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Every day in our schools and college, young people confront reading and writing tasks that seem hard or unusual, that confuse them, that they fail. But if you can get close enough to their failure, you’ll find knowledge that the assignment didn’t tap, ineffective rules and strategies that have a logic of their own; you’ll find clues, as well, to the complex ties between literacy and culture, to the tremendous difficulties our children face as they attempt to find their places in the American educational system. Some, like Laura, are struck by the fear of making a mistake; others, like Bobby, feel estranged because familiar cognitive landscapes have been shifted, because once-effective strategies have been rendered obsolete; and still others are like the young men and women in Dr. Gunner’s classroom: They know more than their tests reveal but haven’t been taught how to weave that knowledge into coherent patterns. For Laura, Bobby, and the others the pronouncement of deficiency came late, but for many it comes as early as the first grade. Kids find themselves sitting on the threatening boundaries of the classroom. Marginal. Designated as ‘slow learners’ or ‘remedial’ or eventually, ‘vocational’.”

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