Theory & Evidence

Linguists first reported half a century ago that students speaking non-Mainstream language form varieties of English in US schools underperformed their peers on standardized achievement tests (Labov et al. 1968). This seminal work inspired a large body of literature from the sociolinguistics, education, applied linguistics, and psychology fields; a recently published bibliography includes 1,624 references “… in relation to African American English (AAE), English-based pidgins and creoles, Latina/o English, Native American English, Asian and Asian American English, and other English vernaculars, e.g. Appalachian English in the US and Aboriginal English in Australia.” (Rickford, Sweetland, Rickford, Grano, 2013).

Traditionally, teachers tried to help linguistically diverse students convert to General American English (GAE) in school using a correctionist approach in which a student’s language was viewed as “error filled”. From a linguistic perspective, this approach never worked because it doesn’t make sense; students using vernacular dialect language are not making errors in GAE; instead, they are writing correctly in the language patterns of their home language. In addition to confusing students, the correctionist approach can convey a dominant language/cultural ideology to students.

While educators have slowly developed an awareness of English language as having multiple, linguistically legitimate forms (as opposed to one correct form), they have long recognized the achievement gap between African American and non-Hispanic White and Asian American students. The need to improve reading outcomes, along with the growing understanding that poverty alone does not sufficiently explain the disparities (Craig, 2006) has likely drawn more academic attention to (AAE/AAL/AAVE) than any other.

Researchers view AAE/AAL as a linguistically rich, rule-governed variety of English that contributes to cultural identity (Mufwene et al. 1998), with more than 40 distinctly different grammatical and phonological features (Craig & Washington, 2006). A growing area of research is the language variation-reading achievement hypothesis (e.g. Charity, Scarborough, & Griffin, 2004; Connor & Craig, 2006; Ivy & Masterson, 2010). Code switching in oral and written narrative contexts has been shown to relate positively to reading outcomes for elementary age students beyond socio-economic status, writing skills and general language skills (Craig, Zhang, Hensel & Quinn, 2009).

Such findings have important implications for early preventative instruction. While Contrastive Analysis (CA) techniques were first developed in the 1960s, and have been shown to be effective with older elementary, middle school, and older students (Sweetland, 2006; Wheeler & Swords, 2006), CA has generally only been taught to older students due to the cognitive maturity required to think abstractly about two language forms. But researchers have now determined that even kindergarten age children can be taught CA (2010 IES Award #R305A100284) and that dialect awareness is a mallable factor with the promise to significantly improve academic outcomes for young Standard English Learners. The latest studies have corroborated that finding and indicated that metalinguistic awareness and perhaps executive functioning are important influences on reading acquisition (Craig, Kolenic & Hensel, 2014; Terry, 2014).

For a fascinating analysis of the politics of linguistics, education and race see ebonics_and_all_that_jazz by Dr. Michele Foster. Download Dr. Catherine Snow and Dr. Lily Wong Fillmore’s landmark paper What Teachers Need to Know About Language: Wong_Fillmore 2000. Learn how an ELA teacher used To Kill a Mockingbird to connect racism with linguicism by downloading the following NCTE English Journal article: brandie-bohney-ncte-english-journal-article.

Note: click on the word bibliography immediately below to show the citations from this page.

Charity, A. H., Scarborough, H. S., & Griffin, D. M. (2004). Familiarity with school English in African American children and its relation to early reading achievement. Child Development, 78, 1340-1356.

Connor, C. M., & Craig, H. K. (2006). African American preschoolers’ language, emergent literacy skills, and use of African American English: A complex relation. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49, 771–792.

Craig, H. K. (2006, October). Is the Black-White Achievement Gap Simply a Poverty Gap? Paper presented at University of  Michigan Pathways to Literacy Achievement Conference, Ann Arbor, MI.

Craig, H.K., Kolenic, G. E., & Hensel, S.L. (2014). African American English speaking students: A longitudinal examination of style shifting from kindergarten through second grade. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 57, 143–157 .

Craig, H. K., & Washington, J. A. (2006). Malik goes to school: Examining the language skills of African American students from preschool-5th grade. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Craig, H. K., Zhang, L., Hensel, S. L., & Quinn, E. J. (2009). African American English speaking students: An examination of the relationship between dialect shifting and reading outcomes. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 52, 839–855.

Ivy, L., & Masterson, J. (2011). A comparison of oral and written English styles in African American students. (2010). Language, Speech, Hearing Services in Schools, 42, 31-40.

Labov, W. et al. (1968). A study of the Non-Standard English of Negro and Puerto Rican speakers in New York City. Cooperative Research Project No. 3288. Philadelphia: U.S. Regional Survey.

The Creole Origins of African American Vernacular English: Evidence from Copula Absence.” In African American English, ed. by Salikoko S. Mufwene, John R. Rickford, Guy Bailey and John Baugh, 154-200. (1998) London: Routledge.

Rickford, John R., Julie Sweetland, Angela E. Rickford and Thomas Grano. 2013 [Oct. 2012]. African American, Creole, and Other Vernacular Englishes in Education: A Bibliographic resource. NY & London: Routledge, Urbana: NCTE. xx, 306 pgs

Sweetland, J. (2006). Teaching Writing in the African American Classroom: A Sociolinguistic Approach. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stanford University.

Terry, N. P. Dialect variation and phonological knowledge: Phonological representations and metalinguistic awareness among beginning readers who speak nonmainstream American English. Applied Psycholinguistics 35 (2014), 155-176. doi:10.1017/S0142716412000276

Wheeler, R. S., & Swords, R. (2006). Code-switching: Teach-ing Standard English in urban classrooms. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

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