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John Rickford: DIALECT READERS REVISITED

John R. Rickford (Linguistics, Stanford University) and
Angela E. Rickford (Education, San Jose State University)

aave, ebonics,
john rickford, Bridge Experiment Education

Published in Linguistics and Education, 7.2:107-128 (1995). [Special issue on "Dialects and Education"]

Introduction: Linguistics research on African American Vernacular

English (AAVE) began in a serious way in the mid 1960's, with the publication of edited collections exploring the relation between social dialects and language learning (Shuy 1964) and between non-standard speech and the teaching of English (Stewart 1964a). As the foci of these volumes indicate, the first decade of linguistics research on AAVE (1964-74) was strongly oriented to educational concerns, and the first large-scale quantitative sociolinguistic surveys of AAVE (Labov et al 1968, Wolfram 1969) were in fact funded by grants from the US Office of Education. The educational orientation of early research on AAVE was particularly evident in Baratz and Shuy (1969) and Fasold and Shuy (1970), volumes which dealt explicitly with the ways in which the systematic nature of AAVE could be taken into account in improved methods of teaching reading and the language arts to African American children in the inner cities. Labov's (1970) review of nonstandard English became "a standard textbook in a number of institutions concerned with teacher training," and Burling's (1973) text on AAVE began with a chapter on "the problem" of African American inner city children not learning to read as well as their White suburban peers, and ended with two chapters which explored possible solutions to this problem.

Although there are exceptions (Brooks 1985, Farr and Daniels 1986, Taylor 1989, Wolfram and Christian 1989), linguistics research on AAVE over the past decade (1984-1994) shows little of this educational orientation. To a large extent the recent literature has been preoccupied instead with diachronic issues, involving either the nature of AAVE in earlier periods (Bailey et al 1991) or the question of whether AAVE is currently diverging from Vernacular White English (VWE; see Fasold et al 1987, Butters 1989). In the intervening decade (1974-84), only two educational issues attracted any significant attention from linguists working on AAVE: the 1979 "Black English" trial in Arbor (Smitherman 1981, Chambers 1983), and the question of whether African American children used a loosely structured "topic associating" style instead of the "topic centered" style favored by schools (Michaels 1981, Michaels and Collins 1984).

As a result of the relative neglect of educational concerns over the past two decades, and the fact that linguists have rarely been directly involved in schools and classrooms, the contributions which Linguistics has made to understanding and solving the educational challenges of African American inner city youth have been limited. We have said and shown that AAVE and other non-standard dialects are systematic, and we have provided some description of their features and their social/stylistic correlates; we have attempted to rebut (Labov 1969, Stewart 1969, Baugh 1988) the simplifying "deprivation" assumptions about AAVE and its speakers held by some social psychologists and non-linguists; we have urged that teachers learn enough about AAVE to recognize when students are making mistakes in reading rather than reproducing correctly-read Standard English in the patterns of their own vernacular (Labov 1967); we have identified problems with existing IQ tests (Smitherman 1977, Wolfram 1991); we have made some suggestions about the use of dialect readers, drills, oral exercises, and other methods of teaching African American children to read (Stewart 1969, Feigenbaum 1970, Simpkins and Simpkins 1981, Starks 1983); and we have recommended that African American rhetorical and expressive styles be more fully incorporated into the classroom (Ball 1991, Hoover 1991, Foster 1989).These are useful achievements, to be sure, but they fall short of the enormous promise of theoretical insight and practical solution which linguistics seemed to offer for the educational challenges of lower and working class African Americans three decades ago.

One respect in which linguistic research has been particularly wanting is in its almost exclusive focus on the language production of AAVE speakers rather than their language comprehension (the critical goal of reading). In an attempt to redress this imbalance, we will present in this paper some preliminary research which we and our students have done on narrative comprehension and response among African American school-children and their teachers, as affected by the linguistic variety employed (AAVE vs Standard English). But we will first describe the setting in which this research took place, and summarize the literature on the question of dialect readers.

The setting. Our research was conducted primarily in East Palo Alto (EPA), California, a low-income, multi-ethnic city located East of Stanford University and Palo Alto.

According to the 1990 census, the city's population included 23, 451 people, of whom about 42% were Black, 36% Hispanic (primarily of Mexican descent), 12% White, 6% Pacific Islander (primarily Tongan and Samoan), 3% Asian (primarily Filipino, Japanese, and Asian Indian) and 1% American Indian, Eskimo or Aleut. In 1992 the community had the dubious distinction of being dubbed "the murder capital" of the US, since it had a higher per capita rate of homicides--mostly in connection with the cocaine drug trade--than any other American city. Thatrate has since been reduced, and the city no longer leads the nation inthis regard.

In the 1989-90 school year, the Ravenswood School District (which includes schools in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park) recorded some of the lowest achievement scores in the state on the California Assessment Program. At the third grade level, reading scores were at the 16th percentile state-wide, and at the sixth grade level they were at the 3rd percentile; corresponding third grade writing scores were at the 21st percentile, but by the sixth grade they had also slipped to the 3rd percentile, recalling Steele's (1992:68) observation that the test scores of African American students get progressively worse the longer they stay in school. On the new state achievement test, the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS), the 1993-94 scores for the Ravenswood School District seembetter--58% of the fourth graders scored 3 or higher in reading, and 78% scored at the same level in writing (San Jose Mercury News March 9, 1994, page 12A). These results suggest that the valiant efforts of administrators and teachers in the district to turn things around are having some success, despite the limited resources at their disposal, and the myriad challenges which face them. But a score of 3 on the six-point CLAS evaluation scale is not a very demanding measure of achievement, and the Ravenswood scores were lower than those of other districts on the Peninsula (Palo Alto's corresponding scores were 95% and 96% respectively), and lower than those statewide (76% and 84% respectively).

During the 1993-94 school year, the authors volunteered on a regular basis in a sixth grade classroom in one of the lowest-achieving schools in the district. We assisted the teacher with language arts classes, helping individuals and groups of students with assigned work, and occasionally leading the class in reading and discussion of selected stories and poems. In Winter quarter 1994, four students in a Stanford course on AAVE taught by John tested the comprehension of students in a seventh grade class in another school in the Ravenswood School District, using stories and questions from the Bridge series, written alternatively in AAVE and SE (Simpkins, Holt and Simpkins 1977). They also elicited attitudes of teachers in the school to these two varieties. In the Spring of 1993 Angela had done a similar project with teachers and students at another school on the San Francisco Peninsula (this one in San Mateo), asking students and teachers to respond to narratives differing in their use of AAVE and SE and in other respects. And in the Spring of 1994, we replicated the Bridge experiment in the sixth grade EPA classroom in which we worked. We will report on the results of these preliminary experimental projects below.

3. The literature on dialect readers.

The case for teaching African American children to read via "dialect readers"--materials which are written in a variety of AAVE--was first set out in detail by Stewart (1969), who began (p. 157-8) by noting that:

In many parts of the world . . . learning to read (even with substantial amounts of formal instruction) may be rendered infinitely more difficult by a tradition of writing primarily or exclusively in some language other than the one (or ones) which the population normally learns to speak. In the West African countries, for example, practically all writing . . . is done in English or French, in spite of the fact that scarcely any West African learns English or French as his first language. . . .

For multilingual situations of the West African type, one of the most promising innovations in the direction of a viable literacy program is the pedagogical separation of beginning reading from the encumberment of concurrent foreign language teaching. This separation is accomplished by the simple strategy of teaching individuals to read first in their own native language, and then transferring the reading skills thus acquired to the task of reading in whatever foreign language is the goal of the literacy program.

After observing that AAVE was systematic and structurally more different from SE than other American dialects, Stewart went on to argue (p. 168) that the language learning problems of an AAVE speaker trying to acquire SE "are, in many ways more like those of, say, a Spanish speaker who is trying to acquire English than they are like those of a middle-class, English speaking child," and that they might benefit from "techniques developed in foreign language teaching to deal with structural conflicts between

different language systems." One such technique was the native-to-foreign literacy innovations being adopted for multilingual situations of the West African type, for "might not learning to read in an unfamiliar dialect have associated with it some of the problems which have been found to characterize learning to read in an unfamiliar language?" (171).

Stewart's contention that cross-language literacy techniques might be relevant to the cross-dialect situation faced by speakers of AAVE learning SE was supported by two sets of experimental evidence. The first (p. 170) was the finding of sterberg (1961):

In a Swedish-dialect context, Tore sterberg found that the teaching of basic reading skills in the non-standard dialect of the school children in a particular district (Pite) increased proficiency, not only in beginning reading in the nonstandard dialect, but also in later reading of the standard language.

The second was Stewart's "fortuitous experience" with a dialect version of "The Night Before Christmas" which he had prepared for use in a Christmas greeting card. The opening lines of the dialect version went as follows:

It's the night before Christmas, and here in our house,
It ain't nothing moving, not even no mouse.
There go we-all stockings, hanging high up off the floor,
So Santa Claus can full them up, if he walk in through our door.

According to Stewart (p. 172), in 1965 a 12-year old AAVE speaker named Lenora who was normally a problem reader happened to see the dialect version in his typewriter, and when she began to read it, "her voice was steady, her word reading accurate, and her sentence intonation . . . natural." However, when he asked her to read the original SE version for comparison, "all the 'problem reader' behaviors returned." Stewart argued (ibid) that "this unplanned experiment (later duplicated with other inner-city children) suggested an entirely different dimension of possible reading problems" for inner city African American children than those focused on by such methods as i.t.a. [initial teaching alphabet] and phonics--that of structural interference between their native AAVE and the SE which they are invariably given to read. And, as he asked rhetorically (p. 173):

if it has been considered pedagogically useful to adapt beginning reading materials to the word pronunciations of middle-class white children (as has been done in i.t.a. and phonics), then might it not also be useful to adapt beginning reading materials to the sentence patterns of lower-class [African American] children?

Although Stewart's "fortuitous experience" with the AAVE version of "The Night Before Christmas" was striking and became quite influential, it had obvious limitations as a scientific experiment. For one thing, there was no formal evaluation of Lenora's reading performance on the AAVE and SE versions of the text--no comprehension test which other researchers could use to assess the reliability and validity of Stewart's findings, and no documentation of the specific decoding errors (or lack thereof) which Lenora produced in reading each version. Moreover, the sample size was limited to one or (if Stewart's subsequent duplications with an unspecified number of other students are taken into account) a few students. Of course, Stewart never claimed that his "fortuitous experience" represented formal experimental evidence, and--as his rhetorical questions indicate--he was pleading for consideration of and experimentation with dialect readers rather than presenting incontrovertible evidence of their effectiveness. Nevertheless it is striking how rarely the issue of experimental evidence has been raised in the linguistics literature on dialect readers, both in the early work, and in more recent discussions, and both by those in favor of and against them. There is some experimental evidence on this score which we will summarize below, but it is almost never cited, almost as if it were a paradigm limitation of our field, or aversion to the methods of educational psychologists like John (1963), Bereiter and Engelmann (1966) and Farrell (1983) who were charged with misunderstanding the integrity of AAVE and misinterpreting the test performance of its speakers.

For their part, the linguists who wrote about dialect readers in the ground-breaking collection (Teaching Black Children to Read) in which Stewart's programmatic article was published--Baratz (1969), Fasold (1969), Goodman (1969), Shuy (1969), Wolfram and Fasold (1969) Goodman (1969)--endorsed them on theoretical grounds similar to Stewart's, and went on to discuss implementation issues, like the kinds of orthography which they should use, how the transition from AAVE to SE should be handled, and the kinds of objections which parents and educators might raise to the use of dialect materials in school. Everyone seemed to agree that regular SE orthography should be used, and the focus then and in the next decade was on developing reading materials in the dialect. Wolfram and Fasold (1969) offered three "linguistically appropriate" samples, including an AAVE translation of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (John 3:1-17), an excerpt from which is reprinted here following its SE original:

(1a) Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him."

Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (SE, Revised Standard Version, p. 149)

(1b) It was a man named Nicodemus. He was a leader of the Jews. This man, he come to Jesus in the night and say, "Rabbi, we know you a teacher that come from God, cause can't nobody do the things you be doing 'cept he got God with him."

Jesus, he tell him say, "This ain't no jive, if a man ain't born over again, ain' no way he gonna get to know God." (AAVE version, p. 150)

And, according to Dillard (1972:283), Stewart's Education Study Center in Washington DC "produced three textbooks (Ollie, Friends and Old Tales) in parallel Black English and Standard English versions."

The most extensive and ambitious set of reading materials produced in AAVE was the Bridge reading program developed by Simpkins, Holt and Simpkins

(1977) and published by Houghton Mifflin. According to Simpkins and Simpkins (1981:231):

The Bridge reading program attempts to start where the students are and take them to where their teachers would like them to be by using the language and culture the children bring to school as a foundation upon which to build. . . .

Materials are sequenced according to Associative Bridging; reading in the mainstream dialect is taught as an extension of reading in the students familiar dialect.

Black non-mainstream English serves as a springboard from which to move to the presentation of standard mainstream English. Accordingly, materials are written in three dialect versions: Black English, Transition and standard English.

Examples of narratives from Booklet Three of the Bridge series--one in AAVE, the other in SE--are presented in the Appendix. The narratives were followed by skills exercises, including the comprehension exercises reprinted in the Appendix. The booklets were accompanied by cassette recordings of the stories and the program as a whole was introduced by a cassette recording of a young man addressing the kids in the vernacular:

What's happenin', brothers and sisters? I want to tell you about this here program called Bridge, a cross cultural reading program. Now I know what you thinkin'. This is just another one of them jive readings programs, and that I wont be need no readin' program. But dig it. This here reading program is really kinda different. It was done by a brother and two sisters, soul folk, you know. . . .

Simpkins and Simpkins (1981:237) report that the Bridge program was experimentally field-tested over a period of four months with 540 students drawn from the 7th to 12th grades in 27 classes across the US. The 417 students who were taught with the Bridge materials showed "significantly larger gains" on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in Reading Comprehension than the control group of 123 students who were taught with their "regularly scheduled remedial reading instructional activities." More specifically (p. 238):

For grades 7-12, the average gain in grade equivalent scores for the group using Bridge was 6.2 months for four months of instruction compared to only an average of 1.6 months of instruction for students in their regular scheduled classroom reading activities. The group using Bridge exceeded the normative level (four months gain for four months of instruction), many of them for the first time in their academic careers. [Emphasis in original.]

Despite this experimental evidence in support of its effectiveness, the program did not last long. According to Gary Simpkins (personal communication), the publishers were upset by the fact that they were losing money and by the fact that the approach was receiving a steady strem of criticism from columnists and educators.

If we ask how linguists writing from the late 1970's to the present have reacted to the Bridge series, and to dialect readers in general, the answer is that they are much less sanguine than were their predecessors of 1969, the enthusiasm of the latter tempered by the lessons of practical experience. Smitherman (1977)--written before the Bridge series was withdrawn--called it "the most exciting and creative approach I have seen" (p. 224) and "a solution to the reading-Black Dialect controversy that basal reading specialists could well adopt" (p. 228). Labov (to appear) praises the strengths of Bridge--its Deweyian aim of starting where the child is, its combined linguistic and cultural approach, its knowledge of the vernacular, and its adaptation to the school environment. But he also suggests that it had weaknesses, including the fact that some of its vocabulary and idiom (e.g. hip you to that) became dated, and the fact that "the program has not yet been yet been presented in a way that counters the objection that it imposes and teaches a form of bad English that is not generally used by children." This latter weakness of course cannot fairly be attributed to Bridge alone; the negative reactions which dialect readers often elicit from parents and educators were anticipated by those who advocated them in 1969 (see Stewart 1969:183-90 and Wolfram and Fasold 1969:142-4). And they are the primary reason why linguists discussing the issue more recently have tended to reject them as a solution to the reading problems of vernacular-speaking African American youth, as the following excerpts demonstrate:

Most parents that I have interviewed feel that their children's education would be excessively retarded if they were taught with dialect readers. All of the Black adults that I have interviewed over the past nine years concur with this opinion. As a group, they have expressed the categorical feeling that Black children should be serious about getting an education, and in America that is a traditional education in Standard English. (Baugh 1981:25)

Given children's socialization into mainstream attitudes and values about dialects at an early age, there is . . . little reason to assume that the sociopsychological benefits of using a vernacular dialect would outweigh the disadvantages. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case, as children reject nonstandard forms in reading and parents and community leaders rail against their use in dialect readers. . . . Due to the continuing controversy surrounding the use of dialect primers, this alternative now has been largely abandoned. (Wolfram 1991:255-56)

The attempt to use transitional reading materials written in Black English proved a complete failure. . . . Blacks themselves led the opposition to such a move, and teachers, parents, and black activists united to oppose it. . . . Their motives were various: some felt that such readers would disadvantage black children; others denied the validity of the variety of language itself; still others resisted the notion that there should be any differences at all made in teaching white and black children; and still others insisted that the problem, if there was one, was ascribable to attitudes, i.e., was a problem of racism, and not a linguistic problem at all. (Wardhaugh 1992:340)

Despite these reactions, we believe that the dialect reader alternative should NOT be abandoned. On the contrary, we believe that experimental research on their effectiveness should be increased and be more widely disseminated, and that attitudinal research on their acceptance in the community should be more assiduously and proactively pursued. With respect to the former point we are struck by the fact that the existing experimental evidence in relation to dialect readers, although limited, is all positive. In addition to the report of Simpkins and Simpkins (1981)--reprinted above--there is the report of Leaverton (1973) on the use of an everyday (=AAVE) and school talk (=SE) version of 4 stories with 37 students in an elementary school in Chicago. As measured by word recognition, phrase recognition, oral review and oral retention tests, learning to read was more significantly facilitated for students in the experimental group (who were exposed to both the everyday talk and school talk versions) than it was for students in the control group (who were exposed only to the school talk version). Leaverton (p. 124) cautioned that the findings needed to be replicated with a larger group, and he mentioned that a study was in progress "whereby forty classrooms of children who started with the experimental materials in September, 1969 will be compared with children in several other special reading prgrams for inner city children in Chicago (Leaverton 1971)." However, as far as we know, the results of this latter study have not been published; they are certainly never referred to in the linguistics literature.

With respect to the question of attitudes, it would be helpful to receive from the publishers a detailed elaboration of reactions to the Bridge program, in particular whether it was pupils, parents, teachers, or other public figures who railed against it, in what numbers, and on precisely what terms. It would also be interesting to know who presented the program to each of these sets of respondents, in what way, and whether opportunities for them to respond to the criticisms were provided and exploited. One way in which a dialect reader program might be more effectively implemented is if were attempted initially on a very small scale, perhaps in one classroom, with the linguist or the teacher implementing it working to first establish good relations, commitment and trust with the students, parents and surrounding community, and explaining that he or she shared with them the goal of helping their children achieve literacy in SE and enhanced success across the curriculum. This may sound idealistic, but the current approach, in which experts come into communities from the outside and prescribe solutions, with little attempt to teach the kids directly or reach out to their parents, is virtually guaranteed to meet with the negative response which we have feared and expected thus far, and alternative approaches deserve to be tried. Moreover, there is evidence (for instance in Taylor 1973 and Hoover 1978) that parental and teacher attitudes to AAVE were never entirely negative, and there is certainly recent evidence (for instance in Fordham and Ogbu 1986:186, Rickford 1991:191 and Luster 1992:148-53) that the attitudes of some teenagers and young adults are aggressively positive in relation to AAVE, and aggressively negative in relation to SE , so we should be wary of continuing to act on the basis of old stereotypes and assumptions. We do NOT share Baratz's (1973:110) view that the negative attitudes of African American parents, teachers and spokesmen to dialect readers are "a manifestation of ignorance or misunderstanding" and that these community members should be confronted by those of us (linguists) who know better. We feel that these parties have real and legitimate concerns, and that a cooperative process of learning and teaching--from community to linguist/educator, and vice versa--would be more successful in changing attitudes and allowing us to continue experimental work on the effectiveness of dialect readers and other reading improvement approches. We DO share Baratz' conviction however (p. 109) that "the possibility that dialect readers might be useful in the process of learning to read must be dealt with as an empirical question" and that it cannot be rejected out of hand on the basis of negative feedback. Serious attempts to understand and modify the negative attitudes and capitalize on the positive attitudes must be made, but the empirical research must also continue.

4. New work on the responses of students and teachers to dialect materials

In the interest of reopening the empirical issue, we report now on recent attempts to test the response to dialect readers in three cities on the San Francisco Peninsula, California (San Mateo, East Menlo Park and East Palo Alto), with small groups of elementary school teachers and students. Given their modest scale, we will refer to these as mini-studies.

In the first mini-study, conducted in Spring 1993, Angela Rickford asked seven third to fifth grade students in a San Mateo elementary school--all African American, and all from low-income backgrounds--to read and respond to excerpts from two stories in the Bridge series, one in AAVE and the other in SE. The boys were given SE and AAVE versions of A Friend in Need, which features a male protagonist, while the girls were given corresponding versions of Dreamy Mae, which features a female protagonist. Among the questions she asked the children is which of the two story versions they preferred, and what they thought about using AAVE in school readers. There was an interesting gender split among the responses, with all three girls preferring the SE version, while two of the four boys preferred the AAVE version. The girls generally felt that the SE version used language like they did, and were opposed to using AAVE in school readers, on the grounds that SE was "clearer," or that their teachers would disapprove of or not understand them:

[I prefer the SE one] 'cause in the other one [AAVE] they talked kind of funny. . . . they [teachers] won't want us to write something that has weird talking and stuff; they'd want us to write it normal [i.e. in SE] . . (AM, 10, girl, grade 5)

[I prefer] the first [SE version, because it talks more clearer. [About using AAVE in school readers:] It's strange. I'd like to speak clearer. (Z, 9, girl, grade 4)

Although the boys were also conscious of the potential disapproval of teachers and parents, they were more ready to identify themselves as speaking like the AAVE versions, and in favor of using AAVE in school readers:

Yes [about using AAVE in school readers]. I like that. Cause I like street language, but I don't talk it round my mom, cause I get in big trouble, cause she thinks that's gang language . . . (DA, 10, boy, grade 5)

[I prefer] the "dude" [AAVE] one, 'cause that's the way I like to talk. (NF, 9, boy, grade 3)

The eight teachers (one a teacher's aide) received a more complicated stimulus, consisting of four stories in SE and four in AAVE. They were asked to rate each story with respect to several statements, using a five point scale (1= I strongly disagree; 2= I disagree; 3= I am neutral; 4 = I agree; 5 = I agree strongly). Table 1 shows their mean ratings of the SE and AAVE stories in relation to two statements,

#1 "This story is well written," and # 2 "Building a lesson or unit around language use in this passage will help children become better readers." There were four African American teachers and four White teachers, identified by race and sex in table 4 as AAM1 (African American Male #1), WF2 (White Female #2) and so on.

Table 1: Mean Teacher Ratings of AAVE and SE Stories with respect to Statements 1 and 2

TeachersStatement # 1, AAVE Stories Statement # 1, SE StoriesStatement # 2,

AAVE Stories Statement # 2, SE StoriesAAM11.753.25 2.252.75AAM23.53.75

3.53.5AAF12.254.25 2.03.75AAF22.754.25 2.54.25Af Am means:2.563.88

2.563.56WM12.254.5 2.53.75WM22.53.5 2.754.5WM33.03.5 2.53.75WM42.253.5

3.253.25White means2.53.75 2.753.81Means, all tchrs2.53 3.812.663.69

Notes: Statement 1: "This story is well written"; Statement 2: "Building a lesson or unit around language use in this passage will help childrenbecome better readers."

(1= strongly disagree; 2= disagree; 3= neutral; 4 = agree; 5 = agree strongly).

It is clear from the quantitative data in table 1 that the teachers, regardless of race, were more positive about their evaluations of the SE stories than they were about the AAVE stories, both in terms of how well-written they were, and how useful they would be for helping the children become better readers if incorporated into lesson plans. This normative response is also reflected in their qualitative comments:

I think it's OK for them to use dialect if they need to, but it is also important to expose them to Standard English as often as possible. That's why they're here. (White male teacher with 20+ years of teaching experience)

Every Black kid knows that there is language for the playground, and then there is language for the classroom, and if you want anyone to take you seriously, you'd better not mix the two. . . .

The dialect is antiquated. I'm not saying it's worthless, but I just don't think it's the right approach for teaching Black kids English. . . .

Preacher and Deacon had a good theme, amusing and well-written; a lot can be done with that kind of narration, but it needs to be in Standard English. (Black male teacher with one year of teaching experience)

The second mini-study we will report on was done by four students (Maroney, Thomas, Lawrence and Salcedo 1994) as part of a group research report in John Rickford's "African American Verncacular English" course at Stanford in Winter 1994. The setting was a junior high school (6th through 8th grade) in the Ravenswood School District which includes East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park. Maroney et al asked two teachers about their attitudes towards AAVE and SE, and got two quite different responses. One teacher said that "I believe that there is a distinct Black English Vernacular . . . and you must take into validity every person's language. Any language is communication as long as people understand each other." The other teacher, however, felt that every child should know "better" by the time they reach the seventh and eighth grades, and said that she does not tolerate the use of "sloppy Black English" in her classroom.

When Maroney at al talked to the students themselves--20 seventh graders, including 14 African Americans, 3 Pacific Islanders, 2 Mexican Americans and 1 White student--they found that their attitudes towards AAVE were generally positive, and their attitudes towards SE either neutral or negative. One female African American student said that she didn't understand much of what is being taught in her literature class because she doesn't identify with the wording. Moreover, classroom observation revealed that:

. . . the students in a classroom where natural dialect was permitted seemed more engaged and less intimidated. This setting allowed them to learn without being stigmatized. In another classroom, where stuents were constantly being corrected for their "incorrect" language, the atmosphere was static. No active participation was apparent, and there was no indication that the students were actually learning what was being taught. (p. 10)

In order to test for the effect of language form on comprehension, Maroney et al presented each student with an AAVE and SE story from the Bridge series, followed by the corresponding 8 or 10 item multiple-choice comprehension test included in the Bridge booklet. The two stories used were A Friend in Need and Dreamy Mae. (See Appendix for AAVE and SE versions of Dreamy Mae and their corresponding comprehension tests.) And they explained their methodology as follows:

If a particular student was tested on the AAVE version of A Friend in Need, then s/he was tested on the SE version of Dreamy Mae, and vice versa. This helped to avoid the problem of a student answering the second set of questions based on that s/he remembered reading from the first test. (p. 8)

The authors found that the students preferred the AAVE stories and did considerably better on stories written in the dialect:

Although the students were able to understand concepts from both stories, there was a higher frequency of correct answers for the AAVE versions of the stories: Dreamy Mae--95.8% correct in AAVE, versus 79.2% in SE; A Friend in Need--93.8% correct in AAVE, versus 71.9% in SE. [See Figure 1]

(p. 10)

Figure 2: Percentage correct responses on comprehension tests, according to variety used--AAVE vs SE [Source: Maroney et al 1994:21]

INSERT FIGURE 1 HERE

In the face of Maroney et al's dramatic results, we replicated their methods in Spring 1994 with 16 sixth-grade students in an East Palo Alto elementary school--including 11 African Americans, 2 Mexican Americans, 2 East Indians (children of immigrants from Fiji), and 1 Pacific Islander. Like them, we used SE and AAVE versions of the Bridge stories, A Friend in Need and Dreamy Mae. However, unlike them, we found that comprehension was higher on the SE stories than on the AAVE ones: slightly so for Dreamy

Mae--70% (42/60) correct in AAVE vs 76% (76/100) in SE, but overwhelmingly so for A Friend in Need--46.3% (37/80) correct in AAVE vs 90% (45/50) in SE. There are some possible explanations for the differences between our results and those of Maroney et al (1994). To begin with, the Bridge stories and tests were originally designed for use with students in grades 7 and above (Simpkins and Simpkins 1981:237), and our subjects were sixth graders (including several reading two or more years behind grade level). Secondly, in our design, the AAVE stories always came after the SE ones, and students may have felt more tired and spent less time on the AAVE story and test than they did on the SE one. Thirdly, it appears that, by chance, some of the best readers in the class got the SE version of A Friend in Need, while some of the poorest readers in the class got the AAVE version of the same story. This suggests that in future we should randomly vary the order of story presentation for each student, and match the students doing AAVE and SE versions of the same story in terms of reading or language arts achievement level.

One other aspect of the final mini-study worth reporting is the proportion of boys and girls who preferred the AAVE over the SE version, and the proportion that felt the stories used language like they did. With respect to the first issue, only 2 of the 6 male respondents (or 33%) preferred the SE stories, and neither was African American. (One was East Indian and the other Mexican American.) By contrast, 4 of the 8 female respondents (or 50%) preferred the SE stories, and they were all African Americans. With respect to the second issue, 4 of the 5 male respondents (or 80%)--including 3 who were NOT African American--felt that the AAVE passages used language like they did, while 5 of the 8 female respondents (or 71%)--all African Americans--felt that the AAVE passage used language like they did. Given our informal observations that the strongest readers in the classroom are all girls, and the weakest all boys, the importance of attending to gender differences in future research on dialect readers (measuring both attitude and comprehension) should be clear.

Overall, the evidence on the attractiveness and effectiveness of AAVE vs SE narratives which emerges from these three California mini studies is mixed, with AAVE versions being favored by seventh graders over younger students, and by boys over girls. There remains a significant need to replicate these tests with larger numbers of students from similar low-income schools with substantial African American populations.

5. Conclusion

Twenty years ago, Baratz (1973:110), citing Carrington (1971) for similar sentiments, expressed the view that:

. . . when the educational situation becomes desperate enough and the consumer-public frantic enough about the literacy problem, dialect readers may be an idea whose time has come.

The persistence and exacerbation of the reading problem in schools populated by speakers of AAVE may indeed signal the second coming of dialect readers, for the experimental evidence of their effectiveness, although limited and underpublicized, is quite positive. The fact that attitudes towards AAVE are stronger now among working class adolescents and young adults than they seemed to be two or three decades ago (see footnote 19) may also provide a favorable climate for their reconsideration. Noting the excitement and enthusiasm with which some of her students discovered that one of our test passages was written in the vernacular, the teacher in whose sixth grade EPA classroom we have been working commented: "Gosh, look how excited they are! That's great! ... Whatever turns them on, let's use it!" It's clear from the mini-studies referred to above that not all teachers, students or parents will share this opinion, but to the extent that dialect readers can be shown to increase interest and comprehension in reading--and to the extent that they can be used long enough so that the transition to reading in SE can be successfully made--opposition to their use may well decline.

 

If and when linguists return to the issue of dialect readers, however, there are several lessons we must learn from prior research--both the experimental work with dialect readers done in various US cities in the 1960's and 1970's (Leaverton 1973, Simpkins and Simpkins 1981) and the mini-studies done in California in 1993 and 1994. One is that we need new, updated dialect readers, and we need to have corresponding SE texts which are carefully matched to the dialect texts in terms of readability and grade level (see Fry 1977:249, Rouch and Birr 1984:111), and in terms of the difficulty of the comprehension and other exercises which accompany such texts. A second is that we need to ensure that subjects who receive the AAVE and SE versions of the same narrative are comparable in terms of reading ability, and that they are evenly divided along gender lines, with ample opportunities for their attitudes towards the exercise to be expressed. A third is that we need a combination of short-term comprehension/reaction tests, of the type done in our California mini-studies, and long-term studies of reading improvement with experimental and controlled groups, like the four-month study done by Simpkins and Simpkins (1981), perhaps extended to a year, and with elementary as well as junior high school students. A fourth lesson is that the linguists recommending or overseeing the study need to be more involved in the community itself, displaying their commitment in positive ways and working harder to understand, influence, and be influenced by the attitudes of parents, students and teachers. A fifth lesson is that we should start small--perhaps in one of the new Afrocentric private schools which might be more open than the public schools to experimentation with an African American twist--and experiment with dialect readers on a larger scale only if and when we can demonstrate their success on a more modest scale. A sixth and final lesson is that we should simultaneously proceed with research and experimentation on other means of teaching reading to working class speakers of AAVE, and to others who need help with this essential skill. The idea is not to resurrect the issue of dialect readers as a cult or religion, but to consider them as one of several possibilities to which linguists might be willing to contribute research time and effort as we become involved once more with educational issues.

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Appendix: AAVE and SE versions of Dreamy Mae (from the Bridge series; Simpkins, Holt and Simpkins 1977)

Indigenous Folksong Reading Curriculum

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