middle-class communities. In contrast, African American, Chicano, low-income, and other “nonmainstream” children are likely to encounter greater discontinuities between the discourse of their home and community environments and that of the school. These discontinuities involve, among other things, ways of asking and responding to questions, structuring and interpreting oral narratives, and engaging written texts and can have a significant impact on students’ learning opportunities as well as on teachers’ perceptions of students’ abilities.
Cazden’s work has focused on the contours and effects of these home/school discontinuities and on what the discourse patterns of the classroom presume, foster, and ignore with regard to students’ communicative competence. Inasmuch as discursive criteria partly determine “what counts” as knowledge and learning, they have important implications for student outcomes and the much-commented achievement gaps among students of different ethnicities, language backgrounds, and social classes. By making explicit the unconscious aspects of classroom discourse, Cazden has aimed to problematize classroom communication as a medium that is far from transparent or culturally neutral.
Throughout her career, Cazden has collaborated extensively with other distinguished scholars of language and education, such as Dell Hymes, Joshua Fishman, and Hugh Mehan. She is a past president of both the Council on Anthropology and Education and the American Association for Applied Linguistics, a member of the National Academy of Education and the Reading Hall of Fame, and recipient of various scholarly awards.
- Cazden, C. B. (1992). Whole language plus: Essays on literacy in the United States and New Zealand. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Cazden, C. B. (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- Cazden, C. B., John, V. P., & Hymes, D. (Eds.). (1972). Functions of language in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.